I have watched myself and other people swing back and forth between two extremes of expectation when it comes to spiritual growth.
One expectation is that God will do everything if only I have faith and wait patiently. This view goes out of balance when, in my waiting and believing, I become passive. I pray but do not act. I pray but do not engage with the realities in my daily life. When I become spiritually passive, my prayers are more about escaping or about seeing myself as a victim who must wait for God’s rescue.
Yet God urges us to engage with life. God required that Abram pack up his family and possessions and start walking. Jesus required that the man with the withered hand reach out to him—Jesus didn’t reach out first and grab the man’s hand, because that would have been coercion. No, Jesus invited the man by saying, “Stretch out your hand.” In the life of faith there is movement on both sides; God understands that through our own action we participate with grace.
The other extreme expectation is that, “God helps only those who help themselves” (which, by the way, is not from the Bible at all). This attitude believes God set the world in motion, but it’s up to me to get things done. Sometimes the people most inclined to slip into this extreme are those trying to do the most good, such as activists on the front lines of social-justice battles. It’s not surprising that sometimes these well-meaning activists burn out—they have exhausted their personal resources and have not learned to partner with God’s grace.
But ordinary folks in the pews can take this extreme view, too. How many of us are unwilling to share our struggles with others because we think that, as Christians, we should be able to overcome any struggle? Or how many of us have a family member who helps, helps, helps and rarely slows down until emotional and bodily stress and weariness lands her or him in the hospital or in bed with depression?
Jesus meant it when he said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” He knew that the effort of giving ourselves to God’s loving purposes would become a crushing burden if we attempted to do this without the help of divine grace and power. Jesus also told his disciples that he was the vine and they were the branches and that they must abide in him, drawing energy and ability from their Source.
So, it’s good to ask ourselves these questions from time to time:
- Have I become too passive, waiting for God to magically do or fix everything, even though I’m not engaging with tasks or problems myself?
- Have I become too self-sufficient, working hard to do God’s work in the world without participating with God’s grace through prayer, pauses, counsel, and rest?