Soldiers don’t learn to fight in the classroom. They learn about fighting in the classroom.
Learning about fighting is crucial to successful fighting, which is why soldiers’ training always includes class time. But learning about fighting is not the same thing as fighting. Soldiers never really learn to fight until they are forced to actually do it. And when they do, they discover the actual, concrete experience of fighting looks and feels very different than the abstract idea of fighting.
Disciples of Jesus don’t learn to walk by faith — to fight the good fight of faith — in the classroom. They learn about faith in the classroom — sermons, conferences, books, articles, videos. Learning about faith is crucial to successful walking by faith, which is why disciples’ training always includes class time. But learning about walking by faith is not the same thing as walking by faith.
Disciples never really learn to walk by faith until they are forced to actually do it. And when they do, they discover the actual, concrete experience of walking by faith looks and feels very different than the abstract idea of walking by faith.
Teach Me Your Way
When we pray with David, “teach me your way, O Lord” (Psalm 27:11), God answers. And his answers often look and feel very different from what we thought we were asking for.
He often takes us out of the classroom — where we thought we understood things — into the chaotic, disorienting, disturbing, desperate violence of the field of spiritual battle, where we encounter internal and external enemies too powerful for us. He brings us up against obstacles too big for us, problems too complex and difficult for us, and burdens so far beyond our strength that we at times despair of life itself (2 Corinthians 1:8).
And it is in these desperate places that we, like David, learn what walking by faith really means, where God teaches us his way.
How God Taught David
In those first heady months after Samuel anointed David the future king of Israel (see 1 Samuel 16), how do you think David imagined his future? The Bible doesn’t tell us.
But the Bible does provide us a significant record of David’s inner life throughout his life in the psalms he wrote. And it’s clear from this record that from the day Saul began hunting until well into his old age, David was a man of troubles and acquainted with desperation. Most of his psalms are desperate prayers for God’s deliverance from assassination and spiritual depression — or songs of praise after being delivered from such desperate situations.
Is this how he envisioned his life as king? Did he expect to live most of his life with a target on his back among members of his own household, treacherous countrymen, as well as surrounding hostile nations? Did he expect to plead with God so often for his very survival (Psalm 86:2)? Did he expect to feel at times forsaken by God (Psalm 22:1)? Did he expect to weep so much (Psalm 6:6–7)?
The bewilderment, fear, and sorrow David expressed in many of his psalms lead me to think that trusting God proved far harder than he expected.
Prayers of Faith for All
But it was, in fact, the crucible of these very hard situations where David learned how to really trust God, and how to really pray, and how to really worship. David prayed, “teach me your way, O Lord” (Psalm 27:11) during a desperate, dangerous moment. And that desperate, dangerous moment (along with many others) was itself a means God used to answer that prayer.
But God answered David far more abundantly than David asked and likely thought (Ephesians 3:20). God used these dark, desperate, crushing moments to make David “the sweet psalmist of Israel” (2 Samuel 23:1), providing songs and prayers for the life of faith to all Israel (Galatians 6:16) during its entire militant, embattled existence in this hostile, devil-governed world (1 John 5:19).
Through David’s poetic processing of his hope and joy in God in the face of overwhelming circumstances, God provided all of us more holy language and practical examples of how to encourage our faith, how to pray, and how to sing than any other single biblical author.
The Way is Hard
So, do you still want God to teach you his ways?
It’s not surprising if we respond viscerally to this whole idea, “If that’s how God answers, I think I’ll pass.” But we must not listen to that inner voice. That voice always counsels us to indulge in easy things that end up robbing us of great joy, and to avoid hard things that end up increasing our great joy. Yes, “the way is hard that leads to life” (Matthew 7:14). But it leads to life! The easy way leads to destruction (Matthew 7:13).
So, if we really want to follow Jesus, if we really want to learn his ways (Psalm 27:11), if we really want “to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord (Colossians 1:10), which is to walk by faith and not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7), how should we expect him to teach us?
We should expect him to force us out of the classroom and on to the real field of spiritual battle where the conflict is much more chaotic, disturbing, disorienting, frightening, depressing, and sorrowful than we ever expected. And we should expect experiences that make the psalms living and active songs for our desperate souls.
It is in these experiences where — like good soldiers, like true disciples — we learn how to really fight and how to really trust. It is there, like David, where we learn God’s way and “take hold of that which is truly life” (1 Timothy 6:19) and taste that which is truly joy.
Do Not Be Surprised
A war is not won in the tranquil, tidy classroom, but on the desperate battlefield, where soldiers must give their all. Christ’s gospel mission will not be fulfilled in the tranquil, tidy classroom, but on the desperate field of spiritual battle, where disciples must give their all.
So, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Peter 4:12). Jesus is teaching you how to walk by faith by graciously forcing you to do it. And this hard way leads to life, life more abundant than we have yet imagined.