Essentially what we are getting with Experiencing God is a mysticism-lite where we “feel” we’re having direct experience with God. But how do we know that it’s really God and not just reaction from e.g. some bad potato salad we may have eaten? This is the exact same kind of concern Dr. Gary Gilley expresses concerning the supposedly safe “spiritual formation” teaching of Donald Whitney, which you can read in Book Review: “Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life” by Donald S. Whitney. Gilley also reviews EG in Experiencing God by Henry Blackaby.
From our Biblical Discernment Ministries April 1997 still relevant today!
Review of: Experiencing God* by by Henry Blackaby and Claude V. King
In 1990, a workbook based upon the teachings of Henry Blackaby (with co-author Claude King), a Southern Baptist pastor and conference speaker, was published. The workbook, Experiencing God, has since sold over two million copies, been translated into 40 languages, and has been taken as a 13-week course by approximately 16% of all Southern Baptists (SBC). By some estimates, this translates to about half of all active members of the SBC denomination. But, according to a spokesman for the SBC Sunday School Board, churches from many other denominations have also gone through the “Experiencing God” course, including Roman Catholic churches. Furthermore, there are now youth and pre-teen editions of the workbook, as well as videos and a leader study guide.
The hardback version of Experiencing God (subtitled Knowing and Doing the Will of God, LifeWay Press, Nashville, Tennessee) is an expanded and modified form of the workbook (all comments will be based on the hardback edition). It was published in 1994 and already has sold 250,000 copies. In addition, thousands have attended “Experiencing God Weekends” and “Experiencing God Weekends for Couples.” These weekends are usually sponsored by the SBC, but are open to all denominations. Even the Jesuits at Boston College had scheduled a 1997 Spring “Experiencing God” Conversation Series.
Blackaby’s book and seminars are everything that should be detested in so-called evangelicalism today. They take a purely mystical approach to Christian living, and by necessity, undermine and distort the precious Word of God. This examination of Blackaby’s work is for the purpose of not only exposing it (many outside of Blackaby’s Southern Baptist Convention have never heard of Blackaby), but also because it is a clear representation of the state of evangelicalism in America.
The general teaching of Experiencing Godis wrapped around what Blackaby calls the “Seven Realities of Experiencing God”:
(1) God is always at work around you.
(2) God pursues a continuing love relationship with you that is real and personal.
(3) God invites you to become involved with Him in His work.
(4) God speaks by the Holy Spirit through the Bible, prayer, circumstances, and the church to reveal Himself, His purposes, and His ways.
(5) God’s invitation for you to work with Him always leads you to a “crisis of belief” that requires faith and action.
(6) You must make major adjustments in your life to join God in what He is doing.
(7) You come to know God by experience as you obey Him and He accomplishes His work through you.
Experiencing God is a book that is full of errors, Biblically unsupportable assertions, incredible statements, and story-theology (views based upon anecdotal accounts rather than upon Scripture). Some examples:
(a) The last four of the Seven Realities either contradict Scripture, or at best, cannot be supported or proven by Scripture.
(b) “If you have trouble hearing God speak, you are in trouble at the very heart of your Christian experience” (p. 87). What does this mean? Does God speak to all Christians individually? If so, how? What Scripture is used to support this (Blackaby uses none)?
(c) After praying to God, Blackaby advises, “Reflect on your feelings. … How did you feel as you walked and talked with God” (p. 62). What passage from the Bible tells us to reflect on our feelings in order to evaluate our prayer life?
(d) “Knowing God only comes through experience as He reveals Himself to me through my experiences with Him” (p. 5). Doesn’t the Bible reveal God to us? Are our experiences necessary, and more importantly, are our experiences reliable when it comes to experiencing God?
(e) “With God working through His servant, he or she can do anything God can do. Wow! Unlimited potential” (p. 26). Wow is right! Kenneth Copeland, Paul Crouch, Benny Hinn, and the whole Word of Faith gang of heretics would shout, “Wow!” too. Can believers create? Can they convict of sin? Can they draw men to God? This statement is a gross perversion of Phil. 4:13 (and is very similar to Manifest Sons of God doctrine).
(f) “When God gets ready to do something, He reveals to a person or His people what He is going to do” (p. 31). Oh really? Actually, this concept is a major emphasis of the book, and a large part of its popularity. But what Scripture supports this? Does God really report to us? Does He reveal to His church what He IS GOING TO DO? If so, tell me, what is He going to do next week? Or, what is the next major movement of God in this world? We can often tell in hindsight what God has done and who He has used, but going forward is a different story.
