The Addiction to Religious Euphoria

Mark Galli (HT: Alex Webster) has an interesting story in CT Online today about the power of religious euphoria. He likens the attraction to, indeed the addiction to euphoria to attraction and addiction to a drug. Galli writes:

We disdain faith that is mere intellectual assent or empty formality. We want a faith that is authentic, that makes us feel something—in particular, one that enables us to experience God. When we describe the one time in the week when we put ourselves in the presence of God, we talk less and less about “worshipping God” and more about “the worship experience.” The charismatic movement, with its emphasis on experiencing the Holy Spirit, has penetrated nearly all churches. This religious mood, which characterizes our era, is epitomized by the title of Henry Blackaby’s continuing best seller, Experiencing God.

Now, Galli notes, it is possible to replicate the “worship experience” with a drug. Of course, for those of use who can remember the 60s and 70s won’t be much surprised. It was common to hear hippies talk then in terms now reserved for evangelical use.

Sometimes people object to my critique of the QIRE (see RRC) as if I’m just a kill-joy. I’m not. One great problem with the QIRE is that not only can you achieve the experience you crave with the right drugs, you can also do it with other world religions. In other words, it’s a natural phenomenon. It’s not supernatural. It’s not inherently Christian (just like the modern “tongues” movement, anyone can do it). Galli explains:

There are many reasons to question the amount of attention our age gives to helping people have memorable religious experiences. For one, other religions seem to be equally capable of giving people an encounter with transcendence. For another, as we now increasingly see, drugs seem to be able to do the same thing.

In other words, you don’t need Jesus to have that experience. If you don’t need Jesus to achieve the experience you want, then the experience you want isn’t Christian. I’m not saying that it’s demonic; it’s just natural but nature isn’t grace and redemption from sin.

You also don’t need Jesus to be good. The emergent folks want to take us back to early 20th-century liberalism, “deeds not creeds,” but Galli warns:

…what Christians bring to the world is a message embedded in a story, and nothing less than a God-given, God-revealed message and story.

What is distinctive about Christianity is its history and doctrine of redemption. Euphoria and good deeds (which are the building blocks of what many people today consider to be Christianity) aren’t distinctively Christian.

Once more, I’m not against genuine religious experience but I am against the QIRE. I’m not against good deeds, but I am against defining Christianity as good deeds. We manifest our faith (James does say, “show me your faith”) but our good deeds, to the degree they are good (they’re always tainted with corruption and sin) are always and only fruit of our union with Christ.

Galli says,

The Christian faith is, at its core, not about ethics or religious experience, but a message about a God who has gone to extraordinary lengths to be and remain on our side, to become the-God-with-a-name, Emmanuel, “God with us.” Christians are not primarily mystics (those who experience God in a special way) or activists (those who live the way of Jesus). We are mostly witnesses of who God is and what he has done and what he will do in Jesus Christ, the God who in Christ has “a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph. 1:10).

He’s exactly right. Reformed people should understand this. We confess total depravity. We confess that God acted for us and that he has revealed himself to us chiefly in Christ and that his Spirit operates not apart from the Word written but through it and with it. We long for genuine experience of peace, joy, love etc but we long for them in Christ, by his Spirit, through his Word, in community with his people, through the due use of the ordained means. Our experience ought to be as Christ-centered as his Gospel is. Our good deeds ought to flow out of the Christ-centered gospel. More than that, our faith and life ought to be Trinitarian and insofar as that is true, it transcends natural euphoria (whether religious or narcotic) or our sanctity is not mere deeds but the grace of God the Spirit.

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  1. When I hear people say they want to experience God they seem to be saying that they want their emotions to line up with their knowledge. In other words, they don’t want to be unaffected by the gospel.

    After reading both the CT and NYT article I was puzzled by the inclusion of Blackaby’s Experiencing God book as an example of a desire for an extreme experience of God. It seems to me that Blackaby is not a mystic nor would he advocate an experience of God apart from the means of grace.

    My take is pretty simple: an experience without proper knowledge is as dangerous as proper knowledge without experience. I guess that makes me a Reformed Charismatic.

  2. Brad, have you read Blackaby’s book? His whole project is how to fine-tune your spiritual antennae to hear God’s still small voice whispering private revelation to help you through life. His Study Bible reveals at best a Barthian view of Scripture – so, yes, he most certainly is a mystic who advocates QUIRE. You might find Greg Koukle’s critique of Blackaby helpful. Greg’s critique is especially interesting because theologically he is not cessationist.

    • Hi Joshua,

      I will definitely check out Koukle’s critique. I always like to be as informed as possible, being ready to change if that is what the Spirit wants.

