When anyone speaks of “private revelation” (something God has revealed to an individual personally), most listeners become uncomfortable. There are lots of reasons for this, not the least of which is how easy it is to mistake “delusion” for “illumination”.
To create rituals around immediate interface with God, religious practice, makes such encounters less disturbing. The free movements of an unrestrained mob can be chaotic and frightening. People lined up neatly and organized in rows and columns, walking quietly in step and standard directions, can be comforting because they are more predictable.
Let us presume that the Holy Spirit desires, intends, and constantly works to bring a Christian to immediate experience of the presence, the love, and the communion of/with God. Further, let’s posit that a part of that communion, a fruit of that encounter, will be the urge to gather together for mutual encouragement and urging to love and works of grace. If this is so, then Church (as intended by the Spirit), results from the interior action of grace and inspiration of the Spirit. Church, thus, becomes far more an effect of closeness with God, rather than a cause.
Now, as a mental health professional of many years, I cannot express the ease with which delusions of various sorts… power, grandeur, messianic… and far more distasteful… can be intertwined with religion and spiritual concepts. Everything from the occult to radical cults… involve mental health delusions wrapped in religious trappings and claims of divine contact and inspiration. Some such claims are sincere, and part of the fantasy architecture of the sufferer. Others are habitual cloaking, masking simple sociopathy and power games, by exploiting the authoritarian structures of biblical language (usually predominantly Old Testament), to manage victims through guilt, shame, and misplaced piety.
Horrible acts of unspeakable cruelty and madness have been perpetrated by the insane, while invoking “personal revelation” as granting the authority and power of God over the wills and freedom of others.
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So… how do we… how do Christians… reconcile these concerns?
How do we remain open to intimate and immediate presence and dialogue with God through His Spirit proclaimed to speak to and teach us all we need to know… without risking delusion, misdirection, rupture of our boundaries of sanity? I mean, is every “interior voice” the voice of God?
No, we have the ability to hear many interior voices. There may be a voice to the Holy Spirit, but also inspiration of darkness, voice of memory, imagination of possibilities and internal argumentation of logic… Depending on how verbal we are in personality, we may have entire dialogues going on.
We are to “test the spirits”…
Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God; and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God; this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming, and now it is already in the world. You are from God, little children, and have overcome them; because greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world. They are from the world; therefore they speak as from the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God; he who knows God listens to us; he who is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error. [1 John 4:1-6]
Our caution is based on the (appropriate) fear of being misled, deluded, by a spirit of error, of falsehood, of the world, of the antichrist. But John counsels us to courage, to wisdom, and discernment. He does not say to close off and ignore “prayer of locution” (the technical name for hearing the voice of the Holy Spirit), but that we learn to distinguish inspiration of God from other possibilities.
Here are some principles that can help one be confident in discernment and secure in grace and sanity.
- The counsels of 1 Corinthians 13 all hold true for inspiration of the Holy Spirit. God never counsels contrary to His nature.
- Prompting of holy inspiration glorifies God, exalts God, and humbles the self. When God inspires, you will not feel “puffed up” in the experience, but rather awestruck with wonder and amazement at His kindness and the grace of it all.
- Prompting of holy inspiration fosters love and charity towards others, and a sense of (for lack of a better term) “heart of Christmas giving, rather than receiving” towards others. There is a sense of “communion” and “caritas… charity… towards others”, rather than any sense of entitlement.
- Holy inspiration, spoken from the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ, is always reflected in the walk and ministry of Christ as revealed in the Gospels. If an inspiration is not consistent with what Jesus does, did, or would do or say… it lacks consistency with Jesus, and is best dismissed.
- There is a sense of authority and recognition to the inspiration. As Jesus said “I know My sheep and they know Me, and they hear My voice.” There is a sense of affirmation of spirit to direction of the Holy Spirit.
So, three questions to “test the spirits”…
- Does the inspiration glorify God, or me? Does it appeal to my ego and leave me puffed up? Or does it give life more abundant to others?
- Is the inspiration consistent with Jesus of the Gospels? His words? His walk?
- Does the Spirit within me grant a sense of affirmation that this urging is of Him?
If any of those are missing, it may not mean that the inspiration is not of God, but it does mean that we are not yet attuned enough to its truth to act upon it.
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And here I will close. Lots more could be said, but I really just wanted to address that Christians can be so hesitant in “listening to Him” because of a healthy caution about delusion. We can trust Him. When we seek Him, determined to obey Him but not the enemy… He honors this, and will grant clarity.
Discussion more than welcome… Grace to thee, Gentle Reader! — The Little Monk