More Than a Definition

Imagine that it is blazing hot and you are extremely thirsty — parched. Would it help if someone came up and communicated the following?

Water is the liquid that descends from the clouds as rain, forms streams, lakes, and seas, and is a major constituent of all living matter and that when pure is an odorless, tasteless, very slightly compressible liquid oxide of hydrogen H2O which appears bluish in thick layers, freezes at 0° C and boils at 100° C, has a maximum density at 4° C and a high specific heat, is feebly ionized to hydrogen and hydroxyl ions, and is a poor conductor of electricity and a good solvent.

That’s a great definition — very technically correct — but it would do nothing to satisfy your thirst. I’m all for accuracy in terminology. In many cases, precise wording is vital and absolutely necessary. However, in other situations, we need more than just a good definition; sometimes we need an experience. The Bible provides all kinds of life-giving information, but Psalm 34:8 also tells us to “Taste and see that the Lord is good.”

Duke Ellington, the famed jazz musician, was once asked for a definition of rhythm. He responded, “If you got it, you don’t need no definition. If you don’t got it, ain’t no definition gonna help.” Similarly, acknowledging the need for something beyond technical knowledge, Thomas à Kempis remarked, “What good is it for you to be able to discuss the Trinity with great profundity, if you lack humility, and thereby offend the Trinity?”

Recently, while writing Magnificent Jesus, I was addressing Jesus’ relationship with the Father and the Holy Spirit, I noticed that the Bible never gives a technical definition for the Trinity, but Scripture does provide dozens of descriptions of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit working harmoniously together for our redemption. Likewise, Jesus never gave a technical definition of the Holy Spirit, but he gave many descriptions of his work and operation. For example:

  • He is like rivers of living water flowing from the believer’s heart (John 7:38).
  • He dwells in the believer (John 14:17).
  • He teaches and reminds (John 14:26).
  • He testifies (John 15:26).
  • He convicts (John 16:8).
  • He guides (John 16:13).
  • He speaks (John 16:13-15).

Thank God he does all of these things, and because he does, we have the privilege of sensing him at work in our lives. Charles Spurgeon described the Holy Spirit’s work in us this way:

Even so we have felt the Spirit of God operating upon our hearts, we have known and perceived the power which He wields over human spirits, and we know Him by frequent, conscious, personal contact… We know that there is a Holy Ghost, for we feel Him operating upon our spirits. 

Leonard Ravenhill wrote, “A man with an experience of God is never at the mercy of a man with an argument.” Think about that. When you’ve experienced the goodness of God and the power of the Holy Spirit, you are not impressed with someone who merely has a theory or a philosophical position. Yes, I believe the Bible, but I also know what I have experienced relative to the hand of God touching my life, and no one could ever talk me out of that.

Throughout my ministry, I’ve had people come at various times and express concern that they were not feeling God’s presence, or that they had not been sensing his presence as they did compared to a time when they had during a certain spiritual experience or season. I have always encouraged people to put facts first, faith second, and feelings third. I’ve never encouraged people to pursue feelings or to use feelings as a litmus test of their spirituality. God is with you whether you “feel” him or not. The word of God is our foundation and anchor, but we appreciate sensing his assurance and presence when we do.

Definitions further our understanding, and that is good, but descriptions encourage connection and experience. It is good to have a correct understanding of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, but we also have the privilege of sensing his work in our life. For example, Paul writes, “The Spirit Himself [thus] testifies together with our own spirit, [assuring us] that we are children of God” (Romans 8:16 AMPC). There is a sense of assurance we receive from the Holy Spirit that we are the very children of God. He is real to us.

I’m not speaking of a mere feeling, or of an experience outside of a biblical context (we are not called to be spiritual thrill-seekers), but Bible-based experience. Dale Bronner said, “Words can never be understood in isolation. They can only be understood in a context, against a backdrop of experience.” This is why when Scripture describes God speaking, it does so in terms we can understand from our life experiences. For example, God’s word is like:

  • Gold and Honey (Psalms 19:10)
  • Lamp (Psalms 119:105)
  • Rain and Snow (Isaiah 55:10)
  • Fire and a Hammer (Jeremiah 23:29)
  • Bread (Matthew 4:4)
  • Water (Ephesians 5:26)
  • Seed (1 Peter 1:23)
  • Milk (1 Peter 2:2)
  • Sword (Hebrews 4:12)
  • Meat (Hebrews 5:11-14)
  • Mirror (James 1:23)

I propose that there are many people who mentally agree that the Bible is God’s word without allowing the word to be precious to them, to nourish them, to illuminate them, etc. Vance Havner addressed this when he said, “It is tragic to go through our days making Christ the subject of our study but not the sustenance of our souls. To appropriate Christ Himself, the Bread of Life, is to live by faith and grow. You can starve reading books on bread.” Another individual spoke of people who have a Christian vocabulary but lack Christian experience.

A large part of our assignment is not simply to tell people factual information about God, but to invite them, through faith, to actually experience him. Consider:

  • Come and see what our God has done, what awesome miracles he performs for people!” (Psalm 66:5).
  • When two of John’s disciples asked Jesus where he was staying, he told them, “Come and see” (John 1:39).
  • When Nathanael asked if anything good could come out of Nazareth, Philip replied, “Come and see for yourself” (John 1:46).
  • After the encounter with Jesus in Samaria, the woman at the well told the people of the village, “Come and see a man who told me everything I ever did! Could he possibly be the Messiah?” (John 4:29).

Donald S. Whitney made a great observation relative to scholarship and devotion. 

Why do we seem to think we must choose between the two? Why so many Christians live as though they’ve been told, ‘choose you this day whom you will serve: scholarship or devotion?’ I maintain that a biblically balanced Christian has both a full head and a full heart, radiating both spiritual light and heat.”

I agree! I want to believe and preach the right things. But I don’t want mere mental assent in my own life or in the lives of my hearers. God has more for us than that. He desires faith, obedience, application, and transformation in all of our lives. He wants us to experience him — to taste and see that he is good.

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