It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees. - Psalm 119:71
I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. - Philippians 4:12
To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. - 1 Peter 2:21
John Calvin called the physical universe “the theater of God’s glory.” As we look in wonder at the uncountable starry host of the Milky Way, the snow-capped grandeur of the Rocky Mountains, the purples and reds of a sunset over the Grand Canyon, the thunder of crashing waves on the seashore after a severe storm, we have a sense of the greatness and majesty of God. God has put His glory on display in the physical world.
In a similar way, God has unfolded His wisdom and attributes in Redemptive History, by His sovereign control of events in daily life all around the world. Thus the physical universe and unfolding human events are both vital sources of spiritual information. They are together not just the “Theater of God’s glory” but the “University for Christian Maturity.” A spiritually mature person does not just have a vast array of biblical facts stored up in their head but he or she also has a wide variety of spiritual experiences in God’s world which have shaped their minds and helped them grow. Thus there are two vital sources of the knowledge that leads to godliness: the bible and God’s world. There is factual knowledge and there is also experiential knowledge.
Now it is essential to put a clear priority on Scripture over experience, simply because Scripture speaks with a clearer voice than does experience. Many have “spiritual experiences” that they subsequently interpret a certain way and are mislead. Scripture stands over all private experiences and interprets them. It is a dangerous thing to trust to experience in the absence of a solid base of biblical knowledge; going astray is almost a certainty in that case.
However, the fact is that, apart from life in this world, Scripture itself is unintelligible. Scripture is human language, and all human language is absorbed primarily through experience. From infancy, a child is taught his mother tongue (probably even by his mother): nouns, verbs, adjectives, grammar, syntax, all of them learned in daily life. Experience comes first, then comes language. A child can live in the world for as much as eighteen months or more before speaking a single word. But that whole time, they are learning through experience about God’s world.
Long before learning the Apostle Paul’s command, Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love (Ephesians 4:2), a child has a vast storehouse of experiential data on what humility, gentleness, patience and love look like. The child can recall the many times his mother cradled him in her arms when he was crying and gently, tenderly cared for a skinned knee or some hurt feelings. Apart from that ever-growing storehouse of experiential data, Paul’s command would be literally unintelligible. Paul openly appeals to this storehouse of life experience when he wrote to the Thessalonian Christians, we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children (1 Thessalonians 2:7, ESV). That experience was common all over the world—a nursing mother tenderly caring for the needs of her infant. Paul appealed to it to remind the Thessalonian Christians of how he was among them.
And that storehouse continues long after conversion, well into the adult years of Christian development. We meet people in God’s Kingdom who are both humble and prideful, both gentle and harsh, both patient and impatient, both loving and unloving. The knowledge base is incessantly augmented. Some role models step forward and become powerful examples to us of all godly traits; so also bad examples are stored up. We remember specific encounters with all these people, both painful and pleasant. And these encounters help us understand the Scripture.
Furthermore, we see ourselves behaving in all of these ways: sometimes obedient to Paul’s command in Ephesians 4:2, sometimes disobedient. Real life gives meaning to the words on which Scripture depends, and Scripture in turn interprets real life experiences. When we have learned sufficiently what gentleness and patience look like in daily life, what they look like in a facial expression or in body language, then the command from God through Paul stands over daily life behavior and judges it: “That right there was gentleness! Good! Do it all the more!” or “At that moment you were impatient and harsh. That was sin. Repent!” So it is with all the words used in Scripture. Each of them must have a data base of life experience behind them or they will be unintelligible to us.
Every day we live in this world expands our life experiences and makes us more and more ready to understand the all-sufficient Scripture. It is the Scripture that sanctifies, but it does its work in a context of an ever-growing storehouse of experience.