Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Pray as though Everything Depended on God

Pray as though everything depended on God, and act as if everything depended on you.
--Source Debatable1

This quote appears to be popular in the church today. Though every time I hear it, alarm bells ring in my head. Even very good, modern commentaries2 carry the phrase. Is it biblical? Is it gospel-centered?

There are two elements of the saying that all Christians should appreciate. First, nobody should have a problem with the first half, "Pray as though everything depended on God." That is the way Jesus taught us to pray. In Matthew 6:8, Jesus says that the Father already knows what we need before we ask, and in Matthew 6:25-34, we're told that God cares for us and will provide for our temporal needs. Indeed, everything does depend on God, and God is dependable. Second, Christians ought to work hard. Trust in God has never been a valid excuse for laziness. Paul addressed a problem in the Thessalonian church where some became idle as they anticipated Christ's return, but they became leeches on the rest. So the apostle said, "If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat" [2 Thess 3:10]. The whole context of 2 Thessalonians 3 is helpful to understand the perspective with which a hopeful Christian should work.

However, and this is a big however, "acting as if everything depended on you" goes against the grain of everything the gospel of Jesus teaches. It is the self-justifier who lives as if everything depends on him. He believes he is righteous before God because of everything he's done. By nature, man does not have a problem acting as if everything depends on him, but it is from this mindset that we all must be saved!

Jesus has made it clear that the kingdom of God belongs to those who do not depend on themselves [Mark 10:14-15 vs Mark 10:17-31]. We cannot bring anything to God and earn eternal life. Physician Jesus did not come for those who think they are well, but for those who know they are sick and need to be healed [Mark 2:17]. God does not justify the self-righteous, but sinners who confess their need for mercy [Luke 18:9-14]. The gospel of Jesus Christ is that all who have faith in him and his work--in his substitutionary, sacrificial work on the cross--and cry out to him as Lord and Savior will be saved [Rom 10:9-10]. The gospel of Jesus Christ is that God is the one who saves us through his Son; we cannot and do not save ourselves.

In light of the gospel, I propose a change to the saying. The new one should read:
Pray as though everything depended on God, and act as if everything depended on God.
The key verse to understanding the partnership of God and man in labor is Philippians 2:12-13, "Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure." The Holy Spirit lives in the temple of the believer's heart after they are justified by faith [1 Cor 3:16], and it his God himself who works within his elect to accomplish his will according to his good pleasure. Given this truth, the believer works, in an outward fashion, what God has already done inside him. Yes, we labor, but not outside the strength, will or work of God.

So if we are to work hard under either perspective, then, what's the difference? Primarily it's one of faith. We not only want to seem as though we live by faith, but we want to actually live by faith--knowing and trusting that God is sovereign over all actions--even our own. The original saying, "act as if everything depended on you" communicates a distrust of God's ability to accomplish his will. But we need to act "as if" God really is sovereign. As mere mortals, we never know how God might use us to accomplish his will, and ultimately we are but a single thread in the great tapestry of his purposes. Another important difference in perspective is within the area of humility. If we believe that our accomplishments are "as if" our own, then the temptation toward pride in success (and depression in apparent failure) will engulf us. But there is no room for boasting in anything we've done.
For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, "Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord" [1 Cor 1:26-31].
Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ [Col 3:23-24].
Pray as though everything depended on God, and act as though everything depended on God.

Update 8/7/13: Here is a great answer from Pastor John about a related subject.

1It is often attributed to Augustine of Hippo, but an electronic search through his writings does not reveal it, and other researchers have not been able to point to a particular source. Some attribute it to Ignatius, but his quote boils down to something subtly different, "Pray as if everything depended on you, and act as if everything depended on God." It is probably a conjunction and corruption of two ancient ideas dressed up to appear as if it has biblical origins.

2Within my own library, I discovered that the following commentaries used the phrase: NIV Application Commentary (2 Samuel 10), Bible Exposition Commentary (Acts 3 & 4), and even an old commentary called the Pulpit Commentary (Mark 1 & Romans 12).

Much to my chagrin, I found that Spurgeon used this saying in one of his sermons. "If I am a worker, I must look to God for the result, but then I must also use all the means. In fact, the Christian should work as if all depended upon him, and pray as if it all depended upon God. He should be always nothing in his own estimation; yet he should be one of those gloriously active nothings of which God makes great use, for he treats the things that are not as though they were, and gets glory out of them." [Spurgeon, C. H. (1998). Spurgeon’s Sermons: Volume 17 (electronic ed.). Albany, OR: Ages Software.]

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