Opening to New Experiences (Avoiding Superficial Spirituality Part 9)

Summer Water Drop WaLP tangledwing

“Do not measure yourself by how much road you have covered thus far; rather measure with your eyes set on how much more there is in front of you.” (Jeanne Guyon wrote this to her cousin François Fénelon)

For the last few weeks we’ve been talking about things that influence our spiritual depth: a sense of wonder, widening the parameters of what we believe, letting go of the familiar, assessing the actual “spiritual” nature of our faith as opposed to “soulish,” etc. Here I’d like to propose that…

To go deeper in God we have to be open to new experiences with God.

Fear is not a good reason to stay in the shallow end of your faith. Remember how you feared to even try the water at first? Thank God you overcame your fear and took the risk. Now I encourage you to venture out into deeper water and let the Spirit teach you how to swim.

Another reason we fail to dive deeper into God is we don’t have categories for what we might find there, no experiences to attach it to. Let me offer a few examples of what I mean.

What I might call “social justice” passages in the Bible were invisible to me for the first 35 years of some pretty avid study of the Scriptures. As a white middle class American male, I’ve experienced nothing that could be remotely considered prejudice or exploitation. Consequently, I inadvertently read past the thousands of justice-theme passages. Assuming they had little more than a remote relevance to my life, my eyes simply skimmed over them as I read. It wasn’t until I started spending lots of time with marginalized and poor folks that these passages began to come alive to me. My experiences helped me connect with a deeper understanding of God and his Word.

Something similar happened to me during my own “dark night of the soul” regarding Scriptural truth on suffering. As a pastor, I did my best to console hundreds of suffering church members over the years, but had very little to work with on a personal level. Yet when the lights temporarily went out in my life, the suffering theme in Scripture was highlighted as never before. It forced me to think through what I believe about God’s providence and sovereignty, about faith, and about what really matters in the short span of time we call life. A deeper revelation occurred when I had something personal to attach it to.

Here’s another example of what I’m talking about. A non-charismatic theologian heard a charismatic pastor friend of mine quote 1 Corinthians 14, “I speak in tongues more than you all.” Shockingly, he asked my friend, “Is that in the Bible?” Here was a man who could talk Scripture circles around the less-scholarly pastor, but because he hadn’t experienced “spiritual language” for himself he didn’t have a category for that verse that he had undoubtedly read past many times. If he were to experience it for himself all those passages where “tongues” is mentioned would undoubtedly come alive to him.

I have a young friend who had been warned all her life against those crazy charismatics and their so-called “gifts of the Spirit.” One day when she was praying with a friend the Spirit gave her a very specific mental image (you might call it a vision), that when she shared it he was dumfounded by its accuracy and relevance. Though she’d grown up in the church and knew the Bible quite well, she had no idea what this was. When she asked me about it we turned to the Word and concluded it was much more common than she realized.

In each case, the experience, whether sought or involuntarily imposed, came before understanding the Scripture on the topic.

I’m fully aware of the danger of interpreting the Word through our experiences. While, as a general rule of thumb hermeneutical principle has merit, it’s not necessarily always the best way to proceed. Sometimes we don’t have any context for an interpretation of Scripture until we have an experience to attach it to. You can read about salvation, for instance, but until you’re converted, you will have little-to-no understanding of it.

Earlier, we spoke about the disciples’ dullness in relation to Jesus’ predictions of his resurrection. Since they had no category for it they had no idea what he was talking about and were afraid to ask him about it. They couldn’t believe that he was literally going to rise from the dead, so they surmised he must have meant something else. After he rose, their hindsight gave them greater insight. But it wasn’t until their experience opened them up to a greater understanding and they were able to connect the dots.

Of course, if some so-called spiritual experience directly contradicts a sane reading of the Scriptures, we’re advised to reject it as something other than legitimately “spiritual.” But what I’m saying here is that if we require a proof text before we’ll take the Jesus’ hand and dive deeper with him into divine mysteries, we will probably continue to linger in the shallow end. Insisting on waiting till we understand all the Bible says on a subject before we allow ourselves to experience it is a recipe for shallow faith.

I tend to be one of those people that prefers, before venturing out on a road trip, everything to be planned out in advance––the route, every stop, and the location of each overnight stay. I’ve found though that traveling this way I miss a lot of things along the way and places I might have otherwise visited on unplanned detours. One or more of those places that weren’t on my itinerary might surprise me as better than those places in my original plan.

Problem is, a lot of us treat our salvation like a destination instead of a journey. “For far too many, conversion is seen as a birth certificate instead of a driver’s license,” says Scot McKnight.

For my part, Jesus came into my heart before he came into my head. I knew next to nothing about him when he first overwhelmed me with his presence and power. It wasn’t until after my dramatic conversion and baptism in the Spirit that I began to unravel what the Word said about what had happened to me. For others, knowledge and understanding come before the conversion experience, but it doesn’t always have to happen in that order.

Some are so experience-oriented that a well thought out theology gets neglected. Others are so stilted in their theological presuppositions that they recoil at the mention of any new spiritual experience, especially of the more ecstatic type. I long for what the patriarchs, prophets, and apostles had––a sound theology plus a no-holes-barred experience of God. Those two things are not mutually exclusive. If anything, they feed each other.

For a deeper relationship with God I encourage you to both open your mind to a greater understanding of him in his Word and a more profound experience of him in your daily life.

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