Recently some of us, lecturers from our local seminaries, gathered together and had a good time of fellowship and discussion. We were talking about the training of our students. In the ensuing discussions that followed, one senior lecturer commented in a mixture of exasperation and frustration, “ how come some of our students do not seem able to integrate their theology and their everyday lives?”
She went on, “ We teach them the doctrine of God and that God is trustworthy and in sovereign control not only of our lives but the universe. Yet issues of trust and dependence upon God remain a major problem. What they were taught and how they live do not seem connected.”
I thought about her comments long after our time of fellowship was over. Why the disconnect between theology and experience? We teach that God is loving, merciful and compassionate. Yet for many, the dominant experience of God is that of fear. Mike Mason articulates this feeling well. In his book, Practising the Presence of People he wrote:
“For years I had believed in Jesus, worshipped Him, followed Him, even loved Him. But I had never felt we were friends. He was someone who kept me on edge, not someone with whom I could completely relax. Whenever I came to Him, I always felt bad for all the ways my life didn’t measure up. Like Peter, I would say in fear, “go away from me Lord; I am a sinful man!” In a sense, instead of inviting Jesus into my life, I kept telling Him to go away. I knew I wasn’t good enough for Him and never would be.”
Mike Mason knows all the right theology. He knows that it is wrong for him to make himself acceptable before Jesus would receive him. The basis of his relationship and indeed ‘friendship’ with Jesus is the atoning sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. Yet knowing that he was saved by Jesus, did not make him feel safe with Jesus. Again we see here the disconnect between theology and experience.
This led me realise that our feeling, our experience is a truer barometer of our belief system than our ability to rationally spout out our theology. Our head tells us that God loves us and is for us and not against us. Our feeling or emotion tells us “ I am not so sure about that!”
The reason is that very often our memories of God’s dealing with folks we know and folks that we love tell us that God has abandoned them. Our prayers for deliverance, for healing, for help were ignored. These memories forged out of a myriad of experiences, then create the theology we really believe in our hearts. What we really believe is that “ God is not for us but against us.” But this belief is embedded in us so subliminally that we are not conscious of it at all. Most of us would recoil in horror and despair if this is pointed out to us. But our feeling, our emotion or better still, our heart do not lie to us. What we really believe in our heart of hearts may not be what we believe in our head.
Similarly, our memories of how people treat us, especially key authority figures like fathers, teachers, pastors may distort our understanding of who God is. If our father is a stern, distant and authoritarian figure, then our mental picture we have of God our heavenly father is the same!
Hence lecturers in bible seminaries cannot just teach correct theology. Even though the theology we teach is firmly grounded and faithful to Scripture. Like the Puritan pastors in 17th century England, we must also be ‘physician of the soul’. We must not only teach our students, we must pastor them and know what is in their hearts.