A two part series I recently preached on Isaiah’s encounter with God and how it informs our understanding of grace and the Christian mission:
There is this perpetual myth floating around that has implications for our understanding of wisdom, decision-making, and the will of God. It is a myth that is pervasive but proves wanting with a little Biblical and logical examination. However, without being examined many use it as an excuse to ignore any counsel that is contrary to choices they already want to make or have made.
I call it, “THE MYTH OF EXPERIENCE.”
Can I Know If I Haven’t Tried?
This myth has a number of iterations. For example, I do a lot of ministry with families. Some of the most fruitful pastoral opportunities involve teenagers and their parents. However, I do not have any children of my own. Therefore, when I have a difference of opinion with a parent over a particular issue the invariable response they give is, “you don’t understand because you don’t have kids.” Really? A doctor doesn’t have to have a disease to know the cure.
The whole purpose of advice is to help others avoid experiencing something that is bad or harmful or help them try something they haven’t tried. If experience is necessary then Christians can just get rid of the Bible and start experimenting (it appears some have already started down this path). This goes along with the old notion that “people have to learn the hard way.” Maybe some people choose to learn the hard way but they sure don’t have to learn the hard way. If possible, I would rather learn from the mistakes of others than experience them myself.
I am not trying to denigrate the value experience can have. Those who have made poor choices or experienced particular things are able to understand and empathize in a more robust way with others in similar situations. However, their experiences are not necessary for godly decision-making or figuring out “what is right.”
Experience Can Be Negative
It is important to remember that experience is not always positive. First, some experiences irreparably harm you or have consequences that never go away. In addition, personal experience makes objectivity more difficult than it already is. None of us see the world from a completely fair and unbiased perspective. None of us interpret history objectively. No Christian can look at the Bible and fully understand its meaning without being affected (either positively or negatively) by their own worldview and experiences. As a result, it might be possible that someone who has not experienced a particular situation may be able to more fully appraise the possible outcomes without being unfairly influenced by their own past.
Experience Can Cloud Objectivity
Most of us interpret things the way we want them to be rather than they way they are or should be. I have a recent example that makes this perfectly clear. I have some mutual friends that recently had a baby. On her blog, my friend carefully explained all of the positives of breastfeeding in public. Her main arguments were based on the fact that it was natural (it’s a part of the human body’s natural experience) and necessary (a baby has to eat). Purely because I sensed a logical inconsistency I pointed out that a lot of activities are natural and necessary (e.g., going to the bathroom) but our society still requires us to do them in private. Now, I’m not trying to rile up all of the lactating mothers out there. I’m just using this recent incident as an example. My friend (as a mother) was having a hard time seeing things from an unbiased point-of-view and was insinuating that when my wife and I have a baby we’ll understand. Basically, since we haven’t experienced this situation we have no right or ability to comment! Personal experience will increase our empathy of how difficult this issue is but it shouldn’t change our understanding of the issue at hand. One could argue that I am just as biased in the other direction since I do not have a hungry child whose cries melt my heart. That is my point, experience actually makes it harder to achieve objectivity (in both directions)! Since no one can remove their experiences or lack thereof, how do we decide what is right? We’ll get to that a little later.
Age and Experience
Another variation of this myth involves age. Many people argue that “experience = wisdom.” We all know this isn’t the case. I have met a some older people that are exceeding experienced and exceedingly wise. On the other hand, I have met a lot of experienced, elderly people who are immature and unwise. What is the difference? Experience is not synonymous with wisdom. One can be wise and inexperienced. One can also be old and inexperienced. I have met a number of elderly people that haven’t experienced a lot in there lives. However, wisdom and experience combine to make an unmatched resource for discernment, advice, encouragement, information, and much more.
Wisdom and Truth Are Independent of Personal Experience
How can one find wisdom? The theme of wisdom is prevalent throughout the Bible. In the New Testament, Jesus is described in terms of the Old Testament wisdom literature (e.g., Prov. 8:1-36, 1 Cor. 1:18-25). Jesus is the Word and Wisdom of God. There is hope for those of us who don’t have sufficient life experience. We can still have wisdom via the person of Jesus Christ.
For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God… For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength… It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God (1 Cor. 1:18, 25, 30).
When Paul is talking to Timothy he explicitly tells him that his youth and, in some regard, inexperience do not negate his calling, his giftedness, and (most importantly) the truth that he has received (1 Timothy 4). The mature in his congregation are worthy of respect but the foundation of the church is not on their experiences but on the Word of God to which they must be faithful.
Ultimately, it is not one’s experience or inexperience that should guide decision-making. Jesus is the power and example of wisdom; he is the truth.
1. Experience is not necessary to make the right decision.
2. Experience does not equal wisdom.
3. Experience is not always positive, it can be harmful.
4. Personal experiences can cloud one’s ability to make a sound, Biblical decision.
5. Experience and wisdom work together to produce godly discernment and judgment.
6. Experience is not the final determiner of what is wise and true, Jesus is.
I have recently heard the idea that “you can’t appreciate the highs without the lows.” Most of the time it comes from well-meaning people trying to encourage someone who is going through a tough time or who has made some mistakes. Other people invoke this expression justify why they have to “learn things the hard way.”
I think we should file the phrase “you can’t appreciate the highs without the lows” under “statements that have no meaning at all.”
Can I appreciate a good marriage without experiencing a bad marriage? Can I be thankful for a good job if I haven’t had a bad job? Can I enjoy sobriety unless I have battled addiction? Must I experience bankruptcy to appreciate wealth?
Obviously it is illogical and unbiblical to think that bad is necessary to appreciate good. Granted, the bad times can provide perspective to the good, but I am of the opinion that information can be as good as experience. I, for one, prefer to learn from the mistakes of others.
The Bible teaches us to learn from tough experiences and mistakes, but it never indicates that we must experience these things to appreciate the blessings of God. I imagine that the Bible would never warn us about sin if we could only “learn the hard way.” Warning someone to avoid sin would be of no use because the only way they could learn that something is bad or has negative consequences is from experience. Do you see where I’m going with this?
If sin was necessary to appreciate God’s goodness and grace, then God is deficient. God either created sin or is in need of sin to accomplish his task. Since this is not a Biblical or logical option, we can deduce that we don’t always have to learn the hard way (though we often choose to learn things the hard way). I think that faithful obedience and simple trust in God is a more fulfilling avenue to joy than the highs and lows of experiential learning.