Ep.43: How Theology Enhances Experience
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You have heard people say before, “I am not into theology, I just love Jesus.” There is often this battle within us as we journey with Christ to see which is more important between theology and experience. The head and the heart. But should they be at war against each other? Or do they work together? Join host Andrew Marcus as he spends time Scott Tolhurst, Director of Ministry Communications at Back to the Bible Canada, where they unpack how deepening our theology does, in fact, enhance our intimate relationship with the Lord.
Hey, this is Andrew Marcus from THE INDOUBT SHOW. We got a wonderful program today. We have Scott Tolhurst, who is on staff here with Good News Broadcast Association of Canada, and we’re talking about head and heart: theology and experience. Do they go against each other or do they work well together?
And so we’re going to dive in, learn about this from his experience. It’s going to be a fantastic program. We hope you enjoy today’s show.
I’m excited to be here today as we get to interview a good friend of mine, Scott Tolhurst. How are you, buddy?
It’s good to be with you. I’m doing well. It’s good to see you, Andrew. See you in this way.
It’s a little bit different because I’m actually-
Yeah, I know.
Yeah, it’s a little bit … I’m supposed to be there, but …
You’re thinner than you usually are.
The camera usually adds 10 pounds, but thank you.
But how are you doing today?
I’m well. I’m doing good.
So tell us a little bit about your journey. We’re talking today about head and heart and this idea of being theologically astute and being well versed in the scriptures, but also having a heart, a personal relationship, spending quality time with God. And we see that sometimes people usually steer to the right or to the left and get immersed in one or the other. So tell us a little bit about your story, because I know you’ve felt this, being in pastoral ministry for many years.
Story. I mean, it’s a big story, Andrew, so I’m not sure. Let me give you the bones of it.
I’ve been a pastor for about 47 years, married for about the same amount of time, two kids grown and five grandkids. Born and raised in Ontario and started to move west. Spent a decade in Alberta, a little bit of time in Saskatchewan, and finally saw the light and came to BC.
And all those-
Yeah, I know. Yeah.
All those moves were pastoral. So I’ve served various churches and various congregations.
The story of where I served and how long I served and so on, it really doesn’t matter as much as the internal story is, which matters. That’s what we’re after, right?
Absolutely. Absolutely, man.
Yeah, tell me … Because I know you moved … We talked about this for a brief moment as we were planning today’s episode. You’ve experienced the head and heart in an interesting … God’s put you through an interesting journey. Maybe walk through a little bit about what your story is in the area of theological background and studying and your quiet time with God.
I think my story has resonance with a lot of other stories, particularly those who give themselves in ministry.
I mean, when I began ministry, all I wanted to do was to do it and do it well. So it felt like there’s so much to learn both biblically, like, “What do I preach on and how do I teach? And what are the questions people are asking?” There’s a whole lot to learn when it comes to institutional function of a church; how do you lead a congregation? How do you serve with a board of volunteers? So it felt like I’m on a straight line uphill learning curve to try and figure this out.
And so probably because there was so much to learn, man, I just entered into ministry headfirst and just jammed so much of what I thought I needed to know and had skills I had to shape. It was really going through ministry headfirst.
There came a time, and it took a number of years, Andrew, there came a time that I started to sense that there was something out of step, that I knew the sermons, I knew the text, I knew how to lead a board meeting and so on, but it was starting just to feel dry. And I remember asking God … To tell the truth, I went to bed one night and I was crying and just feeling that, “Lord, thank you for giving me a head that works, works fairly fast and good with words and all that”, but I felt that the well inside was not as deep as I wanted it to be.
And to be frank with you, that was not only something that was affecting me in ministry, in doing ministry. Those who love me, around me, they’d say the same thing. That sort of rationalized way of living was affecting my marriage. And so I started to examine those things, and in tears, I asked God to make a difference. I asked him to change me.
He started to. I would be lying to you if I said it was instant, but I noticed over the years there was more of a sensitivity to the spirit. There was a increased awareness of what the feelings were within me. The internals of my life started to take the steering wheel of my life. And I was grateful for that. It was much better.
And then it all fell apart and then everything just crashed. There was a time, and if you want to know more about it, I can give you the details, but there was a time when I went through a deep depression, I went through burnout, and it felt like the ground that God had given to me and the progress that was made, it just came to a stop and it was just done. It was a dark time. It wasn’t fun.
Now with hindsight, I look back and realize what God was doing is he just said, “Scott, you’ve learned the beginning steps of an internalized life, but now we’re going to go deeper.” And he did.
And that was just a reawakening for me, in which the matters of the heart became fundamental. They were always there, but they became fundamental to me.
