The English Puritan John Owen helpfully differentiates between knowing the truth and knowing the power of the truth—a distinction with which we should all readily identify as Christians. It is a distinction between knowing true things and actually experiencing them for ourselves. I can still remember the time when all the facts I had been learning about the sovereignty of God as a young Christian first came home to roost experientially in my life. The things that I had previously “known” about God from the Bible, I now was learning in a whole new way as difficult events in my life unfolded. As a result, the things I “knew” before became real to me. They took on flesh and blood. God’s sovereignty wasn’t just an intellectual concept anymore. It was something that I experienced up close and personal.
Owen’s comments remind me of the distinction that CS Lewis makes between “looking at” and “looking along” in his 1945 essay “Meditation in a Toolshed.” In this short but valuable essay, Lewis speaks of entering an old wooden shed on a sunny day and, after his eyes adjust to the darkness inside, seeing a beam of sunlight shining through a hole in the top of one wall. He speaks of being able to “look at” the sunbeam and see the edges of it in sharp contrast to the surrounding darkness. He notices particles of dust dancing within it from its entry point on the wall to its terminus on the dirt floor and observes the unique contours of the patch of ground illumined by the sun. Then, Lewis says, he goes and stands inside the sunbeam, and, as he does so, he actually experiences the beam. He feels the warmth of the sun upon his face. He is temporarily blinded by the brightness of the sun shining in full array. He “looks along” the beam and, rather than seeing its constituent parts as he did before, he now sees the blue sky outside, the trees blowing in the wind, and beyond that, the sun itself.
Lewis’s point in “Meditation in a Toolshed” is that we cannot separate the outward vision of “looking at” from the inward vision of “looking along.” The two are meant to go together. On the one hand, he says, an outward vision is insufficient in and of itself unless it is also accompanied by an inward vision. We see this perhaps most plainly in the examples of love and pain, both of which cannot be explained simply by “looking at” physiological responses within the human body. Until and unless we have experienced love and pain for ourselves, we cannot speak about them intelligently to any real degree. What is more, Lewis continues, every instance of “looking at” is itself an instance of “the activity we call seeing” and, thus, is an experience of “looking along.” This means, as Lewis states so pithily, that “you can step outside one experience only by stepping inside another.” On the other hand, every experience of “looking along” must also be informed by a “looking at.” If it isn’t, we might believe that sacrificing our children really does placate “the gods” and directly impact whether or not our crops will grow and our lives will be blessed. The outside vision helps us not only to understand what we are experiencing but also to contextualize what we see.
These two practices of looking at and looking along go together in the Christian life as well. Christian faith involves both knowing the truth (the outside vision) and knowing the power of the truth (the inside vision). It entails both knowing about God and knowing God experientially—or, we might say, knowing God and being known by Him. Thus it is possible to know many true things about God and not actually to know Him. Jesus says as much in Matthew 7:21-23, when He points out that there will be “many” who know right things about Him and who even do good things in His name but who, in the end, will not “enter the kingdom of heaven” precisely because He never knew them. These individuals had the outside vision down pat. They knew the right things to say and do. But they didn’t receive eternal life because they didn’t know “the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom [He had] sent” (John 17:3).
This clearly ought to be a warning to those of us who are merely going through the motions. We may honor God with our lips and our lives, but, if our hearts are far from Him (Matt. 15:8), we are at least in danger of being in the same place as the “workers of lawlessness” whom Jesus says will not enter the kingdom of heaven. What we need is an experience of the power of the truth in our lives. What we need is to have our affections stirred so that our soul which has been limping along spiritually can run to Jesus. The affections, after all, are the key to the Christian life. They are, as Samuel Rutherford once said,
The affections are like the needle, the rest of the soul like the thread; and as the needle makes way and draws the thread, so holy affections pull forward and draw all to Jesus. The affections are the ground and lower part of the soul, and when they are filled they set all the soul on work; when there is any love in the affections, it sets all the rest of the faculties of the soul on work to duty, and when there is any corruption in the affections, it stagnates the soul, will, mind, and conscience. Affections are the feet of the soul, and the wheels whereupon the conscience runs. When a man is off his feet he cannot run or walk; so when the affections are lame, the soul moves on crutches.
When we experience the power of the truth, we feel it in our bones, as it were. When we don’t, our soul “moves on crutches.”
So, how do we experience the power of the truth in our lives? I will seek to answer this question practically over the next couple of months. My hope is that we will all find our affections stirred and our soul, mind, will, and conscience drawn to Jesus.