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.