Tag Archives: Spiritual Life

Kevin Wiebe: Responding to Spiritual Experiences

In light of the controversy around Dr. Phillip Cary’s article Hearing From God (Jan. 2018), the Board of Church Ministries asked Kevin Wiebe to adapt his essay from Theodidaktos (July 2016); the full version is available online. This is not a direct response to Dr. Cary’s article, but, amid “many tense relationships and troubled hearts, I humbly offer some thoughts.” More discussion on hearing from God will occur in the next Theodidaktos.

By Pastor Kevin Wiebe

If we as Christians have a kind of spiritual experience, we may wonder whether it is a prompting from the Holy Spirit and how to process that experience. If it was God speaking to us, how do we know it was truly Him? Jesus figuratively describes his disciples as sheep who follow his voice (John 10).

For believers, the question is not whether or not God exists or still leads us today. That much is presupposed. The question is rather how. How does God speak to us today? Only in the Bible? Through the whims of our imagination? If we have some kind of spiritual experience, how do we know if we are hearing the voice of the Good Shepherd, or if we are simply fabricating our own spiritual experience based on subjective personal desires?

Two Sides of the Coin

I used to have a pastor named Peter Fehr that would rarely answer my polarized questions directly. Instead, he would often wisely answer me by offering “two sides of the coin” for me to consider. I would like to follow in footsteps of Pastor Fehr and offer you “two sides of the coin,” or two extremes that I believe are important to avoid as we contemplate this topic together.

One Extreme: Lifeless Religion

One extreme in responding to work of the Holy Spirit in our lives and in our world is to deny the Spirit’s work altogether. While this extreme will typically acknowledge the Bible as important, the work of the Spirit can be blatantly ignored or totally denied.

In the Bible we see that fear is a typical response to an encounter with God and in some cases this resulted in people distancing themselves from God. In Exodus 20:18-21 we see the Israelites responding to an encounter with God by demanding that Moses should talk to God on their behalf because they were afraid. They made human barriers to keep the Lord at arm’s length. Sometimes we likewise create rules and forms of lifeless religion to help us do the same thing, insulating us from God.

Confuses Relationships with Formulas

What this extreme does is confuse living relationships with concepts and formulas. Instead of worshipping the living God, we end up worshipping systems, rules, and a lifeless religion of our own making. While rituals and religious systems can be tremendously helpful for us in our worship of the Lord, utilizing them to worship God is much different than falling into a worship of the rituals themselves.

If we only know about God without actually knowing and experiencing God, our faith is essentially worthless. Jesus talks about the future day of judgment where people will come to him who only appear to be his disciples (Matt. 7:21-23). His response to these individuals is sobering. He will say, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!”

These individuals apparently never had a relationship with Jesus. It seems that it takes more than religion or outward action; it takes a relationship with Jesus, which will require some sort of personal encounter with the Lord.

This Doesn’t Mean

This does not mean that if we become a bit legalistic that we are somehow no longer Christians. Nor does it mean that we are unsaved because we don’t dramatically “hear God’s voice” as claimed by other people.

What this passage does, however, is provide a stark warning against relying on our own religious systems to get us into heaven. It is a warning to people in both extremes to come back to Jesus. We must not settle for a religion that worships rules and formulas—keeping a true relationship with God at bay. But neither should we settle for a religion that worships subjective or even manufactured experiences. Encounters with Jesus are necessary for this relationship, but the nature of that encounter, and the extremes we may see around us, are the point of this discussion.

Another Extreme: Endless Subjectivity

The other extreme is one that has little regard for the truths found in the Bible, and attaches an authoritative, “Thus saith the Lord” to anything one wants. It conflates and confuses one’s individual thoughts or feelings with the very voice of God, leading to endless subjectivity about the will, word, and work of the Holy Spirit.

For people caught in this extreme, the truths of the Bible are often denied in favour of fanciful visions and dreams. Interestingly, this extreme is also prone to idolatry. Rather than worshipping systems and rules, it worships dramatic and emotional experiences in place of the Lord, exchanging objective truth for subjective interpretations of experience.

Consider an example from the world news of 2016 of a man who was touring a South African national park with his church group when they came upon a pride of lions feeding on an impala. He got out of the vehicle and attempted to use the Holy Spirit to miraculously control the wild animals.

He was attacked and was taken to hospital for emergency surgery. He said, “I do not know what came over me…I thought the Lord wanted to use me to show his power over animals.” Obviously he misunderstood, which led to a physical injury, though perhaps his ego may have been hurt more than his body.

