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Do you have a belief and then look for Bible verses to support it, or do you study the Bible to get your beliefs? The correct fundamentalist answer is that we always start with the Bible. But in reality this rarely happens.

Here is an example: Jesus told Martha that her brother, Lazarus, was going to return to life. Martha agreed that he would be resurrected 'in the last day', but Jesus meant that he would be resurrected there and then. And he added that anyone now alive who believes in him will never die. (John 11:23-26)

From this grew the 'never-die' teaching, i.e. that true Christians will never die... not in this life or in any future life. Our reaction is that this is nonsense. Not on the basis of what the Bible says, because the never-die people have John 11 on their side. But on the basis of our personal experience. Nowhere can we find a church full of people who are 150 years old or more. If we did, then our experience would be altered, and we might take more literally the passage referred to above.

A more common example is Jesus' statement that the bread and wine he shared with his disciples at their last meal together were his flesh and blood. Here the Catholic position is the fundamentalist one. The literal Bible passage supports their claim that communion wine actually turns to blood when they pray over it. But our experience is that it does not taste like blood, and all scientific tests indicate that no change has taken place.

Our understanding of God is limited; but then, so is our experience. And it pays for us to recognise both of these limitations in our quest for truth.

Overwhelming evidence from the Bible which contradicts our experience should cause us to question the limits of our experience. And overwhelming experience which contradicts something we read in the Bible should cause us to question our understanding of the Bible.

Most of us have experienced few, if any, phenomena which we would call genuine miracles. Yet the Bible is full of such accounts. Accounts of at least some miracles happening today should cause us to question a belief based entirely on our personal experience (i.e. that miracles no longer occur, or that they have never occurred, because we haven't experienced them). But it may be fair to say that the Bible compresses time in such a way that it gives the impression more miracles occurred than actually did, or that they were more sensational than they actually were. If we investigate further, we'll find abundant evidence from the Bible itself to support this greater revelation of truth.

Another teaching that is popular today is that Christians should never be sick. It is often preached by people who are quite healthy themselves. It is easier for these people to believe such a teaching, because it conforms with their experience. Even for those of us who experience sickness, such a doctrine has an appeal if, in fact, we could make it work (i.e. by being healed). But sooner or later, even the preachers themselves get sick, and all of their preventative formulas fail to stop it from happening.

In the end, they must alter their teaching to conform with experience, or they will be dishonest hypocrites. Unfortunately, a variation of the never-die teaching becomes the escape clause. (The never-die people are never proven wrong until they are dead, and then it is too late to complain!) The healing teachers say that you should deny you are sick and you will eventually get well. With the exception of terminal illnesses, it always works!

Such self-deception denies the very real experience of many sick people. If the healing people would be honest enough to learn from experience, they could arrive at a more complete picture of the grace and power of God. We will not comment here on what we have come to understand (based on both our experience and passages from the Bible), but we can say that this fuller truth is far more satisfying and far more genuine, providing statistically better results. (See Heal the Sick.)

But as stubbornness about healing theory can cause people to deny experience, so stubbornness about experience can blind us to a valid theory.

This has been our experience with regard to many of the teachings of Jesus, but especially with regard to forsaking all and living by faith. Because people have little previous experience to suggest that God can feed and clothe them if they work for love rather than for money, it is easy to reject all that Jesus said in opposition to their experience. But, unlike healing exaggerations, we have not found it necessary to deceive ourselves in order to experience God's miraculous provision as promised by Jesus.

True, our experience of miracles is often less than sensational (e.g. finding discarded furniture just when we needed it), but the provision is there just the same. We are not starving and pretending that we are not, as happens with sick people who 'claim' healings until the day they die from them.

This understanding of the relationship between experience and theory should help us to be a bit more patient with those who do not immediately grasp the truth of Jesus' teachings. Hopefully it will help others to stretch the limits of possibility that they have put on God because of their past experience as well.

(See also Christian Science.)

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