What was your age when you had the burnout and just everything came crashing down? Do you remember?
About 47. 46, 47.
There were some external things. We had a job change and there were some things that weren’t happening in my life that I thought they needed to. So God used … The expectations that I had that were crumbling, those became opportunities for the spirit of God to say, “Look, there’s things inside that need to be addressed.”
And it’s a good conversation to have. You know, I talk to a lot of young people who have burnt out, are in the middle of burnout, or they’re on that trajectory where they’re focused so much on head and career and theology and different things, and it’s go, go, go. And they eventually have that crash or going towards that crash where God forces you to learn new tools.
And so that’s clearly in your story. That was in my story last year. I know a lot of young people who watch are trying to discern what to do. And like you were saying, there’s other things happening in your life with job changes, et cetera. With all the unknowns happening, it’s easy for people to get to this state these days.
And to be frank, in my opinion, it’s just my opinion, many church environments, even the larger evangelical culture, feed into an externalized life. Performance. What I know and what I do matter. And so the more I know and the more I do, then I get more applause. I get better response or effectiveness I think. But eventually it comes to a place to recognize that there is more than just knowing and doing. Now it’s the being part of me. How do I be the person that God wants me to be?
But of course, neither you or I are simply talking about being still or taking a rest or being quiet in a room. When I talk about being, I’m talking about being with Jesus. That is-
… It’s not a solo activity. It is, “How can I be with the God who loves me? How can I open myself up to the one who is present within me? How can I be with Jesus?” That’s what matters.
So we’re not simply talking about the benefits of relaxation, which are beneficial, or the need to calm down and take a vacation. We’re not talking about workaholism, as much as, “How do I learn how to be with Jesus who is with me all the time?”
And so walk us through a little bit then. Because I agree with you fully, and you’re right. It’s about being with Jesus, not just taking time off. What did that look like in your life, in your story as you started to realize maybe from this crash, “Oh man, I need new tools”, and you kind of had to maybe reframe your ministry life and your personal walk with God?
I would rather it had been a time where I look at my life and I reframe it and reorder as if I knew what I was doing. I didn’t. I crashed and I came to a halt. And there were times, many times, I’d go out to the church balcony and I’d sit up there just by myself, and I’d try to pray, but I couldn’t. I was just wordless and just sitting. I thought that was a problem. I thought, “Something’s wrong here. I got to fix this so that I can actually put words again and actually get back to doing the things that I believe I should be doing pastorally.”
I was directed to somebody, and he helped. We had lots of conversations. A spiritual director. And one of the stunning things that he did for me is that he affirmed my wordless presence with God as something that’s a good thing. And I began to explore that much further. That is to be present with God without having a prayerless agenda.
I still had the list and I still praised and petitioned and blessed the missionaries type thing, but there came a place in my prayers where silence with God, recognizing his presence, “You are here and I’m here with you”, and opening myself up to, “God, what is it you want to say to me? What is it you want to give to me? What is it you want to do for me?”, that became fundamental.
That addition to my prayers, the addition of silence and times of silence added to the times that I would express my heart and petition before God, that became fundamental to my prayers. More so, to be frank with you, Andrew.
It started to change me. I just changed. It started to address some of my fears. It started to address the sense of a longing inside that wasn’t being addressed. I found that God was closer to me and that he loved me in times of the silence that I had never found in times of the activity or the wordiness of my faith.
So I began to spend time with silence. And what I mean by that is I’d read a scripture or Psalm and then I’d just sit, and sit usually for about 20 minutes, and just sit for 20, 30 minutes. And sometimes I sensed direction from God or affirmation that was in tune with the scriptures; sometimes nothing. But that didn’t matter to me. It wasn’t matter that God be productive for me or I be productive for him, but rather just to be with him.
So that time of being still, dedicated, available, taking the posture of being present for God became fundamental to me.
It’s amazing, man. What an amazing testimony and a good reminder for us.
And so we talk about head, we talk about theology, we talk about heart and just being with God. And of course, they’re both important. I mean, even you mentioned you meditate on a scripture and then you wait for 20 minutes. So obviously you’re still anchored in the word.
You know, I’ve heard a lot of people, and I’d be curious to hear what you say, but I hear a lot of people who talk about, “Well, I don’t read theology”, or, “I’m not into theology. I just love Jesus and I want to be with Jesus.” There’s obviously some dangers to that. Maybe walk through what the dangers could be and what a balance looks like.
