Nearly fifteen years ago, one of the first essays/papers I wrote in seminary addressed the role of experience in the Christian life. Though experience was probably too generic a term (perhaps existentialism would have been better), I wanted to understand how and why individual experiences and feelings had become the predominant spiritual barometers for many, if not most, professing Christians I knew. As a young seminary student in my mid-20’s, I knew I did not “experience” the same Christianity as many around me and rarely, if ever, did I “feel” the same things. (Disclaimer: That was neither an indictment of them nor of myself but was simply what I was experiencing and feeling at the time.) This troubled me and stirred up many doubts about my faith. So, I began researching and writing. Here is what I learned: when I stopped worrying about “my Christian experience” and “how I felt” during worship, prayer, etc., the Lord increased my faith, my sincere trust in him, despite my circumstances or emotional responses to them. To this day, I am thankful for what I learned by writing that paper so many years ago.

By no means am I implying that experiences and feelings are insignificant and have no value, but they must never be the barometers and/or guides of our progress in following Christ. On the one hand, “negative” experiences or feelings might indicate a sin problem (e.g., conviction of sin). But, on the other hand, “negative” experiences or feelings might result from faithfulness in this world (e.g., persecution) or faithfulness in putting to death the old nature (e.g., the pain or sadness of losing “guilty pleasures”). But simply looking at circumstances and parsing feelings cannot give us the concrete answers we desire. We can only find those answers, as well as needed guidance, if we look in faith to what God has said in his word.

Death – even the death of our sinful nature – might “feel” bad at the time, but death’s sting disappears because of our greater hope in Christ. The same principle that applies to the agony of a prolonged physical illness resulting in death likewise applies to a prolonged crucifying of our flesh. However, despite the pain of our sinful flesh dying, our souls are increasingly tasting eternal life. See Rom. 6:1–8:39 and 1 Pet. 4, among many others.

Neither can “good” experiences or feelings be barometers and/or guides. On the one hand, “good” experiences or feelings might result from the Holy Spirit blessing God’s means of grace (e.g., worship or prayer). On the other hand, “good” experiences or feelings might result from an environment engineered to produce “good vibes” (e.g., a concert or crowded venue that is meant to put on a good show). But simply looking at circumstances and parsing feelings cannot give us the concrete answers we desire. We can only find those answers, as well as needed guidance, if we look in faith to what God has said in his word.

Some things that might “feel” good in the Christian life might in fact be the most detrimental to our spiritual health. The same principle that applies to a kid overindulging in Halloween candy likewise applies to the frequently offered feel-good pick-me-ups of American evangelicalism. However, the long, plodding journey of faith, despite the seeming sparseness of feel-good pick-me-ups, is filled with God’s gracious and kind encouragements. See Eccl. 2; 1 Cor. 11–13; and James 4; among many others.

Sadly, among most Christians today, the obsession with experience and feelings has not dwindled. The most common way professing American Christians define their faith and religious affections is by describing their experiences and/or feelings. Subjective feelings arising out of individual experience(s) remain the favorite indicator of individual spiritual health, and a sizeable portion (the majority?) of Christian books, conferences, and even churches promote this very thing.

Many factors have contributed to the current state of an experience-/feelings-based Christianity: philosophers (e.g., Kant, Kierkegaard, Schleiermacher); schools of theology (e.g., Dispensationalism, Victorious Life, Charismatic theology, Pentecostalism); attacks on the reliability and value of Scripture (e.g., Wellhausen and subsequent schools of biblical criticism, Karl Barth and Neo-Orthodoxy); and outright hedonism and worldliness (e.g., more pleasure, less pain; “If it feels good, do it!”). I could list many more factors, but even that (arguably) short list exposes the notorious influencers of modern American Christianity.

However, one influencer I had never considered was Mormonism, until I read the following article: The Mormonization of American Christianity. Please read the article if you have time, but I highly recommend listening to the accompanying podcasts: Faith & Experience and Is Faith a Feeling?.

Brothers and Sisters, true, saving faith is not the sum-total of your experiences and feelings. True, saving faith is credible, logical, wholehearted trust in the only living and true God, no matter what the world might say. True, saving faith is hope-filled clinging to Christ’s all-sufficient atonement for sin, no matter how much you feel like your sin cannot be forgiven. True, saving faith is doubt-free certainty of the historical reality of Christ’s victorious resurrection, no matter how often the world mocks, “Dead men don’t come back to life!” True, saving faith is humble, thoughtful submission and adherence to God’s holy, inerrant, and inspired word, no matter how many times people call it “just another book.” True, saving faith is surety that the Holy Spirit will inevitably make you more like Christ, no matter how messy the last few days of life might have been. True, saving faith is firm conviction that God’s promises in his word, his provision in his Son, and his indwelling presence by his Holy Spirit are the determining factors of your salvation, no matter if your experiences and/or feelings tempt to tell you otherwise. True, saving faith – far from being a conversion experience or gut feeling – is ever-greater cleaving to and resting in Christ Jesus, the continual exertion of all your mind, heart, soul, and strength in holding fast to something, indeed someone who reigns over all the combined feelings and experiences from all the ages of this world.

For faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. If you still have doubts, read Hebrews 11 after you finish reading this post.

May God teach all of us more about the true nature of faith and may he be gracious to increase our faith with each passing day!

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