There is a village high in the eastern mountains of Papua called Korupun. Flying into this village is like stepping into another world – especially two decades ago, when a friend and I were privileged to visit a long term missionary nurse called Jessie Williamson. When we arrived, the airstrip was surrounded by a large crowd of staring Kimyal people: dark-skinned, hair tightly curled, many wearing their traditional dress. We stepped off the tiny plane, and very soon afterwards we were running on impossibly thin tracks along mountain edges and through lush green grass, following about fifteen laughing barefoot children who were determined to show us a very special place near their village. Finally we arrived, and for the first time in our lives, we were actually able to stand behind the rushing torrent of a large waterfall! The feel of freezing water through our fingers, the crashing roar of the waterfall, the bright and shining smiles of the children, the smells of vegetation and oily skin, the unforgettable taste (a few days later) of lean mountain pork cooked in the ground… 21 years later, these memories are all as vivid as ever, and this whole experience still impacts my life in several ways.
Unless you go to a place like this, it’s very hard to really grasp the reality of it. You can read about it, hear others’ stories, see photos and movies, and apply your imagination. All of these things help a lot; but there’s nothing like actually being there, taking in the whole picture through your senses. The fact that I’d actually been there also made such a huge difference to my relationship with several students from Papua, whom I later came to teach. The level of understanding and empathy was much greater, because they knew that I did have at least some concept of where they were coming from, which was such a world away from here.
John explodes with the vividness and sensory nature of real life experience in his description of his knowledge of Jesus:
We proclaim to you the one who existed from the beginning, whom we have heard and seen. We saw him with our own eyes and touched him with our own hands..(I John 1)
Peter, similarly underlines the fact that they “were made eye-witnesses of His majesty… This happened to us…” (2 Peter 1). He contrasts his real experience of Jesus with “cleverly invented fables“. In their accounts of Jesus’ life, both John and Luke underline that they are writing from eyewitness accounts (Lk 1:2, Jn 19:35); and many subsequent commentators have pointed out that their accounts read like real life, with all the details and ‘unnecessary’ information that only recollection of real experience includes. God obviously deeply values human experience, since His whole revelation of Himself took place in the context of human lives, culminating in the Incarnation: He Himself taking on a human body and a human life. And this continued on after He left – the ones who responded to Jesus’ invitation to live their lives in union with Him found their whole lives transformed, in a profound and experiential way.
It may seem strange to some people that I am highlighting the fact that Christianity is supposed to be something that is experienced! For many this goes without saying; however, I am aware of other strands of Christianity where the notion of an experiential approach to faith comes under suspicion. I know there are good reasons for this: excesses are easy to find in the Christian world, and so many wrong (or just plain weird) things have been done in the name of God or his Holy Spirit. However, the reactionary position leaves many Christians with a faith that is comprised primarily of intellectual belief and (hopefully) a corresponding lifestyle of obedience. The important area of trust in, and the underpinning experience of, God is often lacking. In fact, there have been Christians I’ve known personally who would actively warn against an experiential faith, or anything that would involve the emotional sphere of life. Many others have a great deal of suspicion and/or scepticism toward the same.
This is to their great loss, and to the loss of those watching on who don’t yet know Jesus. The thing that went on to transform the whole Roman Empire within a couple of centuries was the unmistakable, undeniable evidence that Jesus’ life and love and power was somehow continuing to be expressed through the lives of those who followed him. Their lives pulsated with a confidence, a courage, a love and an obviously spiritual power that they continually attributed to the Spirit of Jesus within them, not to their own resources. Phillips expresses it so well:
… The great difference between present-day Christianity and that of which we read in these letters is that to us it is primarily a performance, to them it was a real experience. We are apt to reduce the Christian religion to a code, or at best a rule of heart and life. To these men it is quite plainly the invasion of their lives by a new quality of life altogether.
(Extract from LETTERS TO YOUNG CHURCHES, translator’s preface,p. 14.*)
Some strands of Christianity are, in effect, requiring their members to do the impossible: to be willing to obey – even to the point of laying down their lives perhaps, for someone they only relate to in an intellectual way. They are calling them to witness to others about God and what He can do, while discouraging them from experiencing what God might actually want to do in their own lives. I am amazed at the lengths good committed Christians will go to to live out their faith, even though they may not feel or know by experience the love and goodness of God, nor have they known His healing for the deep wounds and brokenness that may be lurking within.
Jesus Himself calls us to love the Lord our God with all of our heart, our soul, our mind and our strength. The mind alone is not enough to successfully keep us going, Jesus calls us to go to the frightening places: to allow Him to unearth our griefs, that we might mourn them with Him; to expose our fears, that we might bring them to Him; to bring to the surface all our deepest questions, doubts and false beliefs, that He might begin to bring His truth to our innermost parts. This can be quite a traumatic experience, I know, but this is the holistic way that real discipleship works, that Jesus works – when we let Him.
Moreover, many Christians have built such a lifestyle of silencing and suppressing that they are disconnected not only from their real feelings, but from who they are. In the name of obedience, they have misunderstood that God doesn’t want to just conform us on the outside, but to bring every part of who we are into the orbit of His love and leading. Christians need to know what they love to do, who they’ve been made to be, so they can be freed to express the individual gifts, passions and joys that God has woven into their souls, in a way that glorifies God**. It also often has the added bonus of being able to deepen their connections with people who don’t yet know Him.
You see, just like that highland village in Papua was a ‘world away’ from all that I had known up till that point; a life immersed in the Kingdom of God can be almost unimaginable to many. As Brueggemann puts it:
…nobody can change stories unless an alternative story is made richly available with great artistry, love and boldness.
That is the reason why it is so important for us to allow the life and love of God to permeate our whole experience of life: so that we are deeply and utterly connected to that ‘alternative story’. For example, there’s a huge difference in the impact of someone who says God is my strength, and someone who knows it by experience, because they’ve taken the risk of genuinely depending on Him in their life. As Brueggemann explains elsewhere,
…Theology is not simply a head-trip, theology is the [setting out] of another way to live in the world…***
And we as Christians are actually inviting people (‘with words, if necessary’) to “come over to that other world”, to see and touch and hold and feel the life and love of Jesus for themselves, just as we have.
* The prefaces to JB Phillips’ translations of the gospels, Acts and the NT letters are well worth the read. Although they were written some time ago now, Phillips’ insights and observations have been very relevant and helpful to me and to classes I have taught.
**There is so much more I could, and will, write about this topic, and especially HOW to experience God in a genuine and heartfelt way. My own experience somehow included a deep disconnect between my emotional life and my mind/will. This clip might give you some initial insights into some ways that I have been helped in this area, through my long involvement with Cornerstone Community. http://youtu.be/fHA9Z-Chpbs
*** Brueggemann thoughts are mostly from http://youtu.be/ZjbkHeqO8og – an answer to a question about evangelism