Friday, July 23, 2010

Personal vs. Experiential

First of all, if you've never done it, go to William Lane Craig's Reasonable Faith website and start catching up on all that you're missing. He's got blog posts, podcasts, full lectures and articles galore. Unless you are independently wealthy and live in the mountains with nothing to do and no friends, you will never be able to consume all of his stuff. But, no matter your schedule or life stage, you'll only be better off for whatever of Craig's you are able to consume. He's sharp, spiritually insightful, winsome, very well-rounded and worth every bit of time you can give to him.

OK, enough gushing.

We Evangelicals are fond of emphasizing that a person ought to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. But what does that really mean? I think, for a lot of people, it means that we should have a relationship with Jesus that is similar to the relationships that we have with other people. In certain respects, this is true. I should feel free to express my feelings and emotions with Jesus as freely and openly as I can share them with my wife.

[I'll now start using the term relationship with God, implying that Jesus is God and that I intend Him, the Father and the Holy Spirit when I use the term.]

But there is a bit of a problem with the comparison. When I say something honoring or disrespectful to my wife, something in jest or with harshness to my son, something pleasant or offensive to another person, such things often result in an immediate response that is physically and/or verbally manifested and that often results in further conversation (or an immediate cessation of the same). But we don't—at least I don't—experience this in our relationship with God. There is no physical aspect to my personal relationship with God and He certainly doesn't communicate verbally with me in the same way that my wife, my son or my neighbors do. For example, I don't go back and read old letters and cards that my wife wrote or narratives that others wrote about my wife and mediate on them in hopes to better understand who she is and what she wants from me. But I do that with God. So, I think there is a bit of a disconnect between our blanket usage of the term, personal, and what we are intending to say when we use it.

In a recent podcast, a newly converted atheist asked just how she was to understand this personal relationship that she now had with God. I was expecting Craig to give something like the standard line that we often hear. Instead, he took a totally different approach to explaining the personal aspects of our relationship with God. Here are some of the things he put in the personal category:

-Individual reconciliation with God
-Peace with God
-Forgiveness from God
-Connection with God (no longer estranged)
-Adoption by God

Not what we're used to hearing when we talk about a personal relationship, right? All of the standard things that we intend when we use the word, personal, Craig put into the category of our experiential relationship with God. But this experiential relationship is decidedly different than what we experience with others due to the fact that God is immaterial and utterly transcendent. The experiential is a vital component to our relationship with Him but we shouldn't compare it to our experiential relationship with others and we should not confuse it with our personal relationship. The personal refers to our individual, positional standing before God while the experiential refers to our communication and interaction with Him, which is based on that individual, positional standing. Clear and beautiful. Furthermore, Craig emphasized that all of the personal, objective realities are true for believers, whether we feel them experientially or not, which is deeply encouraging when it seems that our experiential relationship with God isn't as dynamic as we think it should be.

Thank you, Dr. Craig.

1 comment:

Gypmar said...

This was my biggest beef growing up in church; everyone told me I should have a personal relationship with Jesus, but no one ever said what that actually meant! It drove me so crazy that I finally gave up trying to figure out what they were talking about. I suspected they didn't even know what they were talking about. I decided that I would pray and read my Bible and try to follow Jesus and just hope for the best when it came to the "personal relationship" part.

So thanks for sharing these thoughts. To this day I remember one particularly frustrating high school Sunday School hour when this is EXACTLY the discussion I was looking for.