Growing Together in the Light

A place for Friends and others to explore Quakerism. A place where, in the Light that comes from God, we may all grow and where we may hope to find a unity that underlies our diversity of language.

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Location: Arlington, Massachusetts, United States

Raised a Friend, I am currently a member of Fresh Pond Meeting in Cambridge, Mass. I am also active in Salem Quarterly Meeting and in New England Yearly Meeting.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

This I know experimentally

And when all my hopes in them and in all men were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor could tell what to do, then, Oh then, I heard a voice which said, 'There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition,' and when I heard it my heart did leap for joy. Then the Lord did let me see why there was none upon the earth that could speak to my condition, namely, that I might give him all the glory; for all are concluded under sin, and shut up in unbelief as I had been, that Jesus Christ might have the preeminence, who enlightens, and gives grace, and faith, and power. Thus, when God doth work who shall prevent it? And this I knew experimentally.
George Fox, 1647

This is George Fox's description of the great opening he had turned him from a seeker to a finder and an itinerant preacher and so led to the Quaker movement. But I want to focus today on the last sentence, “And this I knew experimentally.” If we were to paraphrase this into modern English, it would probably be rendered, “And this I knew experientially.” I think though that the older word carries with it some useful associations. In modern English, to know something experimentally implies some kind of scientific rigor. We know something because we have conducted experiments and have demonstrated it. But scientific experiments are really a formalized method of trial and error. One proposes an idea and then conducts some experiments to see if the idea is true or not. This is the heart of the scientific method and seems to us far removed from spirituality.

I think that for Fox, and anyone who proposes an experiential theology, as Friends do, the element of experiment is important. Fox came to his opening only after he had traveled around seeking out the leading lights of his day. He found that none of the people who he met could answer the questions in his soul. He found the answers in an inner voice. He heard this voice, he identified it as the Inner Christ, and he found confirmation in that his “soul did leap for joy.”

It does not take a lot of introspection or experience with people to realize that there are a number of voices speaking in us at any time. Some Christians will quote Jeremiah 17:9, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” to support their idea that we should trust only in Scripture, because our own hearts are too unreliable. There is a useful caution here because there appears to be no limit to human powers of self-deception. But this is not the end of the story. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 2:13 “And we speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit.”

How are we to know which is the correct voice to listen to. In John 10:4-5, Jesus says “the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because do not know the voice of strangers.” How do we come to know this voice. The short answer is that we conduct experiments. In Galatians 5:22-23, Paul identifies the fruits of the Spirit. “By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” In Matthew 7:15-17 Jesus instructs his followers to judge people by their fruits. “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit.” This is actually very sound practical advice and it applies to both inward and outward prophets. If we hear a voice that we think might be God's, listen and follow it. Then look at the results. Does it bring forth, in however small a way, any of the fruits of the spirit, or does it have the opposite effect? This provides guidance as to the nature of the voice. So by listening and observing carefully, one can learn to distinguish the Shepherd's voice from all others.

Likewise, the journals of Quaker ministers have many stories of their difficulties in learning when to speak in meeting. Some, like David Ferris, recount the long periods of their resistance to the voice prompting them to speak. He reports that it was the fervent prayers of a traveling minister that enabled him to break through his resistance. John Woolman, on the other had recounts a story of when he spoke more than he should have and felt an inward correction. After anguish and prayer, some weeks later he was led to speak some words in meeting that gave him peace. “As I was thus humbled and disciplined under the cross, my understanding became more strengthened to distinguish the language of the pure Spirit that inwardly moves upon the heart.” In both cases, there was an inward prompting or correction. Both people also had encouragement from their community to pursue greater faithfulness. This is an experimental approach to religion.

For many people, religion has been taught as something that they have to accept on authority. Sometimes it is the authority of a book, be it the Bible, the Koran, or the Torah. Sometimes it is the authority of a person, be it the Pope, an evangelist, or a pastor. Sometimes the authority is tradition. Anyone who teaches that ultimate authority rests with any outward authority and not with the Spirit as heard in the heart is teaching something less than the full Christian message. Quakers say that you can hear God yourself . As Robert Barclay says, “It is the privilege of the Christian to know the Shepherds voice.” Learning to know this voice is a process and, as in any learning, there are bound to be mistakes. Knowing that we are all learning, we need to be gentle with ourselves and each other when mistakes are made. But as we progress in our discernment we are able to say, as George Fox did, “And this I know experimentally.”


Will T

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Blogger Jeff said...

I'm curious as to how you would apply this to Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac (More specifically, Abraham's hearing that he should sacrifice his son as coming from the divine). Personally, it strikes me as a myth (as does the rest of Genesis) in which to find meaning as a literal reading is not in keeping with the God I know experimentally. No doubt this is why Paul, James and the author of Hebrews each look for a different understanding of this passage. The schizophrenic gloss aside, if Abraham was being tested why not argue with God as he does, however limitedly, over the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah? Certainly, to say that any such being making that kind of a demand is not worthy of worship would be passing the test in my book.

October 13, 2011 10:33 AM  
Blogger Will T said...

Hi Jeff,
I don't have a full answer to the story of Abraham and Isaac. I would say that you must remember that Abraham was near the end of his journey at that point, and not at the beginning. He already knew God well enough to recognize God in the form of 3 strangers and was confident enough in his relationship with God to argue with God on the road to Sodom. So this was a test of a mature faith, and not a test of someone just beginning to learn to recognize the voice of God. I was holding the people who were not confident in their discernment in my mind when I wrote this post.

But God is also not safe. We often do not know for sure if we have chosen wisely until we have made our choice and seen the consequences. And sometimes there are real consequences.

Early Friends sometimes used, as a test of a leading whether or not they wanted to do the thing to which they were led. If it was something that they didn't want to do, they had greater faith that it was a true leading. I have had opportunities to follow leadings that have been difficult, but they have also carried with them the assurance that this was the right thing to do and that I would be carried in the work, and I found that to be true.


Will T

October 13, 2011 11:16 PM  
Anonymous Patty Lunz said...

I most certainly hope that you are correct in your assessment, Pago . Accreditation has been a snare. Somehow our educational institutions should find a way to cope with it. I realize it's easy to say but there must be sufficient "smarts" in the Adventist community to avoid this continuing subservience to worldly values which are opposed to Christian values.
In The Grip of Truth and-state-a#sthash.xizzDUmS.dpuf

February 26, 2013 10:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very Good, post, loved it, I will recommend to all and would like more posts, I'll read Narrative Text

May 03, 2013 9:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I found this post today and found it really helpful on the question of discernment. What is from the Spirit and what is ego or " critical parent"? I will re-read later as I love to read George Fox's revelation. Thank you, Barbara E.

December 18, 2016 1:40 PM  

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