Holy Hunches

In a book called Holy Hunches, Bruce Main writes, “Sincere, pious, churchgoing people have acted on hunches that have brought scores of people destruction and ill will. Hunches have burned innocent people at the stake, sparked crusades, and led to genocide—all justified by someone’s interpretation of God’s calling.”

Because of the great danger of us getting things wrong, but inspired by the possibility of us getting it right, Main refers to listening for nudges of God as a “holy hunch,” a term both hopeful and humble. Main is open to God’s leading but also desires people to be cognizant of the damage that is possible.

False Prophets

It can be dangerous to brazenly declare that we have heard a message from God. This is not a new phenomenon; it also occurred in ancient Israel. Jeremiah 23:38-40 addresses false prophets when it says, “Although you claim, ‘This is a message from the Lord,’ this is what the Lord says: You used the words, ‘This is a message from the Lord,’ even though I told you that you must not claim, ‘This is a message from the Lord.’”

Oracles of severe punishment follow this statement for these false prophets. Just because one thinks that something is from the Lord does not necessarily make it so. Given the danger of misunderstanding spiritual experiences, one would be wise to be careful about how or if we claim something was from God.

All Kinds of Ways

In our response to what we suspect to be an encounter with God, we have the capacity to follow God’s leading to become His hands and feet in the world. There are many examples in the Old and New Testaments of God somehow communicating things to people in all kinds of ways leading to powerful ministry. If we are not careful, however, we could also become conduits of destruction because we let our own ideas get in the way of God’s.

Possible Ways Forward

In an article from The Gospel Coalition, Andrew Wilson offers several practical suggestions for better discerning what is and is not the voice of the Lord. To summarize, Wilson says we must check these experiences against the teaching of the Scriptures, against the character of Jesus as revealed in the Bible, that we should consult with our own spiritual leaders, church communities and on top of that examine the fruit of the experience.

Each of those points could be elaborated upon greatly. Suffice it to say, however, that these measures help prevent believers from being entirely subjective, providing some helpful safeguards against misinterpreting the voice of the Lord, and discerning if something is or is not from God. These measures also encourage believers to actively listen for the voice of God, in our experiences, church tradition and community, and especially in the Scriptures.

Continue Seeking The Lord

So how do we respond to what seems to be an encounter with God? Ignoring it out of fear is not a helpful option. Neither is blindly assuming that all such experiences are actually from God. In reference to 1 Thessalonians 5:19-22, Francis Chan writes in Forgotten God, “Some conservatives may quench the Spirit by ignoring His working, but surely putting unbiblical words into the mouth of God is a form of quenching the Spirit as well.”

I believe that we must live in the tension created by these two extremes: refusing to ignore the authority of the Scripture on the one hand, and on the other hand refusing to ignore the voice of the Good Shepherd when he does, in fact, speak.

For some, moving forward might mean living more humbly, recognizing that God’s will is often drastically different from our own and submitting our experiences to the authority of the Bible. For others moving forward might mean to live more boldly, stepping out in faith when the Holy Spirit leads.

Kevin Wiebe

For all believers, this means responding to God’s voice when He calls, however he calls—responding and discerning not just as individuals, but as parts of a larger Christian community. So, by all means, listen for the voice of God both in the Bible and through the “holy hunches” given by the Spirit of God. Be bold, but also be humble that our lives may be truly obedient to the Lord and avoid the idolatry of both extremes.

Kevin Wiebe, BA, is the pastor of New Life Christian Fellowship (Tilbury/Stevenson, Ont.), a member of the BCM, and assistant editor of Theodidaktos, Journal for EMC theology and education.

Dr. Harvey Plett Children and the Church (Part Two): Safe in the Kingdom of God

by Dr. Harvey Plett

We need to accept children as children and that they are safe in the Kingdom of God, and not demand that they make little adult choices when it comes to spiritual decisions.

In no area of life do we accept a child’s decision as binding. There is no good rationale to change that in the spiritual realm. By accepting that they are in the Kingdom gave me as a parent a real sense of peace.

Developing a Child’s Spiritual Life

We need to continue our programs for nurturing our children in the faith. We need to teach our children that Jesus loves them, that they are in the Kingdom, and that they need to affirm their love for Jesus. We need to continue to teach the children about right and wrong as well as stressing the need for confessing their sins to Jesus and asking His forgiveness.

The parent-child love relationship is a good model to illustrate the love that exists between Jesus and the child. This means we need to be careful we don’t teach the frightening realities of being spiritually lost until they are old enough to understand. Any child can be scared into making a decision without knowing what is involved by scaring it with hell. Care and discretion needs to be used.

