The Experiential Christian

(With a title like this, I am just looking for trouble! It’s unorthodox, non-conservative, and dangerously post-modern, isn’t it? You will likely be surprised, so trust me on this one, my beloved reader. And thanks for taking the time.)

I find it so very strange, yet so natural a thing to see how far we separate our Theology from our Christianity. Some study philosophy, like Theology, voraciously, yet to not live what they teach or know is best. How despicable that such great minds can live such hypocritical lives! Yet we are not so far from them as we like to think. As in we would tell someone we meet, A good way to describe me is hypocritical. My High School English teacher taught me something in 9th grade that I will never forget. She marked this in my brain: “Show, don’t tell”, and she would repeat it almost every class. “Show, don’t tell!” She was, of course, speaking of good writing, but it applies to our lives as well. It is almost like we make separate houses for different activities in our lives. We study and gorge on reading and learning, yet then live more lazily than a sloth. We also separate church from practical living, and ideas and morality go out the window when it interferes with our desires. But life is to be lived wholly, completely,  bearing in mind that all things are connected. What you read should cause a reaction in your life, what you say should be a reflection of your inner thoughts, and what you do should be a response to an internal philosophy or “game plan” for life. There must be no separation, if you say you believe something you should show it, live it, breathe it. This is precisely what I want to challenge you with now, yet on a much deeper level. Read on.

Philosophy and Theology have a common goal–it is the desire to give people the tools to be continually happy in all things; joyful (“full” of joy, that is). These also desire to understand the causes that drive a man, what holds him back from achieving excellence, and how to fix this problem. While they do have more to say, I would argue from my limited understanding, that this is at their core. It also becomes obvious that while they agree on the symptoms, they disagree on the root problem, and ultimately on the cure. As in a doctor who disagrees with the last one you visited, even though he is working with the same evidence, and gives you a different prescription (cure).

Man’s drive is to be continually happy, always content, and absolutely satisfied at all times. A simple example is our common wish to be at peace and enjoy the calmness of a beach as the sun goes down, or desire to be as a bird floating in the air. The symptoms of such a desire are clearly seen, and it is obvious that we have not attained it as a race, or that we agree on how to reach this goal. As a doctor sees the symptoms of coughing and fever, so we can clearly observe our symptoms: fear, anxiety, loneliness, anger, racism, greed, self-love, and so forth. The disease, at its root, is man’s inability to satisfy the longings of his soul (what we tell ourselves we ultimately need to be always happy), and this is seen in our endless pursuits of friendships, intimacy, love, respect, loyalty, security, money, and our consequential fall-backs into pride, addictions, force, and so on. Clearly our desires and the symptoms of not finding it work hand in hand and are quite similar.

But of course, as is plain in time, these pursuits of ours do not completely and entirely fulfill our deepest needs and longings. How many get married thinking it will complete them? Most, even if they would not express it, believe it. When it does not fulfill our original desire it leads to bitterness, love turns to hate which turns to (worst of all) indifference, and then divorce becomes a viable option. Clearly this person was not for me, because he did not complete me. And so we try, and fail again. Maybe I just have bad luck. Alcoholism becomes viable as an option, because it temporarily soothes our emotions and helps us become someone we are not. Only to find ourselves throwing-up in a dimly lit toilet far after mid-night in the neighborhood bar. This is all [insert at will] fault.

Or we may be incredibly successful in life! We may succeed in marriage, have a good job, make a lot of money, be secure in our self-image, and have the future nicely packaged and ready for delivery to a glowing future. And then disaster, or “chance” as we like to call it, happens. Life happens, pain happens, failure happens, disappointment happens. And it may only be on the interior. Staying up late at night wondering what life is all about, reaching an age and looking back, and being led to the horrible realization that nothing has been done in one’s life that matters for anything.

The pride of mankind! The futile faith in one’s own ability! How foolish! Utterly and detestably foolish. Can’t you see that the games we play, the desires we strive for are selfish, skin-deep, and in no way can give our souls what they desperately cry for? These are but band-aids on a ruptured heart and ultimately serve only as a temporary placebo to a cancer of the soul.

There is a better way.

I say that the faster a person realizes the futility of their pursuits, the better. Consider your ways, O man! Consider their end! Are you fighting to build sand-castles that the tide will wash away? I say that it is far better to be the one overcome by pain and failures, than to be successful and temporarily happy. Because the day comes to all, and it must be reckoned with,  when we realize our inability to fix ourselves, or for another like us to fix us. To realize we are dangling over a precipice, with only slim branch to hang on to.

