I awoke from a dream asking a question: Would we sin less if we could see God? I don’t know what the dream was about nor does it matter, but it got me thinking. The short answer to this is no. Having God imminently present among us, or revealed to us in some way, in itself, would do very little to change our hearts, no more than he being powerfully present among the children of Israel kept them from falling into sin or Jesus being among the Jews stopped them from rejecting him as Messiah. Remember, Lucifer fell in the very presence of God.
The notion makes a poor assessment about sin, which has various definitions in the original language. Theologically, sin is more than our effrontery to God but is also a curse incurred on the race by its disobedience to him that Scripture explains is now ingrained in us, our spiritual congenital defect. It is nothing that we’ll ever stop doing, even as the pre-raptured redeemed. If we could simply switch it off, we would have saved Jesus a lifetime.
As this question simmered in my mind it, it spoke a more cogent one to me: What is the value of spiritual experiences?
Understanding Spiritual Experiences
We are rightly taught to live by the word of God and not shun but be discriminating about spiritual experiences. Yet God does grace people with these experiences, and the Bible is replete with them. God uses spiritual experiences for various purposes, and they can come from Satan, too, not to mention mysterious extrasensory perceptions some possess. Would having an experience with, or of, God cause one to turn from sin and live for him? The short answer this time is still no…and maybe.
The pattern in the Bible shows that powerful experiences from God usually came with specific purposes. God was sending a message, unfolding the future, giving direction, performing miracles, ordaining ministry, and so on. What we rarely see—rarely, not never—are these experiences purposed to alter the mind or heart, but Jesus does broach the topic.
In Luke 16 Jesus tells the story of Dives and Lazarus who both die. Dives, or (the) rich man, enters Hell and poor Lazarus enters Paradise. The rich man begs for water but is denied by Abraham due to the chasm between them. So he pleads that Lazarus be sent to his family to warn them of Hell, and Abraham denies him again, explaining that they have the Law and Prophets—and that if they won’t listen to them, they won’t be persuaded “‘even if someone rises from the dead’” (v. 31).
Jesus has just told us that a dramatic experience does not guarantee lasting heart change. It helps to explain how people can go to church, have a transcendent moment, commit to God, and ultimately fail to live for him. Why? Because transcendent moments are usually not transformational ones. Further, God is not coercive with his gifts. Yes, spiritual experiences are graces granted to us, and people who make decisions solely based on them, on emotion or out of fear or onus, only pervert them. These gifts are always road signs leading, never the destination.
Intimacy with God
Heart change comes through intimacy with God. This is where all those road signs are leading. They are telling the receiver Go further, Grow deeper, Get to know him, There’s more for you, directing them to Christ and all he desires to give.
Perhaps this is why divine encounters aren’t common, because we won’t understand them and will turn them into something unintended. Think about Peter on the Mount of Transfiguration (Mark 9:5-6), scared out of his mind, not knowing what to say—“I will make three tabernacles”—adoring the experience and desiring it to continue. Yet in time Jesus still had to say to Peter “when thou art converted” (Luke 22:32).
This is not to say that divine experiences don’t shake us. Consider the experiences of Elisha, Ezekiel, Daniel, John at Patmos, and Pentecost. And I can think of a particular biblical experience that did catalyze a heart change: the Damascus road experience of Saul. Yet my point stands—this was the starting line for Paul acquainting Jesus.
God’s form is never the feature he’s trying to get across. It wasn’t about the wind, fire, and quake with Elijah. It wasn’t Jesus’ quantum physics display after the resurrection or God-in-storm to Job. The glory is convincing and humbling and conveys divine authority. Yet it should spur us onward to God’s person. He wants to know us.