But God's kindness made me what I am, and that kindness was not wasted on me. Instead, I worked harder than all the others. It was not I who did it, but God's kindness was with me.
1 Corinthians 15:10 (GW)
Who is responsible for your Christian walk?
You or God?
If you answer you, aren’t you discounting the work of the Spirit in you?
If you answer God, does that mean you play no active role?
That’s not exactly the words Jerry Bridges uses in Chapter Eight of The Discipline of Grace, but it’s the gist.
To pursue holiness, he suggests we need both: (1) dependence on the Spirit to enable us as (2) we do certain activities for our training (1 Timothy 4:7).
It’s a paradox, yes? (Ah, Christianity.)
We must not try to carry out our responsibilities in our own strength and willpower. We must depend upon the Holy Spirit to enable us.
At the same time we must not assume that we have no responsibility simply because we are dependent.
God enables us to work, but He does not do the work for us.
Think about Nehemiah. He prayed for God’s help to rebuild the walls around Jerusalem, but he also assigned workers and appointed guards. It’s not a “spiritual” versus a “practical” decision; it’s both.
Granted, there are examples in the Old Testament where God did it all (2 Chronicles 20). But as Bridges points out,
However, and this is an important statement, there is not a single instance in New Testament teaching on holiness where we are taught to depend on the Holy Spirit without a corresponding exercise of discipline on our part.
We’re called to be disciplined, even as we depend on grace.
Is it easy to do? No. Too often, if we succeed in our self-discipline, we take the credit. But when a bad situation doesn’t resolve after much prayer, we blame God for not answering.
But the apostle Paul shows us it is possible to live the paradox. He learned to be content, implying he worked at it, but it was because Christ strengthened him to do so (Philippians 4:11-13). He struggled to mature young believers, but used Christ’s energy to work in him (Colossians 1:29).
So while we do work, we only do it through the Spirit’s enablement.
Bridges inserts a farming analogy to demonstrate. While the farmer plows, plants, fertilizes, and cultivates, he cannot create growth and he cannot control weather, two critical factors in producing fruit. Just so, we can perform spiritual disciplines to pursue holiness, but we cannot make ourselves grow.
So how do we grow in active dependence?
One way is through the discipline of prayer. It’s a conscious act on our part that throws us on the mercy of the Father. It helps us recognize how helpless we are, even in our best efforts at discipline.
Jesus himself—while in the flesh—stated that “By myself I can do nothing” (John 5:30). He wasn’t repulsed by his dependence, but embraced it:
His dependence was not reluctant; it was wholehearted—enthusiastic, even—because He knew that we are created to be dependent on God.
So if we want to become holy we must pursue, not a spirit of independence, but a spirit of dependence.
And one of the best means God has given us for doing this is the discipline of prayer.
* * *
Do you tip more toward (a) depending on yourself, or
(b) waiting passively for God to act?
(I confess my leanings toward (a), the sin of self-sufficiency.)