In-Sight: The Nature of Experience

As a Christian in the Wesleyan tradition, I am glad that I have been given a theology that includes an emphasis on “experience.”  Wesley didn’t invent this; in fact, every theological tradition has it in one way or another.  There can be no theology without experience engaged somehow.  But I am still grateful that I didn’t have to look long and hard to see the place of experience in my Christian faith.

But as with all other concepts, the notion of “Christian experience” can be taken too far.  I’m thinking about one extreme and want to post my thoughts….

We take experience too far when we come to think of it as something we must produce.  It can happen in both corporate and individual ways.

In the corporate extreme, we can work to order services of worship, so that people can have “an experience” with God.  I know churches that do this with a down-to-the-minute schedule of how every aspect of the service is to go.  This is not the only corporate violation of the notion of experience, but it’s one that’s quite popular today.

On the individual level, we can do it in terms of “creating the conditions” by which we can have an experience of God.  I know people who think you can only experience God by sitting in certain positions, breathing “correctly,” or even using a specific kind of devotional plan and related materials.  This is not the only individual way of violating the notion of experience, but it’s one that makes the circuit frequently today.

None of these things is evil, and no one can doubt that they often do become means of helping groups and individuals experience God.

But the trouble is that they can come to define “experience” as something we must provide or arrange.

Instead, we must hold on to the proper notion of experience—as something God gives.  We receive experience; we do not generate it.  This does two very important things for us.

First, it keeps the Source straight.  God is the Giver of all experiences.  We are on the receiving end.  Without this our spirituality can become overly humanistic, even ego-centric.

Second, it means that we can experience God anytime, anywhere, through any means.  We don’t need certain kinds of liturgy (or no liturgy).  We don’t need certain kinds of music and/or instruments.  We don’t need any particular style or atmosphere.  All these may be helpful, but none of them is necessary.  God is everywhere all the time.  So, every moment can be a “God moment” in which we receive an experience, rather than produce it.

From our vantage point, the important thing about experiencing God is the disposition of our hearts toward God, not the plans we may come to mistake for the experience itself.



About Steve Harper

Retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 42 books. Also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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2 Responses to In-Sight: The Nature of Experience

  1. Steve Adcock says:

    In my spiritual journey, I have come to see an abiding, underlying, and quiet peace/joy as an “experience” that is with me almost constantly. It’s not intense or always emotional, but it is an experience that I believe Jesus was referring to when He promised His followers “a peace that passes understanding” and a “rest” for the weary that come to Him. You can’t “plan” for a gift of grace but you can enjoy something the world can’t give nor take away. Thank You God for Your indescribable gift of Yourself!

  2. Scouse mouse says:

    Two words “expectant hearts “

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