by Daniel Harrell
Generally the closest I ever come to religious experiences—aside from the Patriots winning another Super Bowl—are those occasional Sundays during worship when the music and the congregation sync up at full throttle in their abandoned praise of God. It’s like a taste of eternity. I especially like communion Sundays since the service itself is designed to anticipate heaven. Our sins confessed and forgiven, peace made and prayers prayed, we experience an unusual unity with God and each other. Priorities reorder themselves and anxieties ease for a bit. There is a momentary sense that the worries of this world just aren’t that important. We’re reminded of how, spiritually speaking, we’re all illegal aliens living in a place that’s not supposed to be home.
Regrettably for me, I have this inbred cynicism that makes religious experiences particularly tricky for me. Even when I feel especially dialed in to God, I always wonder whether it’s really God I’m feeling or something I’m just making up. Regrettably for you, I sometimes get my cynicism on others. A old friend of mine once excitedly narrated how God made it possible for her to buy a new condo. She’d submitted her name into a housing lottery where those picked were given the chance to purchase at reduced rates as long as they agreed to live in the unit for a minimum of 5 years. As a single mother with a low paying job, she was eager to have the security of a home she could afford. So she and her church devoted themselves to fasting and prayer, confident that God would answer. To her delight she was chosen first in the lottery. In telling me this, she effused about the power of prayer and how it is true that God will give us whatever we ask as long as we ask in faith. Did I rejoice with her rejoicing? Not exactly. Instead I wondered out loud: “If God gives us whatever we ask, why did you ask for a low-rent condo you still have to finance?” This is why I should not be a minister.
Maybe what I need is a religious experience as powerful as Paul’s here in 2 Corinthians 12. As far as we can tell, Paul was basically minding his own business when he got caught up, snatched up into Paradise. Whether this was an in-the-body or an out-of-body experience, Paul does not know. All he knows is that he was transported to what ancient Jewish cosmology labeled the third heaven: the place God Almighty inhabits. While there, Paul heard things too sacred to put into words, things no mortal is permitted to repeat. All he can say is that he’s not allowed to say. I know the passage has Paul referring to another man making this fantastic voyage; but practically everybody acknowledges that Paul is really describing himself. He’s gone to heaven and back, he just doesn’t want it to go to his head.
Throughout 2 Corinthians, Paul has fought a rival group of apostolic pretenders, sheep-stealers who’ve been discrediting Paul by slinging all manner of mud in his direction. They’ve accused him of throwing his weight around and overreaching his authority while at the same time calling him a cowardly two-faced flip-flopper, ugly to look at and a bad preacher to boot. They’ve pointed at his ongoing hardships and persistent troubles as signs of deficient faith. In response, Paul counts his hardship and troubles as assets; his suffering for Christ and for the Corinthians as demonstrations of love. It’s the kind of love demonstrated by a circle of Coptic Christians in Cairo last week. They surrounded a group of Muslims to protect them as they prayed during Egypt’s ongoing political uprising. These are same Coptic Christians whose church was bombed by a fanatical band of Islamic militants on New Year’s Eve killing 21 worshippers.
The gospel of Jesus urges Jesus-like sacrifice; Jesus-like forgiveness and Jesus-like dependency. We’re told to trust the Lord to supply our needs in order to be the Lord’s supply for others’. Paul makes it a point to refuse monetary support from the Corinthians on the grounds that to receive money for his message would have obscured its very meaning. Grace is always free gift. And yet his rivals criticize this too, claiming that to preach the gospel for free is a farce since everybody knows any message worth anything costs something to hear. These pretenders flashed their own self-serving piety and personal net worth as evidence of genuine faith. Now, it seems, they’ve resorted to boasting about their dramatic religious experiences in order to boost their image even further. And the Corinthians ate it up.
People are suckers for a show. Here in America, there’s a self-proclaimed exorcist, named Bob Larson of Bob Larson Ministries (of course), who holds what he calls “spiritual freedom conferences” all around the world. (You can view one of his exciting exorcisms online!) Larson claims to cast out demons responsible for every sort of evil in your life, from the physical to the financial. He especially likes to cast out financial demons. He likes to cast them right out of your wallet and into his own bank account. At the beginning of his meetings, Larson warms up the crowd by exorcising a few easy devils, ostensibly to inspire confidence in his craft. One woman started off several conferences in a row with the same demon in tow each time. She’d moan and groan and flail all over the room while Larson yelled at her and beat the demon out of her with a Bible. It was all very dramatic. A reporter asked why this same evil spirit kept coming back. Larson had to admit that sometimes people do get—repossessed. Turns out that chick was faking it. Larson used her as a plant.
Because religious experience is by definition personal, alternately awesome and ambiguous, and sometimes deceptively bogus, Paul makes it clear that boasting about such experience does no good. He mentions his own incredible encounter with God from fourteen years prior, but only in the third person and only to demonstrate how his rivals have nothing on him. “You’ve exorcised a demon? So what, I’ve been to heaven!” But the way Paul talks about it displays his obvious discomfort. “I sound like a madman bragging like this,” he said. Any divine encounter is never our own doing. It is always an act of God. It’s no indication of anybody’s superior faith or spirituality—which is why you can’t brag about it. Recall that when Paul first encountered Jesus, Paul was a murderous, sanctimonious Pharisee Hardly a badge of Christian maturity. His former successful self at the time of his Damascus Road experience came to horrify him so much that Paul referred to it as nothing but excrement in comparison to knowing Christ.
