The Signs of the Work of the Holy Spirit
Part 2: An Experiential Relationship with God

“We can know the Lord”

The gift of the Spirit gives us power to live the Christian life, to walk in the Spirit, in part by making our relationship with God experiential. The experiential aspect is only one component of good Christian living. We also need to believe in an orthodox way. We need practical wisdom for how to deal with the various things we come across in life. We need to repent of our sin. And so on. In speaking about the experiential aspect of our Christian life, we are only focusing on one feature of Christian life. Nonetheless, it is an important one.

For many, Christianity is a matter of ideas, either about what happened in the past (the events narrated in scripture) or about doctrine and morality. They think they mainly need to “live up to” what they have been taught. Relationship with God in Christ, however, should not be just a matter of ideas, however true we believe them to be or however well we try to live up to them. It should be something experienced in our world, experienced as real (objective) and personal, a relationship with a person with whom we interact. We can, in other words, make contact with God and know that we have done so. To use the word we will use for such objective, interactive contact with God: we can and should experience him and his presence with us. To use the Scriptural phrase: we can know the Lord (Jeremiah 31:34).

We can see that experience is an integral part of the Christian life in a number of passages in Scripture. The most striking one is Galatians 3:1-5 where Paul says:

O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified? Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law, or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh? Did you experience so many things in vain? — if it really is in vain. Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith?

Galatians 3:1-5

In this passage Paul shows that he expected all the Christians in the Galatian church to have had an experiential relationship with God. He asked two linked questions: did you experience so many things in vain? and does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith? The striking thing is that he actually expected them to be able to answer the questions; otherwise he would not have made his point. He expected them to know, from experience, how they received the Spirit and how they, or at least some of them, worked miracles.

The answer to Paul’s rhetorical questions, of course, is that the Galatian Christians experienced the gift of the Spirit by hearing with faith, not by being circumcised and following the ceremony of the old covenant law. Here we can see that Paul actually expected the Christians he had raised up to have experienced the Spirit and spiritual gifts.

Such a view is not restricted to Paul. The First Letter of John says the same thing in an equally explicit way, in verse 4:13: By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his own Spirit. In verse 3:24, it says something similar: All who keep his commandments abide in him, and he in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit which he has given us.

Christians should experience the Spirit

The first letter of John was written to help a group of early Christians judge whether they were true Christians, truly spiritual people, or not. This had become important because they needed to be able to distinguish between Christian spirituality and that of certain people, sometimes called Proto-Gnostics, who claimed to be the truly spiritual ones. According to 1 John, the criteria of true (Christian) spirituality are whether people believe in the incarnation of Christ, whether they keep the commandments, and whether they love other Christians – as well as whether they have experienced the Spirit. In the above two passages, then, John was saying that Christians should know that they have a true relationship with Christ, that is, whether they abide in him and he in them, by their experience of the Spirit.

The above set of passages tells us that Christians should experience the Spirit. Others could be added. If we cannot point our finger to anything definite in our experience that indicates the presence of the Spirit, the questions or comments in these passages make no sense. If that is the case, then our Christian life is missing something. We should have an experience of Christ as a real person, an existent being who is something other than us (and not just an aspect of us, our spiritual selves, as New Age people sometimes say). And we should have an experience of the Spirit he has given us as present in us and working through us.

Although the truth about the experiential nature of Christianity is important, it has to be approached with some caution. Our goal, however, should not be to have spiritual experiences, but to have a good relationship with God that is experiential. We do not want to become “experience-focused”.

We live in a time when a large number of people are focused on experience. They are especially looking to have experiences with high subjective interest, excitement, personal satisfaction. We can see this in many ways. A while back, about fifteen years or so ago, I came across a striking example in an article. The writer had noticed a new phenomenon – the first Feminists were starting to have babies. Since the early Feminist movement was noted for being somewhat hostile to women having babies and spending much of their life taking care of them rather than going out to work, their new interest in babies was newsworthy.

Most of the article contained interviews of women who had recently had babies and were answering the question why they had them. One of those interviewed expressed a common opinion. She said, “I knew I was getting older and soon would not be able to have a baby. I did not want to miss the experience of having a baby, so I had one.”

