Jesus spoke many profound and important words to his disciples the night before his crucifixion. But there’s one statement we might easily pass over, because of the context in which he made it. Yet it is loaded with personal meaning for each of us who follows him:
What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand. (John 13:7)
In that one sentence, Jesus captures a profound reality that is our frequent, and to some extent continual, experience as Christians: not understanding what God is doing (or not doing) and why. It’s crucial that we grasp the wider implications of what Jesus said here, for if we do, it will help each of us immensely during the times we wonder why our Good Shepherd is leading us down such confusing and painful paths.
We often do not know what God is doing now. And the crucial truth is, we don’t need to know what God is doing now to follow him in faith.
You Do Not Understand Now
During that Last Supper, Jesus did something strange. He removed his outer garments, tied a towel around his waist, grabbed a basin of water, and proceeded to wash each disciple’s feet. I doubt this hits any of us with the force it did the disciples since the cultural mores of that region and time are so distant and foreign to us. But to the disciples, it felt more than strange; it felt disorientingly inappropriate.
“We are never on more dangerous ground than when we believe we understand better than God.”
It sure did to Peter. All his life, he had understood that washing someone else’s feet was about as demeaning a task as anyone could perform — a task fit only for slaves, or, if lacking those, for children. It would have been disgraceful for men of honor. So, as he watched Jesus, the most honored Person in the world, humbling himself by taking the form of a common slave, washing off with his own holy hands God only knew what uncleanness clung to those feet, he felt indignant. This was completely backward! If anything, Peter should be on his knees washing his Lord’s feet.
When Jesus got to Peter, the earnest disciple pulled his feet back and asked, “Lord, do you wash my feet?” Jesus looked at Peter and with patient kindness replied, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand” (John 13:7).
And there it is: a massive principle for every Christian’s life of faith, indeed a summary of a motif woven throughout Scripture from beginning to end, captured in a simple reply to a confused disciple’s question.
Legacy of Little Understanding
Peter, in not understanding why Jesus was doing what he was doing at that moment, was in very good company. Redemptive history recounts story after story of saints finding themselves in this perplexing position, being forced to trust God to make sense of it later. Think of:
- Abraham, having waited so long for Isaac, only to be instructed by God to offer the boy as a sacrifice (Genesis 22);
- Jacob wrestling with God, and being lamed in the hip, just before he was to meet Esau (Genesis 32);
- Joseph wondering what God was doing as his young adulthood wasted away in an Egyptian prison (Genesis 37–41);
- Moses not understanding why God would choose him to lead Israel out of Egypt (Exodus 3–4);
- Gideon being given far more than he could possibly handle (Judges 7);
- Jehoshaphat being instructed to send a choir as his military vanguard against an overwhelming foe (2 Chronicles 20);
- Nehemiah having to deal with so many seemingly unnecessary adversities, obstacles, and inefficiencies that slowed down the work in rebuilding Jerusalem’s walls (Nehemiah 4);
- Joseph trying to navigate so many unforeseen, confusing detours in the first few years of Jesus’s life (Matthew 1–2);
- The man born blind, who didn’t know until midlife what purposes God could possibly have in his suffering (John 9);
- And Martha’s and Mary’s grief-laced bewilderment over why Jesus didn’t come to heal Lazarus (John 11).
Of course, that’s just a small sample. Not understanding what God is doing now (and having to wait till later to understand) is the experience, to greater or lesser degrees, of every saint in every age — whether “later” means within a few minutes, as it did for Peter during the Last Supper, or in the age to come, as it did for his fellow disciple James, who wasn’t delivered from execution (Acts 12:1–2). It is a necessary, humbling part of what it means for us to “walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7).
You Must Trust Me
Being content to not understand now doesn’t come naturally to us. It surely didn’t for Peter. He found Jesus’s reply perplexing. And patience not being one of his strong suits, he didn’t wish to wait till later to understand. So, he declared, “You shall never wash my feet” (John 13:8).
It seems to me that Peter simply didn’t want to dishonor his Lord. This may have been well-intended, but it was wrongheaded. In responding this way, Peter actually became guilty of what he was trying to avoid: dishonoring Jesus. For the great dishonor wasn’t Peter allowing Jesus to wash his feet; it was Peter’s not trusting what Jesus said. And this is a crucial point for us to note: We are never on more dangerous ground than when we believe we understand better than God.
“We don’t need to understand God’s purposes now; what we need to do is trust God’s purposes now.”
I think Jesus fully discerned Peter’s well-intended motive. But he also discerned the danger of Peter’s wrongheaded, overly self-confident tendency to trust his own understanding. Which is why Jesus’s response was so serious. It shocked Peter to his core. “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me” (John 13:8). No share with me. Distrust in this meant exclusion. Peter got the point immediately and repented by exclaiming, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” (John 13:9).
And what was Jesus’s point? Peter, you must trust me. You must live by the ancient proverb, and trust what I say with all your heart, and not lean on your own understanding (Proverbs 3:5). The only way you as a branch will abide and be fruitful in this Vine is if you believe my word (John 15:1–5, 7). If you insist that you must understand now before you will trust me, you will be like a branch broken off, and you will spiritually wither and die (John 15:6).
You Don’t Need to Understand Now
Many of the experiences that confound us as we follow Jesus feel far more painful and confusing than foot-washing. Peter would sympathize; most of his confounding experiences were far more painful and confusing than that too. Just think of what desolation was approaching for Peter in the hours following this brief mealtime interchange. Sometimes it’s lessons we learn in less extreme moments that stand in clearest relief and help steady us during more extreme ones.
The plain fact is, we often do not know what God is doing now. And the crucial truth is, we don’t need to know what God is doing now to follow him in faith. God has his reasons for concealing his purposes. Sometimes it has to do with his timing, as it did for Peter. And sometimes, because God’s ways and thoughts are so beyond ours (Isaiah 55:8–9), it’s simply God’s mercy toward us to withhold knowledge too heavy for us to bear.
We don’t need to understand God’s purposes now; what we need to do is trust God’s purposes now. For it is through our trust, not our own understanding, that God will direct us along our confusing paths (Proverbs 3:6). And we can trust him that later, when the time is right in the near or distant future, he will give us all the understanding we need.