“Or what?” Consider those words as you read this today. Mull over their application and the times they have lived inside and behind words spoken to you or by you.
There is a saying that has many mangled versions, but the supposed original version is: “a man with an experience is never at the mercy of an argument.” Hold onto that a second.
There is a bit of Scripture which pairs to the saying quite beautifully: James 1 verses 2 and 3, which read:
“My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations; Knowing this, that the trying of your faith worketh patience.”
These two pair because they describe two sides of the same thing: James speaks of how experience is gained, and the cliche explains why that experience is valuable. They also pair because in both cases we have no idea who formulated them, when or where, or why.
You may or may not know this, but for almost two thousand years there has been rabid debate about whether the epistle of James even belongs in the Bible because its history is so sketchy and its message so “borderline heretical.” We say that it was written by Jesus’ brother, but there is a lot of contradictory evidence on that.
The average church presents no such controversy — it’s bad for business — but the truth is it is entirely possible the letter is errant and doesn’t meet what the collators set out as the “requirement” to be part of Scripture. The entire book makes argument about the proper behavior here on earth, but many — including John Calvin and Martin Luther — have said it preaches a works-based faith that promotes earning the favor of God when Christ Himself directly countered such “foolishness.”
The saying about experience likewise gets much debate because it is a two-edged blade: yes, if you were on the Titanic when it sank you don’t have any use for some intellectual who is trying to describe what happened in the wreck. But experience does not grant mastery. I have swung a golf club thousands of times, but I still hit the ball maybe 5% of the time. All that time did not grant me the ability to stand above arguments of proper play-styles.
If you have had cancer and your doctor hasn’t you are still “at the mercy of his argument” because he knows more about cancer than you do. A schizophrenic off their medication has the experience of being fine, but that doesn’t render it true. Eye witness accounts have been proven for the past ten thousand years to be less reliable than an educated guess about what happened.
Our experience cannot be trusted so blindly. It can come with authority, but it is not necessarily so. It’s a pretty piece of wall art, but the saying is trite and narrow and, frankly, it’s wrong more often than right.
The problem with the book of James and the cliche is that they require balanced ingestion: they must be used responsibly. Therein lies a great strain on faith, because most of us have no balance in our nature. The me-who-used-to-be — my Old Man, the me who attacked Christians rabidly — relished that lack of balance because it allows moments of weakness which gave me an opening to pry apart the faith of others.
It makes my heart hurt to remember him: I was quite vicious, quite ruthless, and quite dedicated. But I cannot pass it away, because much of what I know of the Bible is informed by that man’s corruption, that man’s desperate search to disprove God. It was in the search for the wrong answer that Our Father was able to crystallize the right one into an unshakable faith.
There’s millions, perhaps billions, of people in the world who just don’t care if there’s a God or not, or who He might be. They just don’t see a need to answer that question. They will often use that apathy to construct a defense against religious incursion. It isn’t that they don’t believe in God or that they hate our faith, it is that they are so sick of hearing us parrot Jesus to them that they flip into a need to tear us down. I used to be that guy.
They rarely bring forward arguments like “Christ doesn’t exist,” because that’s a fool’s argument; it immediately sparks defensive hostility. No, they use — I used — Satan’s argument: the small question, the innocuous ask, the Socratic evocation that made the first step. The “what if?” that was precisely chosen for your specific weakness to tear down the first brick in your most vulnerable wall.
My wife can attest that I still sometimes do this in arguments, though blessedly rarely, and that it isn’t pretty. I don’t enjoy participating in arguments, but I do so enjoy winning them. I honed the skill to do so. The worst part of all this was that I did it because I honestly thought I was helping you to be better, more free, more educated, more fulfilled. I wasn’t an attacker, I was a liberator. I was freeing you from the bonds of tradition and dogma and the condemning voices of judgmental miscreants. In hindsight: nothing is as deadly as an ill-calibrated good intention.
Groove is in the Heart
I was ultimately trying to teach everyone to question their own beliefs to be sure they actually knew what they really believed and why. The more you knew the Bible the easier it was, because more often than not that knowledge came from either arrogance or self-flagellation rather than Love of, and personal relationship to, its object.
While it brings me joy to know that old man is dead, overdosed of his own miserable lusts, that ability to question, to challenge established truths, is a thing I’m very thankful to retain, because many don’t have that. My goal has changed, but my intention has not.
I used to believe that everything you needed to be whole, happy, and successful was inside you, and that reason alone could draw you to power, to truth, to freedom. So I wanted to teach you to reason. Now I realize the truth: everything you need to be whole, happy, and successful lives inside you, and that discernment alone can bring you to power, to truth, to freedom. So I need to teach discernment. I need to help people identify the voice and face of God.