That is an extraordinary approach to having a baby. She did not have a baby because the baby was important to her, because a new living human being would come into the world. She wanted to have a baby so she could have an experience! It would be hard to find a better example of how experience-focused our age can be, and yet many of us do not even notice such things, because they are so common.

Such an orientation is all around us. New Age religion is very experience-focused. To many of the proponents of New Age teaching, it does not seem important what God or spirit or spiritual force they might be experiencing. The important thing is that they are experiencing something spiritual. And they do not seem to be at all concerned that there might be any bad effects from experiencing a relationship with an evil spirit.

Christians too can be experience-focused. Charismatics can be especially prone to this, seeking leadings, times of “slaying” or “resting” in the Spirit, “divine appointments”, etc. Such things become a center of attention, even the goal of the Christian life, rather than a spiritual help in the course of seeking a good relationship with the Lord. This too is probably a result of the times we are living in.

Knowing someone experientially

To understand what it means to say our relationship with the Lord should be experiential and why spiritual experience is important, we need to clear away some misconceptions about experience. First, human experience is not always exciting, stimulating, emotionally moving. We might touch a live electric wire. That would be an exciting, stimulating and moving experience. But we also might watch a boring movie. We would still be having an experience, even if we were uninterested and unmoved, at least until the point when we fell asleep.

Knowing that we can have human experience without excitement or much subjective stimulation has special relevance to our understanding of our spiritual life. We often have to live through periods when we cannot experience much in a lively way, and yet those are often times when we most need to relate to the Lord. The way we experience life changes when we get sick, for instance. We are usually dulled in our ability to respond to and appreciate things. If at such a time we evaluate something connected to our relationship with God like prayer by how much we are moved by it or how immediately interested we are in praying, we may not be able to pray at a time when we most need to.

Something similar is true of old age. As we get older, we do not respond as immediately to people and events as when we were younger. If we have to be excited, stimulated and moved in order to believe that we are having significant experiences, we will be tempted to evaluate our experience of personal relationships and relationship with God as getting poorer as we get older, when instead it is just changing with age and may even be getting deeper in many respects.

Not only is experience not always exciting, stimulating and moving, it is often not conscious or adverted to, surprising as that seems to many. In fact, we very commonly do not notice what we are experiencing. I can tell you about an experience that you are having right now, but almost certainly are not noticing — you are breathing. Now that I have mentioned it, you are conscious of it. Moreover, you know that two minutes ago or ten minutes ago you were having the same experience, but you had not adverted to it. 

We most often notice or are conscious of our experiences when there is a change, when something new happens. If we stop breathing, we will very quickly have a conscious experience of our breathing, or, to be more precise, of the fact that our breathing has ceased. Or if we smell something pleasant and make a point of inhaling to get more of the fragrance, we likely will notice our breathing. We also become conscious of our experiences when there is some difficulty related to them. People with asthma or some other breathing difficulty are often more regularly conscious of their breathing.

The same thing is true of our personal relationships. I recently went to a funeral of an old acquaintance. At the funeral, I noticed that one of my friends was crying during the service. This surprised me because I had not thought he had had that much of a relationship with the dead man, so I asked him about it. He responded that he was surprised too and said, “I had not realized how important he was to me until he was gone and I missed him.” Very often that is the case. We only realize the depth or strength of relationships with people we live with or see regularly when those relationships are lost or are threatened.

Experience, then, is not always exciting, stimulating and personally satisfying; nor is it always conscious or adverted to. But nonetheless the presence or absence of an experience of something, especially of an experiential relationship with people, is important. It changes our lives in objective ways, some big, some small.

One of the members of our community comes from Fiji. He studied in England, became part of the university outreach, and then stayed to be part of the community. I knew him for many years, and I knew that he had a father who was still alive, because he talked about him, but his father was always in Fiji or at least some place other than where I was. I had a certain relationship with him in that we knew of one another and both knew that we had a relationship with a third person, his son.

