After their lesson at Mt. Error, Christian and Hopeful are led by the Shepherds to the top of another hill, Mt. Caution. From here, off in the distance, they could see a cemetery where there were blind men running around aimlessly and hopelessly among the gravestones, stumbling over them, unable to get away from the gloom of the tomb. The Shepherds asked, “You see that little gate which opens into Bypath Meadow?” Oh, yes, how well they remembered it all! “That path,” the Shepherds continued, “leads directly to Doubting Castle, run by the Giant Despair,” one akin to the Giant Grim. Those stumbling blind men you see over there were once like you are now, pilgrims, until they came to the little by-path, where they went wrong. That giant caught them, threw them into his dungeon of Dark Despair, bored out their eyes, and took them out to the graveyard where he abandoned them. It is true of them as is said of “The man that wandereth out of the way of understanding,” that he (they) “shall remain in the congregation of the dead” (Prov. 21:16). Christian and Hopeful just looked at each other, unable to restrain sudden tears from their eyes. God’s faithful promise alone keeps His people from a like calamity.
Now the second of these shepherds is the one called Experience. The word itself appears in our King James Bible three times, and is first found in the mouth of Laban. The birth of Jacob’s twelve sons and one daughter all took place within a span of about seven years. Now Jacob with his family and estate well built up, requests Laban that he be released from his responsibilities to him that he may make, at long last, a return to his own country. “For you know the service which I have rendered you,” Jacob reminded him. It was, indeed, honorable, faithful, conscientious and diligent service Jacob had rendered to an ungrateful master. Laban, however, now makes a rather humble approach to Jacob in the hope that he may detain him yet years longer and enslave him further to his services. Somewhat flatteringly he remarks, “For I have learned by experience that the Lord hath blessed me for thy sake.” In these words you have a familiar and up-to-date expression. We often speak of learning by experience. Some people say, “Experience is the best teacher.” But that is not the idea in the mind of John Bunyan when he gives to one of his characters the name Experience. The expression does sound like a well-established modern principle. The meaning of it is that formal knowledge simply is not enough to really know life or any one of its vibrant aspects. One must also have the material experience. Book knowledge, or any other sort of knowledge is not enough. Knowledge must be based on experience. Knowledge by itself does not furnish one with the maturity that experienced-based knowledge will. A single man may know much about marriage as a result of delving deeply into books, and doing research on the subject. Yet, until he is married, he lacks knowledge based on actual experience. Whatever his knowledge in this regard, while in the celibate state, it remains in comparison to that of the married, a kind of ignorance. (I hear some of the married at this point remarking, Yes, and here is where ignorance is bliss.) So runs the idea of the theorem, “Experience is the best teacher.”
Next, consider whether this is true. Is experience the best teacher? You have many good teachers, for you have your parents, ministers (shepherds) and the Word of God itself. All of these teachers will tell you plainly that the way of the harlot is the way of death. Especially as you know that to be the teaching of the Word of God, you know it to be true from the first that you heard it. You know it is true because you have come to know the facts of life, not by sad experience, not by the dangerous and rebellious experimentation of sowing a few wild oats, but because you have at least a beginner’s familiarity with the Book of Proverbs. With that knowledge, which is a wonderfully safe guide for you to follow, where fits in the modern worldly cliche, “Experience is the best teacher”? In such a connection, can you recognize it as true? Must Christian youth actually experience youthful lusts in order to learn by the best teacher? “Flee youthful lusts!” does not mean flee into them, but fee from them.
So you see, experience simply is not the best teacher, — a better is not to be had than the Holy Spirit of God speaking in His own Word. Also a better teacher we have in the law of God, which is our schoolmaster to bring us to Christ. Experience is no criterion of doctrine or conduct. Experience is really of no value in teaching us anything, unless it is based on the Word of God. Mrs. Mary Baker Paterson Glover Eddy had many experiences according to which she believed she had found the Key to Scriptures. But her experiences were delusions, and had no foundation in the Word of God. I really do learn by experience when I find that in keeping of the Lord’s commandments there is great reward, or when I taste and see that the Lord is good, or when I have tasted that the Lord is gracious. Then as one of Christ’s sheep let me ever eat in the pastures where that wise Shepherd, Experience, leads.
