Does a Christian Experience his Faith?
Western culture has for years and years given pride of place to the mind, one's powers of thought, reason. What could be reasoned out was considered true, real, valid. And what could not be reasoned out was not true, not real, not valid.
Our fathers, and we with them, have rejected the conclusion that only those things were true which could be reasoned out. For, by the grace of God, we have come to believe that God is real – even though we can't prove it through powers of thought. We have come to believe that God has so loved the world that He gave His only Son for the forgiveness of our sins – even though we can't prove the gospel through powers of thought. In a word, we have learnt to reject the thought that the mind alone can tell us what is really true. And that is good.
On the other hand, though, we have, I think, been more influenced by our culture than we might wish. For the pride of place given to the mind, one's powers of thought, has produced as unhappy by-product a neglect of human emotion in favour of emphasis on understanding. To say it in different words: might it be true that we have been trained to know in our minds the facts of the Christian faith, but have not been trained to have an eye (or sense) for how we experience these facts in the dirt and grim of real, daily life?
I think it is important that you have a good understanding of what my question really is. Since the days of our youth, we have come to know – through personal Bible study, through attending church, through club and post-confession class – so very many facts of Scripture. The result is that we have countless points of doctrine tucked neatly into our minds. In turn, we encourage our children to attend church, catechism classes, preconfession classes, club, school and so cause them to pick up many points of doctrine that all receive a place in their memories. With a bit of prodding and at the right time our children can list the sons of Jacob, the kings of Israel, the places Paul visited on his second missionary journey, etc, can recite whole LD's, can explain what atonement is all about, what providence is and the perseverance of the saints also. Knowledge, getting Bible facts and Bible doctrine straight in our minds: that is where the accent has been.
But we live in this world, and in this very real world more things count than simply knowledge. In the reality of this world it's not enough to know that my wife loves me; I also need to experience her love. I don't just know that the tax-man will pursue me till I've paid what I owe; I also experience that he pursues me. Hence my question: should I be content simply to know that God is my Father, or is this a reality that I ought also to experience? And if I'm to experience it too, what value ought such experience to have?
In pursuit of an answer to this question, we need to be aware of a couple of points.
God has created all of me (you, too!), including not just my mind, but also my body, as well as my feelings and emotions too. More, He upholds me day by day, including not just my body, but also my mind and my feelings. In fact, what I experience each day – feelings of pleasure or frustration, of sickness or anxiety or peace – all come to me not by chance but by His fatherly hand.
God's redeeming work in Jesus Christ provides redemption not just for parts of me, but for all of me, including feelings, including my capacity to sense things, experience things. Altogether I am delivered by Christ's blood from Satan's power. God in Christ wants all of me.
The renewing work of the Holy Spirit touches my entire being. My feelings, too, were dead in sin, but have been raised through Christ to new life.
The child of God, then, can talk not only about points of doctrine (as in: explaining what justification is, explaining what baptism is all about, explaining how church discipline works); the child of God can also talk about how he experiences justification, how he experiences what baptism is all about, how he experiences God's care and leading in his life.
That the child of God experiences his faith is indicated to us by the Lord in His Word. I mention for your consideration three examples.
The man is described as "blameless and upright, and one who feared God and shunned evil" (Job 1:1). He knew Who God was, so that even in his afflictions he refused to curse God and die. But his sense of being safe with God was certainly shaken through his trials, so that he also said things about God that were not fitting for a man to voice. God in response "answered Job out of the whirlwind" (38:1), and challenged Job's comments about God with revelation about His infinite greatness. God set Job in his place with these words:
Shall the one who contends with the Almighty correct Him? He who rebukes God, let him answer it (40:2). Job's reply is instructive: Behold, I am vile; What shall I answer You? I lay my hand on my mouth. Once I have spoken, but I will not answer; Yes, twice, but I will proceed no further (40:4f).
Surely, Job's confession of being "vile" is here more than an admission-from-the-head that he is depraved. The whole passage oozes language-from-the-heart. Here Job's feelings come to the surface. He has feelings of self-loathing, emotions of humility; he is experiencing his unworthiness before God. Notice what he says later to God:
I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear, But now my eye sees You. Therefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes (42:5).
On his ash heap, while he scratched himself with his potsherd, he heard from God's mouth something of God's greatness and therefore something of his own smallness, and the result was a distinct feeling, an experience of self-loathing.
Ps 34 records David's response to his experiences in Gath, when he pretended madness before Abimelech in his efforts to escape capture. In his psalm David recorded the feelings he experienced in Gath, feelings of despair, anxiety. He puts it into words like this: "I sought the LORD" and "This poor man cried out." In his psalm, though, David also puts into words the response from God that he experienced. He writes:
I sought the LORD, and He heard me, and delivered me from all my fears." And again: "and the LORD heard him, and saved him out of all his troubles.
David experienced it himself: God in heaven heard his cry and provided for him a way of escape from the king he feared; God worked it in him that he should act as a madman, with spittle running down his beard while he scratched at the doors, and God blessed his effort so that the king kicked him out of town. That answer from God to David's problem prompted in turn a song of praise to arise on David's lips:
The angel of the LORD encamps all around those who fear Him, and delivers them. Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good; Blessed is the man who trusts in Him! Oh, fear the LORD, you His saints! There, is no want to those who fear Him. The young lions lack, and suffer hunger; But those who seek the LORD shall not lack, any good thing.
Certainly, here is plenty of 'head knowledge' on David's part; he knows it was God who delivered him, knows that God sent His angel to provide escape. But here is more than head knowledge; David experienced in the concrete difficulties of his life Who God was. He believed in God, and so was allowed to experience God's nearness and care. And because of what he had himself experienced of God's faithfulness and care, David was also bold to encourage others to entrust themselves to this God.
