It’s amazing to me how many Christians go through life with an incomplete view of who God is through the Holy Spirit. That’s not to say that I have somehow achieved a full view. The opposite is true: the more I learn about God, the more there is I have yet to discover. I don’t know the extent of my ignorance toward God until I begin to experience him.
That begs the question, how do we experience God? To truly get a view of who God is we must use every tool that is available to us, tools that God himself gave us in order to look at him. It’s like looking at the sun. Our natural eyes cannot endure staring at the sun. They weren’t made to do that. We must look around and see the light the sun makes and its effects of illuminating the world around us. We see the shadows cast from the sun’s light and we feel the heat from it on our shoulders. We can see reflections of it off the water or see glimpses of it behind the clouds, but we cannot look long at it directly.
When I was in college, the great Wesleyan teachers and thinkers laid out the tools by which we see God: Scripture, Tradition, “I” or personal experience and Reason. Let’s start with Scripture.
Scripture – without the words of God written through the ages, how else would humanity know the history of God’s people? The words of the Bible are timeless and timely, enduring throughout the ages speaking to people long since dead and buried but appropriate for our 21st century problems. The words of Scripture are sharp, like a surgeon’s scalpel, cutting into our lives to remove the cancer of our fallen selves and remove it. The Bible is an eternal library of history, poetry, biography, law, personal letters and songs. It captures the full spectrum of human emotion and experience over the 3000 years of its writing.
The words of the Bible are God’s voice, spoken to a particular people at a specific point in time about a given subject, but they ring through the centuries for us to hear and heed the warnings, receive the blessings and believe the promises. The Bible captures the evolution of God’s plan for humanity and the way that people have been relating to him and experiencing him since the Creation.
The second tool follows from it:
Tradition – this is probably the hardest to accept of all the tools for the typical modern Christian, particularly the American Christian. “Tradition” evokes thoughts of archaic, unnecessary ritual. Didn’t Jesus come to destroy tradition? Didn’t he come to set us free from the rituals of religion? Of course! But let’s clarify what Tradition is and isn’t.
Tradition for its own sake becomes ritual. When it’s severed from the rest of the tools outlined here, Tradition becomes a finger-wagging mentality of our conservative elders. The men and women who go before us knew best, so we’ll do what they did. But that’s how we end up in religion and leave relationship. Christianity ceases to be how we relate to God and how we keep the “rules” some legalist created. No that’s not what I mean by Tradition.
Tradition is partly community. Sure, it provides boundaries in which to operate, but those boundaries are based on Scripture. Tradition is how others who came before us experienced God, honored God, obeyed God, followed God, loved God. Tradition is like the lines on the side of the road and the signs along the journey, they give us guide posts for how driving works best. Tradition is our experience of the past.
Which brings us to the third tool.
I – the “I” or personal experience is the way we personally experience God in the present. It is wrapped up in our memories, our thoughts, and our habits. It encompasses our past sinful selves and that initial desire we had for Jesus to do something to fix us. It is that first feeling that something was not right with the world and that we were powerless to fix it. It is the feeling we have when we take communion and remember that Jesus’s body was broken for us and that our lives were bought at the highest price, the murder of an innocent man in our place.
The “I” is wrapped up in our worship, our experience in church and our behavior in our everyday lives. Are we people of integrity or do we fold under the pressure of our circumstances and influences? Do we re-present Jesus to a world that doesn’t know him? The “I” is the first part of us to come to Jesus. Without personally experiencing the God of the universe, the rest of the tools, the whole of the Christian life looks completely idiotic. That’s why we shouldn’t scoff at atheists. They have not experienced God personally. How can we expect them to believe a shred of our own experience, let alone Scripture or Tradition without experiencing God for themselves? It is completely unreasonable to expect that of anyone.
And that’s the last tool.
Reason – this is the rational part of your mind, your intellect, your decision maker. It is your ship’s rudder where the “I” is its sail. Your experience is subject to your emotions and your circumstances, and unchecked the “I” can steer you into the rocks or off the edge of the world. However, with a rudder, you can harness your experiences and sail to your destination. Christians should not check their brains at the door. God never asks that of us.
Some might argue that faith is not a rational exercise. But it’s actually the opposite. Faith without reason is superstition. When you exercise your belief in a thing which is not backed up with reason it is akin to believing in Bigfoot or a lucky jockstrap. To properly exercise faith you need to have reasons, arguable explanations for what you believe and how you behave, even if those reasons are based in experience. To say,
“I believe that I’m supposed to pray for my enemies because the Bible says so” – is good.
“I believe the Bible says to pray for my enemies is good because it is counter-intuitive, revolutionary even. And in my experience when I’ve prayed for my enemies, my battles with them usually dissolve into nothing.” – is better.
Here’s an illustration for you to understand how all these tools work together. Imagine you want a glass of chocolate milk. What do you need? You need at a minimum 4 things: milk, chocolate flavoring, a glass and a spoon. If you remove any one of these things you will not have chocolate milk. If you remove the milk, all you have is chocolate on the bottom of a glass. If you remove the spoon, you’ll have a chocolate glob at the bottom of the milk with no way to stir it. If you have no glass…you get the idea.
That’s why STIR is the only way you will ever experience God’s Holy Spirit. To know God, to be in his presence requires Scripture, Tradition, “I” or personal experience and Reason. If you remove any one of these you will cease to have an encounter with God that is meaningful and satisfying to your soul.
Do you spend enough time reading Scripture? Do you ignore Tradition? Maybe you haven’t personally experienced God in a profound way or you have but your understanding of God is shallow and couldn’t withstand a skeptic’s reasonable argument. Whatever the case, go, get stirred up and be a wonderfully satisfying chocolate milk drink for God.