Experiences and theology

Thought of the day: it is often said that we need to let “our experiences rise to meet the word of God”. The premise being that our theology should define our experience and not the other way around.

It is often used when the experience in this life doesn’t meet the expectations set out in the bible – we need to look to the bible and believe the good stuff it says rather than the reality we are facing. Commonly used regarding healing and prosperity.

Question: when has this rung true for people in the bible and when has it not? Also, in our context, when has this statement been used to justify questionable/less robust theology?

Office politics circuit breaker

Everyone who has ever worked in a white collar job would have had to deal with politics at some point in time.

The easiest trap to fall into in office politics is make enemies of your colleagues. Common symptoms include gossiping, rumour milling, backstabbing, taking vengeance, blaming a scapegoat… And the list goes on.

“It’s always easy to play a person rather than to play an issue and if you can find a ‘culprit’ to blame all of your woes on it enables you to avoid actually confronting the issues at hand,”
– Kim Williams former head of News Corp

But the bible gives us a different view of how we ought to relate to one another, whether in an office or at home.

“Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it the the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink, for by so doing you ill heap burning coals on his head” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
– Romans 12:17-21 (ESV)

These behaviours are enacted “in view of God’s mercy” (Romans 12:1). These actions are deliberate and come from the inside; they are not just rules to follow or behaviours to act out. Overcoming evil with good needs to come from a genuine heart.

It might not always be easy but these things that glorify God are worth pursuing and even enjoying.

See also: Philippians 2:3-4

Sleep

Psalm 121
A song of ascents.

I lift up my eyes to the mountains—
where does my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord,
the Maker of heaven and earth.

He will not let your foot slip—
he who watches over you will not slumber;
indeed, he who watches over Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.

The Lord watches over you—
the Lord is your shade at your right hand;
the sun will not harm you by day,
nor the moon by night.

The Lord will keep you from all harm—
he will watch over your life;
the Lord will watch over your coming and going
both now and forevermore.

Nothing drives people quite so crazy like sleep deprivation. In my house, sleep is sacred. Baby’s sleep, mum’s sleep and my sleep. At this point in parenthood (7 weeks in), I am fully aware of the effects sleep can have on mood, energy and life in general.

This amazes me: the Bible tells me that God does not sleep. He emphasizes the point by repeating it twice. “he… will not slumber; indeed, he… will neither slumber nor sleep.” And the reason for God doing so is for our good. Look at the poetry in this Psalm, each paragraph begins with what God will do:

  • He will not let your foot slip
  • The Lord watches over you
  • The Lord will keep you from all harm

Just take a moment and take that in. The all-powerful, all-knowing, all-supreme God, creator of the universe, does not need sleep and he stays awake for your good.

That there is God glorifying Himself because He is all glorifying. But that’s not all.

Psalm 127:1-2
Unless the Lord builds the house,
the builders labor in vain.
Unless the Lord watches over the city,
the guards stand watch in vain.
In vain you rise early
and stay up late,
toiling for food to eat—
for he grants sleep to those he loves.

God grants sleep. We can’t (and don’t) sleep on our own strength. It is God given. It is His grace.

I’ll never take sleep for granted again.

Come, Thou Fount Of Every Blessing

Come, Thou Fount of every blessing,
Tune my heart to sing Thy grace;
Streams of mercy, never ceasing,
Call for songs of loudest praise.
Teach me some melodious sonnet,
Sung by flaming tongues above.
Praise the mount, I’m fixed upon it,
Mount of Thy redeeming love.

Sorrowing I shall be in spirit,
Till released from flesh and sin,
Yet from what I do inherit,
Here Thy praises I’ll begin;
Here I raise my Ebenezer;
Here by Thy great help I’ve come;
And I hope, by Thy good pleasure,
Safely to arrive at home.

Jesus sought me when a stranger,
Wandering from the fold of God;
He, to rescue me from danger,
Interposed His precious blood;
How His kindness yet pursues me
Mortal tongue can never tell,
Clothed in flesh, till death shall loose me
I cannot proclaim it well.

O to grace how great a debtor
Daily I’m constrained to be!
Let Thy goodness, like a fetter,
Bind my wandering heart to Thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it,
Seal it for Thy courts above.

O that day when freed from sinning,
I shall see Thy lovely face;
Clothèd then in blood washed linen
How I’ll sing Thy sovereign grace;
Come, my Lord, no longer tarry,
Take my ransomed soul away;
Send thine angels now to carry
Me to realms of endless day.

– Robert Robinson, 1757

Some traditional old hymns speak so much more than modern melodies do. This is one of them. What I love is his honest portrayal of the ‘prone to wander’ and ‘prone to leave’ life that we live in (Romans 7:14-22); and this coming from a pastor, which these days are portrayed as high and mighty celebrities, incapable of failings. And the balance (or scale tipping rather) hope of God’s ‘sovereign grace’ in final salvation.

What brokeness! What hope! What joy!

What you save them with, you save them to

I remember James Boice often saying, “What you save them with, you save them to.” His point was that any evangelism that is not centered on Christ’s atoning work and its biblically-defined results, leaves our “converts” still alienated from God. People “saved” with sentimental appeals or therapeutic promises may join our church, joyfully regard themselves as Christians and embrace our evangelical sub-culture, and even have beneficial changes in their lives. But until they confess their sins and trust the cross of Christ, the wrath of God remains on them. There is but one way to God, and the one gospel He has provided for true evangelism is marked red with the shed blood of Christ.
Rick Phillips

As much as that is a skeptical view of contemporary approaches to evangelism (seeker-friendly methods), I think there is some truth in James Boice’s words. I read the same words on some lecture notes online saying “Theology determines methodology; worship determines witness.” We cannot dissect the methods from the goal. 

Anecdotally, this quote might not seem true but it is worth a thought. It is often the ones who quietly leave or get left behind that slip our minds.

The challenge at the end of Acts

Paul lived there two whole years in his own rented quarters and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with complete boldness and without restriction.
Acts 28:30-31

Paul lived the gospel with no restrictions.

He only had a rented house and didn’t own his own shelter. He was on house arrest and was limited in his ability to move about or communicate freely. He had limited potential to earn finances. But none of that deterred him. The picture painted in this last passage of Acts tells us quite the opposite. This is a sobering reminder that many of the barriers we’ve placed before the gospel are self-placed.