Sometimes, we find new clarity in the oddest places.
A few nights ago, I went to see the new movie, Doctor Strange, and I found that this comic book story presented an important truth. . .a truth I drew from unexpected parallels between the fictional journey of Dr. Stephen Strange and my journey as a Christian.
The movie portrays a character whose life was wholly grounded in observable reality — in the here-and-now of our world, dimensioned in space and time. Strange, a scientist and a physician, was absolutely convinced that reality was comprised exclusively of what could be observed, measured and manipulated in the physical universe.
Through the telling of his story, we come to learn how the doctor’s understanding of the context of his own existence was changed forever by and through his experiences with others who lived in and revealed to him contexts not limited to the here-and-now of life on earth. The experiences changed everything for Dr. Strange.
The movie’s journey of discovery into unknown and unexpected aspects of human existence was familiar to me. . .it reminded me of elements of my own journey of discovery with Jesus and the God of the Bible.
The movie highlights the essential role that experience plays in our understanding of reality. No amount of reading or study could have changed Doctor Strange’s understanding of reality. Without powerful, personal experiences that forced him to accept and embrace new realities, he remained stuck in the traditional, here-and-now view of existence.
That is certainly what I experienced in my Christian walk: I could not embrace the reality of an interactive, relational God, who was engaged in my life, without personal experiences that communicated to me, in unequivocal ways, that God exists and cannot be denied. Just like Doctor Strange, it was my experiences that forever changed my perspective on life and living.
Sit in that for a minute.
It was not Bible reading; it was not apologetics; it was not powerful stories of faith. Those tools may have started and even contributed to my journey of faith, but none of them, by themselves, could make Jesus or the God of the Bible real to me. To become real, God had to be experienced!
This necessity of experience in the walk of faith is obvious and persistent in the lives of the men and women who nurtured the early Christian church and ushered the growth of the faith over the centuries. . .growth that eventually carried Christianity across the entire world.
We see in the story of the Apostle Paul a marvelous example of the dispositive impact of personal experience. Paul, who experienced on the road to Damascus the total collapse of the world he thought he knew, came face to face with a new reality through personal, revelatory experiences of Jesus Christ. Paul was transformed by his experiences. . .from a persecutor, who believed deeply and intensely that followers of Jesus were a threat to the nation of Israel and blasphemous toward God, into a man who knew to the core of his being that Jesus was, in fact, the living Messiah from God. Paul’s experiences of the reality of Jesus were absolute and undeniable: the only rational and possible path for his life from that point forward was to follow Jesus and serve Him without reservation.
Paul’s here-and-now changed. . .it changed so drastically that he would endure, over the course of the remainder of his life, torture and persecution and hardships, because he refused to abandon the reality that He had come to know. He was even willing to die, rather than turn away from Jesus.
The same outcomes from experience can be found in the lives of other Biblical apostles and followers: Peter, John, James and Stephen, to name the most prominent. These men experienced firsthand the reality of Jesus and His demonstration of the true context and purpose of human existence, and those experiences fundamentally reordered their lives to the point of eventual martyrdom for their new understanding of reality.
The history of Christianity is replete with other firsthand accounts of men and women who experienced the presence and involvement of God, personally and intentionally, in their lives to such an extent that their understanding of the realities of human existence forever changed. They knew the God of the universe as One who has announced and demonstrated unequivocally, “I am real, and I am here!”
The parallels are apparent — between the story of Dr. Strange and the stories of men and women who have come to know Jesus and the God of the Bible — that experience dispositively reorders one’s understanding of reality. And as depicted in the movie and as told through the history of the Christian faith, embracing a new reality necessarily mandates action in accordance with and not in denial of what has been newly realized.
Despite the scriptural and historical endorsement for experience, we tend to emphasize “belief,” instead, as the foundation for Christian faith.
But “belief” is for concepts and ideas, not for experienced reality. One doesn’t “believe in” gravity; it is, instead, an undeniable reality of our existence on this planet. Gravity, like all reality, is unaffected by whether we believe in it or not. Regardless of our beliefs, we are compelled to order our choices and our lives to reflect the realities of our world, including the reality of gravity, or we face consequences.
The Christian walk is not defined by “belief in” God. Belief is certainly an element of faith; however, people don’t fundamentally change their entire lives based solely on “belief.” They don’t endure persecution, loss of jobs, punishment, torture, or even death, because they’ve come to believe in a concept or an idea. No, only powerful, personal experience imparts a grasp of reality sufficient to sustain one in the face of such opposition. It is through undeniable experience, whether external or internal, that Christian men and women come to know truly the reality of Jesus and of the God of the Bible.
I have my own experiences — my personal encounters with God and His Hand in my world — and those experiences convince me, absolutely, that God is real, that Jesus is real, that the Bible is God’s instruction book to us, and that our purpose for being is to worship, to love and to serve the God who created us.
The God of the Bible and the Jesus of the Bible are not matters of belief for me; they are, instead, realities that my experiences have revealed. The Presence and the Call of God in my life, like in the lives of other Christians, are compelling and undeniable, and no less so than are the existence and the implications of other realities, like gravity, in my world.
Because of experience, the world is different for men and women who follow Jesus and the God of the Bible. . .just as the world of Stephen Strange in the movie was different, because of his experiences.
The point and the lesson here is this: It is impossible to know me, as a person, or to understand me, as a Christian, without first grasping the important truth that I am not defined by what I “believe”, but instead, I am defined by the reality in which I live. That is true of all genuine Christians. It is a thing the world, especially the secular world, regularly fails to comprehend.