Faith requires that we step out in obedience, even when we don’t fully understand. Real spiritual understanding starts with the acceptance of the sovereignty of God in every situation. It’s a cumulative process of growth through faith and obedience and absolute trust in who and what He is.
Jesus answered and said to him, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but you will know after this.” (John 13:7)
Jesus had a very particular and powerful method of teaching. He drew on familiar imagery or, in the case of this verse, gave His disciples a practical demonstration to illustrate what He desired them to know. The context is Christ washing His disciples’ feet, and our verse is His response to their horrified protests. Afterwards, He explained the principle of servanthood and told them very clearly that they, like Him, must be willing to humble themselves to serve others. There is no doubt that the disciples understood Him in part. Christ’s explanation is clear and easily understandable. But it was only after His death and resurrection that they received spiritual understanding of what He taught them. Jesus went on to illustrate the nature of servanthood to the point where He lay down His life on the cross. Until it happened, the disciples could not comprehend the spiritual truth of servanthood.
Spiritual understanding and natural understanding.
There is a fundamental difference between spiritual and natural understanding. On a natural level, we harness our intellect, logic, and reason to find suitable explanations that bring understanding. We comprehend things on a purely fleshly level based on our knowledge and experience. Intellectual understanding helps to keep us feeling in control. We ‘have a handle on it’ so can rationalise and explain and manage things. But in everyday life, we often encounter things that seem to simply defy explanation. This is especially true when our emotions are involved because they conflict with the intellect. Human beings have a driving need to understand. It’s part of our security structure, and when we cannot reconcile the emotive with the intellectual, it leaves us vulnerable. We continually dig into the problem, seeking understanding, and we attempt to carry this intellectual reasoning over into the matter of spiritual understanding as well.
The things of the Spirit can never be understood using fleshly human methods. The reason for this is that there is always conflict between spirit and soul. Intellect and emotion cannot operate within the spirit, yet they will continually strive to do so. Spiritual understanding can only be reached as a result of the work of the Spirit in us. He retrains us to see and hear with spiritual eyes and ears. It’s an entirely supernatural understanding that will always exceed the limitations of the flesh. God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, and they are far higher than ours. The very vast, immeasurable nature of God defies human measure or comprehension. None of the abilities we use so frequently in the flesh will ever manage to grasp even the simplest spiritual truth. Only Holy Spirit regeneration and revelation make spiritual understanding possible.
The cumulative nature of spiritual understanding.
Today’s verse puts forward a powerful truth that helps us towards spiritual understanding. Jesus tells His disciples that they will ‘know after,’ i.e. will understand. He doesn’t specify what the after is. This means two equally important things. First, we will very seldom fully understand up front. In fact, there will be many things that we never fully comprehend in this life. In this case, the ‘after’ is literal. It is the life hereafter in His presence where we will finally enjoy full spiritual understanding because we are present completely in Him who knows all. This can often appear as an obstacle to believers because we like and need to understand. How often have we said just that – if we could only understand, this particular situation would be easier to endure or overcome? The reality is that sometimes, there is simply no way to comprehend the workings of God.
The second relevance is that spiritual understanding is cumulative. We understand by degrees as God works His plans and purposes in our lives. Understanding grows as we grow in experience and in the knowledge of the Word. These reveal a deeper level of understanding through intimacy with God. We learn to recognise His work and what He is teaching us on an ever richer level. This cumulative nature of understanding means we can never ‘outgrow’ God. Every day with Him will bring more than the day before. As we grow, He releases more to us and uses the experiences and knowledge of our day-to-day lives to teach and train us in His purposes. While spiritual understanding will always be limited by our humanity in this life, we can be sure that if we walk with Him, He will build on its cumulative nature in a rich and vibrant way.
Spiritual understanding and faith.
Faith is the simply answer to why we don’t always understand up front. Although they do work together in a powerful and dynamic way, faith does not require spiritual understanding. In fact, it is stepping out without it because faith depends on God and not on our understanding of His purposes. If we understood everything at the beginning, there would be no need for faith. We would trust in our understanding rather than the God who provides it. Faith comes from a knowledge of God and of His Word, which often defies and challenges our conventional wisdom. It is believing for the impossible because nothing is impossible with Him. We trust in Him and His promises, even when everything else says the opposite. This means that whether we understand or not is irrelevant. We step out in faith in Him and trust Him to bring understanding as we obey.
Having said this, there is also the dynamic of knowledge and wisdom that will always interact with both faith and spiritual understanding. Knowledge is knowing God and His Word, and also having knowledge about a particular situation. There are times when He will supernaturally reveal certain details we would otherwise not have known. This doesn’t mean we necessarily understand, but we are given the knowledge for a particular purpose. Wisdom is the ‘know how’ that accompanies knowledge. It is a supernatural, Spirit guided ability to use the knowledge we have as He desires we should. This is the practical outworking of knowledge as we step out in faith. Neither of these, like faith, require us to fully understand. All that is needed is to listen, hear His voice, and to obey in absolute trust that He will work out His purposes to the good.
Spiritual understanding and the sovereignty of God.
There is what I call the ‘faith level’ of spiritual understanding. This is, in fact, the first level at which every believer functions. It requires us to take hold of the absolute truth that God is sovereign and rules over all. In doing so, we accept that we are not required to understand but to obey. We trust that He has a plan and purpose and that all things work to the good of those who love Him. His sovereignty places Him in His rightful place of power above every situation or circumstance. It is God alone who decides the what, how, when, why, and where of our lives. The clay doesn’t demand understanding but yields to the potter’s hand. While our practical understanding at this point may be lacking, we understand fully that He is God and all things are in His hands to order as He chooses.
Once we learn to understand and accept the sovereignty of God in everything, we will find both faith and obedience. It is through this that spiritual understanding is gradually outworked in us. The amazing thing about our walk and relationship with Him is that we may not even be aware of the nuggets of understanding sowed along the way. Then, often when we least expect it, He adds a treasure of truth that brings it all together and releases understanding. Spiritual understanding is both a journey and a destination, but it demands that we recognise the sovereignty of God. When we cannot understand why, we must understand that He is and that His purposes are sovereign and powerful. Unless we have this level of spiritual understanding in place, we will never fully understand anything else. Everything He does in and through us is built on this foundational truth.
Asking for spiritual understanding.
There is nothing wrong with this prayer, because God does desire that we grow and mature, which includes our spiritual understanding. Before this, however, we must first seek Him. Too often, our prayers are motivated by the ‘if only I could understand,’ which is essentially a fleshly response. Our first prayer should always be that He reveals His sovereignty and establishes this understanding and acceptance first. When we seek Him rather than understanding, we can be sure that He will release all we require. First, will be faith to step out in the sure and certain knowledge that He is God and nothing can defeat His purposes. Second, where we require knowledge and wisdom, He will reveal all we need to empower our obedience. Finally, as we lay hold of the simple understanding of who and what He is, He builds on that secure foundation to release His understanding.
Sovereign Lord, thank You for the reminder that You are sovereign and that no situation or circumstance has the power to defeat Your purposes. Draw us closer to You and remind us daily of who and what You are. Teach us to look beyond convention understanding to that which You desire us to have. Above all, help us to trust and to step out in faith and obedience. We know, Lord, that it is through these things that You are glorified in our lives.