I am a staunch advocate for experiential education. I am also committed to a sound biblical and theological understanding of how God uses experiences to transform people. In tying these two passions together I have wondered, “Is it the experience alone that makes a person stronger, or is it actually God orchestrating the transformation of a person, and he merely uses the experience?” That is what I wish to explore in this post.
There are certain maxims I hear a lot in the outdoor leadership community. One of them goes something like this but has various forms: 1) “Failure will make you stronger,” or 2) “The challenge of the adventure will make you a more resilient person”, or 3) “The stress of the experience will give you more endurance.” There is truth to each of these common phrases, but I am wondering if there may be more going on that meets the eye. Yes experiences are life-changing, but does the transformation come from human effort or does it actually come as a common grace from God?
EXPERIENTIAL EDUCATION IS SHARPENED & PROMOTED EVEN MORE AS WE UNDERSTAND HOW GOD IS THE AUTHOR OF EXPERIENTIAL LEARNING
From a biblical worldview, I question whether some of the phrases we so readily comfort people with are actually painting the whole picture of what is going on through experiential education.
Thomas à Kempis writes: “Occasions do not make a man either strong or weak but they show what he is.” What he is saying here is that it is not the experience that makes someone stronger or weaker, the experience just shows us a snapshot of our soul. Instead, the truth is that only Jesus Christ and the power of Christ through the Holy Spirit can make us stronger. Saying that adventure changes us and makes us stronger is partially true, but we need to give God the credit. Another similar human-centered maxim that is often parroted to comfort people is: “Time heals.” Yet does time really heal? No, it doesn’t. Only God can heal us through the power of his love and balm of his Spirit transforming our soul. God can use time to help us move on, but time doesn’t heal, God does.
The same is true with experiential learning. This distinction is important. If we believe that adventure and challenge in itself will make you stronger, or if you believe that character failure in itself can make you weaker, then you need to know you are walking on the road of humanism, not the narrow relational path of Jesus-truth that will lead you to deeper relationship with God. I agree (as an experiential educator myself) that experiences are powerful and that people are radically changed through challenge and adventure. But my concern is that we don’t give God enough credit for being the author of the transformation people go through.
“COMMON GRACE” IN EXPERIENTIAL LEARNING
Let me share a few recent quotes from a camper who experienced God’s transforming power on a wilderness trip:
- I really felt out of my comfort zone when I was forced to depend on others for my own safety.
- Something that impacted me most on this trip was in hearing others’ testimonies, I got to see how God is writing new stories all the time.
- Something I learned about community from this experience is that even though you’re supposed to pull your own weight, you still have to let people take SOME of the burden off of you.
Whether a Christian or non-Christian, when you grow “stronger” through an intense outdoor experience, the deeper reality is that you have just experienced an aspect of God’s “common grace.” We say “common” because all people benefit from these gifts from God. And we say grace because essentially it is all “undeserved”, otherwise it would not be called grace. I know posts like this may be controversial especially among those who do not understand or give credit to a Christian worldview, but my desire is simply to give our kind and gracious God all the credit for the many ways he uses experiential learning to transform people. He is the author of all of it whether people give him credit or not. Yet I hope people will consider this and give him the credit and glory for all learning that comes through experiences.
EXPERIENCES SHOW US WHO WE ARE
Instead, what the Bible teaches is that God himself is the one who makes us strong, not our circumstances. Circumstances, as à Kempis reminds us, just show us who we are. The challenge of adventure or the stresses of life that squeeze us are useful to show us who we are (they give us windows into the soul), but they don’t actually change us, only Jesus can do that.
An Old Testament story illustrates this truth well, as God challenges Joshua with an epic leadership opportunity but reminds him where his strength will come from (not from winning battles and pressing on, but from God himself):
Be strong and very courageous. Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go. Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful. Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go. (Joshua 1:7-9)
So the next time you find you are in the middle of an epic challenge, whether you are succeeding or failing, stop and recognize what is going on… God is using that experience to show you a window into your soul. If you are shocked by what you see (as I often am), then don’t cop out and think that just persevering through it will change you and make you stronger, etc. Instead, humble yourself, fall on your knees before the God who made the galaxies above you and cry out for his grace and submit yourself to his potter’s wheel, inviting him to transform your soul through his Word and his Spirit. Don’t believe the lie that experiences alone transform you. God is the only one who transforms. He just uses experiences. He is the potter. The experience is just the wheel to spin the clay on.
- Think of a recent adventure or stress inoculating experience where you either succeeded or failed. How did that occasion show you who you really are?
- Have you believed the lie that experiences are what change you and ignored the true reality that actually only God can change you? What implications might this have in your life if you keep looking to the “occasion” to change you rather than humbling yourself before God who can actually change you?