in process “The search for a spiritual experience”
By Glen Doss, Major
“Chaplain, I know now I can’t run my life on my own. I need God’s help, and I’m genuinely seeking to know him. But I’m lost. I haven’t had that ‘White Light’ experience that Bill Wilson had. How I can have such a spiritual experience so I will know God is real and is there for me?”
This is a question I hear every day. Men and women seriously seeking God are floundering, lost in the dark, not knowing where to turn. They don’t know how to have a perceptible encounter with Jesus. Many are familiar with the account of the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill Wilson—his experience as he lay in a hospital bed recovering from his latest bout with the delirium tremens:
“My depression deepened unbearably, and finally it seemed to me as though I were at the bottom of the pit. I still gagged badly on the notion of a power greater than myself, but finally, just for the moment, the last vestige of my proud obstinacy was crushed. All at once I found myself crying out, ‘If there is a God, let him show himself! I am ready to do anything, anything!’
“Suddenly the room lit up with a great white light. I was caught up into an ecstasy which there are no words to describe. It seemed to me, in the mind’s eye, that I was on a mountain and that a wind not of air but of spirit was blowing. And then it burst upon me that I was a free man. Slowly the ecstasy subsided. I lay on the bed, but now for a time I was in another world, a new world of consciousness. All about me and through me there was a wonderful feeling of Presence, and I thought to myself, ‘So this is the God of preachers!’” (Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, p. 63).
My first encounter with God 25 years ago was similar to that of Bill Wilson. An atheist, suicidal, under psychiatric care for posttraumatic stress disorder, I was, needless to say, a mess. One night, alone in my car, in desperation, I took a leap of faith and addressed a God I doubted was even there. Later I described the experience:
“In the grips of a suicidal compulsion, I clasped my fists together and silently prayed: ‘God, if there’s the remotest chance you do exist, please let me know you now—for I don’t want to die!’ Shuddering, as the waves of despair washed over me the way an ocean swell overtakes a drowning man, I voiced silently, slowly and repeatedly the words: ‘I will be still and know that you are God.’
“Then when I thought I could fend off the suicidal impulses no longer, I was able—for a moment—to still my mind. And suddenly, shockingly I was vividly aware of God’s presence with me—a warm, reassuring, ever so compassionate and welcome Presence! How can I explain what it was like to consciously encounter God for the first time? Let me begin by acknowledging it was a warm feeling of familiarity—for I had known his presence as a small child, though I had completely forgotten him! On the other hand, this experience was different: I had since known life’s hard knocks—a devastating war experience and a heart-rending divorce—therefore I saw God through very different eyes. I saw him as a fountain of grace freeing me from a crushing burden of guilt; a counsel to guide me through muddied waters; a protector from a threatening world; and a source of inner peace in the path of the storm.”
To those struggling for a conscious contact with God, who are looking for a clear spiritual experience as evidence they’ve encountered him, I offer this advice: Address God submissively with gut-level honesty. The Bible tells us in multiple places: God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble (James 4:6, 1 Peter 5:5, Prov. 3:34). The biblical definition of humility is to make a right estimate of one’s self—in other words, to show a sincere consciousness of one’s own shortcomings, accompanied by a deep respect for God.
Many of us call ourselves reaching out to God when all our efforts are centered within our intellect: out of lifelong habit we try to understand God, rather than simply surrender to him. But God can never be encountered that way; it’s a spiritual experience we seek. Jesus said, God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth (John 4:24).
Some of us first met God as we cried out desperately for him from a jailhouse floor, a hospital bed or a homeless shelter. At that point it was not understanding we were seeking—but simply help. That attitude of desperation, when we finally let go and let God, with genuine humility and awareness of need, is what it takes for first contact—and is all that is required to keep connected with God. Our “white light” experience is only the beginning of a wonderful walk that continues for a lifetime.