Know Why You Believe: Chapter 12 Is Christian Experience Valid?

Source: Know Why You Believe Book by Paul Little

First edition published in 1968 by Scripture Press Publications, Inc.

“You could get the same response from that table lamp if you believed it possessed the same attributes as your God,” said the young law student. This articulate skeptic was telling me what thousands feel — that Christian experience is completely personal and subjective, and has no objective, eternal, and universal validity.

The premise behind this notion is that the mind is capable of infinite rationalization. Belief in God is seen as mere wish-fulfillment. In adults, it is a throwback to our need for a father-image.

The assumption, whether expressed or not, is that Christianity is for emotional cripples who can’t make it through life without a


It is claimed that Christian conversion is a psychologically induced experience brought about by “brainwashing” as used by both Fascists and Communists. An evangelist is just a master of psychological manipulation. After pounding away at an audience, people become putty in his hands. He can get them to do anything if he asks for a “decision” at the right time and in the right way.

Some go further. Christian experience, they claim, is sometimes positively harmful. More than one student has been packed off to a psychiatrist by unbelieving parents after he has come to personal faith in Christ. “Look at all the religious nuts in mental asylums. It’s their religion that put them there.” Those who feel this way have succumbed to the “common-factor fallacy” pointed out by Anthony Standen. He tells of a man who got drunk each Monday on whiskey and soda water; on Tuesday he got drunk on brandy and soda water; and on Wednesday on gin and soda water. What caused his drunkenness? Obviously the common factor, soda water!1

For many, the Church is thought of as the last stop on the train before being institutionalized. A careful scrutiny of a truly disoriented person, however, would reveal imbalance and unreality in other areas as well as in his religious life. It is actually a credit to the Church that she is willing to offer help to these people. On the other hand, some mental disturbances have spiritual roots. As these people come into a right relationship with God through Jesus Christ they find immediate release and healing.

So strong is the prejudice in some quarters against the validity of Christian experience that academic degrees have been denied. A friend, studying in one of our best known universities, was denied a Ph.D. degree in Social Science. He was told, “Believing what you do about God, you are by definition crazy .”

It is suggested by some skeptics that all Christian experience can be explained on the basis of conditioned reflexes. This thinking has its roots in experiments by Pavlov, the famous Russian scientist. He placed measuring devices in a dog’s mouth and stomach to determine the production of digestive juices. Then he would bring food to the dog and at the same time ring a bell. After doing this repeatedly over a period of time, Pavlov rang the bell without producing the food and the dog salivated as usual. The inference drawn is that by such repeated conditioning, the mind can be made to produce desired physical reactions. It is on this basis that we can explain all political, social, and religious conversions, say the proponents of this view.

These are serious, far-reaching charges. Some of them have an air of plausibility. Is Christian experience valid?

At the outset, we must concede the possibility of manipulating human emotions in some circumstances. And we would have to admit that some evangelists consciously or unconsciously play on the emotions of their audiences with deathbed stories, histrionic performances, and other devices. Jesus, in the parable of the sower, implicitly warns against merely stirring the emotions. He describes those who have received the seed of the Word of God into stony places as those that have heard the Word and received it with joy but who have no roots in themselves. They endure until tribulation and persecution come, and then they are “soon offended.” All of us have heard of people who have made what appears to be a tremendous response to the Christian message, only to fall by the wayside. Often this happens when they learn that it “costs” something to be a Christian and are not prepared to pay the price. Their emotions were stirred but their wills had not been bent to obey God.

Dr. Orville S. WaIters, Director of Student Health at the University of Illinois, a Christian psychiatrist, has pointed out that the will is like a cart pulled by two horses: the emotions and the intellect. With some people the will is reached more quickly through the emotions. With others it is reached through the mind. But in every case there is no genuine conversion unless the will has been involved.2

But to attempt to explain all Christian experience on a psychological basis does not fit the facts. In passing, it is well to observe a principle that applies here as well as in other areas, i.e., to describe something is not the same thing as explaining it. To be sure, Christian experience can be described psychologically, but this does not explain why it happens nor negate its reality.

One evidence that Christianity is true is the reality of the experience of those who embrace Jesus Christ. One of the challenges a Christian throws out to skeptics is, “Taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8). Verify for yourself, in the laboratory of life, the hypothesis that Jesus Christ is the living Son of God. The reality of Christian experience is evidence of the validity of Christianity.

