Pastor's Blog

Many of my evangelical friends who emphasize “having a personal relationship with Jesus” are not sure what to make of me when I downplay “having a personal relationship with Jesus”.  All I can ask is that you hear me out.

Proverbs 14.10 says:  "The heart knows its own bitterness and no stranger shares its joy."  The simple truth there is that your internal feelings and experiences are yours and yours alone.  Only you can know them and understand them.  No “stranger” to you – someone who is not you – can say they perfectly understand.  Because your experience is yours – and mine is mine.  And we can never be sure that our experiences are identical.  We can’t crawl inside each other’s skins.  To some extent, we are islands isolated from each other in the enormous ocean of the universe.

Since we can’t exhaustively compare experiences, it makes it difficult to assess each other’s experiences.  If you say you’ve had an experience with Jesus – far be it from me to deny it.  I don’t know what you’ve experienced.  Maybe it was genuine and maybe it wasn’t.  I can’t judge what went on nor can I interpret it for you.  I can only decide how I am going to understand it and how I am going to respond to it.

Personal feelings and experiences of God may be important to you.  But they are difficult to use as building blocks for relationships with others.  You experience them in isolation.  So, when someone tells me they were discouraged and then suddenly felt the presence of Jesus as they prayed, and they felt encouraged to go on – what am I to say?  Maybe it was from God;  maybe it wasn’t.  What matters is that you did the right thing and moved beyond your discouragement.

Well and good.  But what of the person who tells you that in their morning devotions that Jesus confirmed their feelings that they should abandon their marriage?   Or that they felt the presence of Jesus approving their sexual perversion?  Or that Jesus told them to abandon their children?  Over the years well-meaning Christians have expressed all these things to me on various occasions.  So what do I say to them – that it was born of their personal relationship with Jesus and therefore it must be true???

I don’t believe the Lord would command us to do what He expressly forbids.  Were these wonderful experiences from God because they felt so warm and personal?  Or might they have been self-generated (for self-justification), or worse, born of darker powers?  The devil is a spirit, as are his minions, and experiences with him are spiritual as well.  Paul depicts the enemy as “dark” and as “angels of light”.  Just because a spiritual experience feels good doesn’t mean it is. 

I can’t pass final judgment on your experience;  but I can tell you that if your personal relationship with Jesus affirms disobedience to God, you’d be wise to question your experience.  Your experience might work as an authority for you, but it carries no weight with those who are “strangers” to your heart (Proverbs 14.10).  At least it shouldn’t when it opposes God’s commands.

But if our respective “personal relationships with Jesus” are the most important thing, then our experiences can’t be judged by anything – including God’s Word.  My personal experience becomes the authority for me and yours becomes the authority for you.  Nothing can be shared among us.  That way, I believe, lies madness.

The apostle Paul never denied people’s spiritual experiences.  Nor did he pass judgment on their origins.  But he did pass judgment on the truthfulness and usefulness of personal experiences.  His counsel to the church at Corinth (1 Corinthians 12-14) was that unless your experience can be used to strengthen others, it serves no practical purpose to anyone but yourself.    

Good for you. You had an experience.  So what?  The hallmark of Christianity is not glorying in personal spiritual experiences but acting in love toward others (John 13.35; 1 Corinthians 13).  Deeds that bless others are spiritual and are what really matter in the Christian church.  Making a big deal of your own “experiences with God” for their own sake Paul treats as spiritual immaturity and arrogance (cf. also 2 Corinthians 12.1-10) – the opposite of love.

That’s enough for this bite-sized chapter.  Chew on it, and I’ll cut another forkful next week.  😊

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