If a person only looks at the surface, there seems to be this odd bit of schizophrenia in what you hear about Christianity. On one hand, the bit about “let go and let God” might sound like we’re supposed to lie back in a hammock and keep a nice warm fuzzy for God so he will do all the work for us. Then you turn around and somebody else is telling you to get on fire for Jesus and cover the fridge with sticky note reminders of all the work you need to do for him.
So which is it? Does God do the work or do I? Is there some way for both statements to be true? This is relevant for anyone thinking to convert to Christianity since being a Christian means a relation with God who is Father, Son, and Spirit. And part of any relation is who does what.
Let’s start with a couple of verses
St. Paul wrote this to a seriously dysfunctional group of Christians (I’m not making this up — they came to church drunk, they drew party lines of division inside the congregation, they approve people who had sex with relatives, they hauled fellow Christians into pagan courts, their liturgy was so crazy it was hard to make sense of it). Paul said this to them:
Finally, brethren, rejoice, be made complete, be comforted, be like-minded, live in peace; and the God of love and peace shall be with you. II Corinthians 13:11
Here’s a second one from St. Paul. He wrote this to a group of Christians so deeply in sync with the faith that his letter to them contains not a single word of criticism.
So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. Philippians 2:12,13
These two verses help explain who it is that is doing the work. These verses mean we are in a partnership with God. We are together with God in the living of our life. It is not God or me – it is God and me. The two verses I cite make this unmistakable.
Look at the first verse that says live in peace and the God of peace will be with you. You want to have peace? Well, God’s the one who has it for you. At every Mass, we pray for God to give us peace. And yet, and yet… part of receiving that peace of God is for me to do and be the things that it takes to live in peace with the people around me. That’s something a Christian has to do herself. Those Corinthians were living like pagans (literally), the way they lived had just about nothing to do with peace, so they were in no position even to receive God’s peace. They needed to clean their act up in order to let the God of peace be with them. So Paul tells them “live in peace”. That is something for them to do. God is the God of peace, yet these people need to live in peace to receive him.
The second passage is pretty much the same thing. Paul recognizes that each of us have choice, we have freedom to determine much of what we do and what we are. We are neither robots subject to fate, nor are we weaklings buffeted by forces outside our control. We make decisions very much on our own. These decisions have such consequences that we even tremble as we live our lives before God. And yet, and yet… if we are his child, God is working in us to help us have both the will to choose his way and then also the ability to complete the deeds that will please him. He’s not just sitting back like a judge on American Idol. He wants us to win, he wants us to please him and to be good and to do good. And he helps us do these things. We co-operate with God. It is both our will and God’s help.
We’re partners with God. If that doesn’t make me fall to my knees in gratitude and amazement and, yes, with some “trembling” that I play my own part properly, then I haven’t thought about it right.
This partnership is part of the meaning of something odd in the Our Father
How many millions of times a day is the phrase prayed “Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven”? That’s sort of an odd thing to pray when you think about it.
He’s God, right? The only way anything can happen against his will is for him to tolerate the opposition. He can cause anything he wants to cause, and he can stop anything he wants to stop. So why does Jesus instruct us to pray “Thy will be done”? Isn’t a prayer like that superfluous?
Of course, it is not superfluous. The significance of the request involves our partnership with God in the work of our own life and in the work of the church.
One part of what this prayer means is personal. I want God’s help as I order my own life on earth, as I decide what my actions will be and as I look for peace in my life. As a Christian, I already know what God’s will is – his will is that I should be patient and gentle and humble and full of love, ready to help other people in practical ways, and always aware of God’s love for me. But even though I know this, I can be really stupid at times and fail to exert myself in such things. Or worse, I can even choose to violate these things – I can choose to sin. So when I pray “Thy will be done” it’s in part a prayer for myself to choose God’s will, to obey him as unfailingly as those who are in heaven. And isn’t this exactly what Paul is talking about in those two verses? I should exert myself to live in peace with other people so that I can receive the God of peace. I should be so serious about my responsibility before God that I even tremble. And this is part of the disposition for me to become ground within which God can work “for his good pleasure”. So I pray for me “Thy will be done.”
A second element of what this part of the prayer means is a longing that the perfection and bliss of heaven be made more present to all of us on earth. And that, too, involves me in a working partnership with God. There is no way to separate (a)what God does by his active, singular providence within the affairs of humans and (b)what God allows humans to do of their own volition. This freedom he gives us means he is confronted with our sin. It breaks his heart to see the rebellion and the pain that humans cause. Read the book of the Old Testament prophet Hosea and you’ll hear God almost in agony over the sin of Israel. Or think about the sorrow of Jesus near his crucifixion when he said:
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks, and you were unwilling. Matthew 23:37
So when I pray “Thy will be done” in the context of the partnership between me and God, I am praying an amazingly bold prayer, yet humble at the very same time. (God has a way of combining opposites sometimes…) I am praying to God that I may be part of how he accomplishes his will on earth. I place myself at his service, to be used in whatever way pleases him. In short, I imitate Isaiah in the 6th chapter of his book, when God wonders aloud who he will send on a mission to Israel, and Isaiah answers “Here am I. Send me.” We ask God to use us in his work, to include us in the great project of saving souls, and thus we become the instrument of his will on earth.
As a Christian, you are a partner with God.
You exercise your own will to trust and obey and pray, and at the same time God supports you.
You are part of how God accomplishes his will on earth.