Engaging With Experience

Andrew Bunt 4 months ago
Blog 3 mins
‘I’m in a gay relationship, and I have had an experience of the love of God that shows me he can’t be displeased with my relationship.’

This sort of argument from experience seems to have gotten huge traction over recent years. And I can see why: it’s powerful.

It’s rooted in individual personal experience. Experience is hard to argue with – there’s no way to disprove it and it wouldn’t be right to do so anyway. Personal experience is also something that is highly valued by our culture. In many ways, experience equals authority in the modern west. And added to this, it’s an argument that appeals to love. That’s powerful too. Who wants to be the person to argue against love?

But I’m still not convinced by it. If the words above were shared with me, I’d want to enter into a conversation with the speaker to explore their claim.

Listening is always the right starting point.

I’d actually want to start with a lot of listening before I did any speaking. Listening is always the right starting point. Listening helps us to understand better so we can respond better, and those we listen to are more likely to listen to us. But most importantly, listening is a way of expressing love: when we listen well, we show that we care about people as individuals, we care about their experience and perspectives, we care about them. Listening communicates, ‘You are an individual to be valued, not an argument to be won or a problem to be solved.’

As I listened, I’d want to validate their experiences. I believe in a God who really does help us to experience his love through his Spirit. That’s something spoken about in Scripture (Romans 5:5; Ephesians 3:14-19). I have no grounds on which to call into question their experience. I’d want to validate it and celebrate it.

Then I might want to ask some questions. I might ask them whether they think they’re perfect. I’d do this in a light-hearted, not an accusatory way. They are pretty much guaranteed to answer ‘no’. That then gives me a chance to point out that any time any of us have a tangible experience of the love of God, it will be in a context where there are at least some things in our life of which God doesn’t approve. It therefore seems a bit tricky to isolate one aspect of our lives as being validated by an experience of God’s love. What I’m doing here is not just bluntly telling someone I think they’re wrong; I’m problematising their position, helping them to think it through more deeply.

A similar question I might ask is whether they feel an experience of the love of God could validate any and all behaviour. Are there things they would say are wrong even if someone doing them felt they had had a powerful experience of the love of God? If they answer ‘yes’, I’d point out how that shows we feel there are other grounds for determining what is right or wrong; things are not quite as straightforward as we might assume. That would then allow us to explore together the different ways people make moral decisions. We might find we disagree on how to make such decisions, but the conversation would allow me to show why my belief that same-sex relationships are sinful isn’t just old-fashioned or bigoted and it might allow me to show why their approach to morality could prove problematic.

How do they reconcile their sense that God is affirming their relationship with the fact that it clashes with biblical teaching and 2000 years of the church’s understanding of that teaching?

And, of course, if they were a Christian, I would want to ask them how they see their experience fitting with the Scriptures. How do they reconcile their sense that God is affirming their relationship with the fact that it clashes with biblical teaching and 2000 years of the church’s understanding of that teaching? I’d want to explore the reality that feelings are unavoidably subjective (which would tie in nicely with some of the earlier questions I’d asked), but that God’s revelation in Scripture gives us an objective guide to how to live.

I might also ask where they felt Scripture shows that an experience of God’s love validates our behaviour. I could more easily point to examples of people experiencing the love of God in spite of their behaviour than I could examples where such an experience demonstrates the moral integrity of an individual. And I’m not convinced that experiences of God’s love are what Scripture gives us as the sign that God has accepted us: it seems to me that ongoing faith and obedience to God’s ways are the New Testament’s measures for those who are accepted by God (see, e.g. Colossians 1:21-23; John 14:15; 1 Corinthians 6:9-11).

The argument from experience is popular and powerful, and for good reason. It’s also pretty weak. Wonderfully, we have a God who is gracious and merciful, one who is love, and who has chosen to pour out that love on us even in the midst of our fallenness and sinfulness. Experiences of the love of God when we are living out of line with his ways revealed in Scripture shouldn’t lead us to conclude that God has changed his mind about what’s right and wrong. Rather, they should remind us of the character of God – his grace, mercy and love – and motivate us to seek, by the Spirit and in church community, to love him by living in ever-increasing faithfulness to his ways.