One day I happened to be in London when the father, who worked in the Fijian diplomatic service, came on a mission. We had lunch with him right after he got off the plane from Fiji and that was my chance to meet him. Now, I have a great deal of sympathy with people just getting off a plane from a long flight trying to cope with a new time zone and country, because I do that frequently and can feel a bit like a zombie. My friend’s father is always gracious and the lunch was pleasant enough, but he was clearly tired and much less lively than usual. Having lunch with him was not an exciting, stimulating, moving experience.

Nonetheless it was an important event. For the first time, I met him, made his acquaintance personally. Before I had known about him. Now I knew him — experientially. That changed our relationship, established it in a personal way. Since then I have gone to Fiji. Because I knew him, I stayed at his house. In the course of being there he told me many things about Fiji and Fijian society and Fijian history that most Americans would never know. Once when he was a Fijian senator, I got to go to a meeting of the national Senate. Many things happened differently thereafter because I had had an objective experience, the simple objective experience of meeting him.

Difference between knowing about and knowing from experience

The same thing is true of our relationship with God. There is a big difference between knowing about God and knowing him from experience. Experiential knowledge of God allows us to enter into a relationship with him that is personal and more dynamic than it would be otherwise. That is the case whether we experience it as exciting or routine, whether we consciously advert to it or take it for granted.

We can lead a good Christian life without having made experiential contact with the Lord. Many have, but it is more difficult, because the experiential aspect of the relationship with God imparts vitality and strength. That is why many people after they have been baptized in the Spirit experience a “spiritual high”. They have experienced a major change for the better in their Christian life and they notice it at once. For others, an experiential relationship with the Lord comes about more gradually, like slowly developing a friendship with someone we have lived with for many years. Nonetheless, it still makes their Christian life more vital, even though they cannot date the beginning of a change.

It is also true that our experience of Christian life, our experience of God, is often ordinary, even routine, like most of our experience of life. If we evaluate our Christian experience by how we consciously feel about it, or even more, by how exciting, stimulating or moving it is, we might often be tempted to think that “God has gone away” or we “lost it” or “it faded away”. That could be the case. Some people have lost their relationship with God or it has become weak. But it is rarely the case that people are concerned about their relationship with God when they do not have much of one. They are usually concerned because they do have a significant relationship with God, but something has changed in the way they experience it.

Evaluating spiritual experience

The question, then, is how can we evaluate our spiritual experience. We can find the answer in many parts of the New Testament. A short statement of it can be found in Colossians 1:9-13:

And so, from the day we heard of it, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, to lead a life worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God. May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy, giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. He has delivered us from the dominion of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son…

Colossians 1:9-13

Paul in this passage gives a sketch of how spiritual experience should function. First of all, it is not an end in itself. The true end or goal of the Christian life is to lead a life worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work, and increasing in the knowledge of God. The goal, in other words, is love of God and love of neighbor. To make this possible, the Holy Spirit works inside of us, equipping us to live the way God wants us to. Our experience of the work of the Holy Spirit, then, should be manifested in how we do God’s will, and therefore doing God’s will is the main criterion for evaluating our spiritual experience.

In saying this, the above passage contains much the same point as the passages we looked at in the first part of this chapter, but it adds a couple of important truths that help us to recognize when the Holy Spirit has been active. First, it makes clear that one of the ways the Holy Spirit works in us is to give us spiritual wisdom and understanding. He provides light for our minds so that we can know God and know his will. Second, it makes clear that he also strengthens us interiorly so that we can go through trials and sufferings in a good way. The fact that he gives us light and strength is noteworthy partly because many Christians tend to assume that the only way to discern the working of the Holy Spirit in us is by feeling him move inside or perhaps by feeling a desire to do something.

To say that the Holy Spirit gives us light, does not mean that every time he does so we have a conscious experience of being enlightened, although that often happens. Nor does it mean that whenever the Holy Spirit strengthens us, we have a conscious experience of being strengthened, though that too happens. More commonly, our experience is of having new spiritual wisdom and understanding or having greater strength and reflecting on the fact that we did not produce these things ourselves but seem to have received them in our relationship with God. The criterion for evaluating what is happening with us spiritually is by considering how well we are able to live our Christian life as a whole, not how often we have a strong conscious awareness of the Spirit working in us, much less how often we “feel” him at work in us.