What of the objections that Christian experience is merely a conditioned reflex? First we must ask, as Dr. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones does in answering the influential book, Battle for the Mind, by William Sargant, whether the comparison between men and animals is a strictly legitimate one. Man has reason and a critical faculty, and has powers of self-analysis, self-contemplation, and self-criticism which make him quite different from animals. “In other words, the comparison is only valid at times (like war) when what differentiates man has been knocked out of action and a man, because of terrible stress, has been reduced for the time being to a level of an animal.”3

Second, if we are only creatures of conditioned reflexes, then this must also explain acts of great heroism and self-sacrifice in which man has taken pride. Such acts must be nothing but responses to a given stimulus at a given point. Taken to its logical conclusion, a deterministic view of human behavior eliminates moral responsibility. The little girl who said, “It ain’t my fault, it’s my glands,” was right. It is significant, however, that those holding a deterministic point of view philosophically tend to operate on a different basis in daily life: like anyone else, they want a wallet stealer arrested promptly!

We cannot explain Christian experience on a conditioned reflex basis, however. Since thousands reared in Christian homes unfortunately never become Christians, the fact that many others do trust Christ cannot be explained exclusively on the basis of background. Though personal faith in Christ is the only door to becoming a Christian, the roads that lead to that door are almost as many as the number who enter it. I have known persons who became Christians the first time they heard the Gospel. It is significant, by contrast, that in political brainwashing, as with Pavlov’s experiments, the stimulus must be applied repeatedly for some time in order to get the desired result.

Those who have become Christians, out of every conceivable religious and non-religious background, testify uniformly to an experience through personal commitment to Jesus Christ. The evidence of their changed lives testifies to the reality of the experience. This result cannot be gained from a bridge lamp by positive thinking. If positive thinking were the answer to everything, we would have no problems. As a matter of fact, the law student previously referred to committed his life to Christ in the course of the week’s lectures that followed.

But how do Christians know that they are not victims of auto-hypnosis? Subjective experience as such does not prove anything. Many have claimed experiences, the reality of which we may legitimately question. There must be more than experience on which to base our conviction, or we could be in difficulty.

For instance, suppose a man with a fried egg over his left ear came through the door of your room. “Oh,” he glows, “this egg really gives me joy, peace, purpose in life, forgiveness of sins, and strength for living!” What would you say to him? You can’t tell him he hasn’t experienced these things. One of the powers of personal testimony is that it can’t be argued. The blind man mentioned in John 9 couldn’t answer many of the questions put to him, but he was sure of the fact that now he could see. His testimony was eloquent in its power.

But several questions could be asked of our friend with the fried egg which also should be asked about Christian experience.

First, who else has had the same experience with the fried egg? Presumably our friend would be hard put to produce others. The late Harry Ironside was preaching, some years ago, when a heckler shouted, ” Atheism has done more for the world than Christianity!” “Very well,” said Ironside, “tomorrow night you bring a hundred men whose lives have been changed for the better by atheism, and I’ll bring a hundred who have been transformed by Christ.” Needless to say, his heckler friend did not appear the next night. With Christianity, there are hundreds from every race, every country, and every walk of life who bear testimony to an experience through Jesus Christ.

Secondly, we should ask our friend with the fried egg, What objective reality outside of himself is his internal subjective experience tied to? How does he know he is not a victim of auto  hypnosis? Of course he will have nothing to say. In Christianity our personal subjective experience is tied into the objective historical fact of the resurrection of Christ. If Christ had not risen from the dead we would not experience him. It’s because he rose from the dead and is living today that we can actually know him.

Christian experience is not induced by belief in unrealities. It is not like the fraternity boy who died of fright when tied to a railroad track one night during hazing. He was told that a train would be coming in five minutes. He was not told that the train would pass on a parallel track. He thought there was only one track. When he heard the train approaching he suffered heart failure. With Christianity, nothing happens if there is “no one out there.”

Because Christ is really “there,” all the possibilities of his life within us are realizable. It is only half the story when we sing, “He lives within my heart.” The other crucial half is that we know he lives because he rose from the dead in history. Our personal subjective experience is based on objective historical fact.

