We know God by experiencing him

Weighing the faith
Hoepner, Wikimedia Commons

In the endless debates about Christianity it is common to subject the church to a cost-benefit analysis. On one side of the ledger we tally up the positive impacts the faith has had: hospitals, orphanages, universities, etc. On the other side we tote up the wars, the witch-hunts, and other unhappy what-have-yous.

From this analysis we expect to decide if Christianity is worth believing. If it tilts positive, then yes. If negative, then no.

Since the relative value of the items in each column are assigned by the prejudices, tastes, and inclinations of every individual who conducts the exercise, it should come as no surprise that it is basically a useless endeavor. The results are endlessly argued, and participants rarely persuaded to a different position.

Arguments are not enough

Scripture says that at the end of all things every knee will bow and tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. Until then, all arguments are provisional, none are fool-proof, and all require modification, updating, customization, and repositioning for specific contexts and situations. And still they will convince few. That is because faith does not flow from balance sheets or syllogisms — important and even edifying as they may be.

I think it’s instructive to note that when Paul gave his testimony before King Agrippa, Agrippa responded by saying, “You almost persuade me.”

What did Agrippa lack? Was Paul’s presentation of the gospel poor or off-key? Did he leave out a salient point or convicting barb? No. Agrippa lacked an encounter with Christ and experience of God, something that Paul famously had on the road to Damascus and every human being — many for the first time — will have when they one day kneel before the same Christ and confess his true identity.

Arguments are poor substitutes for encounters.

An experience of God

Knowledge has intellectual dimensions, but knowledge is not solely or even primarily intellectual. Knowledge is also intuitive and relational, sensory and tacit. It is instinctual, participatory, and experiential. For our purposes here, the important point thing to note is that this is just as true of religious knowledge as of any other kind.

When Scripture says that Adam knew his wife Eve it implies an experience of her, an apprehension that was more physical — and possibly psychological and spiritual — than intellectual. The sexual relationship between husband and wife has an intellectual dimension, but the knowledge is deeper, fuller, and richer than that. And it is the kind of knowledge that increases and intensifies as its experiences multiply over time.

It is significant that Paul says in Ephesians that this is the kind of knowledge Christ and the church have of each other. Speaking of the union of husband and wife, Paul confesses the union is a profound mystery that is only realized in and fully understood through Christ and his bride and body, the church.

More than argument and assent, the relationship between God and his people is marked by invitation and disclosure. It is a knowledge not bandied or debated but experienced and enjoyed.

Taste and see

I have no intention of diminishing the the good and useful work of apologists, but there is more to the gospel than getting certain facts straight and more to evangelism than making that those facts attractive or compelling. As scholars like Rodney Stark have noted, the research on conversion shows that people overwhelmingly convert as a result of relationships, not doctrine. Doctrine is hardly unimportant — after all, one’s faith must be in the right thing — but it’s clearly not the only factor or concern.

Ours is a God who invites us to reason with him, yes. But he is also a God who inspires the psalmist to say, “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” Our missions and outreach will fail if we forget that. Likewise, they will succeed if we take it to heart.

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  • George Minerva

    I read all about Hawaii, but didn’t know it until I went. I had knowledge, but the experience was reality. S.I. Hiakawa said, “The map is not the territory.” So I am constantly asking myself, “What is it about my experience of Jesus that this community needs?” and when I find my answer wanting, I have to confess and move closer.

  • Knowing God through experience was such a huge part of my education at PTS–and not in the way you might expect at a seminary that was Pentecostal. While it definitely featured some theology around the gifts of the Spirit, a lot of the experiential push was simply that we can’t solely know God through a series of dogmatic truths. Knowledge is not that simple. It involves much more of us than just our brain’s ability to cypher logical problems.

  • I couldn’t agree more, Joel. As a minister of 20+ years, I have long tried to make this point but have found that, here in Australia, we are too easily swayed by the message of the conservative Evangelicalism of Sydney Anglicanism: The message and belief is all that matters.

    On the contrary, a person can know all the facts about God they desire, but Jesus is God-with-us so that we can “know” him directly. This point was so important to Jesus that he sealed it by promising the Holy Spirit after his own ascension.

    There are a lot of good reasons for not believing in God, but I cannot deny my experience of him.

  • Rob

    So true!