James Montgomery Boice tells of two stories recounted by contributors to a radio programme about spiritual experiences:
The first was a girl who explained how she had felt a sudden urge to leave her home in the northern part of the state [of California] and hitchhike down the coastal road. Halfway to Los Angeles she sensed that “this was the place.” So she had the driver stop the car, got out, and went down the hill to the shore where she found a cave and camped out for a couple days. Then — because she thought God (or something) was leading her to do this — she went down into the water and mingled with the rocks and seaweed as if she were at the dawn of creation. Finally an animal came by, and she took this as a sign that it was time to go. She climbed the bank and hitchhiked back to northern California. That was her “spiritual experience.”
The other person I listened to seemed to be an older woman. She said she had her experience quite recently — on Election Day. Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan were running in that election. She said, “I have always been a Democrat, and when I went into that voting booth I was planning to vote for Jimmy Carter. But something happened. A strange feeling came over me and I pulled the lever for Reagan.” She did not say whether the influence she had felt was benign or demonic, but I think she believed it was the latter. \1/
A few pages later he recounts a biblical spiritual experience:
In 2 Peter 1, where Peter spoke about his special experiences as an apostle, he described the things he had that we do not have. He listed them beginning, “we were eyewitnesses of his majesty” (v. 16), that is to say, Our eyes actually saw Jesus Christ; and furthermore we did not only see Christ in the flesh, where his godhead was veiled, as it were, but rather in the moment of his transfiguration. He appeared before us clothed in light. And not only did we have this vision. We also heard a voice from heaven, and the voice from heaven said clearly (we heard it with our ears), “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased” (v. 17). \2/
This passage Boice refers to makes an important point, though it is not the point of his chapter, so he does not comment on it. But yet it illuminates a deficiency in his opening accounts. In both, there was a sense or feeling recounted, and in one there was something seen. Peter (and his companions James and John) certainly saw something very unusual on the Mount of Transfiguration. But the one component of their experience that sets it apart from many ‘spiritual experiences’ recounted today is the voice they heard. It was not a voice in their head, they were not mad. God pointed them audibly to his Son as the focus of that experience, and communicated to them his love for and pleasure in Jesus. What they saw was not enough. Nor what they felt. What they heard was vitally important. It was what set their experience apart from all others as an authentic, genuine experience of the Living God.
There are relatively few similar experiences in Scripture where people of God saw God’s glory or had an angelic visitation. Never was that the sum total of their experience. They never simply saw, or simply felt a presence. Always God, or his messenger, spoke, either to explain the experience, or to give clear and unambiguous instructions.
This was so from the first recorded meeting of man and God in the Garden after the fateful fruit had been eaten. When Moses saw the bush, he heard the voice. When Israel saw the smoke atop Mount Sinai, they heard the voice. When God displayed his glory to Moses, he spoke and explained who he was in simple, yet profound, terms. He did not simply show Moses a great sight. He communicated great truth verbally. Moses was not free to assign any meaning he liked to the experience. God explained the significance.
Genuine spiritual experience will always be accompanied by God’s explanation. Even today that will be the case. We will not normally hear his voice audibly, but our experience will be in accordance with the Word of God if it a genuine spiritual experience, and experience of the true and living God. It will not necessarily mimic an experience recorded in Scripture, though it may, but Scripture will make clear the meaning and significance if we submit to it. God is his own interpreter, and he will make it plain.
Quotations from: James Montgomery Boice, Standing on the Rock: Biblical Authority in a Secular Age (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1994). \1/ pp. 27-28. \2/ p. 30.