In commenting on the truth that people, in suffering, speak of drawing upon power outside themselves, J. B. Phillips says, “I know perfectly well that I am merely describing subjective phenomena. But the whole point is that what I have observed results in objective phenomena – courage, faith, hope, joy, and patience, for instance — and these qualities are very readily observed. The man who wants everything proved by scientific means is quite right in his insistence on ‘laboratory conditions’ if he is investigating, shall we say, water-divining, clairvoyance, or telekinesis. But there can be no such thing as ‘laboratory conditions’ for investigating the realm of the human spirit unless it can be seen that the laboratory conditions’ are in fact human life itself. A man can only exhibit objectively a change in his own disposition, a faith which directs his life — in the actual business of living.”4

It is in these objective results in personal life that we see some of the dynamic relevance of Christ. He meets man in his deepest needs.

Christ gives purpose and direction to life. “I am the light of the world.” he says. “He who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). Many are in the dark about the purpose of life in general and about their own lives in particular. They are groping around the room of life looking for the light switch. Anyone who has ever been in a dark, unfamiliar room knows this feeling of insecurity. When the light goes on, however, a feeling of security results. And so it is when one steps from darkness to the light of life in Christ.

God in Christ gives our lives cosmic purpose, tying them in with his purpose for history and eternity. A Christian lives not only for time, but for eternity. Even routine is transformed as he lives the whole of his life in God’s purpose and obeys the admonition, “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). This purpose embraces every aspect of life. It is also an unending, eternal purpose. Undoubtedly a non-Christian has such temporary purposes as family, career, and money that give limited satisfaction. But these, at best, are transient and may fail with a change in circumstances.

To an age in which life has been described as meaningless and absurd by existentialist philosophers, nothing could have more power and meaning than this verifiable claim of Christ.

The late Carl Gustav lung said, “The central neurosis of our time is emptiness.” When we do not have money, fame, success, power, and other externals, we think we’ll achieve final happiness after we attain them. Many testify to the disillusionment experienced when these have been achieved and the realization sets in that one is still the same miserable person. The human spirit can never be satisfied ‘.by bread alone” – by material things. We have been made for God and can never find rest until we rest in him.

An automobile, however shiny, high-powered, and full of equipment, will not run on water. It was made to run only on gasoline. So man can find fulfillment only in God. He was made this way by God himself. Christian experience offers this fulfillment in a personal relationship to Christ. He said, “I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst” (John 6:35). When one experiences Christ, he comes to an inner contentment, joy, and spiritual refreshment which enables him to transcend circumstances. It was this reality that enabled Paul to say, “I have learned, in whatever state I am, to be content” (Philippians 4:11) .This supernatural reality enables a Christian to rejoice in the middle of difficult circumstances.

“Peace in our time” expresses the longing of all men as they view the international scene. We hope against hope that the current brush-fire wars will not erupt into a large-scale conflict.

Peace is the quest of every human heart. If it could be bought, people would pay millions for it. The skyrocketing sales of books dealing with peace of mind and soul testify that they have touched a resonant chord in the lives of millions. Psychiatrists’ offices are jammed.

Jesus says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). Christ alone gives peace that passes  understanding, a peace the world cannot give or take away. It is very moving to hear the testimony of those who have restlessly searched for years and have finally found peace in Christ. The current rise in narcotic addiction, alcoholism, and sex obsession are vain hopes of gaining the peace which is in Christ alone. “He is our peace” (Ephesians 2:14).

Today’s society is experiencing a profound power failure — a moral power failure. It is not that we don’t know what to do, it’s that we don’t seem to have the power to do what we know is right in many instances. The result is rapid deterioration of the moral fabric of society. Merely to give good advice to either the old or young is like putting iodine on cancer. What is needed is radical power. Christianity is not so much the putting of a new suit on a man, as it is the putting of a new man into the suit. Jesus Christ said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). He offers us his power. Not only is there power and freedom from things like alcohol and narcotics, but power to forgive those who have wronged us, to resist temptation, and to love the unlovely. Men with this new life have new appetites, new desires, new loves. They are, in fact, “a new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17). Salvation is a literal coming from death to spiritual life.

Christian experience solves the guilt problem. Every normal person feels guilt. A guilt complex is an irrational feeling that has no basis in fact. But guilt felt over something done wrongly, in violation of an inherent moral law, is normal. The absence of any guilt. feeling is abnormal. A person who feels nothing after deliberately killing or hurting an innocent person is abnormal. Guilt must not be rationalized away. In Christ, there is an objective basis for forgiveness. Christ died for our sins; the sentence of death that belonged to us has been taken by him. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). Forgiveness at the personal level is a reality.

