One of the most oft repeated principles taught at the recent ACNA conference at Ridgecrest was Bishop Todd Hunter's reminder: obedience precedes understanding. The phrase is variously attributed to the church fathers, George McDonald, and a host of others. And I thought I discovered it!
In the years when a large group of young adults met weekly at our house, the question of guidance was frequently at the forefront of their preferred topics for study and discussion. How do we hear God? Are you ever absolutely sure that what you think you have heard is actually from God? How can people speak so easily about what God said to them? What if what I think I heard doesn't make sense to me?
As I searched the Scriptures for understanding, what I found there validated my own experience with stunning consistency. Notice how many biblical saints were given instructions which mystified them... or worse, instructions which must have tempted them to think they had heard incorrectly, or that God was not actually good. Noah could not possibly have envisioned the need for the ark he was told to build. (Genesis 6:9-22) How could Abraham not wonder whether he'd heard correctly when told to sacrifice his son? (Genesis 22) Moses must have doubted God's benevolence, or his own sanity, when he was asked to pick up a snake by the tail. (Exodus 4:4) How about Joshua's bizarre instructions for the capture of Jericho? (Joshua 6) Jesus told his disciples to feed thousands of people with just a few loaves and fish. (Mark 6:37) Or worse, he said that he must go to Jerusalem, not to finally overthrow the oppressive Romans, but to die. What???The disciples followed him, but they could not possibly have understood the deliverance God intended or the part they themselves would play in making it known. (Luke 18:31-34) At least they couldn't see it on the front end.
And that would be the point for us as well. First we do... and THEN we see. DO what you think you hear and then SEE what happens! Obedience precedes understanding.
My most fruitful adventures have followed this pattern. Once, while on a speaking assignment in South America, I received a very counter-intuitive instruction from the Lord about sharing the Gospel with a person I'd just met. The nudge was heart-stopping to me and I imagined I'd invented it, but the Holy Spirit compelled me. The immediate result was a new sister in the Kingdom!
Back at home, I remember a particularly pedestrian example. I was driving home from the first of a series of Hebrew lessons at a local synagogue. As I was turning in to a fast food drive-thru lane to pick up lunch, the Lord spoke to me. At least I thought it was the Lord: I want you to fast for your Hebrew teacher. Seriously? Maybe that was just a perverse mental twist based on my hunger! I wrestled with the idea as I waited in the turning lane. Finally, dejected and full of uncertainty, I left the lane and drove home. All afternoon I alternated between faithful prayer and faithless (and hungry!) impatience. When could I eat again? Was that even God?
Just before dinner the phone rang. I will never forget it. My Hebrew teacher's heavy Israeli accent came through. "I have been going through the checks written for the class, and I see that your husband is a minister. Would you mind if I asked you a few questions about Jesus?" And my heart had been prepared.
Assuming that what we hear does not contradict the Scriptures, this is how we learn to hear the Lord, by doing what we think we hear and then seeing what happens. It gets easier every time. When the prophet Malachi conveys the Lord's tithing challenge to his people, it reads like obedience precedes understanding:
Bring all the tithes into the storehouse so there will be enough food in my Temple. If you do," says the Lord of Heaven's Armies, "I will open the windows of heaven for you. I will pour out a blessing so great you won't have enough room to take it in! Try it! Put me to the test!
Malachi 3:10 NLT
We pray that our diocesan family will be distinguished by this kind of venturing obedience. Let's ask the Lord to teach us to hear him. Let's covenant together to DO what we think we hear. Then let's share our stories.
I declare your marvelous deeds. Psalm 71:17 NIV
(For an interesting take on this principle, try the book by Clare De Graaf, The 10-Second Rule.)