(g) “You must make major adjustments in your life to join God in what He is doing” (p. 38). Blackaby would have us “adjust [our] lives to” God (p. 73), rather than repent of our sins. What kind of “adjustments” are we talking about here? Blackaby often uses this word, “adjust,” but it can’t be found in a concordance. One wonders why he is so reluctant to use the good old fashioned Biblical words like, “repent” or “confess.” “Adjust” sounds so nice and clean. “Repent” of sin sounds messy and ugly. Maybe that is why. Modern wisdom tells us that we must avoid offending anyone — even if it is with the truth.
What Is the Word of God?
As concerning as some of Blackaby’s statements mentioned above are, the real distress lies in Blackaby’s distortion of the Word of God. Even though the book is peppered with numerous references to the Bible, and some of what Blackaby says is supported with Scripture, including speaking highly of the Word and its importance, we charge him with distortion of the Scriptures. We do so along three fronts:
(1) Misuse of the Scriptures
II Tim 2:15 is clear that if we are to be a people approved of God we must accurately handle the Word of truth. The teachers of the Word of God have an awesome responsibility to understand and deliver God’s truth, not their own opinions. On this score Henry Blackaby fails miserably. To misuse the Bible as Blackaby does is not uncommon. His errors are not unique, but that fact does not excuse one who claims to speak for God. Keep in mind that Blackaby is attempting to use the following passages as support for his views:
John 14:26 — The Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things. — “The Holy Spirit of God will be your personal Teacher. … He will be at work revealing God, His purposes and His ways to you” (p. 3). Simply completing the verse clarifies its meaning: And bring to your remembrance all that I said to you. Jesus was not talking to us but to His apostles. The Holy Spirit would teach them, and bring to their remembrance those things that they would reveal to the church largely through the writing of the New Testament. This verse is not a promise to the average believer directly.
John 14:6 — I am the way, the truth, and the life. — Blackaby uses this verse to teach that we will know specifically what God wants us to do with our lives: “Who is it that really knows the way for you to fulfill God’s purpose for your life? God is. … If you were to do everything that Jesus tells you one day at a time, you always would be right in the center of where God wants you to be. Can you trust God to guide you that way?” (p. 21). This passage in not in the context of God’s individual will for our lives, but in the context of salvation and eternal life.
Heb. 1:1 — God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways. Blackaby utilizes this verse, along with a few others, to prove that God will speak to His people today, apart from the Scriptures: “If anything is clear from a reading of the Bible, this fact is clear: God speaks to His people. … God does speak to His people, and you can anticipate that He will be speaking to you also” (p. 83). Note carefully that Blackaby is not referring to the written Word of God alone. In using Heb. 1:1 as a proof text, Blackaby does the same as he did with the last verse — ripped it out of context. Reading the very next line, In these last days has spoken to us in His Son (Heb. 1:2), shows that Blackaby has totally misused Scripture. Rather than a proof text for God speaking to us apart from Scripture, Heb. 1:1,2 coupled with Heb. 2:1-4, is a proof text of God’s revelation which was “In His Son,” and has now been recorded by the apostles in the Word of God. This passage proves that there is no additional revelation apart from the Bible, not that God is speaking to us today apart from the Bible. Blackaby could not be more wrong.
Luke 4:24 — is used as an example of how to use the Scriptures to find direction from the Lord. Rather than teach his readers to carefully study the Word in its context, using proper hermeneutical principles, Blackaby teaches a neo-orthodox approach. A story is told of a lady who awakened one night with this reference running through her mind. She got up to read the passage and, “That morning the Lord spoke to Gail through the Bible. She realized that even Jesus had to leave His hometown in order to ‘preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns’ (v. 24). She sensed the Holy Spirit saying that she would have to leave the comforts and security of home to go with her husband as they served the Lord together. Later that morning, in the Experiencing God Seminar, she gave her testimony of what God had said.” On the basis of God “speaking” to Gail in this way, she and her husband would sell their house and move to another state. This is pure mysticism. It is among the most perverted forms of Scriptural distortion.
John 11:4 — This sickness is not unto death is used in the same manner. Taken as if it were a personal promise to the Blackaby family, they believed that God had promised them that their daughter would not die of cancer — and she did not. Proof positive that God had spoken, right? What about the thousands over the years who have claimed this same verse only to watch a loved one die? Perhaps it is because of such misuses of Scripture that many professing believers think that God has disappointed — even deceived them. Yet John 11:4 has nothing to do with Blackaby’s daughter, or anyone else’s. It has to do with Lazarus.
