How many of us can actually approach life as those who evaluate things outside our experience? I know that growing up in a conservative anti-charismatic tradition, I was taught about the unreliability of looking for truth through my experience. Experience, it was said, was that which leads away from the truth. Experience will destroy the true faith. You must rely upon God’s Word alone–not the daily grind, not the emotional ups and downs of things that are out of your control, and certainly not the unexpected evil which can discourage and disillusion you to the truth of God’s love.

I agree with this. I disagree with this. I agree with this in the sense that experience is unreliable. It can and will mislead us. I also disagree with this. I disagree with the idea that because something is unreliable, this makes it false and unimportant.

I think we have begun to move beyond the idea that we can approach truth and reality as white-coat scientists who view life as the objective observers. We are beings who exist in time and space. We have no ability to transcend our experience and look down upon life from an “eternal-now” perspective. The fact is that people are experiential beings. We cannot and should not desire to experience life through the grid of objectivity. If we do, we are not only being naive, but we are failing to live the life that God created for us.

Yet, at the same time, experience can be very deceitful and cause us to fall away from the truth of God’s word. It can make us see truth where there is none. In ministry, for example, it is often a temptation to perceive God’s blessing or rejection based solely upon our perception of “success.” Success is defined by numbers of people affected, monetary gain, and the always desired pat on the back from those who are benefiting from the ministry. I have been involved in ministries which I  know were not in the will of God; their mission was far from His.  In one case, I truly believed and still do that it would have been better for the ministry not to exist than to exist. It was misleading people in so many ways. The problem was that the money was coming in, the numbers were high, and there was no lack of pats on the back from people whose testimonies of life change and intellectual enlightenment. This “success” barometer provided energy for the leaders to move forward. These “successes” were interpreted as God’s thumbs-up for what they were doing. On the other hand, I have also seen ministries where the mission was strong, the giftedness was present, the devotion to the truth abundant, yet there was little or no monetary support, the numbers were low, and the testimonies lacking. This does not always mean that God is not present, but what do you do in such a situation. Isn’t God the God who is imminent, involved in our lives and ministry? Doesn’t He own the cattle on a thousand hills? Can’t he provide the support and exposure with the snap of a finger? Of course He can. And don’t we need to be responsible in discerning His will in our lives by using our time wisely? If there is no “success,” don’t we have the responsibility to pack our bags and move on to something more productive? This is possible. Yet, I think of David Livingston, a Scottish missionary to Africa who opened so many doors of evangelism. The impact of his ministry continues a century later. Yet, the true fruit of his decades of labor was not seen until after his death. During his own life, he saw very little success as it has been described above. What if he would have evaluated his ministry after a few months and “thrown in the towel” thinking this cannot be God’s will? This would have been tragic. Then there are those ministries who find that much desired combination of success and missional integrity and move forward greatly. How are we to evaluate such things?

It would be easy for any ministry which is having “success” to see God in the success. As well, this is often justifiable. It would also be easy for any ministry which is not having “success” to fold up the tent and go home. This also is often justifiable. That is why experience is both unreliable and important.

Every day you and I face decisions to where we look for the guidance of God through our experience. It may be a relationship that is moving toward marriage, a new job, a move, or a business decision. We can look through the Scriptures cover to cover and not find the answer. Therefore, we look to our experience. This is okay. In fact, it is what we should do. God is the imminent God of history and we are people experiencing the unfolding of history. We don’t have any other way to interact with it. Experience is an important avenue for answers, even if it can and does send messages that can be easily misinterpreted.

How do we evaluate our experience?

1. Know that “sometimes unreliable” does not mean “always unreliable.” Experience might lead to to the wrong conclusions sometimes, but this does not mean that we are not responsible to look for God’s guidance through them. I can’t place a percentage on this. I cannot say that experience will mislead you 10 percent of the time or 90 percent of the time. I think that we can become better at understanding and evaluating the message that our experience brings so that we make better interpretations of it. This is called wisdom.

2. Scripture always trumps experience. While experience is a guide, it can mislead. When all hell breaks loose in your life and the heavens are brass, these experiences do not mean that God is not present and involved. It is so easy to interpret the evil of the world in an anti-biblical way. Believe me, been there, done . . . umm . . . doing that. If you are one who holds to the reformation principle of sola Scriptura, you believe that God’s Word, while not the only place we go for truth, is the final and only infallible source for truth. Of course, this means that we are interpreting it correctly. We must always allow the Scriptures to be the primary voice of God, even when our experience is screaming an antithetical message.

3. Listen to the advice of others. God leads through the experience, knowledge, and perspective of others. The Proverbs are filled with admonishments to look for council when making decisions. Others can add greatly to the decision making process. Their advice is part of our experience.

Well, that is the best I have on the subject right now. If you have anything to add, I would love to hear it. As always, these blogs are always great therapy–self-therapy!

C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Find him on Patreon Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. Join his Patreon and support his ministry

    1 Response to "Experience: Unreliable, but Important"

    • April Carter

      The problem is with trust. People should only trust God and let him give them wisdom and understanding. That way, they can learn from multiple sources while being anchored in truth. In other words, they won’t be “carried away with every wind of doctrine’. They’ll use false teachings as sources of knowledge but not truth. And they won’t be ruled by wrong beliefs.

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