Monday, November 30, 2009

Personal experience must be interpreted by the Bible

...and not the Bible interpreted through personal experience.

This is one of the most valuable life lessons I have learned so far as a believer, and I learned it twelve years ago when I moved to Maryland. Until that time I had been interpreting the Bible through the lens of a vivid experience.

On a beautiful spring day, when I was twenty-one years old, I was walking to a friend's house. As I was walking I suddenly "heard" a man's voice speak to me. I even turned to look for the source of the voice. But I couldn't see anyone. I realized that the "voice" had to have been internal, which made sense considering what this voice said to me:

"You have twenty-four hours to make a decision. I have given you as much time as you can have, and now you must decide whether you belong to Me, or to the world. If you decide against Me you will be cut off, and there will be no more chances."

The experience was so vivid, so shocking, that I turned around, in the middle of the side walk, and headed back to my apartment. Once inside I threw myself onto the floor, prostrate, and begged God to take me, to do whatever He had to do to keep me and never let me go. That evening I called my friend and told him about my decision, and that the relationship we were in would have to change or end. Once he heard what "change" meant, he picked "end."

What I interpreted from that event is that our salvation is not sure. I considered myself saved, I had had a "salvation experience" when I was fourteen, warmly receiving the gospel, and had continued, sort of, in a relationship with Jesus that included prayer, Bible study and worship. But my lifestyle, as so many people relate, was not pointed towards Christ. So I thought God was telling me that if I didn't shape up, He would kick me out.

Twelve years ago a person who became (and remains) my closest friend and a wise spiritual mentor, explained to me that my thinking was in error. The Bible reveals the truth, and my personal experiences must be understood in light of that truth.

The Bible, as she showed me, is clear that no one can snatch the Lord's own from His hand; even I cannot snatch myself out of the Lord's hand. So my experience, seen by this light, showed that I had almost but not quite received Christ. I was, as it were, continuing to "taste of the Spirit," without fully receiving Him, though I surely did believe the gospel.

But what about the voice? What was I to make of that? So I went back to the Bible and saw that yes, sometimes God intervenes in vivid ways in people's lives. How could it have been an evil spirit? I was convicted to the core and clung to Christ -- and have done ever since that day, twenty-seven years ago.

I love God's word, and I believe every word of it is living and powerful. Scripture has the same attributes as God Himself, in a very real way, as they are His God-breathed, published communication to us. There is no guesswork with scripture, at least in the fact that it is published and will not change. Knowing that God speaks to me Spirit to spirit in no way diminishes His published word. In fact, I have dedicated my life to teaching the Bible and training others to study the Bible, to lead Bible study discussion groups and to shepherd others by giving them scripture and urging them to pray and ask God for insight (rather than posing themselves as the final authority or answer) and so on.

When I am writing a lecture, I ask God to give me insight, clarity of teaching, to guide me to the right commentaries, to direct my thinking along the paths that He intends for my audience to travel. I ask Him for meaningful principles and applications of His word, for illustrations that will capture the audience's imagination and help them enter into the meaning of the passage. I ask Him to inhabit the words of each lecture when I speak it so that His word and meaning is what is translated into every heart and mind represented in the room. I am completely confident that God answers those prayers with the very things I have asked Him for.

When I am praying for someone I ask God for discernment for what I should ask in prayer, and often I ask Him to give me a scripture to pray for that person. It is uncanny how those scriptures end up being incredibly apt, pointed and personal when I later speak with that person.

I often pray God will show me what I need to know about someone when I am considering inviting them into our leadership circle. Don't you know, every time, if something needs to come out it does, in incredible ways. How often have I heard someone say to me, "I don't know why I just told you that. I've never told anyone that before today." I am the keeper of thousands of secrets by now.

God has never, ever told me anything wrong or steered me in a wrong direction. If I ask Him, for instance, should I invite this person now and I sense "no" I take that as no, and every time I have later discoverd why "no" was the sense I got. Same with "yes."

Some argue that if everyone believes that they can personally hear from God, that would create anarchy -- everyone would be going their own way...right?

This question is posed by the kind of person who does not believe that God can communicate to people individually, nor that God knows how to help people recognize His guidance.

