Religious or spiritual experience has been treated with some disdain within much of the evangelical Christian church during the decades that I have been a part of it. I’ve often heard that you can not base your faith on religious experiences; they can’t be trusted. Our faith must have its basis in Scripture, I’ve been told. Although I understand the reasoning behind these statements, I’m not sure that these opinions fit with what we see in Scripture. So, today, I’ve decided I shall ponder through the subject with you, on my blog. (Hang on. The ride might get bumpy.)
Let’s start with the Apostle Paul. He knew Scripture very well and was committed to following its direction, in line with the theology and doctrine that he had been taught under. It was this that motivated him to be traveling the road to Damascus that fateful day, when his travel was interrupted by…a religious experience. That religious experience was followed by another experience a few days later. From that point on, this man was never the same. What changed him? Was it proper instruction in the Scripture that brought such a transformation that this man would now risk his life for his new found faith? No. It was actually the opposite. It was his experience that transformed his view of the Scripture, which he already knew. Scripture did not influence his experience. His experience influenced his view of Scripture.
Similarly, when Paul was headed to Jerusalem for his final visit there, prophetic words were given multiple times during his journey that warned of the danger he would face there. His friends pleaded with Paul not to go. He refused to be dissuaded. Why? Because he was following the direction he saw outlined in Scripture? No. In Acts 20:22, Paul tells why he insists on going to Jerusalem in spite of the warnings, “…compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem…” He felt or heard something in his spirit that was so strong in ‘experience’ that it outweighed the fear of imprisonment and the tearful begging of his friends.
Jesus himself tells us that we must be ‘born again’, born of the Spirit. We must have a ‘spiritual experience’ in order to enter into the experience of eternal life. Now what that experience looks and feels like may, and will, vary for every person. It may be as dramatic as that of the Apostle Paul or it may be an experience in which one doesn’t even recognize it, until they look backwards and see that a gradual transformation has taken place. Nevertheless, there is an identifiable experience.
One of the reasons for my own pondering on the subject is how strongly my own faith is based in experience. My understanding and views of Scripture have grown and changed over the years, but my unmovable, unchangeable foundation has been my experience of interaction with my God. My faith is not based in Scripture, for it was not Scripture that transformed me or has sustained me. God has ‘used’ Scripture to speak to me, to bring refreshment to my spirit, to correct and teach me, but all this was done via His Spirit in experiential ways.
When I hear teaching and preaching of the Scripture, I must ‘judge’ it; for words only have the meaning that you apply. Their meaning must be interpreted. ‘Love your neighbor’ the commandment says, and the wise man asks, ‘Who is my neighbor?’ He understood that we could each interpret those words differently based on our understanding of the words ‘love’ and ‘neighbor’.
So, on what basis shall I judge and interpret Scripture and the teaching of Scripture? I have judged it based on my interaction, my experience, in relationship with my God. I test the spirits by the Spirit. Is there room for error in this? Most certainly. But as Paul’s view of Scripture was transformed by the Spirit of Christ who dwelt within him, why should ours be directed otherwise?
I was asked recently how we could know the true character of God, except by the truth of Scripture. I’ve been thinking on that. Again, for myself, I must say that Scripture simply validates my experience of God’s character and perhaps has shed additional light upon it. My strongest basis for my trust in his character does not come from my faith in Scripture, however, for my knowledge of and trust in his character existed prior to my study of Scripture. I ‘experienced’ his love and his holiness and his goodness and his power within my own spirit. And, if I am to be truly honest, it is the reality of that experience, that never fades, but only grows stronger as I walk with Him, that is the basis of my faith in my God, my Lord Jesus.
Do I trust in and rely on the written word of God? Absolutely!! But I also understand its frailties in the hands of men. And I see many who are ‘weak in faith’ not from lack of Biblical knowledge, but lack of spiritual experience. We are to seek ‘Him’, not knowledge of Him. Scripture is ‘God breathed’; it comes from Him, but it is not ‘Him’. We must be careful not to make it what it is not.
(OK. Go ahead. Tear it apart. Just trying to be honest with myself. I am open to reproof.)