ReVision

Experientialism

Watch those affections, but watch Jesus more.

Ecclesiastical Winds (2)

You are not restricted by us, but you are restricted by your
own affections. 2 Corinthians 6.12

An experiential faith
The Christian faith is an experiential faith. That is, it’s not merely a religion of the mind, nor of certain kinds of activities or times of the week. It’s not just a matter of words, rightly confessed. Faith in Christ is true when it works into and through every aspect of our lives, all our daily experiences and activities. Whatever we do, no matter how routine or small, has the potential to express our faith in Christ and to bring glory to God (1 Cor. 10.31).

But this doesn’t just happen. True and experiential faith flows from communion with Christ, being near to Him, gazing on the glory that radiates from His face, hearing His Word, knowing His Spirit at work within us to will and do of God’s good pleasure for every aspect of our lives, and having our hearts grow in love for Christ and for our neighbors. To experience Jesus is to be filled with all the fullness of God, and the experience of this can be wondrous, awesome, uplifting, exhilarating, humbling, frightening, and exuberantly joyful, all at the same time.

Our experience of Christ is directly related to three things: Our vision of Him, exalted in glory (Col. 3.1-3); our attention to Him, as we commune with Him in His Word, and in worship, the world, and prayer (Jn. 17.17; 2 Tim. 3.15-17); and our obedience to Him unto righteousness and glory in everything we do. The clearer our vision of Christ, the richer our communion with Him; and the more diligent we are in obeying Him, the more His Wind will fill the sails of our soul, and His Presence will transform and affect every aspect of our lives.

The goal of the Christian life, therefore, is to know Jesus and to share in His life, sufferings, resurrection, mission, and reign. As we aim at these goals, we enter the pleasure, peace, passion, and joy of the Lord; our experience – whatever we’re doing – is enriched by knowing Him with us; and our witness for Christ is powerfully expressed in all our relationships, roles, and responsibilities. We seek Jesus; we want to see Jesus; we long to have Jesus increase in us and our old selves to decrease; because in Jesus and with Him we know fullness of joy and pleasures forevermore.

Where we go wrong sometimes is in taking our eyes off Jesus and concentrating on the experience of faith, as though the experience of being a Christian were the proper end to seek. We become restricted in our faith by certain affections, and doing this can tangle the sails of our soul in the ill wind of experientialism.

Experientialism defined
Experientialism makes the Christian life a quest for the right affections. This can take several forms. In some instances throughout Church history, believers have insisted that the proper affections for a Christian are those of deprivation, want, discomfort, and even pain. You’re not a true Christian if you haven’t suffered, such people insist; and you only really know what it means to be a Christian when these experiences are your daily fare. So whether you have to flee to the desert, perch yourself on a pillar, go without the basic needs of life, deny yourself all beauty and pleasure, or constantly be seeking persecution at the hands of people you offend – this is the experience every true Christian should seek.

Others have swung the affective pendulum in the opposite direction, insisting that the true experience every Christian should know is some form of happiness and wellbeing. You should be happy all the time, if you’re really following Jesus. Your worship of Him should be happy. Your times with Christian friends should be happy. You should avoid those things that drag you and others down and devote your time and energy to the pursuit of happiness and wellbeing. Such people expect their churches to provide activities and environments in which they may discover more of the happiness they believe Jesus wants them to know.

For still others, the proper affection of a Christian is a kind of pious stoicism. We mustn’t get riled up or become exuberant about things; keep a stiff upper lip and a furrowed brow; be serious about everything; and don’t let yourself be tossed around by changeable emotions. Steady as you go; stern astern.

Whenever we take some form of experience – whether that experience is one of deprivation or excess, austerity or profligacy, glumness or giddiness – as the defining mark of our faith, we have made that experience the supreme end of faith, and we are sailing by the ill wind of experientialism, rather than by the Holy Wind of God.

Problems with experientialism
Experientialism is a kind of idolatry. It distracts us from seeking the Lord and His Kingdom and righteousness, and from engaging allour affections in the quest to know, love, and serve Him. Under the influence of experientialism, we end up seeking some particular experience as the true measure of our faith. This experience – happiness, austerity, sternness, or any other affection – replaces Christ as the end we seek and the goal of faith. We will pursue that which reinforces our preferred affections, and this will cause us to veer from our course in the journey of faith which is knowing God and Jesus Christ (Jn. 17.3).

This becomes a kind of addiction. We only want to sing certain kinds of songs, participate in this or that sort of liturgy, have our group experiences be of a particular type, and share our lives only with other believers whose affections, like ours, restrict their Christian experience to a narrow band.

The Christian life is a richly experiential faith. All the affections of our soul have their proper place in the pursuit of Christ and His Kingdom. Be we can only know those affections, and be freed to have them do their proper work in and through us, by concentrating on Jesus, seeking Jesus, hearing and communing with Jesus, and embracing whatever affection we see in Him as appropriate to our situation.

True Christian faith seeks Jesus, not the experience of Jesus. We will only become more complete in Him to the extent that we resist the temptation to allow some set of affections to restrict us in our faith, and keep our eyes on and our heart devoted to Him, in the true and full Wind of His Spirit.

For reflection
1. How many different affections are appropriate for Christians? How can focusing on Jesus help us to know more of all these affections?

2. What’s the difference between seeking Jesus and seeking the experience of Jesus?

3. How can you tell when you have become entangled in experientialism? What should you do then?

Next steps – Preparation: Spend an extended time with the Lord Jesus, asking Him to show you each of the affections that is appropriate for your walk with Him.

T. M. Moore

All the studies in this Winds of Doctrine series are available by clicking here.

At the website
Listen to our summary of last week’s final study in the book of Jeremiah by clicking here. All the studies in Jeremiah may be downloaded free of charge by clicking here.

To learn more about the Christian vantage point on life, listen to Issue 5 in each of Volumes 1, 2, and 3 of The InVerse Theology Project. You can also download our free ReVision PDF, We Would See Jesus, by clicking here.

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Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

 

T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in Essex Junction, VT.
Books by T. M. Moore