Once upon a “tea-time” at a conference of Scottish college students, the teapot was standing idle because the fellow in charge of it was totally engrossed in a theological conversation. From the other end of the table came a sweet-toned encouragement: “You know, Alec, you can be so heavenly minded you’re no earthly use. Could you please pour the tea before it gets cold?”
Too many Christians today see “doctrine” and “practice” as poles apart and even opposed to each other. Just try pressing home a clear teaching of Scripture that cuts against some currently accepted behavior in our society and a Christian who doesn’t want to change his ways will protest, “But you have to be practical!” On the road from theory to practice, principles can so easily melt away before the imperatives of the line of least resistance. Read the Bible, however, and you soon discover that every practical problem also poses a question of principle—of doctrinal truth. It is therefore vital that the relationship between the Bible’s doctrine and the Christian’s life be understood and applied with the proper balance.
A Giant Problem
Truly believing God’s doctrine is absolutely essential to being truly practical in God’s way. How to deal with Goliath was a case in point. Nine feet tall and strong as an ox, he was a huge practical problem. King Saul was a big man, but not in the same league (9:2). Unwilling to face the Philistine, his solution was to skulk, paralyzed by fear and indecision. David, however, was willing to fight. Same problem, two responses. Why?
The answer is that David and Saul brought different doctrinal convictions to the problem, and that made all the practical difference in the world. David believed that “ ‘this uncircumcised Philistine’ ” was a theological problem. He had no right to “ ‘defy the armies of the living God’ ” (17:26). Saul and the army, on the other hand, could not see past Goliath’s physical attributes. How could they defeat such an incredible hulk? Saul saw the battle as belonging to Goliath, while David believed the battle belonged to the Lord (17:47). If challenged, Saul would have formally agreed with David, but in his heart and in practice he did not believe Israel could prevail. Out of desperation, he was willing to let David risk his neck, but for himself, being “practical” meant avoiding Goliath’s challenge.
A Burning Issue
In the effort to be “practical,” we will sometimes openly argue against God’s known will. In such cases, clarity, rather than confusion, is more often our problem. We know what God wants, we know what we want and we simply want to do things our way.
For example, Lot was told exactly what he needed to do to avoid the fire and brimstone coming on Sodom. He was to “ ‘escape to the mountains.’ ” But his response was to say, “ ‘Please, no …’ ” and propose the alternative of stopping in the city of Bela, one of the cities of the plain (Gen. 19:17–20; cf. Gen. 14:2). That the Lord granted the request might seem to imply it was just fine that Lot prayed this way. Did not Jesus Himself pray with respect to His imminent sufferings and death, “ ‘My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me’ ” (Matt. 26:39)? The difference is that while Jesus was shrinking from coming agonies but was still fully committed to the Cross, Lot was shrinking from being rescued and wanted to be as close to Sodom as possible without being burned. He was asking, as James M. Boice puts it in his Genesis commentary, “Why can’t I sin just a little bit?” Lot preferred to have the comforts of a little Sodomite city than trust God in the mountains.
God renamed the city “Zoar,” meaning “insignificant,” to indicate that Lot was rejecting a larger blessing by presuming to be more “practical” than his Lord. Staying in Zoar was to cost Lot his wife. The practical consequences of being “practical” will often be grievous, even if the Lord brings us through in the end.
A Winnable Battle
We will never escape the reality that what we believe—our doctrine, or our ignorance of it—will direct what we actually do. Conversely, our conduct will tend to reveal our true convictions. Sound convictions make for good practice, and unsound convictions make for bad practice. James has it pegged when he shows the relationship between faith and works: “Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works” (James 2:18). Saul and Lot, by their actions, proved their faith to be seriously lacking, while David’s faith was unashamedly expressed and validated by his works.
David was truly being “practical.” He knew the Scriptures and the power of God (cf., Mark 12:24). He knew the doctrine of God’s absolute sovereignty. He knew the doctrine of God’s covenant with His people. He knew whom he had believed (cf., 2 Tim. 1:12). He knew that the Lord is really in charge and he could trust the outcome to Him. Conventional wisdom might say Goliath was unbeatable. Sure, the Philistines had the big battalions. Our world and our personal challenges can look that way sometimes. But David was right: The battle really is God’s! Believing, loving, and trusting the Lord, and acting on His truth, is not only doctrinally right, but the practical way to go!