~ 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!
For More On Theology Versus Experience, click here
John S. Hilkevich, Ph.D.
Spiritual Resource Services
Weekly Reflections © November 17, 2001
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