      I didn’t read Blackaby’s book but I did go through the workbook a few years ago. It was a long and intense study – about 12 weeks if I remember correctly. I definitely did not think that Blackaby was encouraging me to listen to”God’s still small voice whispering private revelation” to me. Instead I remember the workbook encouraging me to search the Scriptures, pray, get plugged into a local church where the gospel is preached, listen to the Holy Spirit, and talk with other wise Christians. Most of all, I really learned about obedience and DOING the will of God. I thought that Experiencing God was just the Reformed faith being lived out and applied in real life. It really helped me be free to be guided by and obedient to the Holy Spirit.

      What do you think? Also, I am not sure what a “Barthian view of Scripture” is. Could you explain that?


  3. Brad, I hope you find Koukle’s critique enlightening. Basically, Karl Barth taught that just as you might go to a stadium to see a ball game, so you go to the Bible to hear a Word from God. The Bible is the stadium, not the ball game. Thus he created an existential separation between the Bible and God’s Word, suggesting that the Bible contains the Word, rather than identifying it with that Word.

    In practical terms let’s say you are praying to God for direction while reading your Bible. You are “feeling led” to quit your job and plant a church on Oahu. You are reading John 4 where Jesus goes into Samaria. Suddenly it hits you. Jesus “went.” Is the Spirit nudging you out of your comfort zone, telling you also to “go” and plant a church in Hawaii? Blackaby would say “very possibly” (depending on how you read the other signs of providence). Such a model of christian piety is certainly not Reformed in the least.

    There is a story of a wheat farmer who one day noticed that the clouds above him seemed to form a “P” and a “C” which he interpreted as the Spirit leading him to “Preach Christ.” The problem was that he was a horrible preacher. A good friend of his said to him after he heard one of his sermons, “brother, I think perhaps the Spirit was telling you to ‘plant corn!'”

  4. Thanks Joshua. I agree, that seems like a pretty lame way to get to know God. I guess I never read that deeply into what Blackaby was saying and that is certainly not how I experience God.

    Anyway, the reason why I said that it was the application of Reformed theology is because I associate Reformed theology with the Lordship of Jesus Christ and Blackaby helped me to understand what that looked like in real life. He helped me see that God is present and working TODAY in my life and in the world. That is so awesome to think about. He is present with you and me, loving us and helping us right now! We can experience His grace and presence all the time. Praise the LORD!

  5. Thanks Dr. Clark. I will look over those links when I have time!

    Maybe I don’t understand the Reformed position, but it seems like you are saying that God is only active/present/powerful 1 hour each week (the chrurch service). I believe that the Holy Spirit is living in me and is teaching and speaking to me, yes at church -even ESPECIALLY at church – but also all the time.

    I remember doing an exercise in Blackaby’s workbook that asked me to list all of the ways I knew and experienced God’s power, grace, authority, etc. It made me sad when the only things I could list were Bible verses and Bible stories. I realized at that point that God was an abstraction and a story or doctrine and not a real, living active presence in my life. (Here are two analogies: 1) It would be like telling my parents I knew them by just talking about the stories I have read about them in a newspaper or seen in a scrapbook and having no real stories about the vacations we took, or times they discplined me or celebrated Christmas together etc OR 2) Only talking with my life about our wedding ceremony/covenant. Just watching the video and talking about the covenant instead of also living life and loving each other everyday)

    I hope that makes sense. Is what I tried to explain not Reformed?

    • In Reformed categories Blackby is a “fanatic.” He hears from God apart from the Word. Yes, of course, the Spirit is always at work in us and always assuring us of God’s love for us in Christ and of the truth of the Word and conforming us to the image of Christ but God’s Word says that the secret things belong to God (Deut 29:29). The revealed things belong to us. Blackaby’s program is all about discerning the very things that God says are secret.

      Check out the links and resources I provided.

    • Brad, this is a little tounge-in-cheek and not nearly as helpful as Dr. Clark’s comments, but there is a running joke among some other Reformed folk I know about the Spirit “speaking to us.” And that is… well, if you really did hear God speak to you (and I have read books where the author quotes God ‘speaking to him’ outside of the Word, i.e. driving in my car one day and God said, quote, “”) …. so, did you write it down? Because if the Spirit really is SPEAKING to you, and the Spirit is God, one of the three Persons of the Trinity… man, if I heard God speaking to me, I would be writing it down and trying to get it included in the Bible. Or at least publishing best-sellers.

      I realize this is a bit of an exaggeration… but it alludes to the truth that, as Dr. Clark says, the Spirit IS at work in us and we DO experience a real relationship with God, but God speaks to us only in the Word and the sacraments, and not through any direct special-just-for-me revelation of the Spirit.

      • Hi Elijah,

        I agree with you that there are a lot of crazy people out there who really are not hearing from God, but I have to say that the awesome thing about being a Christian is that we really do have a living relationship with the three Persons of the Trinity! We should be excited that God’s Spirit resides in us and communes with us! And confident to tell others about what God is teaching us.

