IS CHRISTIAN EXPERIENCE VALID?
By Paul Little
(Acts 9: 1-31)
YOU COULD GET THE SAME RESPONSE FROM THAT TABLE LAMP IF YOU BELIEVED it possessed the same attributes as your God," said the young law student. This articulate skeptic was telling me what thousands feel--that Christian experience is completely personal and subjective and has no objective, eternal and universal validity.
The premise behind this notion is that the mind is capable of infinite rationalization. Belief in God is seen as mere wish fulfillment. In adults, it is a throwback to our need for a father image. The assumption, whether expressed or not, is that Christianity is for emotional cripples who can't make it through life without a crutch.
Some go further. Christian experience, they claim, is sometimes positively harmful: "Look at all the religious nuts in mental asylums. It's their religion that put them there."
Christian experience is not induced by belief in unrealities. Because Christ is really alive, all the possibilities of his life within us are realizable. It is only half the story when we sing, "He lives within my heart." The other crucial half is that we know he lives because he rose from the dead in history. Our personal subjective experience is based on objective historical fact.
In Acts 9 we find the historical account of one whose conversion came as a surprise to all concerned and resulted in radical spiritual change.
When have you felt that someone was questioning the validity of your Christian experience?
(If you're doing this study online, you may want to grab some blank sheets of paper to jot down your thoughts and responses to this and following questions.)
Think of a notorious sinner (a famous person or a personal acquaintance) you have known of. When have you found yourself questioning someone's conversion? (For help see Study Notes)
Think about your own spiritual journey. What aspects of your experience validate the truth of Christianity for you?
Read Acts 9:1-31:
1 Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord's disciples. He went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. 3 As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?"
5 "Who are you, Lord?" Saul asked.
"I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting," he replied. 6 "Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do."
7 The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. 8 Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. 9 For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything.
10 In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, "Ananias!"
"Yes, Lord," he answered.
11 The Lord told him, "Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying. 12 In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight."
13 "Lord," Ananias answered, "I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your saints in Jerusalem. 14 And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name."
15 But the Lord said to Ananias, "Go! This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. 16 I will show him how much he must suffer for my name."
17 Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, "Brother Saul, the Lord--Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here--has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit." 18 Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul's eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, 19 and after taking some food, he regained his strength.
Saul spent several days with the disciples in Damascus. 20 At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God. 21 All those who heard him were astonished and asked, "Isn't he the man who raised havoc in Jerusalem among those who call on this name? And hasn't he come here to take them as prisoners to the chief priests?" 22 Yet Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Christ. 23 After many days had gone by, the Jews conspired to kill him, 24 but Saul learned of their plan. Day and night they kept close watch on the city gates in order to kill him. 25 But his followers took him by night and lowered him in a basket through an opening in the wall.
26 When he came to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he really was a disciple. 27 But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles. He told them how Saul on his journey had seen the Lord and that the Lord had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had preached fearlessly in the name of Jesus. 28 So Saul stayed with them and moved about freely in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord. 29 He talked and debated with the Grecian Jews, but they tried to kill him. 30 When the brothers learned of this, they took him down to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus.
31 Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace. It was strengthened; and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it grew in numbers, living in the fear of the Lord.
1. If you were a Christian in Damascus, what about Saul's story would you find surprising?
2. According to verses 1-2, what sort of person was Saul?
3. How do you see God's power at work in this passage?
4. Describe someone you know who is being changed by God's power. (For help, see the Study Notes.)
5. Describe Ananias's initial response to the Lord's request (vv. 10-16).
Why do you think he responds in this way?
6. What does Saul do to prove himself to the other Christians (vv. 18-22, 28-29)?
7. How does the change in Saul affect other people?
How does this passage encourage you to continue to be a witness to those around you?
How could you effectively present some of the truths in this chapter to a person who thinks your Christian experience is a fantasy?
Take time to add any new insights to your list of reasons for putting your hope in God through Christ Jesus.
Recall the details of your own conversion experience and allow your praise to God to well up in response. Pray for someone you know who has yet to experience the joy and peace Christ offers.
Taken from Study Six, Certainty, Christian Basics Bible Studies. Permission kindly granted to Faith and Reason Forum by InterVarsity Press.