Ecstasy and the Journey into Intimacy

Rev. Johnson Dorn, M.Div.

My wife recently recounted to me an experience with the Lord that she had while attending a conference in Toronto, Canada.  In this experience, she lost track of what was going on around her and lost all sense of time.  While she said she could have “come out of it” anytime she wanted, she had no desire to do so.  For some 90 minutes, she basked in the presence of the Lord, hearing Him speak powerful, specific words of healing to her, all the while virtually oblivious to her surroundings.  Discovering that she was “out of it” for an hour and a half, she commented that it seemed like only a few minutes.  The fruit of that 90-minute encounter was nothing short of life changing for her.

Teresa of Avila was one of the most spiritual women of her day in sixteenth century Spain, becoming famous for reforming the Carmelite order of nuns.  She was largely responsible for revitalizing the spiritual climate of Spain in the 1500s.  In one of her books, Teresa describes an experience she had with the Lord where a spear tipped with fire was plunged into her innermost being.  She described this experience as both “painful and sweet beyond description,” and it left her “aflame with a great love for God.” (Eerdman’s Handbook To the History of Christianity, p. 418).

My friend Leigh recently described an experience that she had with the Lord that at the time frightened some people because they did not understand what was happening to her.  From the vantage point of the observer, Leigh looked as though she had “passed out.”  She remained motionless on the floor for some time.  Then she started trembling and softly crying.  Soon thereafter, she screamed out with an intensity that startled many of those in the room.  Some mistakenly thought she was being tormented by demons.  Leigh later told a group of us that she had been taken into a very intimate and holy place with the Lord and was literally consumed with His presence, so much so that she literally felt like she could not take any more.  Her cry was one of overload, a pain comparable to what Teresa of Avila experienced with the fiery spear.  As Leigh recounted her experience, she radiated with a supernatural aura that left a deep impression on me.

In Acts 10, a story is told where the apostle Peter “fell” into a trance for some time.  I assume, in that trance Peter appeared asleep or incoherent, unaware of what was going on around him, transported to an intimate place with God.  In that trance, God spoke to him concerning his intention for the Gentile people and their inclusion in the Christian experience.  Peter’s experience and his incorporation of it into his life and ministry changed the course of the early Christian community, and ultimately Western civilization.

What was it that my wife experienced for those 90 minutes?  What kind of experience did she have?  How would you describe Teresa’s experience?  Her life was literally filled with similar encounters with God.  What about Leigh?  What in the world was her experience all about?  And Peter’s trance?

Suffice it to say that the above stories lie beyond the realm of what we would call normal, everyday, sensory experience.  They defy rationality and a purely cognitive approach to the faith and the experience of the faith.  What then are we to make of such experiences and countless others that could be called forth as examples?

The Bible has a word for such experiences.  The Dictionary of New Testament Theology states the “The NT uses two different word-groups to express the behavior of a person who is no longer controlled by his normal reason.  ekstasis means basically that a person has been brought out of his normal routine and outlook by the experience of a power or experience outside him.  This can happen through the power of the Spirit of God.” (DNTT, Vol 1, pp.526-527) Ekstasis is never used in the New Testament in a negative way to suggest mental disorder or in a way that describes demonic activity; a different word group is reserved for such activity and experiences.  The DNTT goes on to say that ekstasis is used in the New Testament “to express men’s reaction to the wonderful acts of God.” (Vol. 1, p. 528)  The word literally means to “stand outside oneself.”

Strictly speaking then, what all of the people in the above illustrations experienced was what can be called an ecstatic experience.  They had an encounter with God that was beyond their control and the control of their reason.  They were lifted out of their normal routine through the intervention of the power of the Spirit of God.  They were overwhelmed and transported by the manifest presence of God.  It could be said that they literally were “out of their senses.”  In other words, what happened to them was ecstatic.

Ecstasy is a word and the ecstatic an experience that seem to be confined to the periphery, if it is to be found at all, in much of our current, spiritual vocabulary and experience.  Ecstasy is a wild, untamed word, seemingly more appropriate in the bedroom than in the sanctuary.  If we do associate it at all with the spiritual, we confine it to something found in more fanatical or fringe expressions of the faith, putting as much distance between it and ourselves as we can muster.  We associate it with unbridled emotionalism, inferior to more rational, thought-out, self-controlled expressions of the faith.