Our conscious experiences of the Holy Spirit are only intended to equip us to live a life pleasing to God, and if they do not do that, they are not benefiting us and may be merely emotional and not genuinely spiritual. We might, for instance, go to a charismatic conference or prayer meeting and have a very good experience. We might have been ‘in the heavenlies” and return at night enthused and uplifted. Then we might get up the next morning and come down to the breakfast table. We find our wife there a little more grumpy than usual. We find ourselves more irritable than normal because of the late return we had the night before. Our young son spills the milk all over us. Even worse, he spilled it on the last clean shirt we had. We finally get to the car and drive away late. On the way it seems like every light we come to is red. Still later we get to work and remember that we were supposed to meet with our boss the first thing in the morning and he is waiting for us. At the point, the question is, what good was going to the prayer meeting and being in the heavenlies.

The answer should be that it is good if it helps us to make a good response to our boss, to our family, to our daily life responsibilities. If we handle our relationship better with our wife or children, with our job – and with the Lord himself – at least over time, then it has been good. If not, it has not been good, or at best neutral. We need to be spiritual at home and at work, not just at the prayer meeting or in conferences. If we have a job, are married, have a family to raise, that is where our vocation is. If our spiritual experiences at the prayer meeting or conference do not help us to love God and love our neighbor in our daily life, to live our vocation well, they have not helped us to be spiritual people. Christian spiritual experience should equip us to live daily life better, the daily life we were called to.

Living the Christian life for the long haul

It should also help us to live Christian life for the long haul. Much of life is routine and should be. We cannot constantly live in a state of excitement or constantly have everything new and interesting, whether humanly or spiritually. The spiritual experience we need is the kind that persists through ups and downs. Sickness or discouragement may make our experience of life “flat” or “sour”, but it does not have to eliminate our having a personal relationship with God or our confidence that he is with us or our making a good spiritualized response to difficult circumstances.

Dry periods are also part of spiritual living. Even though our emotions in relationship to God and spiritual things may seem arid or desiccated, we can still live in a spiritualized way. In fact, it seems to be true that God uses such times for bringing us to a new level of spiritual life. A “dry” relationship with God over a period of time, a dry prayer life, forces us to choose whether God himself is more important to us than “what we get out of” prayer or “what we get out of” our spiritual life.

Moreover, as we get older we experience life differently and so experience spiritual life differently. We need an approach to spiritual experience that allows us to be in a good relationship with God when we experience all of life in a quieter less energetic way. If our model for Christian fervor is the response of a newly converted young person, we will only be able to see our spiritual life as one of steady decline.

We need a broad enough understanding of experience, one that takes in the many ways we experience people and things in the course of human life. Otherwise, we will be often tempted to think that we have lost our relationship with God, or at least lost a vital one, despite the fact that it is still there. Nonetheless, we do need to come to know the Lord and then live in the confidence that he is with us and accessible to us. It is part of God’s plan that we have an experiential relationship with him.

This gives us our second conclusion 

Our charismatic spirituality aims at our becoming spiritual(ized) people, people who love God and neighbor with all of our life for the rest of our life and are enabled to do that better partly because of having an experiential relationship with God.

This article is excerpted from the book Charismatic Spirituality: The Work of the Holy Spirit in Scripture and Practice, Chapter 2, copyright © 2004 by Stephen B. Clark, and published by Servant Books, a division of Saint Anthony Messenger Press. Used with permission.

See Part 1: Being Spiritual People

Top image credit: Christian family before the Cross, from, © by Mike_Kiev, stock photo ID: 12115253.

1 thought on “The Signs of the Work of the Holy Spirit
Part 2: An Experiential Relationship with God”

  1. As a parent, I’ve been reflecting on the importance of instilling values and morals in my children. Lately, I’ve been considering finding a Christian church that offers a strong youth program to help guide them in their spiritual journey. I believe it could be a supportive community for my kids to learn and grow. It’s encouraging to know how in order for our conscious encounters with the Holy Spirit to be beneficial to us, they must help us live a life that pleases God; otherwise, they may be purely emotional and not truly spiritual.

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