~ Theology Versus Experience ~
As psychology is the study (logy) of the psyche (mind), theology is the study of Theos (God). Since we humans are doing the studying, theology is not the Gospel. The Scriptures are the basis of our theology. Our theologies take various forms through the times, cultures and understandings, giving rise to the two thousand denominations of Christianity. On the other hand, the Scriptures remain the same, though we recognize the difficulties of translating languages will color meaning in different shades. That is why it is important to examine the original biblical language before engaging a theological debate based on a word or phrase in our current languages into which our Bibles are translated.
If we neglect this reality, things are more simple, more black and white, and many like that. "Out of sight, out of mind" is an English idiom that describes the attitude of making one safe from an unwelcome reality. Translated into Russian and some other related languages, "out of sight, out of mind" becomes "invisible lunatic". Actually, in this case, this really isn't a bad translation. So we must avoid the "unseen craziness" of neglecting rigorous scrutiny of our theologies, that are not so easy to embrace, in the light of sacred Scripture. The theology of suffering and of holiness are a couple of them.
Eleven of the twelve apostles (that includes Judas' replacement) were given the gift of martyrdom for Christ. Only John was denied that gift and privilege of the ultimate life sacrifice, for reasons unknown to us. Jesus learned true devotion and obedience to God by the gift of suffering. His suffering was not restricted to being on behalf of humanity. Jesus needed that gift for His own sake. Just as there is a fellowship of disciples of Christ, a fellowship of suffering also exists and membership is required for spiritual life. The writer of the epistle to the Hebrews teaches that holiness is also a requirement and laments that his readers had not yet received the grace of shedding their blood. A dimension of suffering is exaltation. Although God is infinite, there is a mystery to experience wherein we can and must bless Him, and magnify and add to His glory by vindicating the truth of His words in our lives.
Like "the difficult teachings" of Jesus that caused many of His disciples to leave Him, the statements above twists concepts in ways that don't make "sense" or we don't expect in a spiritual faith.
If you even thought, "Apostle John was fortunate. He had the blessing of being the only one of them to be spared from crucifixion, stoning, beheading or some other brutal form of execution," you are thinking as a non -Christian. Pastor Wurmbrand, who endured fourteen years of torture, lamented he was denied the privilege to die for Christ, a sentiment echoed by many Christian survivors of persecutions. But Wurmbrand was given another blessing for his sacrifice of avoiding death, the work of being the voice of those who had died for the faith. Perhaps St. John was summoned to the same sacrifice, instead exiled to the penal colony on Patmos island, to do the vital work of receiving, recording and publishing that great Revelation of Christ.
St. John and all devoted, Christ-centered people have joined St. Paul in asserting, "I want to know Christ and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in His sufferings, becoming like Him, in His death" (Philippians 3:10, NIV). Paul continues, "For it has been granted to you, on behalf of Christ, not only to believe on Him, but to also suffer for Him" (Philippians 1:29, NIV). James says to "consider it pure joy… whenever you face trials of many kinds" (James 1:2,NIV). In evangelical preaching, much is said about needing "to know Christ and the power of His resurrection," but much silence is placed on the rest of Paul's declaration, "and the fellowship of sharing in His sufferings, becoming like Him in His death."
This silence certainly broadens and makes easy the way that Jesus described as narrow and difficult, where few enter. A theology that neglects suffering is like looking peacefully at a pristine and beautiful great lake, then discovering it is only ankle deep. You can splash playfully in it, but without depth, the lake cannot sustain life. It possesses no mystery of the deep into which you can immerse yourself.
Holiness and Christlikeness is impossible without suffering. St. Peter quotes the mandate repeated in Leviticus, "Be holy, because I am holy" (1Peter 1:16). The writer to the Hebrews bluntly declares, "Without holiness no one will see the Lord" (Hebrews 12: 14b, NIV). Holiness is connected to character. As Paul uses the term, character is conformity to Christlikeness, not moral or ethical character that anyone including atheists can develop through self-discipline. Paul, however, teaches that perseverance (in the narrow way) produces this character, and suffering is necessary for perseverance. Thus, Paul writes, we are to rejoice in suffering (not because of it) (Romans 5: 3-4).
Christ Himself required suffering to learn obedience or conformity to God the Father's will (Hebrews 5:8). Peter follows up on this with "to this [suffering] you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow in His steps" (1 Peter 2: 21, NIV). The need of this gift is made clear by Christ: "A student is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for the student to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master [i.e. Christlike]…Anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me " (Matthew 10: 24-25a; 38, NIV). Paul bluntly wrote to Timothy, "In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ will be persecuted" (2 Timothy 3:12, NIV).
Western cultures tend to think chronologically, as in "suffering leads to purification that leads to intimacy in Christ." Thus we see these as "stages" that are separate, believing we must suffer first to experience the ecstasy of living in the Divine Presence. This would certainly be discouraging. Jesus, however, said that as we follow Him, as we walk with Him, we are also carrying our crosses. Typically we want, and many preach, eternal life and resurrection without the cross. But life emerges from death and the power of the cross rises from within our pain and suffering. Just as the great leadership is born and revealed in the midst of crisis, Holiness and Christlikeness rises out of suffering. When clothed in meaninglessness and punctuated with questions such as "Why would a loving God allow this?", suffering is disabling and deadly. When we surrender all pain to God, clothed in Christ, it becomes redemptive and transforming.
