One of the gifts my father gave to me—or maybe you’ll consider it a dubious gift—is a love for science fiction. We both enjoy the work of Robert Heinlein. This author had more to say than just his fictional writings, though. He presented something on a radio show called “This I Believe” that contained these words: “I am not going to talk about religious beliefs, but about matters so obvious that it has gone out of style to mention them. I believe in my neighbors. I know their faults and I know that their virtues far outweigh their faults. Take Father Michael down our road a piece — I'm not of his creed, but I know the goodness and charity and lovingkindness that shine in his daily actions. I believe in Father Mike; if I'm in trouble, I'll go to him. My next-door neighbor is a veterinary doctor. Doc will get out of bed after a hard day to help a stray cat. No fee — no prospect of a fee. I believe in Doc.”
What I think Heinlein is getting at is the oftentimes unnecessary struggle between beliefs that we think of as “creedal” and beliefs that we encounter in the everyday. It’s academic religion versus lived religion (I would suggest that our lived religion tells us what we really believe). When we encounter a seeming contradiction between these two things, we are in trouble. In fact, one of the great examples of the struggle between what is “officially” right and what is relationally correct comes in Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. If you remember that book from school, you may remember Huck’s dilemma. He’s considering what is “officially” the right thing to do (and even what many of his religious friends would say is right): turning in the runaway slave, Jim. Yet, Huck himself thinks about his own experience with Jim. Jim has been the only good friend to him, the only person who has reliably thought about what is best for Huck, and the only one who has shown tremendous care for a boy without a family. His relationship conflicts with what his religion tells him.
Heinlein and Twain were both onto something here. We have difficulty squaring conflicts between our experience and our theology. Should one win over the other all the time? Obviously, in the case of Huck Finn, his culture was wrong—we have nationally recognized the evil of slavery and have outlawed it. But that does not mean that our “gut” is always right. As people, we have an incredible ability for self-deception. As the prophet Jeremiah says: the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately; who can understand it?
(Jer. 17:9). So, how do we navigate this dilemma? How do we continue to trust our experience while also trusting that God is reliable? It requires us to cut through the “official” answers. We see this in the life and ministry of Jesus. According to all the rules of what was right in His day, Jesus could have called out His disciples for picking some grain on the Sabbath (see Matthew 12). The Pharisees confront Him about this violation, but Jesus reminds them of God’s real priorities—the Sabbath was given for man, not man for the Sabbath. This is how we sort out the conflicts between our experience and the oftentimes bogus rules we make for ourselves. Discover what is the priority of God’s heart, and then we can see what’s truly valuable.