Are We the Sum of Our Experiences?

The other day, I came across an engaging question. Because it seemed deserving of some attention, I posted it on Twitter to see what other people thought. A couple friends of mine commented, and we went a few brief rounds on the relationship of identity and experience.

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Are We the Sum of Our Experiences?

My friend Jeremiah Mitchell lives in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, but we occasionally converse on theological matters via Twitter. Here’s what Jeremiah said:

MeAre we the sum of our experiences?

Jeremiah: That’s a silly question and the obvious answer is a resounding no. Absolutely not!!!!

Me: Prove it.

Jeremiah: We are God’s image bearers. A child whose whole life has been as a sex slave is not what her experiences add up to.

Me: Touche. It’s a good point. Identity derived from Creator. So how could we describe experiences as related to who we are?

Jeremiah: They shape our perspective of who we are, personalities, and character, but we are not our experiences. We are God’s kids.

Me: So you’re saying experiences account for some of our sum. Secondary influencers of our identity? At least they form parts?

Jeremiah: Influencers more of what we are like and how we behave. I believe who we are is more fundamental than experiences.

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One of my classmates in college, Josh Riggs, also responded to my query:

Me: Are we the sum of our experiences?

Josh: Until the Spirit reveals himself to us, what else is there to guide?

Me: So our experiences only contribute to ourselves until we experience God?

Josh: Until we know God, what DO we know? I’ve thought about this a lot.

Me: Can’t we understand some things in a metaphysical and experiential sense even before knowing God? Isn’t that common grace? Plus, doesn’t God use the circumstances of our lives to reveal our need for him, even before we know him?

Josh: Maybe at a younger age (ie: “childlike faith”). But there becomes a threshold that overtakes that. Sin.

Me: …Thus, experience teaches us about God. Isn’t that what general revelation is about, too? But I’d totally agree that there’s no fullness of life or eternal understanding apart from life with Jesus.

Josh: General revelation isn’t real. The longings are, the holes left from the fall are real, but I wouldnt say general revelation…I hate using this as an example, but if general revelation is real then explain 3rd world cannibalistic tribal cultures.

Me: Sin clearly motivates cannibalistic society, but doesn’t discount that God still reveals himself via experience of Creation ala Romans 1. Romans 1 expressly shows disclaimer that as God is revealed partly thru experience, sin nature still infiltrates. General revelation is real, although it isn’t complete in itself. Jesus fulfills it by revealing His person.

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What do you think? What role do our experiences play in who we are?

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10 responses to “Are We the Sum of Our Experiences?

  1. I definitely am on the same page as Jeremiah. I believe that our identities are as God’s image bearers. Our experiences, in conjunction with our God-given personality type, influence our perceptions. The best example of this would be to look at two children raised by the same parents and living in the same household. Each child can, and usually does, have entirely different conceptions of events within the household, not to mention how different the parents’ perceptions can be of those same events.

    • I like your balance of experiences and God-given personality, Ken. There’s a dance between who we are and what we do, as each influence the other.
      Thanks for reading and commenting.

  2. Thanks for writing, bro!
    I agree with Jeremiah’s comments as a whole.
    We’re always in sin until Jesus rescues us from it. I was rescued at 4, and I think I was as deep in sin at that age than someone who was rescued at 40 is.

    • I think what Josh was saying is not that people don’t sin when they’re young, but as we age, sin overtakes more and more of our understanding and experiences.
      However, I’d think that there’s always a sin-tainted perspective infiltrating our understanding, but God still speaks (often clearly) through experiences.
      What do you think, Patrick? Thanks for reading.

    • Hi. Because its 5:15am here in Minnesota and Im still b̶a̶t̶t̶l̶i̶n̶g̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶ ̶d̶e̶m̶o̶n̶s̶ reaping the benefits of drinking a pot of coffee at 9pm yesterday.

      Children sin. They just don’t know about it. The whole point of the initial conversation John and I had was that I have the belief that we are all hell bound until God shows up and saves us. Whether we know this or not.

      Until the Holy Spirit reveals himself to us, we don’t have anything to guide our motives, thoughts, and actions besides what we are taught. How that lesson is taught, is whats up for debate.

      “Experience is the most brutal of teachers, but you learn. My God, do you learn” – C.S. Lewis

      Hope this helps.

      -josh

      • Josh,
        I hope your battle against residual caffeine is on the upswing.

        I absolutely agree with you that humans are “hell bound until God shows up and saves us.” That’s purely scriptural Gospel.

        I also agree with your idea that we are motivated by what we are taught in a “worldly” sense until the Spirit renews our minds.

        However, it seems that experiences before Spirit renewal still play into our identities, although not to the core. Our deepest identity is rooted in bearing the Imago Dei, but experiences still teach us many lessons, as your fantastic C.S. Lewis quote affirms.

        Thanks for engaging, Josh.

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