Sometimes our systematic theology kills us.
Now, before you pick up your massive, “don’t carry it in a backpack cuz’ it will throw you out of alignment,” copy of Systematic Theology, and prepare to give me a systematic, theologically corrective beatdown, let me explain.
Systematic theology is the process of bringing together all the Bible says about a certain subject. To do a systematic theology study of prayer is to take all the scriptures in the Old Testament and New Testament that relate to prayer, study them, interweave them with one another, and come to a solid, well-balanced conclusion regarding biblical prayer. I’m all for systematic theology. The Bible should always interpret the Bible. Clear passages should interpret unclear passages. Etcetera and so on. Huzzah for systematic theology.
But… sometimes we can be too quick to pull the trigger on systematic theology. We become Bible gun slingers. We let our knowledge of the whole Bible mess with our heads. I know I sound like a semi-heretical lunatic, but trust me, I’m going somewhere with this.
For example, in Matthew 7:7-11, Jesus tells his disciples:
Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!
This passage has wonderfully sharp edges. Jesus doesn’t give any qualifiers. He simply says ask, seek, knock, and you WILL receive. We are evil and we know how to give good gifts, how much more does God know how to give good gifts? This is a big, powerful, faith-fueling passage. Jesus intends us to pray big, hairy, audacious prayers. He wants us to pray them again and again, without giving up and with increasing earnestness.
The problem is I often let my systematic theology rub the sharp edges off Jesus’ words. When I read this passage I think, Jesus doesn’t really mean what he says. Our prayers have to be in line with God’s will. And we can’t ask out of selfishness. And sometimes God’s answer is ‘no.’ I don’t always know what’s best for me, but God does.
Yes, yes, all those things are true. But do you see what happens when I move too quickly from the single passage to all that the Bible says about prayer? Jesus’ words lose their power and punch. The sharp, soul-cutting edges get worn down into harmless nubs. Jesus spoke these words in order to inspire me to ask great, earth-changing things of God. Jesus was well aware of the fact that there will be times when my prayers won’t line up with God’s will. He knew that there will be times when I ask out of selfishness. But he doesn’t qualify his words. He simply tells me to ask, seek, and knock until the door is opened. He tells me to beat on the door of heaven until my knuckles are bloody.
Should we study systematic theology? Of course! It’s invaluable. But when reading God’s word, let each passage speak for itself first. Let it cut you and heal you, bind you and break you. Each word of scripture is sacred, and was written for a very specific reason. Don’t let your overall knowledge of God’s word dull the power of specific passages.
When you read a passage, ask yourself, why did God say these specific words? What is he trying to accomplish in my life through this specific passage? Why is this passage here and not somewhere else? What would the original audience have thought when they heard these words?
Systematic theology is a fantastic thing. But God’s word is a like an intricate story. There is an overarching theme, but there are also individual scenes. Each individual scene matters just as much as the overarching story line. Pay attention to the scenes first, then remember the overall story line.