That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life.
1 John 1:1
I am guilty of many things. One of these things is common to every person in the world: I base too much of my understanding of reality on my own experience. As a pastor and an oftentimes counselor, you begin to see this in yourself as you see it in other people. All too often one person’s thinking is based more on their own past experience than anything else, and this thinking is actually causing harm within relationships and within the church. When someone says, ‘It’s obvious,’ it is often not obvious. Instead it is obvious to them based on their previous experiences. For example, certainly in my battles with distraction (as one who actually got diagnosed with ADHD long ago) I could be convinced about how the whole world should be structured to make my life easier. I know what works for me in my fight against the sin of wasting time, but my solution does not necessarily work for the whole world. I may be able to impart wisdom to others, and the thing that we might share in common is to be able to identify a certain issue as a sin that we both experience. My sin experience is only one of many facets of my experience that I could easily define reality by. The base sin in all this is pride or arrogance. I presume that my perception is fully capable of distilling and discerning all of reality.
But life is actually super chaotic if everyone has their own understanding of reality based on their experience, especially as we interact more with people who have had vastly different experiences. The scriptures actually have a clear answer to this problem of experiential realities. But they don’t simply deny experiential reality. Instead, God grounds experience in revelation. The story of the Bible is the story of God condescending and giving his revelation to the world. In other words, to be understood truly, human experience must be understood in light of and based on a relationship with God which is clearly laid out in the scriptures. This is why I have listed above the passage from 1 John: humanity only comes to know reality as it comes to know Jesus Christ (a human being, experienced by others with their human sense). The experience of knowing God through his word and through the person of Jesus Christ (whom we know through his word and his Spirit) chastens our idea of reality. This means that when we come to an impasse within the church, we must take care not to overstep the bounds of the scriptures in what burdens we expect of others.
There may be shrewd steps that we should take as we grow in maturity. I suggested in a recent sermon that we see this example in the book of Titus when we compare it to the conscience passage in 1 Corinthians. Paul tells Titus to simply rebuke those whose consciences are hindered by pure and impure things. There is no leeway given for a weaker brother on the island of Crete for whatever reason. The point is that sometimes, experiential realities must be sternly chastened and other times Paul seems to allow some leeway because there are greater issues at hand. But I would propose that he didn’t leave the leeway of 1 Corinthians for long. They would have to grow into greater maturity as a congregation at some point in the near future.
Another example might be Martin Luther and his reforms. He led a progressive reformation of the churches in Germany. However, he didn’t change everything at once to conform with scripture. Instead, he left some liturgical forms in place as he worked on the more important issues of justification. At some point, the Lutheran Church would have benefitted from a fuller reformation than the one that Luther led. The point is that Luther didn’t completely change his church’s experiential forms all at once. Instead, he addressed the most important and essential doctrines.
A negative example might also be helpful. Many modern churches do not sufficiently engage with the word of God to chasten their experience. At the end of the 20th century for instance, churches (many became what is now called a ‘mega-church’) found ways to get people to come to church through entertainment. Many of these churches (not all) watered down the preaching, the songs became less scriptural, and it became less and less common to read large portions of scripture out loud. Their experience said they could get people to come to church, but the cost was almost a whole generation of church goers who lacked theological depth to weather the storms of life. These churches were not chastened by scripture.
In the end whether we are reflecting on our habits as a congregation or doctrines or how we battle our personal sin or any number of things, we must take care that we discern the difference between truths as defined by scriptures and things that are true for us based on our experience. Perhaps one final illustration might be helpful. It is true for me that I love blue cheese. Just because I am a human doesn’t mean that all humans should also love blue cheese. Additionally, scripture clearly defines gluttony as evil. This is going to look differently to every person. In my experience as a 30-something man whose metabolism has slowed considerably since high school, I shouldn’t eat so much that I regularly gain 10 pounds of weight a year. I also shouldn’t eat so much (blue cheese) that my family starves. If I were younger or if I were richer, certainly the specifics of gluttony would look different, but gluttony would still be wrong.
So let us always go back to the scriptures to define reality. May we cling to God’s revelation in Jesus Christ and his gospel as the defining truth through which we view the rest of the world.