Ecstasy seems to be a word that many of us are not comfortable using in describing our experience with God, nor are we comfortable witnessing or observing the ecstatic in one of our assemblies or worship gatherings.  It arouses intense anxiety, objection, and even offense because it goes so against our preference for control, reason, and “order.”  It goes against the grain of so much of our religious tradition, personal history, and cultural norms.  In a culture that exalts reason and rationality and the control that comes with it, and frowns upon the expression of emotion and anything that smacks of the mystical, it should not come as a surprise that ecstasy and ecstatic experience are looked down upon with disapproval and suspicion.

And it is no wonder.  The ecstatic can indeed be messy and untidy.  It is the very nature of the ecstatic to be “beside itself” and thus messy and upsetting, coming as it does beyond the realm of the everyday and the calmly rationale and the easily understood.  Being the result of a higher power operating in a limited space (i.e. our bodies and spirits), “overload” can and will occur.  Someone may pass out (i.e. “falling out” under the influence of the Spirit).  Someone may cry convulsively.  Someone may laugh uncontrollably in utter delight.  Someone may scream out in fear or overload.  Someone may begin to speak in an unknown language.  Someone may shout.  Someone’s body may seem to shake, spasm, or tremble. Someone may lie motionless for hours.  Endless are the “messy” possibilities when a person encounters a power that overwhelms him/her and/or is immersed in the manifest presence of God.

It must be observed, however, that there are no hints of any disapproval and suspicion regarding the ecstatic in the Bible.  Ecstasy and the ecstatic, as seen in the above word study, are viewed as a part of the normal spiritual experience in scripture, a phenomenon neither encouraged nor discouraged.  From Adam’s deep sleep, to Jacob’s “wrestling,” to Moses burning bush, to shepherds hearing and seeing angels, to Jesus seeing the Holy Spirit come down like a dove, to Bartimaeus’ miraculous healing, to Paul’s blinding light, to John’s vision on Patmos, etc., the scripture is quite at home with the ecstatic.  In other words, scripture over and over again tells the story of a supernatural God whose power comes to bear upon a person with the result being that person having an experience that literally takes them beyond themselves (beside themselves) which often involves a sense of losing control and being overwhelmed by the presence of God.  Scripture seems to have a high tolerance and indeed an embracing of the “messiness” associated with the manifest presence and power of God.  So should we.

In reality, we have nothing to fear with the ecstatic and everything to lose by pushing it to the periphery or banning it altogether from what is deemed appropriate spiritual experience and behavior.  Pushing the ecstatic aside may make things seemingly more “orderly” and sterile, but with it comes the adverse effect of stifling the intimate journey.  Intimacy is sacrificed and compromised when the ecstatic is banished or disdained.

We must come to see that ecstasy comes hand in hand with a growing intimacy.  In fact, the journey into a deeper intimacy with God will inevitably stumble into the ecstatic.  What married couple, as they have grown deeper into the “two becoming one flesh” have not stumbled into the marvelous and wondrous experience of the ecstatic, of being so enraptured with one another that they literally lost themselves for a period of time?  What two friends have not experienced similar experiences as they continue to relate in an ever deepening and freeing intimacy?  Should we not expect the same with our Lord?

The metaphor of the vine and the branches in John 15 paints a rationale for the ecstatic in the intimate journey.  The goal of the branch is to be grafted into the life of the vine, to become one with the vine.  In order for this to happen the branch must give up control.  It must yield to the greater life, energy, and power of the vine.  It must be willing to be overwhelmed by the life in the vine in order to be one with the vine.  This yielding will introduce new and dynamic life into the branch, life fully capable of overwhelming and completely reshaping the branch.  Intimacy, or oneness, is achieved by the free operation of the greater power of the vine on the lesser power of the branch.  I am sure this operation is nothing less than ecstatic at times.