Even so, some of that Pharisaic crap apparently still clung to his soul. The old self is tough to exterminate no matter how powerful the conversion. Paul may not want to brag about it, but he is tempted. He admits that having people view you as tight with God can actually pull you away from God by making you feel important and righteous. My wife likes to tell the story of meeting with our wedding photographer. As we went over the details of what we wanted done, the photographer noted how there was a minister over at Park Street Church in Boston also named Daniel Harrell. Dawn replied that, yes, this was the same guy. Now usually when somebody on the outside learns that I’m a minister, the reaction is something akin to finding out I have bird flu. Yet every now and then there is a different reaction. The photographer, for whatever reason, looked at me and said, “You’re the Daniel Harrell?” Talking about getting all righteous, I’ve milked that one for years (obviously), which is probably why God has never allowed me a religious experience as powerful as Paul’s.
It can go to your head. So much so that God had to make sure that after Paul checked out heaven he stayed grounded on earth. His religious experience inspired courage and faith, of which Paul would need plenty given all that he suffered. But still, just in case he got cocky, verse 7, “there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.” Now the nature of this metaphorical thorn has kept scholars busy for centuries. Conjecture has run the gamut from the physical to the psychological. Some have thought it a reference to Paul’s opponents whom Paul labeled servants of Satan. They were certainly a pain in the neck. But Paul fought against them. This servant of Satan Paul accepts. It’s a demon that goes un-exorcised.
Why? Because it was a messenger of Satan given by God. Like in the Old Testament story of Job, God unleashes Satan to keep Paul humble and weak. Why? So that no one could ever attribute any of Paul’s achievements—be it spreading the gospel or writing much of the New Testament—to Paul’s own talents. No one could ever call it a farce or a fake or something Paul made up either. That’s because nobody deciding to launch a world religion would ever get it off the ground using Paul’s methods. Setting yourself up for imprisonment and floggings, putting yourself in constant danger and controversy; all with meager financial backing and no power or popularity, throw in an ugly face and poor communication skills: it’s a recipe for human disaster—making it the surefire recipe for divine success.
The 4th century church father John Chrysostom went so far as to say we all need the devil. “Say that there are two athletes pitted against a single adversary,” he wrote. “One athlete is consumed with gluttony, he is unprepared, void of strength, nerveless. But the other is diligent, of good habit, passing his time in the wrestling school, in many gymnastic exercises, and exhibiting all the practice that bears upon the contest. Now if you take away the one adversary, which of the two athletes is injured? The slothful and unprepared, or the earnest one who has toiled so much? It is quite clear that it is the earnest one. The slothful was destined to fall anyway, due to his slothfulness. The earnest, however, with no one against whom to wield his training, deteriorates into a good-for-nothing thraniopatata (which is Greek for couch potato).” Chrysostom asserted that if all you ever do is scrimmage in life, your faith gets fat. You need an opponent; you need trouble and hardship to keep spiritually sharp.
Whatever religious heights you’ve experienced, you know that it’s the valleys that always draw you nearest to God. Christian faith emerges out of the depths of failure and suffering, out of those desperate moments when “God, if you are there…” gets spoken by even by the most cynical skeptic. By unleashing Satan on Paul, Paul gets the Jesus treatment. God’s unleashing Satan to haunt Jesus in the desert grounded Christ for the unfathomable task that lay before him. Satan would show up throughout Jesus’ sojourn, in the tempting words of Peter, in that tempting moment at Gethsemane where Jesus prayed three times for some other way to pay for the sins of the world.
Like Jesus in that garden, Paul prayed three times too: “I pleaded with the Lord to take this thorn away from me,” he says. But as God answered Christ then so Christ answered Paul now: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” The way of the cross is the way of life. The temptation is always to bypass the cross and rely instead on the religious laurels of good behavior or spiritual experience or doctrinal allegiance; to rely on popularity, wealth, charisma and power as better ways save the world. These are the temptations of Satan.
And yet these very temptations can draw us closer to God. It is the Jesus treatment. To trust the Lord and follow Christ exposes you to all kinds of trouble. The more serious you get about being salt and light in the world, the more devoted you become to mission and to justice and to doing right, the more concerned you get for the least and the lost; the more stubborn you get about forgiving those who don’t want your forgiveness and loving those who’ve hurt you, the more determined you get about shining light into darkness, the more you will suffer for it.
Yet if you have ever suffered for these things; if you’ve ever put yourself out there for the sake of Christ and the gospel, then you know that power of weakness, that spiritual force, that joy of obedience that energizes you to put yourself out there even further. Which is why Paul can incredibly declare: “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”
I wonder if we’ll ever really get this? I spent some time recently with some pastors of larger churches nearby at one of the local country clubs. It was good to meet other ministers and be reminded about how we’re all on the same team, and helpful to hear how others are struggling with similar concerns we struggle with here at Colonial. Concerns such as attracting new members, building community amidst crowds, recruiting volunteers and running effective programs—problems we’d all figure out in one way or another. However I must admit (here comes the cynicism), it all sounded so much like managing a religious Mall of America, designing products and services for personal spiritual improvement—the kind of consumerist Christianity I was so cynical about last Sunday.
On the other hand, I’ve had the chance to meet with other ministers from much smaller churches, little nickel and dime operations with meager attendance on Sundays which can barely support a pastor. But rather than talking about fixing their facilities or putting together a smoother operation for Jesus, all these poor little churches could talk about was how they were going to usher in citywide revival and turn the world upside down for Christ. OK, so I’m cynical about that too, but I have to admit, it did sound more genuinely Christian. And I know for sure that if God ever shows up in the ways they expect, then we’ll know it’s God because no way those weak little churches will ever pull that off by their own power.
The bread and wine of communion provides a tasteful reminder of power made perfect in weakness. The bread is store-bought from Jerry’s and the wine is diluted grape juice, but for us they are the very body and blood of Christ shed for the world. May this be your religious experience—assuring you that whatever success you suffer in life, everybody will know that it is God who did it, because no way could you have ever pulled it off yourself.