Greg discusses whether or not new converts should anticipate affective encounters with God.
Caller: ...I put this effort into trying to figure out the best arguments. I come to the conclusion Christianity is correct. I read this article—I have a very significant amount of respect for William Lane Craig. He’s always been one of my favorite apologists. And he wrote an article said that someone in my position—similar to me, at least—asked a question on his website, and he responded saying, when you become a Christian, God is supposed to do a work of regeneration in your heart, so you can distinguish between the old version of you and the new version of you. And when that happens, you’re supposed to know it. Like, there’s supposed to be some type of sense. It doesn’t have to be like a big experience, but there’s supposed to be some type of idea that you have that’s happened. And I guess I haven’t really felt any type of communication or perceived any sense from God. I don’t know too much about this. I’ve always focused more on the intellectual side of schooling. And so, I guess I’m wondering what a realistic expectation is.
Greg: Okay, yeah. I am so glad that you called me on this because I suspect that dispositionally—and I think a lot of what you’re asking about relates to individual disposition—people are individuals. God made different people in different ways, and so you’re going to have somebody who’s an atheist who is just a bubbling, effusive, overflowing-with-emotion atheist that becomes a Christian, and then they’re a bubbling, effusive, overflowing Christian, all right? You’re going to have some people that are matter-of-fact atheists, and they become Christians, and they are still themselves. They are more matter-of-fact Christians, okay? I’m not saying there’s no distinction in the internal life, all right? I’m just making the point that much of that part of life is tied to individual dispositions. Does that make sense to you so far?
Caller: Yeah. So, case-by-case, basically.
Greg: Yes, a case-by-case, all right? And, I think that I’m more similar to you probably, or you’re more similar to me, than maybe other people. So, for me, as a Christian, I was deeply committed to Christ from the very beginning. Got discipled for a number of years, very aggressively, and then started all kinds of adventures with God. And here I am now, 48 years later almost, and I can look back and see God’s hand in my life in dramatic ways. However, this doesn’t mean that my emotions have been carried along on some kind of high spiritual plane with God. That has not really been characteristic of my life.
Now, I have had moments where I felt really close to God. And actually, most of those have been in worship experiences that I’ve had and where I’m in corporate worship with other people. That’s when the affective side of my Christianity is more accessible to me. Or I should say, and over time, as I’ve nurtured my time alone with God in a steady fashion, I have felt closer to God as a result, okay?
Now, as far as I know, I have never had—I mean, as far as I know. I mean, this is an incorrigible kind of thing—I’ve never had God speak to me. I’ve never had a sense where God said this, that, the other thing. I’m not saying that God hasn’t influenced me in some way.
And I had a very dramatic experience once in Romania 1976, where it is fair to say that I was led to a specific location in the city of Romania. And I can’t go into the details, but I didn’t feel anything except for, while looking for this place, I had just an impulse to walk down a sidewalk and look at a door. I saw a door down the sidewalk. Turned out to be the very place we were looking for, and we didn’t know where in Bucharest this was at in the entire city. So, there was a dramatic thing that happened to me, but it wasn’t like I was kind of following the leading of the Lord. I just ended up in the right place because of God’s sovereign hand.
So, it isn’t like my life has been filled with these kinds of affective experiences from God. Some people seem to have that, and that’s the way God chooses to deal with them. And I will say—and this, I think, is what you got from Bill Craig’s site—which, by the way, is a fabulous place to make regular stops, in my view, okay? We differ on a couple of significant things, but I love Bill Craig, and I’ve known him for many years now. We’ve worked a lot together, and he’s had a great influence on my life, and his site and podcasts keep me sharp. I always read those letters when they come down just like you have been doing. So, when you become a Christian, something changes inside. You go from spiritually dead to spiritually alive, and this results—this has a number of very particular consequences, okay? And you’ll learn more about these as time goes on. However, these consequences are not necessarily affectively experienced. They open a door to a new kind of affective experience with God because you’re just entering into a relationship with God.
Now, think about it this way. When you’re single, you are not in a love relationship. When you get married, now you’re in a love relationship, but that love relationship is expressed in different ways by different people. Some guys are very modest in their emotional experience with their wives, and some guys are over-the-top in their experience. But now they’re in a relationship where there is this aspect that, if attended to, will be developed in a way that would never have been developed if they weren’t in that relationship. Does that make sense so far?
Caller: I’m tracking with you.
Greg: Okay, good. And I figured you were, but I’m just checking because I could talk a lot, and every once in a while, I want you to have a chance to say, “Uh-huh, okay, I got it.”
And so, I think that there’s an analog there with being a Christian, you know. I’m capable of speaking with some authority on this because this really reflects my own life. I have had to work at the affective side of my relationship with God, just like some guys have to work at their affective side of their relationship with their wives, okay? And some wives have to work with their husbands too.
So, there is a new avenue open to you, Michael, as a Christian, and characteristically, when a person becomes a believer, there is a season that sometimes is referred to as the honeymoon with God, where there seems to be a lot more things going on spiritually and, “Whoa, this is cool man, I have never experienced that or felt that. God’s answering prayers,” or whatever. But that’s like a honeymoon. Like when you get married. You’re not on a honeymoon for 25 years, you know. You’re on a honeymoon for a couple of weeks, and then you get down to the realities of living. And God is the same way with us, then he starts working on us. And sometimes that’s not fun.
I became a Christian on September 28th, 1973, and I started 1974, January 1st in tears. So, I was already getting worked on. I had a short honeymoon kind of thing. God was real to me, but he wasn’t as real to me as some other people who just have different temperaments. I had to work more at developing that affective relationship, and now it’s much much more powerful, more significant, than it ever was before.
So, I guess my comment to you and your circumstance, and I’d like to hear your feedback, is I’m glad that you became a Christian. You made the right decision for the right reasons. It’s well substantiated. But take God as he comes to you. If we feel God or don’t feel God, it’s irrelevant to the question of whether Christ rose from the dead or not. And if he rose from the dead, then Christianity is true, and if we trust in him, then we’re Christians. Those are the facts of the matter. The affective elements, the emotional parts, they come and go. They’re in and out, they’re up and down, and some have them stronger than others in virtue of their temperament or in virtue of the way God works in their life.
So, don’t set yourself up for disappointment in this area, especially if you’re talking with people who are really overflowing and bubbling with emotion about God and start thinking, “Well, man, I don’t have that. I’m not that way. What am I missing? Maybe I’m not really a Christian,” or something like that. And people get themselves in the ditches that way.
So anyway, that’s my take on this. And I think it’s sound.