But a closer look at Laban’s words is enlightening. According to the original, Laban said, “I have divined that the Lord hath blessed me . . . .” He really used heathen language. He assumed that he had learned by divination that Jacob’s being with him all these years had brought him much earthly prosperity. This is superstitious thinking. Some people rely on astrology to inform them as to who would make good, influential friends for them, and who would not. Laban was of this mind. He had his little household gods, and by these images he deemed that he was able to divine with good omens that good fortune had been his because of Jacob. He therefore felt it time to show a spirit of magnanimity to Jacob. Stay, but appoint me thy wages, and whatever you say, I will give it! Isn’t that magnanimous of him? But what Jacob hears is the word of a treacherous man speaking. Laban only makes such an offer because he knows the character of Jacob, that he is the sort of a man who always underplays his hand, rather than otherwise. So Laban feels safe in offering Jacob a blank cheek.
“And not only so, but we glory in tribulations also, knowing that tribulation worketh patience; and patience, experience, and experience, hope.” Again we meet with Patience. Tribulation produces and develops — to express the main idea of the word — perseverance. The ASV renders it endurance, but the term is one with such strong masculinity about it that it goes quite beyond “patience” or “endurance” to a brave patience and to an unflinching endurance of such a nature that it continues to “remain under” whatever stress there may lie, still pressing on and persevering to the end. Then unflinching perseverance produces and develops — to enlarge upon the word “experience”— tried, proved and accepted character. The word means a proving, a trial, to try out; make proof or trial of; then, to become acquainted with by personal trial; to be tried in the scales and found not wanting. It means to have been tried in the fire and to have stood the test. Then to choose, approve and accept that which stands the test. Experience, then, knows what it is to “prove what is that good, and perfect and acceptable will of God.” Real advance in Christian experience comes when you “give diligence to make your calling and election sure: for if ye do these things, ye shall never fall” (II Peter 1:10). What things? How do you make you calling and election sure? By persevering in the Way, true and tided; by “giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue; and to virtue, knowledge, and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, unflinching endurance, and to unflinching endurance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly-kindness; and to brotherly-kindness, love“ (5-7).
Christian and Hopeful made good spiritual progress under the ministry of Experience. They benefited from his preaching, prayers, teaching and fellowship. Others under the same ministry lost interest, understanding and sympathy, until they fell away completely from it. Many will follow a multitude where the loaves are multiplied, but drop away from the few where the unsearchable riches of Christ are dug into deeper and deeper. The Delectable Mountains are like Rehoboth, a broad place. Emmanuel’s Land is as expansive as the New Heavens and New Earth. There is much truth to learn by experience. Truth experienced is truth possessed. This shepherd taught his people to learn the truth by experience of it. In doing so they never had to use flattery on him, and he never sought it from them. Paul was a shepherd of great experience. He could say, “I have learned in whatsoever state I am therewith to be content.” He knew and taught that every experience works together for good to them who love God, who are the called according to His purpose. By experience he could say, “all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution” (II Tim. 3:12), “and that we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). Then he would comfort the persecuted saints with the words, “no man should be moved by these afflictions: for yourselves know that we are appointed thereunto” (I Thess. 3:3). And here is experience for you: “This treasure we have in utensils of clay in order that the surpassing greatness of the power may be seen to be God’s and not to come from us. We are harried, but not hemmed in; perplexed, yet not at wits end; pursued, yet not deserted; hurled down, yet not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that in our bodies the life of Jesus may also be shown” (II Cor. 4:7-10). “We prove ourselves in every respect as God’s servants, by great unflinching endurance, in tribulations, in necessities, in anxieties, in lashes, imprisonments, in riots, in toils, sleepless nights, and without food . . . between credit and discredit, between infamy and euphemy; considered impostors when we are true, and unknown when we are well-known; thought of as dying, when, you see, we are alive, and as chastised, but not done to death; as grieved, but always joyful; as poor, but making many wealthy; as having nothing, yet in possession of everything” (II Cor. 6:4, 5, 8-10. See II Cor. 11:23-29).