Many pastors may say they crave the intrusion of the Holy Spirit into the mundane grind of daily church life. But I’ve noticed that when these divine disturbances actually happen, we wish everyone would just get back to praying, singing and teaching Sunday school.
On the other hand, there are times when the insight gained through these experiences has been of great benefit to our churches. Our challenge, then, is to discern the authentic, and decide how to handle the counterfeit without discouraging a faithful saint or encouraging what might be flaky behavior in the process.
What is at the root of these ecstatic experiences? Are they from God, and, if so, how does one know? Should there be guidelines for their integration into church life? Does the Bible have anything to say on this topic?
Today’s unusual prophetic experiences are not new phenomena in church history. These are methods used by God and, unfortunately, other beings as well to communicate revelation to people. Simply put, along with His written Word, ecstatic experiences are ways God sometimes speaks to His people.
While they are not always prophetic in the sense of hearing the voice of God, historically they have been categorized under the same heading. The most common types of ecstatic experience would include dreams, visions (sometimes known as “seeing in the spirit”), out-of-body trips to heaven, trances, visitations and miraculous transportations:
1. Dreams. Like any other dream, prophetic dreams occur during sleep but are sent by God, intended to communicate a message to or through the recipient.
2. Visions. These fall into two categories: The first and most common, often not categorized as an ecstatic experience, is a vision someone sees in their own personal spirit. These include images or impressions—words from God in picture form.
Rarer and generally considered an ecstatic experience is a vision in which the recipient’s spiritual eyes are opened and he or she sees another picture or image overlaid or in place of the natural surroundings. The vision is seen with the naked eye.
3. Out-of-body experiences. In this case the individual has an experience that seems physical in which they find themselves in the surroundings of heaven. More than a vision, all of the sensations are consistent with actually being in another place, not just seeing a picture.
4. Trances. More intense than a dream, a person is not asleep but may be taken—often during a time of prayer or worship—into a state that allows him or her to feel as if the entirety of their being is transported into a different reality.
A trance is similar to a vision, except that the individual often sees themselves inside the picture. Generally, a person receives an intense measure of insight during such an experience.
5. Visitations. Angelic visitations are simply visits from angels appearing so as to be seen by the person to whom they are sent. Visitations from God are called “theophanies.” A theophany is not God Himself but rather an appearance of God—God taking a form for the purpose of communicating a message to a human.
6. Transportations. Sometimes a person is miraculously transported, in an instant, from one physical location to another. The individual is unaware of movement. They simply find themselves in another location and realize they were placed there by God.
The burning question is, Are such experiences from God? If so, we must be able to find them described in Scripture, and we should be able to find evidence of their continued occurrence in church history and/or current life. Sure enough, all of the phenomena listed above are found in the Bible:
l Joseph, Jesus’ stepfather, had a dream that ultimately saved Jesus’ life (see Matt. 2:12).
l Peter, having been set free from prison, thought he was seeing a vision until he passed through the gate (see Acts 12:7-10). (Peter’s personal experience with visions must have been powerful and yet commonplace for him to mistake an angelic visitation and dramatic physical escape for an open-eye vision.)
l Paul describes someone—perhaps himself—who had an out-of-the body trip to heaven, although he admitted he was uncertain if he was still “in the body” when he ascended (see 2 Cor. 12:2-4).
l Peter fell into a trance while praying on Simon the Tanner’s roof and received a startling revelation that Gentiles were considered clean by God (see Acts 10:9-16).
l Philip found himself at Azotus, having been transported by the Holy Spirit after leading an Ethiopian official to Christ (see Acts 8:39-40).
Angelic visitations are everywhere in the Bible, as are theophanies—case in point being Moses at the burning bush. Visions are also common in the Scriptures. Daniel saw the Lord on a throne during what he called a “night vision” (see Dan. 7:2).
There are also other forms of ecstatic experiences in the Bible. Elijah, for example, had a string of three powerful ecstatic phenomena followed by a still small voice (see 1 Kin. 19:11-12). The wind, the earthquake and the fire were all three considered accepted prophetic symbols or manifestations of judgment for that day.
On a recent trip to a Muslim nation I was privileged to work with a man whose mentor—a former Muslim—came to Christ following an appearance of Christ while he was worshiping in a mosque. Many missionaries have reported conversions from Islam to Christ that follow similar patterns.
D.L. Moody saw an open-eyed vision of heaven and spoke of it just prior to his death. John G. Lake testified of being transported on more than one occasion.
A trip to the Christian bookstore will yield a number of books containing testimonies of people who have experienced heaven, some during a time of medical duress and near death. Most charismatic churches have numbers of members who have had dreams where God imparted some invaluable insight.
I have a friend who recorded a number of examples of trances where while in that dream-like state, individuals received revelation about occurrences in other places that only could have been known in the natural by people who were present in that location at that time.
