Ecstasy and the Journey into Intimacy
Rev. Johnson Dorn ,
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
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
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
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.
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
“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
(c)1999 Johnson Dorn All rights reserved.