“She’s (he’s) gone over to the experiential side.”
I’ve been accustomed to that terminology since my first Bible doctrine class at 27 years old. The language might be dated for many of you but you get the gist. My teacher (in the presence of the Lord now) whom I loved and whose passion lit a fire in my own bones often used the delineation. Something was either “Scriptural” or “experiential” and ne’er the two could meet. It made perfect sense to me.
For a little while.
I’ve never lost my esteem for my teacher. I could get tears in my eyes just thinking about him. He taught under a powerful unction of the Holy Spirit and with a love for the Bible that I had never seen. I suppose some 90 percent of what he taught me I still believe with all my heart. No one made a deeper investment in my love for the Word of God.
But I’ll share with you the teaching in that first Bible doctrine class that I couldn’t accept for long. I couldn’t accept that a believer must fall cleanly into one category or the other: the Scriptural or the experiential. Of course, that’s why I had critics counting me among the experiential crowd 15 years ago but I’ll be forthright with you. The criticism, no matter how mean-spirited it got, was worth enduring because I was not about to let somebody convince me that Scripture and experience were always mutually exclusive. I wanted them both. I wanted to thrill to the Word of God with everything in me AND I wanted to experience the presence of Christ as palpably as He’d permit me.
I would not deny for a moment that there are people in the wide stretch of Christendom who rely strictly on experience and rarely if ever open their Bibles. I also have no doubt that many study their Bibles but never have what they’d qualify as an “experiential” encounter with the Holy Spirit. But there is another category and it is chock full of people who have devoted their entire lives to the study of Scripture and could also testify to rich experiential encounters with Christ. They are not the either-or’s. They have known both.
They are people who would not dream of giving their experience the same weight as the Scriptures. They know full well that it doesn’t mean everything. But must it mean nothing??
Does the Word of God itself not validate experiencing the presence of God?
Every time the living words of Scripture seem to leap off the page into the reality of our present challenge, are we not experiencing God?
Every time our pastors or teachers bring a word that causes the blood to flow hot through our veins – in the terminology of 1 Thessalonians 1:5 “in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction” – are we not experiencing God?
Every time we are overwhelmed with fresh conviction and we experience true repentance, are we not experiencing God?
In those moments when we’re brokenhearted and bewildered and we suddenly feel embraced by His love and assured of our chosenness, are we not experiencing God?
In our worship when we feel moved inside with the sense that His thick presence around us in that place is a greater reality than anything we can see or touch, are we not experiencing God?
When, after striving and seeking and praying, we suddenly know with astounding clarity what God wants us to do in a situation or relationship, are we not experiencing God?
When we have encounters with people that only God could have ordained and had appointed conversations that become pivotal to our callings, are we not experiencing God?
Was the Holy Spirit Himself not given to us so that we could continue to experience the presence of Jesus on this earth??
And do we not keep our Bibles wide open and study them all our lives and every day so that we can even recognize what could be a valid Holy Spirit experience?
No story I’ve ever told publicly has gotten me in more trouble than the one that occurred in an airport many years ago when I felt a profuse stirring of the Holy Spirit to go over to an old man in a wheelchair and brush his tangled, matted hair. Nothing has thrown me into the “experiential” category with my critics more than that story. But here’s the ironic part: I had my Bible wide open in my lap actively memorizing John 1 at the exact moment the Holy Spirit moved on me to stand up and walk over to that man. In fact, I was nearly annoyed by the inconvenience of having to get up and go serve somebody while I was busy with my memory work. They weren’t two separate things. They were happening simultaneously.
Despite the discouragement that being stereotyped can bring, if I thought I’d “experienced” God for the last time, I’d be ready to pack up this whole earthly existence and go home. I live to experience God – in my Bible study, my worship, my restoration, my personal revival, in the laughter of my family that has endured against all odds, in the burst of color in an autumn sunset, in a praise song blaring from the speakers in my car, in church service after church service, in the love I still feel for one man after 36 years, and in a walk all by myself in the country.
I write these words to you today who have devoted your lives to the study of God’s inspired Word and make it your daily bread. You don’t have to choose between the Scriptural and the “experiential.” You can have a devout study life and esteem the Bible more than any other tangible possession on this earth and you can also validly experience the presence and palpable activity of the Holy Spirit. You don’t need human permission to do so. You have the Bible’s permission.
Don’t let anybody take that right from you.