Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Unless (Blah Blah Blah), You've Not Experienced God

Yesterday, in Oswald Chambers’ My Utmost for His Highest, I read the following (see here):

“The only possible way to have full understanding of the teachings of Jesus is through the light of the Spirit of God shining inside us. If we have never had the experience of taking our casual, religious shoes off our casual, religious feet— getting rid of all the excessive informality with which we approach God— it is questionable whether we have ever stood in His presence. The people who are flippant and disrespectful in their approach to God are those who have never been introduced to Jesus Christ. Only after the amazing delight and liberty of realizing what Jesus Christ does, comes the impenetrable ‘darkness’ of realizing who He is. Jesus said, ‘The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life’ (John 6:63). Once, the Bible was just so many words to us — ‘clouds and darkness’— then, suddenly, the words become spirit and life because Jesus re-speaks them to us when our circumstances make the words new.”

I have a variety of reactions to this, all of them negative.

First of all, I get sick of reading or hearing Christians say (and I paraphrase), “If such-and-such is not true in your life, then you obviously have not met God, or Jesus Christ.” In Chambers’ case, it’s approaching God with respect and reverence rather than informally and flippantly. I once heard another preacher say that, if we’re not extemporaneously thanking God for every beautiful thing we see in life, then we’re probably not in Christ. But why exactly is that my fault? I said the sinner’s prayer years ago. If I have not had a genuine encounter with God, isn’t that on God and not on me?

It also interests me that people have different ideas about how to approach God. Some say we should do so with reverence and with respect, not informally. Others, by contrast, say that we can freely talk to God as if God is a friend. Both make dogmatic claims that they have experienced God. Both, at times, make judgments about whether or not other people have truly experienced God. But who are they to judge others, when they can’t even agree on what constitutes evidence for a true spiritual experience?

Second, what Chambers says about Jesus’ words making sense to us once Jesus re-speaks them to us in our situations reminds me of a conversation I had with an evangelical Christian not long ago. He said that he truly began to understand the Bible after he accepted Jesus into his heart, and that those who do not know Christ do not understand spiritual things. Now, I’m not suggesting that this gentleman does not understand the Bible. He has been trained in biblical exegesis, and so he is able to make a reasonable and cogent interpretation of biblical passages. But, in my opinion, he understands the Bible insofar as he practices principles of biblical exegesis. Reading the Bible and believing that it conforms to some grand evangelical narrative that evangelicals are projecting onto the text at the outset does not strike me as understanding the Bible. Sure, once my friend became a Christian, he received a worldview that made sense to him, but that is not the same as understanding the Bible—-in terms of its diversity, its interaction with historical circumstances, the original meanings of its writings, etc.

But do I believe that God can make the text come alive to us in a way that’s enlightening and applicable? I believe so. That doesn’t happen all too often with me. But, while an a-ha experience is good, I don’t think that I have to have that to read the Bible and to find wisdom for my life. Also, regardless of what Chambers or anyone else says, God loves me, whether or not I have some dramatic encounter with him.

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