Let’s talk about spiritual experiences

Life in the Postmodern Shift

June 29, 2023 | Opinion | Volume 27 Issue 13
Troy Watson | Columnist
(Photo by Jordan Ling/Unsplash)

In my April column, I invited Canadian Mennonite readers to email me their experiences, thoughts and questions about the Holy Spirit. I’m humbled and grateful to the many people who took the time to formulate responses and send them to me. Thank you for trusting me with your stories. I have been encouraged.

The vast majority of responses recounted moments with the Holy Spirit and being changed as a result. Many shared detailed descriptions of the new life, spiritual gifts and experiences they received in the Spirit. These varied greatly. Some spoke of near-death experiences, miracles, speaking in tongues, being healed or receiving visions or dreams. Others focused on powerful times of prayer or worship. Some elaborated on their intimate relationship with the Spirit and the fruit of the Spirit increasingly flowing into their lives, through the good times, as well as the difficult and painful seasons of life.

One of the consistent themes that impacted me the most, however, was an expressed hesitation to share the particulars of one’s spiritual experiences with others. This often included the church community. One person wrote, “I have never told anyone this before.” Another wrote, “I cannot practice this gift in our Mennonite congregation, so I do it in private.”

I found this interesting and relatable. I too am apprehensive to talk about my experiences and encounters with the Spirit. After doing a bit of research, I’ve concluded this reluctance is not unique or rare. Here are some common reasons people are reluctant to talk about their spiritual experiences and relationship with the divine.

They are often difficult to put into words.

  • We don’t want to be perceived as boasting, or that we think our faith or spirituality is better or deeper.
  • We don’t want to be misunderstood, labelled or put into certain spiritual or theological boxes.
  • We fear we will come across as unintelligent or naive.
  • We don’t want to offend, cause division or start debates.
  • We assume other people aren’t interested or open.
  • On some level, we have doubts. Was that really the Spirit? Or was that some kind of psychological manipulation, projection or motivated perception?
  • It makes us feel vulnerable. It’s risky to share such personal things with others.
  • There are already too many people talking or shouting about God. Why add to the noise?

There are many reasons we hesitate to share our spiritual experiences and divine encounters with others, but we must find the courage to do so. Our spirituality and faith are intended to be communal, shared realities. We need to process these experiences with other people, including people who may challenge us. This is how we grow. But we need to start with people we trust, people we feel safe with.

Spiritual people naturally desire to be part of a group where they can be open to the Spirit and talk honestly about their spirituality. Ideally, we would find this kind of spiritual community in the church. Unfortunately, and ironically, the church isn’t always the safest place for this. I know a number of people who have left the church in order to find a group of people they could talk to, openly and honestly, about their spiritual experiences. This saddens me.

Many churches are trying to reinvent themselves to be relevant in the modern world; meanwhile, plenty of people around us are looking for what we were intended to be, namely, a safe space for genuine, open, Spirit-infused conversation and worship.

I’m well aware of the risks of overemphasizing experiential spirituality, but I’m convinced the dangers of excluding or limiting experiential spirituality far outweigh these risks. A community open to the Spirit will be messy, for sure, but as one of my Spirit-filled friends often says, “You usually get the mess before you get the mess-age.”

The early Anabaptist movement was a Spirit-led movement. So was the early church. The early Anabaptists believed there was no rebirth, no Christian, no church, without the Holy Spirit. I agree. The church is intended to be “safe space” for the manifest presence of the Holy Spirit, and for open, honest conversation about our spiritual experiences, struggles and desires. I would argue, any group where you find this is your church.

I hope you all have a group like this. If you don’t, I pray you will seek one out, remembering Jesus’ promise, “if you seek, you will find.” 

Troy Watson is a pastor at Avon Church in Stratford, Ontario. He can be reached at troy@avonchurch.ca.

Read more Life in the Postmodern Shift columns:
Extending grace instead of lebelling enemies
Many Christians do not believe the Holy Spirit is real
The pendulum, Hegel and Christ
The complexity and simplicity of Christian unity
Makin’ space

(Photo by Jordan Ling/Unsplash)

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