Rom 8:26,27 — Blackaby uses these verses to teach that the Holy Spirit, “Helps us know the will of God as we pray. … The Holy Spirit’s task is to get you to ask for it (God’s will)” (pp. 110-111). Of course, the passage teaches no such thing. Rather it tells us that, “The Spirit Himself intercedes for us.” The Holy Spirit is not some mystical bellhop from God prompting us to ask for just the right things before we can get them (as Blackaby claims). Instead, recognizing our weaknesses, the Holy Spirit prays for us, according to the will of God.
Another front along which Blackaby must be challenged is that of his neo-orthodox leanings. Blackaby would surely deny the neo-orthodox handle, but his theology has clearly been influenced by neo-orthodoxy.
Neo-orthodoxy is a “Christian” theology which finds its roots in the existential teachings of Soren Kierkegaard and Karl Barth. Barth was a German theologian attempting to move away from liberalism in the early-1900s. Unfortunately, as Barth recognized the error of liberalism and started marching toward conservative orthodoxy, he never made it. Along the way he formed his own views which eventually took the name neo-orthodoxy or Barthianism. Blackaby is not a true Barthian, but his view of Scripture has been influenced by this movement.
Barth reacted to the subjectivity of liberalism. Liberals had no authority — no word from God. Barth believed that man needed an authoritative word from God, but he did not turn to the Bible for that word. Instead, Barth taught that Jesus Christ was the Word of God, and the Bible only a witness to that Word. It was Barth’s teaching that the Bible was not the Word of God, but it can become the Word of God if and when God speaks to us through it. But, and this is important, other things, such as a sermon, or a newspaper, or a novel, etc. can also become the Word of God when God speaks to us through it.
In other words, one of neo-orthodoxy’s “contributions” to evangelical Christianity is the view that revelation to man from God takes many forms. The Bible is no longer the sole authoritative voice of God in this age, it is just one of them. God not only can, but we should expect Him to speak to us in visions, dreams, circumstances, hunches, feelings, poems, novels, music, etc.
The neo-orthodox view is widely accepted today among professing Christians, thanks to the influence of the Charismatic movement. So most readers of Experiencing God are not shocked when they read, “God speaks by the Holy Spirit through the Bible, prayer, circumstances, and the church to reveal Himself, His purposes and His ways. When God speaks to you, you will be able to know He is the One speaking, and you will know clearly what He is saying to you” (p. 87).
According to neo-orthodoxy, not only does revelation come from sources outside the Bible, but even the Bible itself is not the Word of God unless God chooses for it to be. Blackaby says it like this in response to the question, “Can’t I get a word from God from the Bible?” (Notice that even Blackaby recognizes that his system confuses people about what is the Word of God). His reply, “Yes, you can! But only the Holy Spirit of God can reveal to you which truth of Scripture is a word from God in a particular circumstance” (p. 88). (Emphasis added.)
Do you see what has happened? Blackaby is not saying that only the Holy Spirit can open our eyes to Biblical truth (the doctrine of illumination), he is saying something entirely different. To Blackaby, the Bible is no longer the “Word of God,” it becomes the Word of God when God uses it to speak to you through your experience/your circumstances — God can also speak to us in a poem, or The Wall Street Journal, or your mother-in-law, or through impulses, as well as dreams or visions. Blackaby has thus made the Word of God totally relative and experiential, rather than Biblical.
This is pure neo-orthodoxy, and almost identical to the doctrinal teachings of the Charismatic and Vineyard movements. Jack Deere, a leading Vineyard theologian writes, “God can and does give personal words of direction to believers today that cannot be found in the Bible. I do not believe that he gives direction that contradicts the Bible, but direction that cannot be found in the Bible” (“Vineyard Position Paper #2,” p. 15). I defy anyone to show to me the difference between Deere’s view of revelation (an openly Vineyard teacher) and that of Blackaby’s. There is none, and that is our concern.
In Blackaby’s program, this view of revelation becomes intensely practical. He writes, “Your task is to wait until the Master gives you instructions. If you start ‘doing’ before you have a direction from God, more than likely you will be wrong” (p. 89). Sounds very spiritual, but how does it work?: We are to wait for God to speak to us personally and directly before we make a decision. If we don’t hear from God, we are to do nothing. But the question always arises, “Once we have accepted the neo-orthodox view of revelation, how do we know if it is God, and not the devil or our own emotions speaking to us?”