To try and build or receive or practice a relationship with God apart from the scriptures is nothing but foolish. Now it’s me making my story up for God. Now it’s me developing something, crafting something that I think is godlike within me. It’s self manufactured. We are scripturally dependent. The truth of God is fundamental to us. I only know God because he’s revealed himself to me in Christ, in his word and the teaching of the scriptures. The spirit of God who is present within me and you and all believers is leading us to the truth of God, which is revealed in the scripture.
So anyone that says, “I can take my Bible and set it side and just have this emotive relationship with God,” what they’re creating is their own relationship. It’s not a relationship with God. And that for me is a real danger. So no, bodies need bones. We’re not making emotion without it. We need the fundamentals, the strength, the girding of truth so that we can begin this relationship.
My issue, my concern, critique as it were … I love the church and I serve the church and I will continue to. In my church context, as I said earlier, or suggested, there’s been the prevalence of saying, “Okay, what matters is I got to teach you something to know,” and we pass on this information like data transfer, biblical transfer, and it’s necessary. And then we give somebody something to do. You’re a missional: Sunday school teaching manual; go out, short-term mission. But we have very little thought about becoming, virtues. How does the life of Jesus within me, that Galatians longing for … Paul says, “I’m working, striving, praying that Jesus Christ will be formed in you.” How has Christ formed in me?
So the time that I spend with God is opportunity. I pray, “God, just give me your life.” It is not … You asked about the balance between theology and experience, a priority of which one.
Well, you’re flying someplace, and you get on the airplane and the pilot comes over the PA system and says, “Okay, we’re going to take a vote. Which of you want to prioritize the left wing? Which of you want to prioritize the right wing? We’ll put it to a vote.” Well, I’m pretty sure that the wise people are going to say, “Can we have both please?”
It’s not a matter of either/or. Am I theologically informed and do I experience the truth that has informed me? We want both.
I’ve said it to you before, I came to a place where I began to cry out in prayer saying, “I want what I know of Jesus to be my experience with Jesus.” And what I’m saying is I want the truth that I believe to become something that is alive in me and practical. And God has been gracious to answer that.
Yeah. And so how does one transition from head to heart? What’s the barriers that stop people?
Okay. Let me go through some barriers that stop me.
First, it really has to be a desire; that as I got to want to know God’s authentic relationship with me and mine with him, quite frankly, it’s easy for me to substitute what I know and what I do for being with God. It’s just too easy. I have a sense of, if I stay in the realm of my information, what I know about God, the scriptures and church and so on, that gives me a measure of control. I feel very comfortable debating, preaching, studying, reading. That gives me an area where I feel both competent and familiar for me.
But God wants to take me deeper. And sometimes if I don’t want to go deeper to the heart issues, I just stay where I feel safe, stay where I think that I have a measure of control. So I’ve got to want it to press onto that.
And that desire is going to be evident in my patterns. If I want the presence of God, if I want to experience the spirit of God who is ushering Jesus to me and me to Jesus, then I should be spending time. So I find the daily discipline … I personally need to be quiet with God consistently and still with God.
So the mornings … Well, it doesn’t matter when you do it, but the morning after coffee and toast and the room is dark and the dog sits in my lap, I open up my … Now I use the Book of Common Prayer and I go through the daily prayers and the readings. I read a portion of scripture and I sit with God. I find I need that. When I don’t do that, I find I revert back to the places that didn’t give me as much life, the doing and the knowing type stuff. My spiritual life becomes dry, dusty when I don’t spend time with God.
So some of the barriers: do I want it? Do I want for it more than I want my safe place, my level of comfort, my places of control? Do I want enough so that I am persistent, Consistent? consistency matters. It just does. Being consistent with God. Am I willing to let God lead my relationship with him instead of just me thinking that I am here in charge? That’s fundamental.
The spiritual life is the life of Jesus. He gives it to us. I can’t manufacture it. He gives it to me. So I need to remember that and just release, “Jesus, whatever you want to say, I want to hear. Whatever you want to do, consider me your obedient servant to let God be the one who is the giver of all good things and grace in my life.”
Praise God. That’s so good, man.
This has been so helpful, Scott. I do truly wish that I was with you in person. I feel bad that I’m not there, but this is so great.
Here’s a question for you. What would you consider are some of the potential pitfalls when someone prioritizes theology or prioritizes personal relationship?
I think it’s true. My own observation.
Human nature, we love to swing from one side of the pendulum to the other. Balance is not one of our strengths. We tend to move from error to another error. So if we’re in an experience or our Christian heritage is that we feel that we have emphasized everything about head, it’s all about from the ears up type stuff, there can be a tendency for us to swing to a far extreme and disregard our teaching, our thought, and emphasize heart. And by that I mean the relationship, our feelings. How are you feeling today? Is Jesus close?
