We have all probably been there. We are sharing about something that has happened in our lives, and the person who is supposed to be listening is instead jumping in to share about how what happened to us is similar to what happened to them. Or maybe we’ve been in the situation where we go to seek advice and the person only wants to tell us what worked for them, even if that solution is not as relevant to our particular problem. The reason these things occur is that we are most comfortable speaking from our own experience. If something happened to us, or something worked for us, we feel that it has the “Good Housekeeping Stamp of Approval” to be illustrative for someone else.
However, there’s a danger to this tendency when we apply it unthinkingly to our spiritual life because God is working in each of our lives in different ways. That doesn’t mean that God doesn’t have some universal principles that are true regardless of who we are, what He has called us to, or when in time He happens to plant us. He certainly does – and the Bible makes these things clear as they are stated as commands. What we need to be careful of is that, as Joshua Harris describes in this letter, we don’t reduce a principle to a specific, singular practice. Unless, of course, God has dictated following His command in a specific, singular way. If He has not, we do a disservice to others when we suggest (either explicitly or implicitly) that the way that works for us, is the way that everyone has to do it.
This doesn’t mean that we can’t provide our advice or input. We certainly can. And if we’ve have found a beneficial way to put God’s principles into practice, it would be good for the growth and edification of fellow believers to share it. But we have to make sure we don’t confuse the tool with the rule. Writing in a journal may be great for our prayer life, but it doesn’t require that everyone has to write in a journal in order to follow God’s command to pray. Flash cards may help us meditate on God’s Word day and night, but it’s not a requirement to use them in order to follow this Scriptural principle. These are trite examples, but they are hopefully illustrative of the larger point. Although I’ve never heard anyone say journaling and flash cards are necessary for the Christian to grow, I have heard the same reduction of a principle to a singular practice in other areas of the Christian life.
Let me perhaps illuminate the point further in a somewhat silly way. Let’s say that God commanded cleanliness. (He doesn’t, by the way. The old adage that “Cleanliness is next to godliness” is not found in Scripture.) One way that I may follow this is to do my chores in a certain order at home, to buy a label maker and to make a standard for myself that an unclean dish will never sit in the sink overnight. These would be great tools to help me follow the fictional command to be clean. However, someone else may follow this command by doing the chores in a different order, using color-coded bins to organize things, and by always using plastic plates and forks so that there were no dishes to clean. They both are following the principle of cleanliness. Their practices, however, are different.
What does this mean for us? First, we must be committed to following God’s commands regardless of the circumstances in which He has placed us. We must never set aside pursuing and doing the things of Him, in order to pursue the things of man. It also means that we need to be a good student of Scripture so that we can separate out the principles of God, and the practices of man (Acts 17:11). Additionally, it means that we need to be careful in our speech to clarify what is a command of God, and what is a tool that has been useful for us in following that command. Unless God has reduced His principle to a specific, singular practice, that we should not either.
Finally, we need to be wise in recognizing that God works in individuals’ lives differently. This is obvious in the fact that Scripture is clear that He has called people to specific roles in His church. If we assumed that we should have the same role as someone else, simply because they are a godly person that we respect, than we may be missing the role that God has for us. If, in the same way, we assume that how one person puts God’s principles into practice is universally true for everyone, we may be unintentionally disobedient to God because we aren’t doing what He has called us to do.
The bottom line is this, God’s Word needs to be used to evaluate our experience, not the other way around. So while someone else’s experience may be helpful for us, it can not become the standard by which we judge our actions. God and His Word must already occupy that position in our lives.