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Experience vs Experiments


 

 At first glance, there appears to be a lot of similarity between Quakerism and Pentecostalism. Both emphasise the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of the individual believer.

However, I would suggest that there is a significant difference between George Fox's teaching about knowing God "experimentally" and the Pentecostal quest for ecstatic religious "experiences". I associate the term "experiment" with science, and its quest for truth. And I associate religious "experiences" with emotional ecstasy as an end in itself.

A scientific experiment can evoke strong emotions in the one conducting the experiment, especially if it is successful. But such emotions are always secondary. Truth is the primary goal.

Seeking (or teaching) religious experiences as ends in themselves is like seeking happiness as an end in itself. Both are likely to lead to disillusionment.

Someone has said that "happiness just happens" as a by-product of a life well lived. And much the same can be said for positive emotional experiences. They are by-products of successful experiments with truth.

Jesus said, "If you want to know whether my doctrine comes from God, try doing the things that I have said." (John 7:17) This thought includes the plan for a reasonably scientific experiment: The passage suggests a hypothesis (that what Jesus teaches actually comes from God), and it suggests a way for determining the truth (or otherwise) of this hypothesis (i.e. by doing the sort of things that Jesus called on his followers to do).

Gandhi titled his autobiography "My Experiments with Truth". He experimented with but one of the teachings of Jesus... that of turning the other cheek. And that simple experiment spawned a movement in India which shook the world. Others, like Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela were also influenced by that one experiment.

The Apostle Peter is reported to have responded to a call from Jesus one night in the middle of a stormy lake, when he thought that he heard Jesus calling on him to leave the relative comfort of the boat and step out on the water. Peter expressed his faith in the hypothesis by stepping out of the boat. He nearly drowned as a result of that experiment, but he also experienced something that no other disciple had experienced before, or (to my knowledge) has experienced since. According to the scriptures, he did (for a short while) actually walk on the water.

Understandably, most of us are a bit skeptical about this. But that is because we have not experienced such a thing. Then again, we probably have never heard God calling us to step ouf of such a boat. Maybe it is not necessary for us to form an opinion one way or another about what happened to Peter. We would do better to walk in the "light" that we have personally received from God.

Each time we receive some new light or revelation from the voice of the Spirit, we are confronted with a possible experiment. We can act on what we receive, and learn from whatever ensues (i.e. gain "experience"). Or we can do nothing. (But many have reported that doing nothing results in less and less ability to hear the voice of the Spirit in future; so be warned.)

Life is nothing if it is not experiments. Experiments with truth. Experiments with love. Experiments with faith. Every experiment involves a risk. And every experiment results in "experiences"... some good and some bad.

If you want a truly valid experience of God, then take the risk. Experiment humbly with the things that you feel he has shown you. Embrace those revelations which bear good fruit in your own spiritual journey, and reject those that do not.

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