Well, quite frankly, if the proximity of Jesus to me was dependent upon how I felt about his proximity, I’d be orphaned day after day.
Wow. Wow. Yeah.
I love British Columbia because the sun always shines in BC, right?
That’s not true, but yes.
Oh, actually it is true. And that’s the issue.
Well, because you’re on the island, man.
No, no, what I’m saying. The sun is always shining in British Columbia. There are times when we have clouds come by and we don’t see it, and we get rain and drizzle.
Oh, okay. Okay.
But it’s always shining.
And that’s my spiritual life. “Jesus, are you with me?” Of course he is.
But the fact that he is present doesn’t necessarily mean that my experience of him being present to me is warm and gentle. Sometimes it’s cold or distant. He hasn’t moved. But this is the way I feel.
So what I’m trying to suggest is one of the dangers of emphasizing my experience with God is now I use my own perception, my own feelings, my own evaluations as a criteria for, “Am I loved? Is he close? Am I doing what’s right? Should I do this?” And we create our relationship. It’s manufactured by us. And that’s never healthy because we don’t do a good job of that. We receive the life of Christ. We don’t manufacture it.
So there is a danger for us to diminish the truth and emphasize our experience. And our experience is not the ultimate concern.
There’s a danger, likewise, that when we emphasize our experience, it’s really easy for us to become competitive. “Oh, I was caught up to the third heaven,” Paul said. And the next guy says, “I was caught up to the fourth heaven.” “What about the fifth, the sixth?” Now we start getting into this comparison that, “I am more righteous,” or, “God is more present to me because I’ve had a deeper or more powerful experience with Christ. That’s what I perceive.” Oh, that’s just, again, us taking something that is a gift from God and abusing it.
And the fact is, you know this, we can abuse anything. I talk with people who say, “Oh, I don’t want any warm fuzzies. Don’t get me these. I’m not really interested in building a relationship that’s emotive with Christ”, because they see that abused in others. Well, agree. We can abuse anything, but the fact that it’s abused by some doesn’t mean that it’s denied for all. God has something for us. The most fundamental thing I know is that God comes and lives in us. He is in us. The spirit of God comes, it brings Jesus to us.
I determined some time ago that I didn’t want to wait to heaven to have that recognition or experience of God in me. So if he’s in me now, how do I live? How do I perceive? How do I receive the grace of his presence and aware of it just day by day?
Yeah, it’s so good.
So what about pitfalls in the area of too much theology and putting the heart and intimacy with God away?
I’m speaking from my own experience. I wind up being a machine that is meant to function, and functions well, and then burns out. Proverbs. “Take all this truth and put it in your heart.” And the very next verse says, “Now guard your heart.”
So it’s not either/or. The truth of what God has said is something that we hold onto, and we do put it in our heart, but we better watch over our heart because it’s our heart that the issues of life come from.
So the dangers of having an overemphasized … Or excuse me, I’ll put it differently. The dangers of trying to manufacture a Christian life that is strictly theological without an experience with Christ, I think the danger is that it becomes a dry desert. It’s not ultimately satisfying.
I mean, if I came to my wife and I said, “Dear, I have read this book on marriage and I wanted to let you know, you can ask me any question about this book and I’ll be able to give you an answer. And I’m going to study this book and keep sure that every day I read something about marriage,” but I don’t hug her, I don’t talk with her, I don’t have an experience with her, how is that a fulfilling relationship? It’s not.
So the danger is it can become dry. It can become puffed up and arrogant. When my head … I think I know the right answers, and the danger of believing that I know all the answers and my answers are absolutely right on everything, that can lead to a puffed up, arrogant, self-righteous lifestyle.
And a third thing; when it comes to evangelism, when it comes to presenting the gospel of Christ and speaking the love of God, I want to be able to communicate the truth of Jesus, the theology of, He is God’s son who gave his life, and that he offers to us a forgiveness, a transformation, and we just believe and trust him. God offers that to us because he’s been raised from the dead. He’s alive.
In speaking the truth about Jesus to those who do not know Jesus, oh, please, may they catch a whiff of authenticity. If they see that I’ve got the answers, but I don’t have any sort of reflection of the life of God, how is that winning? How is that drawing to Christ? It is both the truth and the aroma of the truth that draws people to Christ.
Well, thank you so much, man, for spending time with us today. Again, I’m so sorry I’m not there.
Oh, love you. I hope you get better soon.
Thanks so much, man. I really enjoyed this conversation. Thank you so much.
And thank you guys for tuning in, and we’ll see you next week. Hopefully I will be back in person. God bless.
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