Freak on a Leash
That knowledge shows me the weight of the job before the Lord, the true challenge of using us to reach the world. When faced with the left-hand path of self-reliance, the stopping force of shame and guilt, or the narrow path of trust in Christ our innate reaction, even in our self-congratulating righteousness, is to choose self-reliance more than anything else. Like, every time. We will pick our way over trusting Him. Every. Single. Time.
You don’t have to look much past the fractious nature of the Christian church to prove it. Look at the biggest moves in the church today. There’s the prosperity preachers who say God wants you to be rich so you can buy rocket ships for the poor or whatever, and they don’t care that God prefers a balanced approach. There’s the universalists who say there is no Hell and everyone is already in and you should never feel compelled to do anything for anyone at any time, despite God’s repeated call to Love each other in order to save each other from the eternity of separation from Him. There’s the hyper-grace people who say that God doesn’t care what you do because Jesus gouged out His eyes or something.
All of these, and a dozen other I could rattle off, are theologies absolutely void of God or His input because these people wanted to take their control back. We are flawed vessels, brothers and sisters. I cannot imagine the daunting nature of having to decide which of us will screw up the least in delivering His messages.
But that’s just one view. To come full circle: it is that very outlook that is challenged by both the saying “a man with an experience is never at the mercy of an argument” and the book of James, particularly James 1:2-3. The “argument” the saying talks about, and the “divers temptations” James is talking about, are this: humanity sucks.
James is a pastor talking to pastors. He is saying “guys, when people fail in your church over, and over, and over, and over, and over… don’t give up hope or trust or Love for them. It is those failures that teach them, and you, to trust more fully in God and His direction.”
The saying was meant to evoke that same sentiment: “when you experience God you lose any need to argue over the value of humanity.” Both are pointing to the truth that we can easily fall into fear of how others will screw up our purpose, and that fear holds us back from our purpose.
We are broken vessels, but we are the vessels He designed and we are the vessels He purposed to carry His very Spirit. If I knew nothing else about humanity I would rejoice in them for that truth. Our Father made a purpose for each of us in His house. He made a plan that accounted for each of us, that not only allows for our frailty, but actually hinges on it.
Can you fathom that? He built His entire plan for this universe around YOU. The one who makes every speck of dust and every intergalactic void and every collapsing neutron star… He hinged the entire plan for this entire universe on YOU. And He spends every moment of your life wholly focused on YOU. Rejoicing in you, Loving you, hoping in you.
More importantly? All that is true of me, and that guy down the street, and the girl who did that thing that hurt you. His plan hinges on every single one of us and He spends His entire eternity focused wholly on every single one of us every single moment of our lives.
You don’t have to trust me, you don’t have to even trust you. You just have to trust that He Loves you.
You remember when I opened this post and I asked you to keep the words “or what?” in your mind? Here’s why: I have often said that God spends every interaction He has with you asking you if you believe that He Loves you. The rebellion I am talking about usually stems from “or what?” He says “do this” and we say “or what?” He says “talk to that person” and we say “or what?”
But the hope I am talking about, the amazing ability to trust in Him, is also defended with “or what?” The demon says “let me lead you” and we can say “or what?” The world says not to trust people, and we can say “or what?”
Everything in life is about the perspective you approach it with. “Or what?” can be the yawn of death or the zeal for life. It depends on whether you are worshiping death or worshiping life.
I talked in yesterday’s Word With Friends about the word “perfect” and how we abuse it. That abuse stemmed from rampant death worship in the 14th century; from men who had a desperate need to control the world because men were so untrustworthy that you couldn’t even trust God to know what He was doing with them.
Let’s take back our positivity. Let’s take back our perspective. Let’s refuse to bend to the internal desire to mistrust Him. Let’s focus instead on what He can do through us and proving to Him and to ourselves that He can trust us with it.
Rejoice in the challenges and frailties of your life. It is in those things that you find growth, it is in those things that you become more you. Make today the first day of your experience in fighting FOR humanity, not against it.
Father, I am not sure I got this one out right. I see what you’re telling me, but my words just fail me. I trust, wholeheartedly, that You will press right through the emptiness of me and sprout Your idea right in the hearts of all who read this. The little lion says it’s terrible and I shouldn’t post it, but I say “or what?”
I will never understand why You chose me for this purpose, but I will spend every breath following Your every instruction. Because I trust You. I believe You Love me. I know that You will lead me down every step You ever want me to take. I Love You. Hopelessly, breathlessly, completely. I pray that every reader can feel that same spark, that same affection.
In the name of my brother, my King, my Savior, and Your Word, Your Son, and Your anointed Christ — Jesus — I pray. Amen.