Experiential Knowledge

Naw, I don’t think life is a tragedy. Tragedy is something that can be explained by the professors. Life is the will of God and this cannot be defined by the professors; for which all thanksgiving.
-Flannery O’Connor, letter to Beverly Brunson, January 1, 1955

I remember talking with a roommate of mine in Bible college about our Spiritual Life class. He pointed out that 90% of what is taught in classes and books on the spiritual life is not actually anywhere in the Bible. Upon a little reflection, I agreed. We began to kick back and forth examples of things we’d heard that were nowhere in Scripture. I don’t remember most of them, but I vividly remember our contemptuous discussion of praying, “God, show me my sin” — a prayer we could find nowhere in the Bible. The real need, we felt, was to strip away that 90% — all the folklore that surrounded walking with God — and just stick to what it actually says in the Bible.

How silly we look in hindsight, all these years and miles later! Of course we should start there; that’s our foundation. And also of course, there are a tremendous number of superstitious fables grown up around the Christian life that actually serve to conceal biblical truth, and these weeds ought to be pulled out of the garden and burned before they cause any more trouble. But coming to understand how to apply that biblical foundation well is a skill at which we grow, and in growing, we pick up a great number of helpful hints and bits of folk wisdom.

God is a person, according to the Bible. Or three, if you like. How much of my know-how about living with my wife is written down anywhere? Much less than 1%, surely. Even if I set about to write it down, how much could I realistically write down? Maybe 5%, maybe? So despite my best efforts, 95% of my know-how about living with my wife will remain unwritten. It will come out, when it comes out at all, in a piece of advice to a friend in a particular situation: “Let it go, man. You’re not going to get anywhere with that right now.” Or “That’s a good question. Why don’t you ask her?” If my friend responds in that situation by saying, “Where is that in the Bible?” he’s going to miss some good advice.

So the astonishing thing is not that 90% of the advice about walking with God is not written anywhere in the Bible. What’s so very astonishing is that 10% of it is. It’s a testament to how much God wants us to know Him that we have so much guidance written down. But as with any other person, walking with God is an art. In the end, the know-how is experiential; we learn not by reading, but by doing it ourselves, and watching it done by others.

That “Show me my sin” prayer that my roommate and I so criticized? When a relationship is going sour and I need to come to grips with my own responsibility for it, asking God to expose my sins in the relationship so I can confess them and forsake them is a great idea. I am very glad that I have the freedom to do that, and I am delighted that He answers such prayers. I don’t need a specific verse to hang it on for it to be helpful.

I have heard “listening prayer” criticized on the grounds that there’s no Bible verse that says God speaks to us in prayer. That may be the case, but there’s certainly no verse that says God doesn’t speak to us when we pray, and when I come to God in prayer, ask my question, and then shut up and listen, well…He speaks to me. So there it is. Is this biblical? Well, yes. God did it with Abraham, didn’t He? Am I not a son of Abraham by faith, invited to share in the Triune fellowship by Jesus Himself through the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit? Why shouldn’t my prayer be a two-way conversation?

It happens all the time in Scripture that God speaks to people by a variety of means; there’s certainly nothing unbiblical about it. But as I coach someone in learning to listen to God’s voice, what I tell them will be a mix of biblical precedent and things I’ve gleaned from my own personal experience walking with God and hearing His voice myself. Mostly the latter, to be entirely honest.

Is there something wrong with that? Nope. “He who walks with the skilled will be skilled,” as the Good Book says, and I learned to hear God’s voice the same way — by being coached by people who had the skill. As I gain skill, I will coach others. This is the way God designed us to function in the Body of Christ.

Of course, if you think about it, it seems silly. Having given His inerrant and inspired Word, God then entrusts the task of teaching His people how to apply it to fallen, feeble, frail human beings. It’s amazing that it gets done, generation after generation. But that’s the mystery, isn’t it? The mechanism is us, and it looks like it will never work — but in spite of it all, Christ is building His Church into a glorious Bride without blemish or spot. A sensible, believable explanation for this eludes us — even the professors among us — but the fact of it is right there in front of us. In spite of all the good reasons that it should not be so, it is so. For which all thanksgiving.

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2 Responses to Experiential Knowledge

  1. Tina says:

    I happily agree with you on this article. There is no way that all of our experiences with God can be listed in the bible or what the fullness of walking with God is really like. The bible also declares that not all of Jesus miracles and wonders that He performed could be contained in a book. We get to know Him personally as we walk with Him and I think I can safely say that He may not even speak to me the way He speaks to you, because our relationship is personal and intimate, yes some things are general and can be applied to all but then He knows us better than we know ourselves therefore He speaks to us and relates to us according to where we are and according to where He is taking us individually (giftings). And I’ll add it also depends on how closely we walk with Him, if we abide in Him and draw close to Him and obey His commands (Jn. 15, not the law) as He instructed us to do, that determines just how intimate our relationship will be. When someone isn’t abiding in Him and drawing near to Him they cannot really relate to someone who is. That’s where you get the comments like “It doesn’t take all of that”. When I hear things like that I just smile because there is no argument to be made, it’s a matter of intimacy.

    Sometimes people major on the minors of the Word of God when it’s the major or I’ll say foundational doctrines that should be paid attention to with respect to truth or error. The things that bother me are when preachers do not rightly divide the Word of Truth or when they try to fit scriptures to make their point not looking at the entire text. I have found that a lot of what I previously learned was a lot of “Christianese” (as I call it) and not really the Word of God at all. Crafty sayings are fine as long as the truth is being preached. One thing I stick to and use as a plumb-line in my studies is I never study the Word of God to prove a point that I am trying to make but I study the Word of God to find truth. The moment I find that I am getting off of that I back off and re-approach the Word to seek truth. Then I also remain open to be corrected if what I believed is proved to be in error and I’ve walked that road too. All in all I find that finding the truth is my reward and it’s like a jewel to me. Therefore there are a few things that I lean in one direction towards but at the same time I wait on the Holy Spirit to reveal all and remain teachable (especially as it refers to end-time events). But of faith, love, salvation, grace, things that are foundational that I know, I stand firm on without argument, I don’t get into disputes on those things as some like to do.

    I can’t wait until we are truly in the presence of Jesus and able to “know all things” I think we’ll find just how much we really didn’t know. And who will debate then? There will only be tears of joy, and awesome wonder. But until then I do enjoy hearing others thoughts on the Word and their experiences in their walk with God. God Bless!

  2. Tim Nichols says:

    Tina,

    Thank you for your kind words. I agree; it truly is difficult to convey what intimacy with God is like to someone who isn’t experiencing it.

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