Philosophy understands this, honest philosophy that is, but the cures they offer do not match the deepest necessities of our souls. They have yet to be proved adequate. Our souls wish to be eternally at peace, eternally happy, and all that philosophy (at its logical end) can offer is either Epicureanism (Eat and drink for tomorrow we die!) or Nihilism (The beginning of all things is nothing and the end is nothing. There is no purpose to life). How foolish is the first, and how inhuman the last!

Theology promises to have the cure, and I have experienced such a cure. The following story helps to prove this point:

One of my favorite Bible scholars of a generation or two ago was Harry Ironside (1876 – 1951). He also ministered in street evangelism. One day he was preaching on a busy street corner in a Northeastern city, when a well-dressed man walked up and began to ridicule and jeer. Ironside recognized the heckler as a university professor and a well-known and vocal atheist. This professor was full of bitterness and anger against all religion, but especially against Christianity.

As Ironside tried to continue his message, the man began to shout objections. He criticized the Bible and labeled Christians as ignorant fools. He loudly proclaimed, “There is not God! Jesus is a myth!” At first, Ironside tried to ignore the man, but the professor grew more and more belligerent, taunting Ironside to responds to his intellectual arguments. Finally the man shouted, “I challenge you to a debate! Are you afraid to debate me?”

Ironside knew that an intellectual debate with this man would accomplish nothing, but he also knew that he must respond to the man’s attack. “I accept your challenge, sir,” he shouted, “but on one condition! When you come to the debate, I ask that you bring with you ten men and women whose lives have been changed for the better by the message of atheism. Bring some alcoholics and drug addicts who have been set free by atheism’s power. Bring former prostitutes and criminals whose lives have been changed, who are now moral and responsible individuals. Bring outcasts who had no hope and have them tell us how becoming atheists has lifted them out of the pit! And sir,” Ironside concluded, “if you can find ten such men and women, I will gladly bring with me two hundred men and women from this very city whose lives have been transformed in just those ways by the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

As the professor heard Ironsides challenge, he stopped his jeering, turned and walked away without a word. He knew that, for all its pretense, atheism had no power to change lives. Jesus changes lives. (John’s Notes)

The problem of our race is not an intellectual or exterior problem, it is not society, but us. Our souls’ yearning implies there is something that can in fact fulfill it. The problem is that we deny the problem as being ours and consequently blame others or other things as the cause of our dilemma. This reaction is our natural, hereditary response, because Eve was the first to do it (Gen. 3:13). But this does not make our response right.

Our problem, in the broadest of terms, is sin. More specifically it is the denial that only God can and will fulfill us and gives us purpose in life. That is pride, and can be seen most practically laid out in atheism (for example R. Dawkins claiming he is a “fulfilled atheist”, when that clearly is not the case by simple observation of his lifestyle and outward presence). We believe we can fix ourselves, like we can a malfunctioning car, yet trying to do it with no experience and no manual and broken parts. We cannot fix ourselves.

We are broken without the ability to repair ourselves, much less others. Yet how humbling and incredible that while we do this the true Builder, Maker, and Engineer of all that we are and know is standing next to us. Silently waiting for us to give up and let Him “fix” us. He is the only one who can satisfy our longing souls, as God lamented through Jeremiah at the blindness of His people,

11 Has a nation changed its gods,
even though they are no gods?
But my people have changed their glory
for that which does not profit.
12 Be appalled, O heavens, at this;
be shocked, be utterly desolate,
declares the Lord,
13 for my people have committed two evils:
they have forsaken me,
the fountain of living waters,
and hewed out cisterns for themselves,
broken cisterns that can hold no water. (Jer. 2:11-13)

How can one be satisfied fully in life? By rejecting the faith one once had in himself, and his ability to cure himself, and putting this same faith in God’s ability to fix what, up until now, we have been hopeless to. This requires humility and repentance, to turn to God as our only and complete hope. This is where God took Job, after months of toiling and fighting against God:

1 Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind and said:

2 “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
3 Dress for action like a man;
I will question you, and you make it known to me.

4 “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding. (Job 38:1-4)

[…] 9 Behold, the hope of a man is false;
he is laid low … Who then is he who can stand before me?
11 Who has first given to me, that I should repay him?
Whatever is under the whole heaven is mine. (Job 41:9, 11)

[…] 1 Then Job answered the Lord and said:

2 “I know that you can do all things,
and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
3 ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.
4 ‘Hear, and I will speak;
I will question you, and you make it known to me.’
5 I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,
but now my eye sees you;
6 therefore I despise myself,
and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:1-6)

We don’t need philosophy, or textbook Theology, we need God in our lives, working in us and on us. We must strive to be like David, “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God” (Ps. 42:1). We must “wrestle” with God to be blessed by Him, as Jacob did (Gen. 32:24-31).

