There are two archetypes I consistently see portrayed regarding people of faith. The first the believer whose faith is based on experience, constantly chasing after the next spiritual high and snubbing his or her nose at those who dive too deep into theology. The second is the flip side of the coin: those who discount experiential faith, remind others that the heart is deceitful, and are always pointing to knowledge of scripture as the only real way to know God. Of course, most people are not this extreme in either direction, but these archetypes exist for a reason.
I’m not an advocate for completely experiential faith, but I do strongly believe that we should not discount it entirely lest we miss an important tool God has given us in the process of our sanctification. The scripture is quite clear that our experiences matter and God uses them for our growth:
Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. (James 1:2-4, ESV)
Trials are certainly experiences, and God uses them to test our faith and grow us. Yes, we understand them in the light of scripture, but we still have to experience trials to have the spiritual maturity, perfect and complete, that God desires for us.
I remember when I was going through my divorce that I had many questions I’d never asked before. To answer them I sought wise counsel, dove deep into scripture, and prayed a lot; I cannot think of a better picture of James 1:2-4. I was going through a trial, it tested my faith, and it produced a stronger, more informed set of beliefs. But there were many who questioned what came out of that trial. “Would you hold the same beliefs about divorce if you hadn’t gone through it?” they would ask. I understood the subtext: they were questioning my objectivity. The implication was that I was not biased.
Well, it’s true that I was not biased. My experience ran up against a lack of understanding in scripture. My limited view on divorce theology did not include what I was going through and the answers I had before my trial were not sufficient. I needed to see how the love of God and his truth made sense in my situation.
But bias is not the silver bullet that destroys a belief. If it did, we’d all be sunk: every one of us comes at questions with bias. The real issue is whether our bias drives us to seek deeper truth and wrestle until every piece fits, or whether it causes us to ignore truth all together in favor of what we want to be true. I think it is no accident that the very next verse in James tells us God will give us wisdom if we seek it with a sincere heart:
If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways. (James 1:5-8, ESV)
If we truly seek truth when we are in trials, we will find God’s heart, bias or not. My experience not only helped me to dive deep and wrestle with scripture, but it gave me empathy for others I’d never had. When the subject of divorce and remarriage comes up, I can always tell when I’m talking with someone who hasn’t experienced it: his or her understanding and theology are very surface level, very often parroting well worn ideas entrenched in the church that fall short of addressing all the needs people have when going through divorce. I know these ideas well because I used to hold them.
I admit, I struggle a bit with feeling shame that I had to experience divorce in order to really understand it. I feel like I should have been informed enough and studied enough in scripture that I knew it all before I went into it myself. Isn’t that the way it’s supposed to be?
Well, no, it isn’t. James 1:2-4 tells us that God uses trials to grow us and make our faith perfect. Why would we think we could be good enough to understand everything simply by studying ideas we never put into practice? Certainly the scripture is our rule of faith, but our understanding is perfected by our trials. To deny that is to take the life out of faith, because Christianity is a faith to be lived, not just thought about.
Experience counts. It’s not the only part of our faith, but we should not be ashamed of it or try to discount it. We should embrace it, whether joyful or painful, and use it to study, grow, and pray bigger and deeper.