This oneness is the purpose of our journey with the Lord.  As we continue to open ourselves to God and the move of His power and presence in our lives, we should come to expect the occasional experience of the ecstatic.  Ecstasy is the result of a higher, stronger power operating on a lesser power (the vine upon the branch).

Ecstasy is my reaction to the wonderful, powerful move of God in my life.  It is the overflow of being in His presence.  That presence is experienced as so wonderful and awesome that I cannot seem to contain the essence of what I am experiencing in my body.  It is as if I am being transported to a higher level or a deeper level.  I am literally being taken into the place where I see and experience God in a way so intimate, or holy.  And, I am overwhelmed by what I am experiencing.

The American Heritage Dictionary offers 3 definitions of ecstasy, which yield tremendous insight into the nature of ecstatic experience.  One, “A state of exalted delight in which normal understanding is felt to be surpassed.”  Two, “A state of any emotion so intense that rational thought and self-control are obliterated.”  And, three, “The trance, frenzy, or rapture associated with mystic or prophetic exaltation.” (p. 413)

Notice the language in these definitions:  “A state of exalted delight...any emotion so intense that rational thought and self-control are obliterated...trance...frenzy...rapture ...”  All this language is perfectly in keeping with the sense of the original Greek word ekstasis.  It is also perfectly in keeping with what happens to a limited, finite, fallen human being when immersed in the bigness of God. 

The obliteration of our self-control is the thing most of us fear when it comes to the ecstatic.  It also is the reason so many of us avoid the ecstatic or try to control its expression in an attempt to manage it.  This is particularly true to those of us raised in the American culture which values the rational and the logical and puts a premium on self-control.  Our culture notwithstanding, there is simply no way around this issue of the loss of control if we are serious about intimacy with God. 

As has already been stated, ecstasy involves the loss of control on one level in order to be brought under the control of a power operating on another level.  It is by nature a super-rational experience (beyond reason) and thus beyond my control (my need to be in control).  In order to experience the power of God, which operates on a level much higher than human experience, I must yield my control.  If we are to truly experience the intimate, holy God in all the fullness He intends, we must guard ourselves with all vigilance against all carnal efforts to fence in, limit or control the ecstatic response.

Keep in mind that the loss of self-control in an ecstatic experience is not a violation of the “self-control” listed as a fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5.  I believe the self-control described there is the fruit of the Spirit operative in a person’s life to keep them free from the entanglements of sinful attitudes and behavior.  The self-control there is the supernatural ability to refrain from such.  It is not referenced to an intimate experience with the Lord, nor should it be used as a way to control people in that context.

Having said all this, the ecstatic should not be sought per say.  The experience of ecstasy is not the goal or the end.  Intimacy or oneness with our Lord is what is sought.  I want to be the branch fully engrafted into my Lord.  In the process I am sure to be overcome from time to time in experiences of intimacy that can only be described as ecstatic.  The ecstatic is an occasional by-product of intimacy.  Do not make of it an idol or an addiction.  Yet, do not fear it or avoid it through control.

The experience of ecstasy should indeed be seen as normative for Christian experience and it is indeed a sad commentary on the state of our spiritual life when it is not.  We should come to expect God to manifest Himself and in doing so we should not be surprised or offended that the manifestation of His presence overwhelms or enraptures someone.  No, ecstasy, in and of itself, should never be the goal of our worship or a litmus test for an authentic spiritual experience.  Nor should it be pushed to the periphery and seen as inconsequential.  It is simply a part of the larger package of experiencing God, especially when that experience becomes more intimate.  Thus, we should come to expect and welcome the ecstatic.

At the very least, the ecstatic should remind us that there is far more to experience of the power of God than most of us have experienced.  There is a realm of experience that is simply beyond our normal experience, even beyond our reach.  Yet, if we will open ourselves to the moving of God’s Spirit, and not fear the loss of control that comes with the manifest presence of God, we may be swept away into a dimension that will enrich and deepen our lives in dramatic ways.

You may reach Johnson at:

Rev. Johnson Dorn
12735 Cedar Fall Dr.
Huntersville, NC 28078

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