At what point does trusting in God become laziness, and at one point does putting in effort become doing something in your own strength?
For Christians, our lifestyles and decisions can be quite black and white. Because we have the Bible, God’s manual for life, we know we’re not supposed to lie, steal or murder and that we’re called to love our neighbors as ourselves.
Yet for every simple-to-follow command in Scripture, there are ones that aren’t so black and white, where a lack of proper interpretation and careful balance can lead to some pretty devastating consequences. (Think snakes handlers and the prosperity gospel.)
One of these confusing issues Scripture addresses is grace. Grace is the centerpiece of our faith, and too much emphasis on “doing the right thing” is an act of self-righteous religion. Yet Scripture says that faith without works is dead and that a Christian who doesn’t act according to what they believe, perhaps isn’t a Christian at all.
Grace and works is just one example, so I thought I’d start a new series called “Finding the Balance” to talk about some of these issues and perhaps do it in a discussion-based format. I’ll share some of my thoughts on two particular opposites, and you can share yours in the comments below. Also feel free to suggest some topics where Christians must find a balance that you’d like to discuss. I’d love to hear from you!
One of my least favorite “Christian” songs is called “Jesus Take the Wheel,” popularized by Carrie Underwood. No, it’s not because it played nonstop on the radio while I was growing up, and it’s not because I have issues with the singer.
It’s because I think Christians should keep their hands on their steering wheels.
I use this analogy to illustrate a duality I have the hardest time understanding: At what point does trusting in God become laziness, and at one point does putting in effort become doing something in your own strength?
Going between different churches and denominations around the world, perhaps I see the contrasts more clearly. Some churches have cultures that lean one way, and some the opposite. Many of the more Charismatic or Pentecostal churches will often emphasize “waiting on God.” They trust in God for faith healings, career moves and their future spouse. They might wait six months praying, seeking a sign from the Lord before asking a girl on a date, or they might not get treatment for an illness because God is our healer. Some people look at that and think they’re crazy, and some would applaud such behavior as being led by faith. Let us see this in detail. Ready?
THE AGE OLD DILEMMA.
Few questions confuse us more as Christians than what it means to live by faith. When does it mean sitting still and leaving a need completely in the hands of Christ? When does it mean taking prudent initiative to solve a problem or reach a goal?
Many Christians assume that faith usually means the former and not the latter. For example, Jack longs for a new job that would make better use of his gifts. Yet he fears he would be pushing God by going out and looking for a new one. “Shouldn’t I assume that if Christ wants me in a different job, he’ll bring it along without any effort on my part?” he thinks.
Susan, who wants to be married, wrestles with a similar question. She would like to change jobs or even move to a different city where the prospects of meeting someone compatible are better. Yet she wonders if this would be taking matters too much into her own hands. “Doesn’t faith demand that I simply wait for Christ to bring the right man to me?” she asks.
Both Jack and Susan would prefer to be doing something specific toward reaching their goals, and each see clear steps they could take. Yet they fear that their efforts to change things would usurp God’s authority. Surely faith must require that they sit still and wait for him to act.
A Time to Be Passive, a Time to Be Active
Scripture teaches, though, that we are called to exercise two different levels of faith at various times as Christians.
At one level we are to be inactive and wait patiently for the Lord to move. Here faith involves believing that Christ will bring about a solution apart from any effort on our end. It is shown in so many situations in Scripture where people were either told to be still or forced to be still and wait for the Lord to act.
Examples include Joseph in prison, the Israelites at the edge of the impassable Jordan River, and Jesus’ disciples just before his ascension when they were instructed, “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised” (Acts 1:4).
Yet Scripture just as frequently affirms the faith involved in taking personal responsibility. We find so many impressive pictures in the Bible of individuals who, without any divine revelation or special prompting, took bold steps to reach a personal goal:
• Naomi and Ruth moving from Moab to Bethlehem,
• Nehemiah courageously organizing the Israelites to rebuild Jerusalem,
• Paul knocking on many doors to find opportunities to preach--in his own words, “making it my ambition to preach the gospel” (Rom 15:20 RSV).
In reality, there can be just as much faith involved in taking personal initiative as there is in waiting passively for the Lord to provide. While Ruth would have been commended for staying in Moab and waiting for God to heal the heartbreak of her husband’s death, she probably showed greater faith in going to Bethlehem. By moving forward she placed herself in a vulnerable position where she had to trust the Lord to protect her, to open doors and to make her venture successful. Interestingly, it was this very move that opened her to the relationship with Boaz, who became her husband.