Wayne Grudem, another Vineyard theologian who is a wholesale believer in extra-Biblical revelations of all kinds, attempts to answer this question when he states: “Did the revelation seem like something from the Holy Spirit; did it seem to be similar to other experiences of the Holy Spirit which he had known previously in worship? Beyond this it is difficult to specify much further, except to say that over time a congregation would probably become more adept at making evaluations … and become more adept at recognizing a genuine revelation from the Holy Spirit and distinguishing it from their own thoughts” (The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today, pp. 120-121). (Emphasis added.)
Grudem is arguably the most careful and well-respected Charismatic theologian in the country. He teaches Biblical and Systematic Theology at Trinity International University in Deerfield, Illinois (affiliated with the Evangelical Free Church of America). Yet the best that he can come up with in answer to our concern is “Did it seem like the Holy Spirit?” And, “A congregation would probably” be able to get better at discernment over time. While we are fumbling around trying to decide if something felt like the Holy Spirit (nothing in the Bible helps us here), and hoping that we will get better at all of this discernment stuff, Blackaby tells us that we dare not even make a move until we are certain that we have heard from God. Pity the poor Christian that believes this trash — he is hopelessly tossed about on a sea of subjectivity and mysticism.
At this point, Blackaby, Deere, and Grudem would cry foul. They would claim that while they believe that God speaks to His people apart from the Bible today, these revelations are not on a par with Scripture. That is, God speaks today, but not with the same authority as He did in His Word. So don’t accuse us of adding to Scripture, they would say. But, interestingly enough, this brings up another issue. We find in the Bible that God did speak, either orally (including through His prophets) or through the written Word. But always, always, His Word was authoritative. It was nothing less than a Word from God — one that must be obeyed and heeded. Now Blackaby (and the others) are telling us that God is speaking in a third way today, a way never found, described, or hinted at in the Bible. God is speaking today, but His Word is not authoritative. It can be weighed and examined. We are not even certain when He is speaking. And when some think that they are certain that He is speaking, they still believe that the revelation may be partly in error.
This is how Wayne Grudem explains it: “There is almost uniform testimony from all sections of the Charismatic movement that prophecy is imperfect and impure, and will contain some elements which are not to be obeyed or trusted. The Anglican Charismatic leaders Dennis and Rita Bennett write: ‘We are not expected to accept every word spoken through the gifts of utterance … but we are only to accept what is quickened to us by the Holy Spirit and is in agreement with the Bible … one manifestation may be 75% God, but 25% the person’s own thought. We must discern between the two'” (Ibid. p. 110). How?? Scripture does not tell us.
It remains a mystery as to why people are attracted to this neo-orthodox view of the Word of God. Surely it is not an improvement over, Thus says the Lord. Surely the uncertainty of this system pales in comparison to the certainty of the Scriptures (2 Pe. 1:19-21). Well said are the conclusions of R. Fowler White who wrote in The Coming Evangelical Crisis a chapter entitled “Does God Speak Today Apart from the Bible?”:
“The Bible give us no reason to expect that God will speak to His children today apart from the Scriptures. Those who teach otherwise need to explain to God’s children how these words ‘freshly spoken from heaven’ can be so necessary and strategic to God’s highest purposes for their lives when their Father does nothing to ensure that they will ever actually hear those words. … Moreover, the promise of such guidance inevitably diverts attention from the Scriptures, particularly in the practical and pressing concerns of life. Let us never underestimate just how serious this diversion really is” (p. 87).
“Mysticism is the idea that spiritual reality is found by looking inward [through deep mediation or contemplation]. Mysticism is perfectly suited for religious existentialism; indeed, it is its inevitable consequence. The mystic disdains rational understanding and seeks truth instead through the feelings, the imagination, personal visions, inner voices, private illumination, or other purely subjective means. Objective truth becomes practically superfluous. Mystical experiences are therefore self-authenticating; that is, they are not subject to any form of object verification” (adapted/copied from The Vanishing Conscience; merely using this definition of mysticism should not imply that we endorse the author or the book, since we most certainly do not).
From this definition of mysticism, we find evangelicalism in general, and Experiencing God in particular, to be completely infiltrated with mysticism. Following are some examples of mysticism in Experiencing God.