If you believe that the Lord speaks to you, and you believe that He is the God of order and that He desires that His people be unified, then you have to interpret each life example in the light of the truth of scripture.

Will it cause anarchy in the marital relationship for instance? The husband is sure that God is leading him and his wife to do "A" and the wife is sure that God is leading them both to do "B." What's going on?

Either the husband or the wife has not discerned God's leading. They need to continue to pray together, seek wise counsel, ask God to reveal Himself in the scripture passages they are currently studying, and be mindful of what their circumstances are as well. God is trustworthy, and if both the husband and the wife truly want to follow God's will, and are not resisting His guidance, and are not vacillating (James 1) about the insight God has already given them...then they will come to the same decision together.

Bottom line, God's priorities are not the same as ours, so often. His priority for that couple might be to grow them spiritually as they work through their dilemna. They may realize that moving was never God's intention, but that their marriage needed working on, or maybe one of them has become calloused towards God, or maybe they have both gotten into the habit of making decisions independant of prayer and the study of God's word...or whatever.

When I am down I ask God for comfort and He gives it -- through His word, through a song that might come on, through a friend who might call, and sometimes simply by an inward warmth and joy and comfort.

When I have lost something, I pray and put it all into God's hands, asking Him to help me find it or show me how to deal with not having it. God gets all the glory when I find it. He gets all the glory if He otherwise shows me how to move on without it.

I simply cannot imagine what life would be like without this inner communication with God. It is more than precious to me.

If this post got you to thinking, please leave a comment and join the conversation


  1. Good thoughts! I definitely agree that we need to interpret our experiences in light of the Scripture. However, on the other hand, we need to make sure that our interpretation of Scripture lines up with reality as well. Some people have taken this concept to the extreme that what they say the Bible says can directly contract everything you've experienced in life, and yet you must just take it on "faith."

    However, just as we must never question Scripture, it is unhealthy to accept without question anyone's interpretation of the Scripture, for they, too, are fallible.

    If we truly understand our life and Bible, they will not contradict each other.

    I also agree that God can inwardly communicate to His children. I know that He's spoken to me many times over the years.

  2. Yes, right interpretation will harmonize, generally, with other believers, although, as we can see by the thousands of different Christian expressions of faith, exact agreement is hard to come by.

    The main thing is not to use one's experience as the plumbline, but to see scripture as the plumbline to help one understand one's life experiences.

  3. Well your story did get me thinking, although within the boundries of experience, I'm sure my (for lack of a better term-besetting sin) will be very different.I do think we all have our own version of a thorn in the flesh. To reference the Apostle Pauls thorn I know is maybe misapplied, but the point is, evan born again believers are not sinless and probably never will be this side of heaven. So my thought is don't catagorize sin to the point of wrecking havoc on ones confidence in his/her faith, because one has a particuler sin they struggle with and fall guilty of at times, evan repeatedly and often.
    As for the voice you heard, hmmm I myself am very skeptical about voices and dreams. The subconscious is a fickle master of what we have learned from the world we live in. Evan the spiritual leaders we submit to influence our subconscious way of thinking.
    Rightly dividing the Word of Truth will be a struggle one must engage in to renew the mind and foster a sound mind. I think our conscience can condemn evan when our mind knows the Bible says thier is no condemnation to those in Christ.
    You made a good point in your last comment,"different christian expressions of faith". There are a lot of em!! and somebodys wrong. Kinda scary to think how many that just might be. The old saying you might be surprised who you see when you get to heaven may be true but you might be surprised who you don't.
    A thought provoking scripture to ponder, 1 John 2:27

  4. Some good thoughts in there, Dutch! In fact, it's interesting that you went to 1 John, since that apostle says what you say too -- check out 1 John 3:19-20.

    The approach I take to how many different expressions of faith there are, is that the Lord has something to share through every one. That's the adventure, finding out what we have to offer each other, and seeking the pure kernel of truth together.

  5. the Lord showed His love for Hanna by answering her prayer, letting her know that she really did hear from Him. The son He gave her she gave back to Him.

  6. That's a beautiful example, rethinking


Thank you for sharing your thoughts