I love the fact that our Christian faith is not just a set of teachings or rules. Even more, I love the fact that our God allows us to have an experiential relationship with him.
Of course, we don’t just reduce our faith to an experience apart from what God teaches us through the Bible. We don’t want to be guilty of making an idol out of a feeling or an experience. But, over the course of the history of the Church, we have proven over and over again that it’s easy to slip into a rule-centered or doctrinally-centered religion devoid of real spiritual experience. When that happens, God has been faithful to restore true, experiential Christianity. That’s the essence of revival.
If you think about your own walk with Christ, you’ll probably have to acknowledge that you started out with a real experience with God. You may have heard a presentation of true doctrine, but your life change didn’t occur just because you were intellectually convinced; God revealed himself to you experientially. Your times of greatest spiritual vitality were when you experienced the presence of God in your life. That’s when you were most eager to read the Bible and learn the truth, to be in church and in relationship with fellow believers, to serve others and to witness to your faith.
I think spiritual experience is so important to me personally because of the role of an experience with God in my return to faithfulness to him. I had been raised in church and attended faithfully most of my childhood. I had even given my life to Christ in an altar call when I was about twelve years old. But at age fifteen I fell away from the Lord and began to try to fit in with my peers through alcohol and drug abuse.
At the beginning of my junior year in college, I realized that I was on the wrong path and would not attain my goals if things continued as they were. I was in a fraternity best known on campus for our drug abuse. Instead of calling us “Phi Taus,” students called us “Fried Taus” or “High Taus”—names we embraced gladly. Experimentation with hard drugs was too much a part of my life, and I came to believe the key to getting on track was to escape by transferring to another college.
Instead, I ended up joining the Army, motivated primarily by the educational benefits, and became an MP in Panama. When it became clear that drug abuse would not be tolerated, alcohol became my crutch. My antics while drinking caused my leaders to threaten to send me to alcohol treatment a couple of times, but my high level of performance otherwise kept me out of trouble. Aside from the alcohol issues, my military experience was so positive I considered staying in as a career.
Oddly, for a period of about four weeks, I started going to church because somebody invited me. That wasn’t a long time, and it didn’t result in a serious return to the Lord, but I do remember praying and asking God for guidance for my future. It seemed that God was leading me to do what I had intended to do in the first place: use my military benefits to return to my college.
After three years, I returned to the college I had left. I also immediately returned to drug abuse along with the alcohol abuse. During the first or second week back at Centre College, a classmate, Mary, asked me if I knew anyone who could give her a ride to her hometown that weekend. With all the partying at the beginning of the school year, I was astounded that anyone would want to leave campus. “Why do you want to go home with so many parties here on campus?” I asked. “Oh, I just have things I have to do,” Mary politely responded. As she turned and walked away, a fraternity brother poked me in the ribs and chided, “You shouldn’t have said that to her about partying; she’s real religious.” I was immediately intrigued by the fact that Mary hadn’t tried to make me feel bad about partying by saying something like, “Well, I don’t party!”
Several days later, I crossed paths with Mary near the dorms on campus. We stopped to talk, and I brought up the religion issue: “Somebody told me you were religious.” “I’m a Christian,” she said. That led to further talk about church, including my own church experience as a kid, and to Mary’s inviting me to the campus Christian fellowship that met weekly. I agreed that I’d try it sometime, and we began to go our separate ways.
When we were only a few paces apart, Mary stopped, turned around, and called out after me, “Ed, before you go, could I pray for you?” I hated that question! (Now, I’m so thankful that Mary was being sensitive to the Holy Spirit. What if she had resisted, or been too fearful to do what came next? Where would I be?) I was so embarrassed at the prospect of being seen praying there on that busy walkway by the dorms! But I also had just had a religious talk with Mary, I didn’t want to come across as the complete heathen I was, and I didn’t want to say no—so I reluctantly said OK to the prayer.
Thankfully, Mary decided it would be better to pray a little ways removed from the busy path. She placed her hands on my shoulders and began to pray. I have no clue what Mary said. I was just hoping that she would be done soon! But then Mary prayed these exact words: “Lord, use him as you’ve called him to be used.” I will never forget those words.
When she said that, it was as though scales were removed from my eyes! I was immediately reminded of that prayer time a couple of years before, while I was in the Army, when I felt God wanted me to return to that college. I hadn’t thought of that prayer at all since then. But all of a sudden, I was under the realization that God had brought me back there, that I was right where God had planned for me to be at that very moment, and that he indeed had a call on my life! I was absolutely amazed that God had a plan for me in spite of my rebelliousness. I had just had an eye-opening experience with the presence of God! That experience changed my life forever.
I remain convinced that an experience with God will change anyone’s life. I’m also convinced that, while we can’t become dependent on experience for the sake of experience, a degree of ongoing spiritual experience is necessary for Christian vitality. Also, a time of heightened spiritual experience, or revival, becomes necessary when we drift too far from the experiential essence of our relationship with God.
Paul says to us in Romans 8:16, “God’s Spirit bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” In other words, we are best convinced of our relationship with God by having an experience with the Holy Spirit. We will all benefit from a renewed experience of who we are in Christ by experiencing a fresh work of the Holy Spirit. We need revival.
I welcome your stories of the experience of God that brought you into relationship with him. Please share your story in the comments.