Similarly we need to use discretion in terms of which Bible stories we use to teach the Bible to children. We need to be aware of what our children are taught in Sunday School, at camps, VBS, and other clubs.

Accept a Child’s Decision as a Child’s Decision

We need to expect that children below the age of accountability will make decisions for Jesus because they live in an adult world and see and hear how adults are asked to make decisions.

In addition children do make decisions as they grow. Children will also confess the wrongs they do and ask Jesus for forgiveness as they have been taught. When this happens we rejoice in the child’s response, affirm and encourage the child but deal with the child on the child level and not a miniature adult level.

We also need to accept the decision as the decision of a child and not that of an adult. We can expect that our children will make many decisions as they grow in their understanding. We need to affirm them each time. Should it not be possible for a child from a Christian home to never know a time that it was lost because it made decisions for the right as the opportunity came along?

Balance Our Conversion Stories

In our churches we need to ask those who have dramatic conversions to share their testimony, but each time we have one of the dramatic conversions we should invite someone who does not have a dramatic conversion experience to share his or her testimony. This will help the child understand that there is no one model of conversion that must be experienced in order for a conversion to be genuine.

The child will share her or his decisions they made as a child and possibly date their conversion from that time. That is good but it will probably be rather non-dramatic. In my class at Steinbach Bible College I asked the question, “Who can give me the date of when they became a Christian?” Surprisingly many times one third to one half of the class didn’t have a date. This was due to their upbringing. I said, “Fine. What is important is that you know you are a Christian today.”

Believer’s Baptism

We need to be clear that baptism is believer’s baptism and not infant or child baptism (Matt. 28:18-20). And so we baptize an individual when he or she is mature enough to own the faith. Baptism is not a sacrament that conveys the grace of God. It is a ceremony that illustrates what the grace of God has done and incorporates the individual into the visible local body of Christ. Therefore infant baptism is not baptism for the church that believes in believer’s baptism.

We do not thereby condemn those who baptize infants, but neither do we accept that baptism. We are dealing with truth here and not feelings about how good that person is. We need to graciously take a stand on the truth.

Using More Accurate Language

We need to clean up our language when it comes to the idea of child dedication. We cannot dedicate another individual. A person is responsible for himself or herself. We can influence them, but we cannot dedicate them to something. In reporting such services, churches should identify them as Parent Dedications.

By calling them Child Dedication services we are communicating something we, first of all, don’t believe in, and sort of assume that people will understand that we are not conveying sacramental grace with the ceremony.

Though many consider something has happened to the child in the Dedication ceremony, in actuality it hasn’t. The dedication is of the parents committing themselves to raise their child in a Christian environment.

I believe the dedication of parents is an important idea and practice, but it does not mean that parents who don’t do this in a public service are any less Christian or less concerned or dedicated to raise their children for the Lord. To assume that children who have gone through the ceremony have something more than those who haven’t is reading more into the ceremony than what it is.

Implications for Communion

This view of the child, church, and baptism, also has implications for participation in the communion service. Like baptism, communion is for those who have made an accountable decision to follow Christ and have been baptized on that faith commitment (Acts 2:38; Matt. 28:18-20). A child does not understand the meaning of the communion service. A child cannot do the self-examination nor discern the body as Paul teaches (1 Cor. 11:27-29). Therefore it is not ready to participate in the ordinance.

I suggest that we let the child be a child and not require of it what we require of a person who is accountable. The communion service is not a sacramental service that conveys grace. It is a commemoration of what Christ has done for those who understand what that is.

Time to Re-Examine!

On this issue of the child and the Kingdom of God, I believe we as a Conference have experienced what Arnold L. Cook would call “historical drift.” Our drift seems to be towards sacramentalism on the one hand; and, on the other, demanding of a child something it is incapable of doing. It is time to re-examine some of our practices to see whether they are in line with Scripture and what our early Anabaptist forebears lived out.

A child is in the Kingdom of God; and as we teach the child, it responds to the truth at its level of understanding and thereby remains in the Kingdom unless, when accountable, it makes contrary decisions.

Dr. Harvey Plett
Dr. Harvey Plett

Dr. Harvey Plett (Prairie Rose) is a long-time EMC minister, educator, and conference worker. He has served as president of SBC and as EMC moderator. He continues to do some teaching, preaching, counselling, and writing. He and his wife Pearl live in Mitchell, Man., and celebrated 58 years of blessed marriage on Aug. 22, 2016.