Tuesday, August 2, 2016

In My Experience...

I recently had an interaction with someone coming from a Pentacostal/charismatic church background. This person, I’ll call him John (as in Doe), was dealing with depression stemming from an enormous amount of doubt in his Christianity. He confided in me that he was doubting that God exists because “I never see miracles.” Continuing, he said, “I don’t feel the Spirit in me like everyone else experiences. I don’t even hear the voice of God.” John was placing all of his stock on these experiences, or lack thereof. And why not? It had been ingrained in him so much that the common Christian factor is to have a physical, emotional, visceral experience of some kind with God, à la the Church of God of Prophecy.

This is an all too common confession that many, not just in the realm of charismatic Christianity, share. So much weight is placed onto personal experience and feeling at the expense of right theology and reasonable faith. Why do you think the music part of the corporate worship service has become the highlight for so many rather than the reading and preaching of Scripture? Or worse, why is the word “worship” now synonymous with “music” during corporate worship? That’s an article for another time, I suppose.

However, you don’t see Jesus or the apostles conveying this emphasis. In fact, if the story of Scripture were laid open, the norm for most of salvation-history and the people of God was rather unmiraculous; dare I say even dull. Certainly there were specific points in the story where miracles and God’s voice were typical (e.g. the Exodus, Elijah, and Jesus). But the majority of the time that was not the case. David, the kingly archetype for Jesus, had a rather mundane life so far as the supernatural is concerned. It was devoid of the audible voice of God or supernatural miracles (both of which would have been extremely helpful against Goliath or Saul). Rather David found solace in his faith for YHWH. As the NT was being written and completed, these miraculous experiences and events were waning. It seemed even the aging Paul was losing the spiritual gift of healing people (see 2 Tim. 4:20).

And here is the problem with experience as the determinative for truth or confidence in God. There is no objective standard to test it. Unless you submit it to Scripture, then you have free reign to interpret the signs and feelings and voices based on feelings. At its worst, this kind of Christianity is idolatrous because it is the interpreter NOT God who has the authority. Not only is there lack of an objective standard, it is completely circular the way in which it works. For example, I could call into question someone who says they heard God speaking. “How do you know it was God?” Because experience. “I feel in my heart that it was God who was speaking to me.” It is extremely circular—validating experience by experience.

Given my theological proclivities, I am a 5 solas kind of guy (as one reformed rapper puts it, a “5-sola-soldja”). That means I believe in Scripture alone as my determiner for truth, faith, and practice. Even as I interpret Scripture, I submit to the authority of Jesus who demonstrates how Scripture is to be interpreted. Thus faith grounded in reason and under the authority of Scripture is what determines my certainty of Christ. When I doubt, and doubt I do, I pray as the helpless father of Mark 9:24, “I do believe! Help my unbelief.” I do not seek nor expect a voice of confirmation or a feeling of some kind. I want God to confirm and strengthen the reasonable faith to which he gifted me at the first.

I could take this in so many directions. For example, in my denomination (SBC), it is standard speech to talk about God speaking to my heart and such. Or when I preach, it is assumed that I preach “what the Lord laid on your heart.” I don’t admit that. My secretary finds it strange that I plan out my sermon schedule a year in advance, claiming that "you never know when the Spirit might change your schedule and tell to you to preach on something else." I don’t buy that. How do I know that is God truly speaking to my heart and not some selfish soapbox (of which I have many)? Any impression I have for a sermon largely comes not from some mystical feeling from God but through the God-given wisdom of discernment in the moment. But wisdom is also prayerful, preparedness, and organization. Thus I try not to pit faith against wisdom but rather put faith in wisdom.

We are now steering into the territory of the matter of extra-biblical revelation from God. I do not care to engage in that discussion right now. Needless to say, my point is that for far too long evangelicals have placed far too much weight in their far too fickle experiences as the grounds for determining truth. Please be wary of an overemphasis on feelings and experience. Because if you are like me, you don’t hear God’s voice. Not audibly anyways. Even if you did, there is no way to know whether that is even his voice or your own conscience (or something more sinister). If you are like me, you find faith grounded in Scripture to be far more comforting than the warm fuzzy spiritual experiences that seem very dependent on your emotional state at the moment. If you are like me, you’ve never seen a miracle and wonder why faith-healers don’t spend all their time in hospitals rather than crusades making millions of dollars off of the gullible (and often poor) people who place too much emphasis on feeling and experience.

I leave you with a profound song (sorry if you do not like reformed rap). The lyrical theology in it is sound. There are some insightful ideas in it put to rhythm and rhyme. If you don’t appreciate the style, at least give the lyrics a try.

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