What Is the Bible’s View?
Is Religious “Ecstasy” an Evidence of God’s Spirit Today?
“THE sounds just came out as if I had known how to do it all my life,” explained a woman who recently began to speak in “tongues.” She added: “It was so natural and beautiful. I felt great peace, inner peace and closeness to God. And I cried. You couldn’t help but cry, it was so beautiful.”
This woman is among hundreds of thousands of “charismatics” who maintain that God’s spirit has equipped them with “gifts” (cha·risʹma·ta, Greek) such as healing, prophesying and speaking in unknown tongues. (Compare 1 Corinthians 12:4, 9, 10.) Often such occurrences are attended by feelings of religious “ecstasy,” which the Encyclopædia Britannica (1974 edition) defines as “the experience of an inner vision of God or of one’s relation to or union with the divine.”
The powerful emotions accompanying such an “experience” have led many to believe that they have received God’s holy spirit. Is religious ecstasy really an evidence of God’s spirit today?
Throughout human history innumerable individuals associated with all types of religious belief have testified to having ecstatic experiences with the supernatural. Experiences like that were common, for example, in ancient pagan “mystery religions” and were viewed as evidence of “rebirth” in a mystic sense. But these experiences, pleasant though they may have been, did not come from God, for the Bible says concerning such religious practices: “The things which the nations sacrifice they sacrifice to demons, and not to God.”—1 Cor. 10:20.
The Bible’s book of Job records a speech of Eliphaz the Temanite in which he relates the following supernatural religious experience: “A spirit itself went passing over my face; the hair of my flesh began to bristle. . . . a form was in front of my eyes; there was a calm, and I now heard a voice.” (Job 4:15, 16) That spirit-induced experience, however, did not originate with God, as is evident from the fact that God rebuked Eliphaz for ‘not speaking concerning me what is truthful.’—Job 42:7.
What about today? Could it be that experiences of religious ecstasy that some persons attribute to being “born of the holy spirit” may not come from God after all? Apparently so, for such pleasant feelings may still accompany practices that God disapproves. For example, in his book Patterns of Prophecy, author Alan Vaughan says of his going into a “psychic state”: “A sort of loving feeling comes often with this, and an inner sense of well-being rises up and exudes what I might call a charismatic feeling.” But rather than viewing “psychic” abilities as evidence of God’s spirit, the Bible associates occult practices such as clairvoyance and precognition with the influence of demons or “wicked spirit forces.”—Acts 16:16; Deut. 18:10-12; Eph. 6:12.
Obviously, then, experiences of religious ecstasy or other extraordinary abilities are not in themselves evidence of God’s spirit. They may, in fact, come from demonic sources. How, therefore, can a person know whether he really has God’s holy spirit?
Evidence of this would appear principally in the way an individual conducts himself from day to day. As the apostle Paul put it: “You are in harmony, not with the flesh, but with the spirit, if God’s spirit truly dwells in you.” (Rom. 8:9) The spirit of God becomes the motivating force for fine Christian conduct in opposition to the downward drag of the sinful “flesh.” The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament compares this idea with Paul’s reference, at Romans 7:20, to “the sin dwelling in me.”
“The dwelling of sin in man denotes its dominion over him . . . [It] is no passing guest, but by its continuous presence becomes the master of the house . . . Paul can speak in just the same way, however, of the lordship of the Spirit. . . . This ‘dwelling’ is more than ecstatic rapture.”
How can a person subject himself to the “lordship” of God’s spirit in his life? Surely not by trying to develop a “Transcendental Feeling” by deliberately ignoring “the messages of the senses,” as a book on “mysticism” encourages. The Bible counsels: “Quit being fashioned after this system of things, but be transformed by making your mind over, that you may prove to yourselves the good and acceptable and perfect will of God.” (Rom. 12:2) In the same vein we read at Colossians 3:9-11: “Strip off the old personality with its practices, and clothe yourselves with the new personality, which through accurate knowledge is being made new according to the image of the One who created it.”
To have God’s spirit, therefore, one must first of all ‘make the mind over’ by means of “accurate knowledge” of what is acceptable to God. That means that a person must make a careful study of the Bible. Then he must become a ‘doer of the word,’ conforming his life to the godly principles that he has learned.—Jas. 1:22-25.
But was not God’s spirit upon Christians of the first century made evident by miracles that they were enabled to perform? God did grant special powers to Christians back there. But these served a special purpose. In this way God bore witness by means of “signs as well as portents and various powerful works” that the “people for his name” on earth was no longer the Jewish congregation but was the Christian congregation. (Heb. 2:4; Acts 15:14) Once that fact had been well established, there was no more need for such miraculous powers. They were a feature of the Christian congregation only at its beginning and were to “be done away with.” (1 Cor. 13:8) Thus Jesus said that his true followers would be identified, not by feelings of ecstasy or performance of miracles, but by love for one another.—1 Cor. 12:29, 30; 13:2; John 13:35.
God’s spirit with its principal fruit of “love” would surely promote unity among true followers of Jesus Christ. (Gal. 5:22; Eph. 4:3-6; 1 John 3:23, 24; 4:12, 13) But persons who look to religious ecstasy or other “experiences” as evidence of God’s spirit have often caused further division in an already overly divided Christendom. Commenting on this, evangelical clergyman Donald G. Miller writes in his book The Authority of the Bible:
“Pentecostalism claims to rest on experience. Modern tongues movements and healing movements vindicate themselves by experience. Christian Science rests on experience. Where shall the end be? If private experience is the final authority . . . every man will end up doing that which is right in his own eyes. . . . Even where it elicits group assent, it tends finally toward the disintegration of the group into proliferated splinter groups, each of whose special twist of experience demands autonomy.”
Religious ecstasy or miraculous “gifts” are not the evidence of God’s spirit today. Such experiences may even be related to practices that the Bible condemns. All who wish to be influenced by God’s spirit must ‘make their minds over’ through an accurate knowledge of God’s Word and let their deeds reflect the Christian “new personality.”—Rom. 12:2; Col. 3:9, 10.