We must fight to be experiential Christians. Why? Because all of life is lived by experiences, life doesn’t happen in the reading of books and gaining knowledge, it is much simpler, much more practical. Our lifestyle, if we say we want to be as Christ, must be much more practical. And it must be experimental, in a sense that we should not be convinced of something simply because it is told us. The best way to learn is “hands-on”. Is prayer true? Is God real? Is joy attainable? I say yes, because I have experienced the truth and reality of such things.

As Rene Descartes once said, “If you would be a real seeker of truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things.” Find out for yourself what will fulfill your longings and desires. I have seen that we all share the same symptoms, largely, and have the same basic problem (sin), and thus the prescription (or cure) must logically be the same. But don’t take my word for it.

I challenge you to “touch and to see” that Christ is real, as the disciples did in Luke 24:39-40. Come to the realization as Peter did that Christ, who is God himself, is the eternal spring of life, the absolute satisfier of our desperate and restless souls. “67 So Jesus said to the Twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” 68 Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, 69 and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:67-9).

Here Theology stands by and watches us grow in intimacy with God, through Christ. It is the goal and end of Theology and Doctrine, to lead us to the fountain, which is God. It is ultimately why Christ came to earth and died for our sins, “18 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God…” (I Peter 3:18). Theology is not the fountain of life, not even Scripture as words, but Christ himself, God himself, who is a person.

Don’t get caught up with the Word of God (as the end), but remember who is the Word, that is God (John 1:1). The Bible points to Christ, and Christ brings us to God. And only God can satisfy the longings of our soul. He desires a personal relationship with us, to fill us with love, hope, and faith–not simply knowledge and information (although these are the tools to lead us to God). But ultimately the Bible is the starting point (and it will always be absolutely central, unlike any other book!), and a deep and personal relationship with God is the end result.  I’ve experienced this, I dare you to try it as well, my friend.

Much more can be said from a practical and applicable standpoint, but that is a completely different topic. Books I would recommend on this pursuit would be The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence, The Immitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis, and Confessions by Saint Augustine.

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5 thoughts on “The Experiential Christian

  1. Extreme existencialists try extreme sports so they can look Death in the eye and spit at him (it). We need to challenge them with some “extreme Christianity”. Dad

  2. Thanks Luke, glad you enjoyed it.
    And you are right Dad, the US is full, it seems to me, of “normal” Christians. The world is falling apart at the seems and here we all are in our comfortable lifestyles.
    We are called to radical Christian living, and it can only come by being transformed by God in a true and noticeable way.
    Thanks dad.

  3. There are the “outer” experiences of the sensory world of God’s magnificent creation as discovered by science, meaningful and loving relationships and our amazing humanity! There is also the “inner” experience of the Spirit mediated through the “spiritual disciplines” that our being recovered in our times (prayer, meditation on the scriptures, silent listening, etc.) I think the outer experience becomes much more powerful when augmented daily by the inner experience of rich intimacy with God through the the Spirit that indwells us. Our theology affirms the indwelling of the Spirit, but how much does the average believer actually experience the indwelling Spirit in daily life like brother Lawrence and other “mystics”? Consider the rich inner life of King David seen in the Psalms, Daniel, Jesus intimacy with the Father, Paul’s joy in suffering, the desert fathers and many more of the saints. That rich heritage belongs to everyone who can schedule a little time out from our crazy, busy North American lifestyle each day for intimacy with God. Are we afraid of being labeled mystics? As you say, hands-on is the way and that applies to not just acknowledging some vague, mysterious indwelling of the Spirit as a doctrine but experiencing the Spirit’s action on our minds (Rom 12:1,2), hearts and wills directly each day in time set aside for whatever “spiritual disciplines/practices” are most effective for each individual at that stage of their spiritual development.

    I never got much mentoring on how to get started years ago, you were just supposed to have a “quiet time”, right? For me, a devotional like the Upper Room “Guide to Prayer for All God’s People” series and various Richard Foster books provided a painless and helpful format to get started. I’m very sympathetic with people whose lives are so hectic they just can’t find time and are then made to feel guilty.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking and excellent article! Keep it up.

  4. Thank you for the comment, De. Had to reread the article a bit, quite a while since I wrote it! I mostly write in Spanish now, being a missionary in Bolivia.

    Thank you for your thoughts, may we always strive to love Christ and His Word, not to be forced into it, but to enjoy the process of friendship with our Creator.

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