Naw, I don’t think life is a tragedy. Tragedy is something that can be explained by the professors. Life is the will of God and this cannot be defined by the professors; for which all thanksgiving.
-Flannery O’Connor, letter to Beverly Brunson, January 1, 1955
I remember talking with a roommate of mine in Bible college about our Spiritual Life class. He pointed out that 90% of what is taught in classes and books on the spiritual life is not actually anywhere in the Bible. Upon a little reflection, I agreed. We began to kick back and forth examples of things we’d heard that were nowhere in Scripture. I don’t remember most of them, but I vividly remember our contemptuous discussion of praying, “God, show me my sin” — a prayer we could find nowhere in the Bible. The real need, we felt, was to strip away that 90% — all the folklore that surrounded walking with God — and just stick to what it actually says in the Bible.
How silly we look in hindsight, all these years and miles later! Of course we should start there; that’s our foundation. And also of course, there are a tremendous number of superstitious fables grown up around the Christian life that actually serve to conceal biblical truth, and these weeds ought to be pulled out of the garden and burned before they cause any more trouble. But coming to understand how to apply that biblical foundation well is a skill at which we grow, and in growing, we pick up a great number of helpful hints and bits of folk wisdom.
God is a person, according to the Bible. Or three, if you like. How much of my know-how about living with my wife is written down anywhere? Much less than 1%, surely. Even if I set about to write it down, how much could I realistically write down? Maybe 5%, maybe? So despite my best efforts, 95% of my know-how about living with my wife will remain unwritten. It will come out, when it comes out at all, in a piece of advice to a friend in a particular situation: “Let it go, man. You’re not going to get anywhere with that right now.” Or “That’s a good question. Why don’t you ask her?” If my friend responds in that situation by saying, “Where is that in the Bible?” he’s going to miss some good advice.
So the astonishing thing is not that 90% of the advice about walking with God is not written anywhere in the Bible. What’s so very astonishing is that 10% of it is. It’s a testament to how much God wants us to know Him that we have so much guidance written down. But as with any other person, walking with God is an art. In the end, the know-how is experiential; we learn not by reading, but by doing it ourselves, and watching it done by others.
That “Show me my sin” prayer that my roommate and I so criticized? When a relationship is going sour and I need to come to grips with my own responsibility for it, asking God to expose my sins in the relationship so I can confess them and forsake them is a great idea. I am very glad that I have the freedom to do that, and I am delighted that He answers such prayers. I don’t need a specific verse to hang it on for it to be helpful.
I have heard “listening prayer” criticized on the grounds that there’s no Bible verse that says God speaks to us in prayer. That may be the case, but there’s certainly no verse that says God doesn’t speak to us when we pray, and when I come to God in prayer, ask my question, and then shut up and listen, well…He speaks to me. So there it is. Is this biblical? Well, yes. God did it with Abraham, didn’t He? Am I not a son of Abraham by faith, invited to share in the Triune fellowship by Jesus Himself through the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit? Why shouldn’t my prayer be a two-way conversation?
It happens all the time in Scripture that God speaks to people by a variety of means; there’s certainly nothing unbiblical about it. But as I coach someone in learning to listen to God’s voice, what I tell them will be a mix of biblical precedent and things I’ve gleaned from my own personal experience walking with God and hearing His voice myself. Mostly the latter, to be entirely honest.
Is there something wrong with that? Nope. “He who walks with the skilled will be skilled,” as the Good Book says, and I learned to hear God’s voice the same way — by being coached by people who had the skill. As I gain skill, I will coach others. This is the way God designed us to function in the Body of Christ.
Of course, if you think about it, it seems silly. Having given His inerrant and inspired Word, God then entrusts the task of teaching His people how to apply it to fallen, feeble, frail human beings. It’s amazing that it gets done, generation after generation. But that’s the mystery, isn’t it? The mechanism is us, and it looks like it will never work — but in spite of it all, Christ is building His Church into a glorious Bride without blemish or spot. A sensible, believable explanation for this eludes us — even the professors among us — but the fact of it is right there in front of us. In spite of all the good reasons that it should not be so, it is so. For which all thanksgiving.