Counterfeit experiences are common—and we should not underestimate the ability of Satan to deceive. Common dreams may come from the enemy. Hindu gurus fall into trances that are demonically inspired, and even analytically-minded Western folk describe visions ranging from psychotic delusions to ESP (extra-sensory perception). Occultists teach steps to out-of-body experiences commonly known as astral projection. Muhammad was visited by an angel (albeit not one sent from God), and Joseph Smith concocted Mormonism based on his alleged encounter with an angel named Moroni.
New Age enthusiasts embrace all paranormal activity as coming from the same source and reject the notion that some phenomena come from God and are therefore good, and other phenomena come from the enemy and are therefore inherently evil. A well-informed Christian should know better. Not all ecstatic experiences (even some that occur in the lives of believers) are from God. How are we, especially those of us who serve as leaders in the body, to tell the difference?
Dare to Discern
I do not claim to be an expert on this topic, but in 23 years of ministry I have had occasion to learn both by experience and from mentors who I do consider to be experts in this area. I believe that there are three criteria by which this type of prophetic phenomena must be evaluated—character, communication and content:
1. Character. God can speak through anyone, but those who expect to minister among us should have walks consistent with their messages. I realize that God can “fall upon” a person—any person, at any time—and communicate to them in any manner He desires.
He may even choose a very unlikely candidate to underscore the importance of the message, or by choosing the unlikely, communicate a stinging rebuke. For instance, God rebuked Balaam by speaking through the donkey and Eli’s sons by speaking through a youth named Samuel instead of them. Under normal situations, however, a person’s life should measure up to their mouth in at least two areas:
Motivation. Let’s face it, it is much easier to accept an account of a dramatic supernatural adventure when we are not stumbling over someone’s flaky lifestyle. The Bible teaches that only God knows the motives, but God can give discernment—especially to leaders—for the protection of the body. The following are a few questions I recommend asking when evaluating an ecstatic experience:
This last question may be considered controversial. For instance, I heard a well-respected leader teach that he unashamedly seeks experiences. Unfortunately, I read nowhere in Scripture where such a thing is encouraged. In fact, purveyors of the occult seek these kinds of experiences and write books about how to tap into this type of power.
Instead, I adhere to a word of advice I heard from a good friend: “If you seek anything other than Christ, you are seeking less.” As a leader, be cautious of those who seek experiences. For me, spiritual adventure-seekers’ motives must come into question.
Maturity. Not long ago I was visited by some folks in our congregation who presented to me what amounted to insight derived from one or more ecstatic experiences. They immediately had my ear. Why? I know them to be passionately devoted to Christ.
Mature people are devoted to Him and are committed to serving the body. The sheer amount of time they spend in His presence increases the probability that they will experience something out of the ordinary that is also authentic. They have developed, through use of their spiritual senses, the ability to discern between good and evil—what is from God and what is not (see Heb. 5:14).
2. Communication. This relates to both the method in which God spoke to the person involved and the manner in which the recipient shares the message.
Manner. When attempting to evaluate an ecstatic experience, listen carefully to how the experience is presented:
Method. As a leader entrusted with the spiritual health of your congregation, don’t be afraid to ask the person to share the details of their experience. Error is more easily introduced when an experience is either dismissed entirely or accepted with little or no critical evaluation.
Ecstatic experiences are by definition unusual and require investigation before we embrace them and their intended message. (Note: If a person reacts to your inquiry in a negative or defensive manner, there is a sure indication that all may not be in order.) Be sure to make certain that the process by which revelation was communicated to them is not one foreign to Scripture. One point of departure into error is enough to reject the experience, since God does not mix darkness with light.
3. Content. Although there exists the temptation to judge an ecstatic experience exclusively based on the feelings that it engenders, great scrutiny must be placed on the actual content and message of the encounter.
Biblicity. The content communicated by an ecstatic experience must be biblical. As with everything in the Christian life, Scripture is the supreme standard. If something—no matter how convinced we are that it came from God—does not measure to that standard, it must be rejected.
I have heard claims of ecstatic experiences that are considered fresh and new, even though they directly contradict the mandates of Scripture. For instance, “An angel appeared to me and told me that the woman I am married to is not my intended soul mate.” Such a claim may seem laughable, but in an age of counterfeit experiences, it’s not uncommon.
Purpose. We must have the guts to ask, “Why?” In other words, why did God allow someone to have a certain experience? Why did He give this person this revelation at this time? Does this experience help us fulfill the “great commandment” (love the Lord and our brother) or the Great Commission (make disciples of the nations)?
If these questions cannot be answered definitively, we must question the usefulness of the ecstatic experience. Our primary purpose for being on Earth is to reflect the true character of Christ to the world, and in doing so, empty hell and fill heaven. If someone simply wants to garner a treasure chest of ecstatic experiences, he would be better served to go on to heaven where every moment is a new thrill.
Instead, what we need in the body are people who use their gifts—including extraordinary prophetic experiences—to repel darkness and propel the kingdom forward in our generation. If an experience is not useful, question the origin. We don’t need any more distractions.
The Bible makes it clear that God communicates with His people in more than one way, even some ways that may seem out of the ordinary. He has also equipped us to lovingly evaluate this type of phenomena so that we may receive His very best in advancing His kingdom on Earth.