It is right, then, to speak of a second level of faith that we are to demonstrate as Christians. At this level we are active and assertive. We take initiative to find the answer to a need. And by moving forward we force ourselves to a dependence on the Lord that wouldn’t be possible if we merely sat still.
Taking Bold Initiative
While this distinction is interesting enough, it still leaves the question, when does God want us to operate at level one faith and when at level two?
Let me suggest a rule of thumb: If we are facing a seemingly insurmountable problem--a situation that we believe we are powerless to influence--we should stay at level one (L1) faith. Yet if there is a reasonable step we can take to improve things or to move toward a goal, then we should assume that God wants us to operate at level two (L2).
Taking this step doesn’t mean we won’t still have plenty of opportunity to experience L1 faith, for as we move forward unexpected obstacles always arise which throw us back to waiting on the Lord. But the thrust of our life at this point should be toward taking bold initiative.
If you examine most of the examples in Scripture where individuals did the will of God, you will find that they fit this pattern. Paul, for instance, generally assumed that he should take initiative to open doors except for those occasional times when God clearly closed them (Acts 16:6-7, 16:39-40).
We can expect, too, that taking initiative will often require us to express our convictions clearly--even to those who disagree with us--and that God will use our assertiveness to persuade people and open important doors for us. We should always listen carefully to the counsel others give us and be open to having our insights changed by theirs. Yet God will also use us to counsel others and to correct their misunderstandings.
We find an inspiring example of assertiveness in David’s discussion with Saul about fighting Goliath. David took the initiative to propose to Saul that he battle the giant. Saul’s initial response was negative:
“You are not able to go out against this Philistine and fight him; you are only a boy, and he has been a fighting man from his youth” (1 Sam 17:33).
But David pressed his point with Saul: “Your servant has killed both the lion and the bear; this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them, because he has defied the armies of the living God. The LORD who delivered me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine” (1 Sam 17:34-37).
Saul was not put off by David’s straightforwardness but persuaded by it! “Go, and the LORD be with you,” he replied (1 Sam 17:37). In this case, God honored one man’s efforts to convince someone considerably more knowledgeable and powerful than himself that he had gifts which should be put to use. An entire nation benefited from his assertiveness.
The passage drives home a point vital for each of us. Not only does God lead us to see new horizons for our lives, but he also uses us as agents of change to bring these options about. Walking in faith requires that we assert ourselves. We can find the courage to do this if we believe that God will honor our efforts and that others will benefit from our initiative. David’s example gives us rich encouragement at this point.
I would simply offer two cautions about taking personal initiative.
1. One is that we should consider a step of faith only if we can pursue it without frenzy, within the time and energy limits the Lord has given us, and without jeopardizing other commitments we have already made.
2. The other is that our understanding of which steps of faith we should take should grow out of a regular time alone with Christ, where we carefully think through the direction of our life and what God wants us to do. In general, individuals in Scripture were judged presumptuous not because they took personal initiative but because they did so without establishing their plans before the Lord (Josh 9:14).
As we daily seek the Lord’s direction, we should feel great freedom to take bold initiative to find the best opportunities for using our gifts and building relationships.
I remember what great relief I felt as a young Christian when a friend suggested to me that it was okay to do this. I hope you will feel similar relief in realizing the freedom Scripture gives you at this point. The fact is that God gives us much greater control to change the circumstances of our lives than we tend to think.
A more scientific way of thinking about this is:
1. If you are avoiding doing things because you are feeling lazy, then by all means DO IT. The reason is apparently laziness and lethargy causing us to procrastinate what can be done now.For example, if you need to repair your roof and find a small area that needs to be attended, do it quickly without waiting on it. The roof isn’t going to fix itself until you do.
2. If you find yourself feeling rushed to do something rash. This will typically involve a scenario where doing something that can hurt yourself (or others) in the long run, then please wait upon GOD to give you direction. For example, if your boss is manipulative and demeaning, and you are tempted to throw your hands up and quit, chances are that you may lose your only source of income. On the other hand, if you seek GOD, prayerfully find another job prior to quitting then you have secured your financial position.
We hope you will find this helpful in your walk and wait with the Lord. Please share your thoughts or post your concerns in the comments below.
GOD BLESSS YOU.