The culture of the 21st-century west is one that not only encourages, but compels you to follow your heart and live your truth. We’re told that nothing can define what is true for you except what you believe in your heart based on your experience. Ours is a culture—like all that have come before and all that will come after—full of idols, and there is no idol more persuasive than the idol of me. This isn’t new; it’s been that way since the fall. Adam and Eve were reasoned into disobedience by the serpent because Satan pointed to experiential aspects that, if true, couldn’t mean that God wanted what was best for them. Once Eve saw that the tree would be good food, that it was a delight to the eyes, and that she would be wise like God, she and Adam ate (Gen. 3:1-6). Her experiences of the creation led her to put herself first, and God’s revelation of that creation second.
We know what happened next—Adam and Eve were banished from the garden, and the curse has rested upon us ever since. Thousands of years later, we’re still inclined to our own self-interest in the same way. We’re conditioned through advertisements, elementary school, books, movies, and more to trust your own instincts more than the testimony of experts or the wisdom of our elders. We no longer live in a world governed by revealed moral law, but in a world of moral relativity where we’re told that the only thing you can know for sure is your own truth, and it’s that truth that defines what is right. So if something—anything—comes against what your experience is telling you, it must be wrong for you, bad for you, or both.
At such a moment in our time and culture, it feels so unnatural to hear the words of Jeremiah: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (17:9). We find this challenging (even for Christians), because our experiences are powerful and formative. If you’ve had a bad experience with a product you buy, you probably won’t buy that product again; if you get food poisoning from bad coleslaw at KFC, you’ll think twice before going to that restaurant again. There may not have been anything systemically wrong—maybe you just got a defective product; maybe KFC just had a bad batch of coleslaw that day—but your experience of that one event will change the way you view purchasing or eating in that particular context going forward. When we take this out of the mundane and move to a larger, more universal issue like pain and suffering, we’ll find that the rule remains the same. If you’ve experienced pain or loss, and it seemed like the heavens we’re silent to you in that moment, you may be tempted to generalize the feelings of that one experience and fall into believing that God cannot be loving, good, or just like you’ve been taught. The impulses of your heart, derived from your felt experience, can override everything else that could possibly vie for truth in your life. This is the great challenge of the Christian life—to continually bring all of our experiences, good and bad, under the sovereignty of Scripture. We must learn to balance the knowledge gleaned from our experiences with who God is and who he calls us to be.
This is difficult—we’re beset by foe without and traitor within. We say honestly with Paul, “I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.” Our adversary the devil prowls like a roaring lion, seeking to devour, and our hearts are deceitful above all things. We are forced to look outside ourselves to find something we’ve been conditioned to search for within. Where can we find this truth we’ve been relying on our own experiences to provide?
At the end of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus states the way for us:
“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.”
Jesus is telling us that the only way to build our life in a way that the storms we experience around us won’t bring the house down is to build the house on the rock of ages himself. Jesus Christ is the truth (Jn. 14:6), and our lives need to be built within sanctifying design the great architect himself has given us through his word (Jn. 17:17).
Our experiences, on the other hand, are shifty and incomplete. Before we were saved, we believed ourselves to be alive from our experiences, but Paul tells us that what we thought was life was actually death (Eph. 2:1-3). Now that we’re Christians, our experiences may tempt us to think that we’re no better off—maybe worse off?—than the wicked we were once counted among (Ps. 73:1-15), but with the foundation of God himself, and with such a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us, we can rightfully discern the full end of both the just and the unjust. By the Holy Spirit opening our eyes in faith we can see past the temporal and into the spiritual reality that we are, right now, seated with Christ in the heavenly places (Eph. 2:6). This doesn’t negate our experience—pain and suffering don’t just evaporate—but it does give us the right perspective from which to experience it. We see our present difficulties as the loving discipline of a wise and good father, not the capricious whims of an impersonal deity. (Rom. 8:18).
Our experiences still slither up to us and whisper the familiar refrain of the ancient serpent, “did God actually say…” but we must remember Christ’s final cry on the cross. Trusting only what we feel is ultimately self-delusional, not wise. It binds us to the swirling winds of our emotions and the innumerable variables of the wider world, very little of which we can account for and comprehend. That’s not real truth. Truth can’t be contrived. Truth—the kind of truth upon which we build our lives and use to plan our ways—is received and incorporated. And the truth is, whether you’re a Christian or not, the storms of life are coming (if they haven’t already), and there’s only one way those storms won’t destroy the house.
The homes that we build upon the rock will have leaks in the roof from the rain and water damage caused by the floods of life. They will be scarred by whatever the wind has picked up and thrown into them over the course of time, but they will still stand. Our assurance is not in the house we’ve built—however beautiful and sanctified it may look—but the foundation we’ve built it upon. Our assurance is in the comfort of God’s word, and the community he’s called us into, his church. This is where we must go for counsel and consolation. Through the means of grace, we are reconditioned to interpret our inward inclinations through the outward revelation of who we are, how the world is, and what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. Our hearts are idol-factories, always turned inward toward our inclinations, antipathies and desires, but the heart of God is for his redeemed. Our experiences are imperfectly understood, interpreted through the lens of sin and pain, but he experienced the torment of the Father’s wrath so that we could experience his joy. In that deceptive moment of darkness, the King of Glory died and all seemed lost, but what seemed to be great defeat was actually great triumph. What seemed to be the end of the story was actually the climax. What seemed to be left undone was actually finished.
So even when the sorrow of the present pain seems so true, let us build upon the trustworthy foundation of the empty tomb and our seated king. We’ve been promised that, by his strength, we will persevere to the end, but that perseverance will come with suffering. There will be trials along the way. If Christ was made perfect through suffering (Heb. 2:10), and we have been called to pick up our crosses and follow him (Luke 9:23), then we should not be surprised when suffering meets us along the path of our Christian lives as well. Let’s not despair, but be comforted as we remember that God is using it to conform us into the image of Christ himself. Let’s look to our head, our foundation, our great cornerstone, to him who has promised to see us through to the end (Phil. 1:6). As our Christian lives began in faith, so they continue (Gal. 2:20), and if, in faith, we continue to build our lives upon the rock of Christ we shall not be moved (Ps. 21:7).
Matt Boga is a member and lay leader at Reality Church of Stockton in Stockton, CA where he lives with his wife and son. In his free time Matt enjoys reading, building with his hands, and playing basketball. You can follow him on Twitter at @mattboga.