The following post is shared by the Robert Smith Jr. Preaching Institute. The Robert Smith Jr. Preaching Institute exists to strengthen preachers and preaching. Drawing from the work of the Beeson Divinity School faculty, we seek to offer practical wisdom to preachers whose desire is to faithfully proclaim the Word of God.
This from 27-year old creative writer Megan Holstein:
There is no such thing as “my truth.” “My truth” is something people like to say these days. You hear it from the mouths of millennials when they are discussing their life experiences. “I’ve been trying to live my truth lately.” “We disagree. Your truth is your truth and my truth is mine.” “I admire the way you speak your truth.”
The phrase “my truth” is usually meant to mean some combination of “my opinion” and “my experience.” Unlike either of these phrases “my truth” implies an unarguable quality. You can’t contradict me, because this is my truth. Except I can, because there is no such thing as my truth.
Well done, Megan! And Christians should understand with some precision why there is no such thing as my truth.
The Lord of Experience
But the reason has nothing to do with the discounting of either experience or feelings. Affirmation of experience and feelings abound in Holy Scripture. Experience is almost synonymous with life itself. I guess in some odd sense Lazarus “experienced” death in the tomb before Jesus woke him with the summons, “Lazarus, come forth,” but I think you see the point. “To live” and “to experience” are inextricably linked.
There is something non-sensical, even preposterous, about opposition to experience. Eliminate actual future experience of the promised new heaven and new earth and what of value is left of the doctrine of eternal life? The doctrines speak of the realities themselves—realities meant to be known precisely in our experience. The doctrines serve the realities, not the reverse. Gratitude for the Christological consensus hammered out from Nicea to Chalcedon arises precisely because it defends truth the Bible speaks about Jesus Christ himself. It’s not the doctrines we worship and serve and love and know by experience, but the One of whom Bible and Spirit bear witness and whose witness the doctrines defend and clarify. Preachers, like John the Baptist, nourished and prompted by Word and Spirit, point away from themselves to the Lord of all good things—including experience.
The Lord of Feelings
Feelings too! These sub-components of experience take center stage again and again in the Bible. Not only is our God the God of all comfort; he bids believers to comfort others with the comfort they receive from him. The Lord purposely precipitated far more than a change of thinking in King David through the prophet Nathan’s pointed rebuke—“Thou art the man!”
Knowledge and love, both divine perfections, always target the whole person of the beloved—mind, heart, body, and soul. The parent who requires a child to apologize to the victim of his cruel act aims to nurture both appropriate thinking and feeling in the child.
Zondervan’s 1989 publication, The Serendipity Bible (a.k.a. the Barbara Wah-Wah Bible by doctrine and truth-protective critics) employed feeling as an essential hermeneutical tool for students of Scripture. This question appeared repeatedly in its marginal notes—“when you read this passage, how did it make you feel?” That question is a bit troubling, but not because it affirms feelings as such. One adjustment rectifies the trouble—“when you read this passage, how should it have made you feel?”
The work of God’s Word and Spirit, especially in preaching, includes the closing of gaps between how we do and ought to feel. Hostility to feelings and desires, which are closely related, and the goal of achieving imperviousness to both, belong to Buddhism, but not to the Bible.
The Lord of Meaning and Truth
By divine creation, truth and experience are not enemies, but friends. Whatever truth we know was obtained through experience, enjoyed in experience and, when all goes well, produces feelings appropriate to the truth.
But when we speak about experience and truth, problems arise when we forget that experience, by itself, is no truth-teller, especially where the deep things of God, creation, and redemption are concerned. Experience can fail us even when more seemingly mundane concerns confront us. A little boy plays often in a garage fitted with wall outlets long disconnected from electricity. Daily he safely jambs coat-hangers and nails and a screwdriver in and out of those outlets. Hmm. What false and dangerous meaning might he draw from his experience? And so innocently. But that meaning is a lie. A lie which, if acted on outside that garage, might just kill him. How much affirming of the boy’s experience, of “his truth,” should a loving parent provide in this case?
The distinction between experience and meaning bears upon the relationship between experience and truth. Siblings (you decide how many) gather around the open grave of their deceased 36-year old mother as the casket descends into the ground. Every sibling, indeed, every mourner, involuntarily draws meanings from this tragic bereavement. One is comforted by the promised resurrection. One decides that God is either not loving or not powerful. Another decides there is no God. Which meaning is true or partly true? Which parts?
Mark this down—the meaning of every human experience is what God knows it to be. And where the most important questions are concerned, God’s Word and Spirit must enable our laying hold of that meaning, the only meaning, the one that matches reality, the one that is true.
The Limits of Experiential Truth-Telling
But wait, doesn’t my sex or the color of my skin or some other group identifier anchored in shared experience render me the authoritative knower of the true meaning of that experience that others must acknowledge? Wariness in the face of unsolicited marriage advice from the never-married seems warranted. Childless adults armed with child-rearing advice might have trouble mustering docile audiences among the child-rearing. If you’ve never served in a combat zone, you might want to listen a bit to those who have before you commence waxing wise on the subject in public.
Shared experience tends to nurture relational bonds and should win a respectful initial hearing from the inexperienced. But the shared meanings drawn cannot guarantee their own truth. Experience provides opportunity for true learning, but cannot ensure it. Not by a long shot. Old fools exist. Experience is wasted on some people (Gal. 3:4). And where the deepest, most complex experiences are concerned—consensus proves elusive, especially where group identity is concerned. Phyllis Schlafly and Betty Friedan, both white women. Chuck Schumer and Mitch McConnell, both white men. Ta Nehisi Coates and Thomas Sowell, both black men. The meanings these pairs have come to draw from their experiences, and their advice to others of their group about the meanings they should draw, are not only different—they are often incompatible, even contradictory.
Children of the Lord of All Truth
We are the adopted, sibling children of a shared loving Father who admonishes us, each and all, that his thoughts and ways are not ours (Is. 55:8). He bids us lean not upon our own understanding (Pr. 3:5). Are we surprised that the meanings drawn from our experiences require illumination, interpretation, correction, and judgment by the power of the Spirit of God using the Word of God? What does God mean to do in us when we read and reflect upon his Word and hear it preached? Among other things he means to reveal the true meaning of our experiences, stir up feelings in us proper to their true meaning, and bond us with one another in the truth.
Mark DeVine is associate professor of divinity at Beeson Divinity School, where he teaches history and doctrine courses.