Proper clothing is not only protective and enabling, but delightful. Warm, insulated, windproof outerwear makes a sunrise watch on a freezing mountain peak a comfortable delight. One feels cozy and relaxed from head to toe, undistracted from the enchantment of experiencing the emerging light of a fresh new day. "All of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ" (Galatians 3:27, NIV) St. Paul states as a fact. Believing in Christ or "accepting" Him as Lord but still wearing the clothes of self-centeredness and self-interest is an oppositional theology. Ponder what it means, in real time and space, to be clothed from head to toe with Christ! How do you feel with Him wrapped around you?
Holiness, sanctification, redemptive suffering and being lovingly clothed in Christ is to be personally experienced, not merely admired at a distance in those we perceive as saintly or very holy (a perception those people would deny, interestingly). When our theology is not our experience, we must then enter into the midst of prayer and our pain and suffering. From there we will rise into the intimacy, joy and resurrection of Christ, clothed in Him!
"Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!" (2 Corinthians 5:17, NIV). Reading between the lines points to the many other scriptural assertions that the "old" self has been denied, crucified with Christ, leading to a literal rebirth as a new creation. This is not a self-improvement theology, wherein one becomes a "better person." The change is less like the obedience training that makes an undisciplined dog into one that is trusted to lead a blind person and more like the radical difference between a caterpillar and a butterfly, a new creation!
The shepherds of Jesus' day were social outcasts, thought of as being in the same league as highway robbers. Theirs was a lowly job despised by their society. Even after their occasional bath they smelled like a dirty stable. By law, they were not permitted to testify in court, their witness considered worthless. These shepherds who had no doctrine, creed or established beliefs were the first to be invited to experience the Christ. And they ran to Him with enthusiasm!
In Jesus' day, women were equivalent to property, unable to hold political office or authority. But it was to a woman, a new creation in Christ, that Jesus chose to appear first in His resurrected body. Her belief system didn't include a resurrected Christ. Her experience of Him caused her to gasp, "Teacher!"
Many secular and religious institutions require a profession or declaration of belief or creed for membership. Do you believe in Jesus Christ's resurrection? Do you believe He died for your sins? Do you believe He loves you and lives in you? Answering correctly gets you in. But suppose one was asked, what is your experience of Christ's resurrection? What is your experience of His death? How do you experience Him living in you? How are you a new creation in Him?
One's belief in freedom and one's experience of freedom are two different things. Do you believe in democracy? What is your experience of democracy? Do you believe in love? What is your experience of love? Different things, belief and experience. What is your experience of the "narrow gate" Jesus told us to enter?
Do you believe in the idea of slavery? It is a necessary experience: "You are slaves to the one whom you obey - whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness…You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness" (Romans 6:16b,18, NIV). Have we?
Like slaves, we were bought, by the sacrifice of Christ. A slave who was bought by another master wouldn't know it until it was told to him or her. And even if the slave believed he or she was bought by another, it would not make a difference in his or her life until the slave experience the new master.
The Scriptures teach us the master of sin has control only over the old self, which is now dead. So sin can order the old self to get to work, but the old self just lies there. You cannot make a dead person work. You have no power over the dead. The new creation has a new Master and is very responsive to Him. That is our theology, but is it our experience? If the old person is dead, some would wonder, why is he still walking around?
When a condemned man was walking down the hall to the execution chamber, it was the ritual custom for the escort to announce, "Dead man walking!" For the man who resigned or reckoned himself to his death, this was a strange experience. He, counting on dying, having already said good-bye to life, was indeed walking among the dead. He would not be expected to feel any of life's vigor or tests anymore during that short walk. The power of life lost its grasp and the voice of death has taken over and he follows it.
This is what St. Paul talks about as redemptive power. "In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus" (Romans 6:11, NIV). The word "count" has been also translated as consider, reckon, resign, experience. The Scriptures tell the truth: We have been bought and redeemed from death and sin by Christ "Who was made sin for us; by faith we are saved." Like slaves who have been bought by another master, we must be informed of this purchase for "faith comes by hearing." Then we must step out into that faith, like Peter stepping out of the boat onto the surface of the water toward his Master Jesus. Until Peter took his eyes off the Master, he experienced the wonder of walking on water. The others in the boat could have, but they remained safely in place.
How can we experience theology? How can we stop experiencing the old dead man's power and feel the power and life of being a new creation in Christ? Why does the dead man keep getting up and walking the old sinful way?
As we were born first physically and helpless, we are born into the Body of Christ by His grace. But we grew up and had choices to make. If we wanted a strong body, we needed to exercise and feed it well. Same with our minds and our skills and abilities. After spiritual birth, wherein our self-centered being is put to death with our crucified Lord, we must also walk in the faith of our being new creations in Christ. Paul provides the vital instruction: We must count, resign, consider, bank on, reckon ourselves dead to master sin and keep walking that narrow road of Christ, Who is the Way. The voice of master sin will still cry out behind us, "Hey, listen to me!" But our heavenly Escort will protectively respond in witness to our obedience to our Lord and Master, "Quiet! Dead man walking! He won't answer you! The new creation has a different Master, and he follows only My Voice!"
The new creation doesn't draw strength on life from himself. The slave of righteousness is "clothed with Christ," "and God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work" (2 Corinthians 9:8, NIV)!
John S. Hilkevich, Ph.D.
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