Thoughts

Unless God Works, We Work in Vain

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Understanding the relationship between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility used to be simply an intellectual pursuit for me — just a stunning puzzle of philosophical ideas. Not anymore.

The bitter fruit of laziness, anxiety, and pride have crept into my life whenever I’ve gotten it wrong. And on the flip side, the beautiful fruit of a restful heart and selfless love has resulted from getting it right. This is no distant theoretical or theological discussion. It’s the difference between the full Christian life and spiritual stagnation.

How does our work in this world relate to God’s work? Let’s consider three possibilities, all of which I’ve tried at various points in my life.

1. God does nothing, and we do everything?

Some people live this way by conviction. Believing there’s no God, they’re compelled to take full responsibility. Others simply live this way in practice. Lots of Christians are practical atheists: faced with a problem, we instinctively turn to ourselves to fix it.

Several years ago, my young son Samuel and I attempted to inflate the rubber tires of our baby stroller. Although Samuel clearly needed my help to operate the bicycle pump, he was determined to do it all by himself (my highly persuasive logical arguments notwithstanding). It’s what we do with God when we stew and worry, or rush immediately into problem-solving mode, rather than prayerfully surrendering our problems to him and asking for help.

Psalm 127:1–2 proclaims the vanity of attempting to live apart from God’s help:

Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain. It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep.

Vain, vain, vain. Solomon doesn’t mean that atheists can’t build houses or keep cities safe (there are lots of good atheistic home builders). But when they do, it’s because of the help of the very God they deny. And Solomon’s message is even deeper and more penetrating: What’s the point of the new house or the secure city if you don’t have God? Life doesn’t flourish apart from him. In the second half of Psalm 127, Solomon shows how blessed life is when we rely on God (Psalm 127:5). Practical atheism is a big mistake. But so is an opposite error.

2. God does everything, and we do nothing?

Christians sometimes disguise passivity and laziness in spiritual garb. We love to “let go and let God.” “God loves that person and I’m trusting he will meet their every need.” We say, “I’ll pray for you,” instead of offering the practical help that will cost us something. It’s like what my son did after I finally stepped in to help him inflate the stroller tire. He figured since I was pumping anyway, he’d find something more interesting to do. He wandered away.

We may wonder whether the verses in Psalm 127 quoted above endorse laziness. After all, Solomon says it’s vain to “rise up early and go late to rest.” But notice something very important: While it’s true that the Lord must build the house, there are still people building the house. And while the Lord must watch the city, there are still human beings guarding the city. John Calvin was right when he said, “It is not the will of the Lord that we should be like blocks of wood, or that we should keep our arms folded without doing anything; but that we should apply to use all the talents and advantages which [God] has conferred upon us.”

God’s help isn’t meant to make us into couch potatoes. His work never undercuts ours (Philippians 2:12–13). There’s a better way to fit together his activity with ours.

3. God does everything, and we do something.

God calls us to do something in this world: to be active, even abounding, in good works (1 Corinthians 15:58). But even as we abound in activity, we’re to recognize that we’re never doing as much as God does. It’s true that “unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.” But it’s not true to say, “Unless those who labor build the house, the Lord builds in vain.” That’s heresy. We need God, but he never needs us. He is sovereign.

After Samuel wandered off to do something else, my daughter Annie stepped in. She took hold of the pump handle, I put my hand over her hand, and we pumped together. At the end of the job, with all the tires inflated, Annie had the satisfaction of knowing she had genuinely helped. But of course our efforts weren’t entirely equal. If Annie had stopped pumping, I would have finished the job without a problem. If I had stopped pumping, Annie wouldn’t have been able to continue.

Knowing this did not make Annie passive or lazy in her work. On the contrary, my presence gave her confidence that the job could be accomplished even though it stretched her strength. Similarly, knowing that God works in and through us gives us confidence and boldness to be more, not less, active in the good works he has planned for us.

God does everything and we do something. Or, in the words of the apostle Paul, “I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (1 Corinthians 15:10).

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