        I totally agree that the Bible and the Sacraments and the Church are really important (maybe even the most important!) ways God speaks to us. But I cannot agree in light of my experience and understanding of Scripture that those are the ONLY ways God communicates.

        Here are some examples, outside of Scripture, that I think God speaks to me.
        1) Convicting me of sin.
        2) Giving me insight into another person’s struggle.
        3) Encouraging other people with the glories of Christ.
        4) Singing worship songs and praising God at Church, around my house and in my car.
        5) Listening to wiser more mature Christians.
        6) Reading books.

        The list could go on and on. And I don’t mean to imply that the Bible or Church or the Sacraments are insufficient. I am just saying that in reality they are not the only ways God communicates. I actually think that is what the Bible teaches.

        Sure there are a lot of times when people go crazy and really are not experiencing God, but I don’t think that means we have to completely eliminate the idea of a religious experience.

        That’s where I stand now, but I will definitely spend some time this weekend reading some of the suff Dr. Clark wrote.

        • Hi Brad,

          We would affirm those points you made. We classify that as illumination by the Spirit, helping us to understand the Word and to apply it. It isn’t new revelation from God.

        • Brad,
          In my humble opinion (imho) the power of Christian counsel, books, and music is directly proportional to its truth as compared to the Bible. The value judgement of a “good” book (or wise counsel, or powerful music) is based on how closely that book, counsel, or music is supported by the Bible.

          In my own experience, the books that teach me the most and where I learn the most are those that are constantly quoting Scripture and forcing me to study my Bible!

  6. Brilliant post. I am serving as pastor in a church that was heavily influenced by the charismatic movement. One of my lay leaders recently told me how he watched an episode of Bizaare Foods where the host was among African Tribesman. He got injured and so, by the encouragement of the tribe leaders, he particpated in a “religious ceremony of healing.” By the end of it, the man was in tears and said, “I can’t explain it, I just experierenced something amazing and I’ll never be the same.”

    Afterwards my lay leader was amazed at how similiar the host’s “testimony” was almost identical to the testimonies of those who participated in the church’s past revival retreats.

    My thoughts on this whole “worshipping experience” is like how I think about cotton candy, it may taste great but it has no nutritional value whatsoever and if that is your only source of nourishment you will die.

  7. In the mid-eighties, while in college, I started to go to a large Calvary Chapel. I loved the QIRE! I really believed that the experience I was having was from God until one Spring my allergies were acting up. I took an over the counter medication before the service and could feel nothing but “medicine head”. I was singing the same songs, doing the same things as everyone else, but for me “God” wasn’t there! I went home and thought about what had happened and went to a “normal” church were there were actually people older than 25 there.

    This was a great post!

  8. I remember there was one guy at work who used to drink Red Bull mixed in with his OJ. He told me that Red Bull was great etc. so I finally decided to go to the gas station and get a couple 8.3 oz cans. I tanked both them down one after another. I haven’t felt that good ever again. I was practically giggling for part of the afternoon. Who would need religious euphoria when one can drop a can or two of Red Bull?

  9. What a great post. I am really glad that Brad stuck to his observations because of the responses that they drew out. This is an issue that I have been thinking about for years. I became a Christian in a charismatic environment and fairly recently left an Assemblies of God church because in every service I would sit there thinking “Is this Biblical?” to the point where that was all that I was doing. I am now going to an Anglican mission associated with the ACNA and it too is charismatic. (I live in Vermont and the church choices are limited.) Recently the new bishop for the area visited and was offering to lay hands on people and give them an infilling of the Holy Spirit, but I was thinking “but what are you really imparting, do you know for sure?” And, of course, such thoughts make me feel cynical at the same time. I also will review the references posted about by Scott above. I question whether the phenomenon associated with the religious experiences are only natural. I am beginning to think that it is possible that even raising someone from the dead (which has been alleged to have occurred in other countries by missionaries speaking at the AG church) could serve to obscure the gospel rather than promote it, should it actually have happened. Somewhat ironic that the signs and wonders that the charismatic churches long for because it is what the early church did, if present, might really just end up hiding what God has communicated through His son, rather than promoting salvation.

  10. Its deja-vu all over again! I remember when I first made a profession of Christ, (ala sinners prayer) the first words out of my mouth were ‘ can I still get loaded ?’
    Back then just as today we were addicted to the euphoric “feelings” but ignorant of the delusion of the enemy. We thought we had special insight, real wisdom, that we could discern more than a “straight” person. I can see the connection between that experience and the charismatic movement. What we failed to see was the revealed Word of God and the sufficiency of Christ. We believed the lies of such men as Aldus Huxley and Timothy Leary rather than Christ. I thank God for the revelation of His Word which a few months later brought me to “true repentancy”. Now days could we make some connection with some people finding the truths of the reformed teaching yet wanting to hold on the the charasmatic gifts? I speak about the Sovereign Grace Ministries. Is it a stretch to make that connection?

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