This third example is a negative one. I'm thinking of the apostle's words in Hebrews 12. The Hebrew Christians addressed in this letter were (we read) "weary and discouraged in [their] souls" (vs 3). Possibly they suffered physical persecution, possibly it was emotional persecution in the form of derision or shunning. Whatever the case might be, the wind was out of their sails and they felt flat, very flat. They were experiencing a sense of God-forsakenness, and that was painful, not at all in agreement with the faith they'd professed. To their minds there was a great tension with what they believed and what they were experiencing.
In their situation, the apostle quotes for them a portion of Old Testament Scripture, from Proverbs 3. The intent of the quote was to show these despairing Hebrews that they have not been forgotten by God, nor ignored; in fact, their present calamity was itself evidence that God continued to care for them. After all, "what son is there whom a father does not chasten?" (vs 7). Dad's discipline, we know, was intended for our good, and (if we care to admit it!) in fact was for our good. But at the time we received that discipline, all we felt was the pain. As the author of this letter concedes (vs 11): "no chastening seems to be joyful for the present, but painful." But the experience of pain is short-term; "afterwards it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it" (vs 11).
So: the tension the Hebrews sensed between what they knew of God and what they were experiencing was simply an imagined tension; God, said the author, actually was caring for them and loved them, and that's why He sent calamity upon them – to cause them to grow in Him. Therefore, the author adds, "strengthen the hands which hang down, and the feeble knees, and make straight paths for your feet…" (vs 12).
Please note: here faith (knowing God) and experience be side by side. The Hebrews sensed a tension between faith and experience, but God through His apostle assures them that there is no tension. Instead, their faith in God should determine how they experience their experiences.
Let this be clear, then: feelings, a sense of God's grace or anger, presence or absence, is characteristic of the Christian, The Christian does not simply have a head full of Bible facts; the Christian also has feelings and experiences formed by his relation to God.
Value of Experiences
Now the question is: what role may such experiences play in my faith? That is: can I say that my faith is built on my experiences? Can I say: I believe that God is wise because I have experienced Him to be wise? Can I even say: I know there are angels because I have seen angels?
The answer is No. To put it plainly: my experiences by themselves, no matter how many or how colourful, will never by themselves form a solid ground on which my faith in God can rest. Why not?
It is true that God has revealed Himself to mankind through His creation, including therefore also my feelings; they, after all, have been created by God (cf Art 2, Belgic Confession). So God instructs me to open my eyes and see, experience, what goes on around me as evidence of His care, cf Matthew 6.
However, such is my depravity that – unless the Holy Spirit opens my eyes – I can't understand the book of nature, including my feelings. Nor can I guarantee that I have correctly read/understood the book of nature, including my experiences. And even when the Holy Spirit does open my eyes, He does not give me perfect insight, for in this life I am not perfectly renewed. Sin remains a reality!
So I can never build on my experiences, my feelings.
How can I know God, then? How can I believe in Him if I can build nothing on my experiences? God has been pleased to reveal Himself to us in His Word. What He says forms the ground of what I believe, not what I experience. And what He says to me is unconditionally true, regardless of how I experience things. To Abraham God said in so many words that,
I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you in their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and your descendants after you.Genesis 17:7
Because God said this, Abraham had to accept it, regardless of whether or not he felt like God's child-by-covenant.
Peter on the day of Pentecost reminded the crowds gathered around him of the covenant God made with Abraham and his descendants – these Jews included. Said he:
For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all that are afar off, as many as the Lord our God Will call.Acts 2:39
That is: God's promise to be their God was real for these people, never mind how they felt about it. In fact, it's precisely because the promise of God was for them that they were obliged to accept this promise.
And so it is with all of us today too. God has made His covenant of grace with us, and so promised to be your God and mine. That promise is real, whether we feel the reality of that promise or not. God has said it, the certainty of His promises do not depend on anything we experience, and so it is for us to accept His promises, embrace with a believing heart all that He has given to us in Jesus Christ.
But – and here's the point of it all – now that I believe God's promises in Jesus Christ, promises that He will be my Father and care for me well, promises that He will forgive my sins for Jesus' sake, promises that He will renew me through His Holy Spirit – now that I believe God's promises I also experience something of God carrying out those promises! That He is my Father is not a truth that floats in the air and doesn't touch the dirt and grim of this life; that He is my Father means that He cares for me in a very real and concrete way – as He did with David in Psalm 34. That my sins are forgiven in Jesus' blood is not a truth that's relevant only in God's books but does not touch the here-and-now of my life; that God forgives my sins means that I walk the streets of my life today without the burden of past sins weighing down my every step – and that I fall for sin again bothers me. That the Holy Spirit renews me after the image of Christ is not theory that has no impact on the way I live; His renewing work changes me in real, concrete ways so that I no longer delight in producing works of the flesh but rather fruits of the Spirit – and those new fruits are visible, concrete, real. As one author put it: experience, feelings are the echo in my life to God's promises to me. Because God has promised me forgiveness and life, therefore my heart rejoices. Because God hates sin so much that He sent His Son to the cross, therefore my heart is contrite. Feelings, emotions are the Christian's response to the words and works of God.
What role, then, do emotions, feelings, experiences play in my faith? Experience, feelings can confirm faith, but can never be the ground of faith. What I experience can – and does – assure me that I belong to God (cf LD 32.86; C of D, V 9ff), but can never serve as a ground for why I believe, nor for what I believe! One experiences God's care, God's electing grace, God's mercy, etc, after faith, not before.