Blackaby’s co-author, Claude V. King, writing in the Preface, sets the tempo for the book with a personal experience: “Two years before, God had spoken to me through His Word that a time would come when I would need to be free of those job responsibilities to be more fully available to Him. I began to pray and ask Him if this was the time I needed to leave my job and walk by faith. … By Labor Day weekend, God had convinced me that I must resign my job and walk with Him by faith as I completed this new project” (pp. XII-XIII). [Comment: King makes a job change based upon God speaking to him, and God convincing him. How did God do this? Mainly through inner impressions and feelings, even though he claimed that God spoke to him through the Word and through the counsel of people. This is mysticism, not Biblical principles of decision making.]
Then in the Introduction, Blackaby assures us that the Holy Spirit will mystically convince us that the teachings of Experiencing God are from God: “When I present what I see as a Biblical principle, you can depend on the Holy Spirit to confirm whether that teaching comes from God or not” (p. 3). [Comment: Not to disillusion Mr. Blackaby, but the Holy Spirit confirmed to me that what Blackaby writes is pure nonsense. How did the Holy Spirit tell me this? Not through some warm fuzzy and a sense of peace, but through the careful examination of the infallible Word once for all inspired by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit confirms truth in the Scriptures, not through feelings.]
Blackaby often makes the following types of statements: “When God reveals His work to you, that is His timing for you to begin to respond to Him” (p. 35, cp. pp. 81 & 99); “Truth is not discovered; it is revealed. Only God can tell you what He is doing or is wanting to do through your life” (p. 46); “When God starts to do something in the world, He takes the initiative to come and talk to somebody” (p. 66, cp. p. 73); “When He comes to a person, He always reveals Himself and His activity” (p. 69); “What God speaks, He guarantees will come to pass” (p. 82); “When God reveals truth to you, by whatever means, that is an encounter with God” (p. 85, cp. p. 86 — this type of mysticism is also neo-orthodoxy); “When God speaks to you, you will be able to know He is the one speaking, and you will know clearly what He is saying to you” (p. 87, cp. p. 100); “What you do in response to God’s revelation (invitation) reveals what you believe about God” (p. 135 — note the constant use of the word “revelation”); “We forget that when God speaks He always reveals what He is going to do — not what He wants us to do for Him” (p. 137). [Comment: Note that Blackaby is not talking about God speaking to us through the Bible. He is clearly teaching that God speaks, reveals, talks, or invites the believer through extra-Biblical, mystical means.]
How then are we supposed to hear the voice of God? Blackaby tell us to pray the following prayer: “God, I pray that I will come to such a relationship with You that when You speak, I will hear and respond” (p. 90). What if you question this mystical approach to God? Then you clearly have a spiritual problem: “Oh, don’t let anyone intimidate you about hearing from God. One critical point to understanding and experiencing God is knowing clearly when God is speaking. If the Christian does not know when God is speaking, he is in trouble at the heart of his Christian life” (pp. 83 & 94). Not only do you have a spiritual problem, according to Blackaby, you also are in direct disobedience to the Word of God: “When He gives you a directive, you are not just to observe it, discuss it, or debate it. You are to obey it” (p. 158).
This whole paradigm also comes with its own special blessing: “If you walk in a consistent relationship with God’s provision for you — the Holy Spirit, and His own presence in your life — then you should never come to a time that you do not know the will of God” (p. 170). (Emphasis added.) This unsupportable concept is perhaps the chief attraction to Blackaby’s whole system.
Concerning the mysticism in Blackaby’s teachings, one commentator has aptly stated:
“… these people are busy searching for God’s perfect (secret) will and are willing to use occultic, mystic, non-scriptural methods to do so. By becoming so mystical and so in touch with God (their perception, that is), they straddle the line between the theist and the pantheist. That is why they seem to parallel the New Age[rs] (or a better description may be ‘Gnostic[s]’). A full blown mystic (whose every impulse is from God) is in effect by definition a pantheist.”
The teachings found within Experiencing God are a dangerous mixture of Biblical truth with mysticism, neo-orthodoxy, and good old fashioned misuse of Scripture. Blackaby follows and perpetuates a trend that has found great acceptance in many evangelical camps today. It is the trend toward a personal relationship with Christ even at the expense of truth. It does not seem to matter whether a teaching agrees with Scripture; all that matters is that people feel better and seem closer to God. In the process, the sheep are led further away from the true God, and the Word of Truth is despised.
* This report has been excerpted and/or adapted from a three part review (Pt. 1; Pt. 2; Pt. 3) by Pastor Gary Gilley, Southern View Chapel, 3253 South 4th Street, Springfield, IL 62703, and used by permission.
Biblical Discernment Ministries – Revised 4/97
BDM/Gilley Review (4/97)
Thomas Williamson Review (6/98)
IHCC Review (4/99)