There are some areas of life where understanding needs to precede action. When we visit a doctor or other medical professional, for example, we want them to understand what the situation is and what is needed before they take any action in prescribing medications or treatments. In cases like that, understanding obviously has to come before action.
But in other areas of life we find situations where this “normal” way of things is reversed, and we simply have to act before we understand, counterintuitive as that may sound. Falling in love might be a good example – we have to experience love before we can really understand it. Following God’s instructions is often one of these situations. No amount of philosophizing can help us understand why it really is more blessed to give than to receive, for example – it is only when we do give that we begin to understand how we are blessed in giving. But it is easy to forget that sometimes action has to come before understanding. We may make the mistake of not acting on what we see in the word of God because we don’t understand why we should do or not do a certain thing.
Yet the Bible is very clear about the reality of “action before understanding” when applied to its teachings. Notice, for example, how David expressed this fact in the Psalms: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all who follow his precepts have good understanding” (Psalm 111:10). This is not saying that if you have good understanding you will follow God’s ways (though that is true, of course), but that following God’s instructions leads to understanding them. Another verse that makes this same point is found in the book of Exodus. According to many translations, directly after God gave the Ten Commandments and other laws to ancient Israel the people said: “All that the Lord has said we will do, and be obedient” (Exodus 24:7 NKJV). But the Hebrew literally says “we will do and we will hear” or “we will do and we will understand.” Here again, as in many other instances, doing comes before “hearing” – action before understanding.
In the New Testament the principle is spelled out even more clearly. The Gospel of John records Jesus saying: “Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them” (John 14:21). This does not mean something esoteric and mystical – by “showing” himself to those who are obedient, Christ simply meant that they would come to understand and know him, just as we say “Ah! I see it now” when we come to understand something. But once again, the order is action before understanding.
In fact, this principle lies at the very heart of much of what the New Testament tells us. Compare these two very important verses in the book of Acts: “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38); “And we are His witnesses to these things, and so also is the Holy Spirit which God has given to those who obey Him” (Acts 5:32). Now the apostle Paul taught very clearly that: “The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit” (1 Corinthians 2:14). When we put these verses together we see that we cannot understand spiritual things until we receive the Spirit of God, and we have to act – to repent and be baptized – before we can receive the Spirit. So action must come before full understanding even from the very beginning of the Christian life.
The important thing for us to remember is that this principle does not only apply to us as new Christians – it applies to us every time we see some new guidance in God’s word. The instruction may be clear as to what we must do, but we may only understand the guidance once we follow it – that is simply the way God often teaches us.
Many of the individuals mentioned in Hebrews’ great “Faith Hall of Fame” chapter (Hebrews 11) understood that faith means we must sometimes act before we understand – we must obey before we fully comprehend. These people seem to have learned a lesson we all must learn in the course of the Christian life: that faith often enables our obedience and our obedience often enables our understanding.