“Grace is not opposed to effort but to earning…. Apart from Christ we can do nothing, so if we do nothing, we can be sure it is apart from him.”
These clarifying, and now famous, words from Dallas Willard are recalibrating to us on the days when we find ourselves confused about the relationship between faith, works, and grace.
Are they unrelated neighbors living separately on 1/5 acre lots in a gated community? Are they building blocks of one another like a foundation wall? Or are they more like a messy montage all swirled up together?
If we think too linearly about it, we’ll miss out on God’s involvement in the backwards sorts of ways that he often prefers to work.
But if we think about it robustly, we see that though we are indeed rescued based on nothing we’ve done, there’s no way we’ll be content with a life about nothing, if we’ve really showered in the refreshing warmth of God’s healing grace.
Way to Much Too Do!
I use to think the tales about Martin Luther saying inane things like, “I’ve got way too much to do today to pray for less than three-hours”
were just a bunch of apocryphal hagiography--pious phooey spun to prop up a hero in the faith.
Nobody in their right mind could think things like that. Nobody with a functioning noodle would do time-management like that.
But after 16 years of pastoring at Rock Creek, I’ve changed my assessment. (I actually changed my evaluation much earlier.)
But it all rings truer to me on this balmy summer day than it usually has.
I’ve actually drunk a watered down, but still stiff version of Luther’s Kool-Aid, because I’ve been privileged, like my hero in the faith, Luther, to see God astound me as a result of prayer.
I’ve also seen that St. Augustine was perceptive to insist that in prayer “God constructs us while we think we are instructing Him.”
And I’ve seen my meandering path mysteriously directed while at prayer. Prayer has come to seem like an actual preparation for life and not a replacement for it.
Prayer as Preparation for Action
Some time ago, John Perkins, while speaking in Chattanooga, said, “Whenever anybody tells me they’re going to pray for me that means I know for sure I ain’t gonna get anything!”
He’d learned that Christians often consider prayer (and spiritual disciplines in general) as a substitute for action, not as a preparation for it, and thus, any advertised prayer “support” had come to be synonymous with a withholding of funds.
But as he no doubt knows in his own devotional life, and you as well, if you’ve done some serious praying at times, nothing could be further from the truth. Prayer isn’t a substitute for action. None of means of grace are substitutes for action although all of them, in their own ways, feel like the laziest, most useless form of inaction in a world that esteems productivity.
In fact, it could be said that a people dependent on God’s grace, which is to say, a people who hanker for God’s constant gifts of himself, his vision, his affection, his competency, his direction, and his courage, are going to be constantly putting themselves in the distribution channels most likely to receive these things. Especially if they long to represent Him in politics, education, healthcare, family life, law, and business.
When you look at the practices of our Savior, say, in the gloomy garden of Gethsemane, you may surmise as Haddon Robinson has, that active engagement with God is the ultimate preparation for God-obeying, world-changing action.
Falling Apart with God in Prayer
It’s better to fall apart with God in prayer, so you don’t fall apart in the actual moment of crises.
It was while duking it out with God in the dark that Jesus was somehow resourced to courageously walk into the calamitous and jaded legal proceedings which culminated in his shameful, God-less, death. His effort at prayer got him in touch with the grace necessary to save the world.
Over and over of course, you see Jesus disappearing to pray whilst the ticker tape has already started. After the markets have already opened for the day, he is seeking his Father, being available to the One he’d learned to trust alone. For some reason he never captured the axiomatic truism that time is money. He was much too inefficient to do much useful in the world, like amass a fortune, develop a beautiful city, or have a perfectly appointed living room.
Oh, but he did, in his inefficiency, somehow work such a herculean task that we’re talking and thinking about him today.
God often works in backwards ways so that it will be clear that the work has his insignia on it. And the homeless man who reclaimed earth as home for God is an advertisement of that dynamic. The One whose pummeling on the Cross means our peace parade with God showcases it more stunningly than anyone.
The Badge of Busyness
That’s why we must be those who give ourselves to the tedious, secret actions of studying Scripture, of solitude, of worship, of service, and prayer. It’s because we want to get on God’s page. We want to be sunning in His light so that when we enter back into the world as His workmanship, the marks of His artistry will come cascading off us in stunning ways.
Eugene Peterson once said that “spiritual disciplines have not been tried and discarded because they didn’t work, but tried and found difficult (and more than a little tedious) and so shelved in favor of something or other that could be fit into a busy schedule.”
I’m coming off one of the more busy seasons I can remember. And they are all busy, just like for you. And I’m noticing how easy it is to wear busyness like a badge. It’s a hall-mark of our importance, at least in our own eyes, and we presume it is to others too. Nothing of course, is more flattering, than for someone to come and say, “I hate to bother you, I know you are so busy.”
Low-Grade Despair Fever
And I also notice when my prayer practice flags in favor of what at the time always seems like more important and desirable activities, that I develop a low-grade despair fever--the sort like the 5th century monks in Evagrius’ day would run up against at noon when it was “hotter than a fiery cracker” outside in the desert, and they’d spent the morning praying. It was when a deadly mixture of exhaustion, hunger, and boredom came into contact with each other that despair was emitted.
It’s a drowsy sort of mood that implicitly asks, “does any of this matter? Does it matter to pray? Does it matter that we follow Jesus? Does grace matter? Does listening to God matter? Does God really do things? Should we really obey him? Is it important how we talk? How we love? How we use our money?”
I know the right answers to all these questions. I’ve written essays about all of them! But sometimes this despair fever makes my thinking fuzzy. When it does, it’s easier to overeat, and to under-care. I find it harder and harder to pray. Evagrius called it the “noon-day demon.” It’s now evolved and been repackaged into the sin of sloth.
Whatever you call it, it poisons a lot of the world. Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David made millions exploiting its existence as a primary feature of modern life in their endlessly running show about nothing.
Busy About Nothing
It’s what makes us busy about nothing. Giving all our time to things without asking why. It makes us first-rate hobbyists and third-rate worshippers. It leads us to excel at comfort-collecting, while we get C minuses in sacrifice for those whose burdens we’re called to bear---after all, how can we really be sure that Jesus means for us to sacrifice in this instance, maybe it’s some later time that he’ll want us to do that!
This “self-stuffed with the self” sort of boredom (to borrow Walker Percy’s term) that eventually leads us to run out of gas in following Jesus, and sadly, not to care that we have.
Our faith, it turns out, starts to sputter when it isn’t fed. The muscle of trust gets flabby when it isn’t exercised. So we who are constructed with internal engines that run on God’s grace must fill-up regularly.
When we are putting ourselves in the way of God’s grace, practicing prayer, feasting on Scripture, being with God’s people, worshipping, taking the sacraments….we find spiritual endorphins released within, eventually, if we don’t give up. We find the pistons pumping in the engines of our lives moving us to those God-directed actions he has prepared in advance for us to do. We find expectancy of God’s involvement in all our actions and restings flowing at full throttle rather than barely dripping into the basins of our lives. And we are renewed.
I’m hoping today we won’t be duped into believing that the inward renewal we crave will come by a new house, a lovely dress, a more shapely figure, a better-paying job, or a win on the baseball field. I’m hoping that even our low-grade despair will become a best friend who drives us to Jesus’ Rehab center to learn to seek our all in the God of all grace, whose love is better than life.