Christianity speaks to man’s loneliness, so characteristic of modern society. It is ironic that in a period of population explosion man is more lonely than ever. Christ is the Good Shepherd (John 10:14) who will never leave us nor forsake us. And he introduces us into a worldwide family and a fellowship closer than a blood-relationship with an unbeliever.5

Finally, in recognizing the validity of Christian experience we should realize that a psychological description of it is valid as far as it goes. But it is only a description, not a cause. A man who is converted has a new spiritual life within him. This new life will thoroughly affect his entire personality. One part of man’s nature cannot be altered without affecting the rest of him.

Man’s brain and nervous system may be analyzed in the same way as his heart and kidneys. The body and spirit are inextricably intertwined. Man is this totality. He is not merely a spirit encased in a body. On the other hand, his mind is a reality. The mechanical and spiritual aspects of life are complementary. Dr. Donald M. MacKay puts it very helpfully:

“One familiar illustration is that of the use of lamps to signal from ships at sea. When a man sends a message from ship to shore, in one sense all that is coming from the ship is a series of flashes of light, but the trained sailor who sits on the shore watching this light says, ‘I see a message ordering so-and-so to proceed somewhere,’ or ‘Look, they’re in trouble!’ Why does he say this? All he has seen is ‘nothing but’ flashes of light. The whole pattern of activity can be correctly labeled thus by a physicist, and described so completely that he is able to reproduce at any time exactly what the man on shore saw. He does not add ‘the message’ as a kind of ‘extra’ at the end of his description, and it would clearly be silly to say he is ‘leaving out the message’ as if it were very wrong of him to do so. What he has done is to choose one way of approaching a complex unity, namely, the sending-of-a-message-from-ship-to-shore, one aspect of which is a purely physical allowing of complete description in such terms as the wave lengths of the light and the time pattern. On the other hand, if he reads it also as a message, it is not as if he had found something mysterious, as well as the flashing, going on. Instead, he has discovered that the whole thing, when he allows it to strike him in a different way, can be read and can also make sense in nonphysical terms. The message here is related to the flashing of light, not as an effect is to a cause, but rather as one aspect of a complex unity is related to another aspect.

“Take another illustration. Two mathematicians start arguing about a problem in geometry. With a piece of chalk, they make a pattern of dots and lines on the board, and the fun waxes fast and furious. Can we imagine some non-mathematician coming in and saying, in amazement, ‘I can’t see what you’re arguing about – there’s nothing there but chalk?’ Once again this would illustrate what I like to call the fallacy of ‘nothing-buttery’ – the idea that because, in one sense, at one level, or viewed from one angle, there is nothing there but chalk, therefore it is unnecessary…to talk about what is there in any other terms. Again, if the mathematicians protest, ‘But there is a geometrical figure there; we are talking about these angles,’ they are not suggesting that the other man’s eyes are failing to detect something that they are seeing on the board. Both of them are responding to exactly the same light waves. It is not that the mathematicians have a sixth sense or anything queer that enables them to receive from the board some invisible emanations that the other fellow is not receiving. The point is that, as a result of a different attitude to what is there, they have power to see in it, or, if you like, to abstract from it, an aspect or significance which the other misses. Of course, in this case he can be trained to discover it. There is no great difficulty in their eventually coming to agreement, and he then realizes that the geometrical pattern is related to the chalk on the board, not indeed as effect is to a cause, but in a still more intimate way.

“I want to clarify this alternative to ‘a cause and effect,’ because it bears on questions that are often raised about the ‘causation’ of bodily action by mental activity. If an argument were to come up as to whether the light causes the message or the message causes the light, whether the chalk-distribution causes the geometrical figure or the geometrical figure causes the chalk-distribution, we would see at once that the word ’cause,’ in the scientific sense, is the wrong one here. Causality in science is a relationship between two events or sets of events, the cause and the effect. Here we have not two events or situations, but one. You cannot have the flashing of the light without the message: they are one set of events. You cannot have the chalk-distribution without there being, at the same time, the figure on the board. On the other hand, the two do have a certain kind of independence. It would be possible to reproduce the same message or figure in a quite different embodiment — in ink or pencil, for example. It is for this reason that I prefer to say that the one ’embodies’ the other.”6

The fact that some Christian experiences can be produced by other means is a warning against the temptation to manipulate human personality. The fact that solid Christian experience is also sound mental health is an asset rather than a detriment, and is an evidence of the Gospel’s validity.

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