The tension inherent between the doctrine of man’s free will and God’s sovereignty often puzzles people and can’t be fully explained. Both sides of this coin are needed; one verse which perhaps captures both sides is in Philippians, where Paul says “Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfil his good purpose.” (Philippians 2:12-13) We have to ‘work out our salvation’ (not in the intellectual sense of trying to fathom it, but in the sense ‘to do that from which something results: to bring about, result in’, living out our salvation as testimony to what God is doing), but God is also the One who works in us to bring about His purposes.
It’s easy for us to run to extremes with every doctrine: either sitting back in passivity, waiting for God to work, or frantically manipulating circumstances and people to fit in with our view of what God wants to do. Neither extreme is to be commended!
I recently had to contemplate major changes in my life and desperately wanted to know God’s will for my future. Ideally, I wanted a very Biblical experience: a burning bush, a blinding Damascene light, a pillar of cloud or fire, that kind of thing. Whilst part of the desire for such a visible or audible manifestation of God was because I wanted to be sure I took the right path and didn’t make a mistake, there was also the sense that such visions make life easier (so I thought) when it comes to times of trial or doubt.
You could say that God spoke very decisively indeed to me, but it certainly didn’t take the form I had prayed for! Instead, this quotation in a book I was reading (which prompted me to read the whole book from which the quotation came!) pierced through the mixed motivation of my heart and showed me that in most major crossroads of life, there is a partnership between us and God:
“There are those who, by virtue of their own passivity, dependency, fear and laziness, seek to be shown every inch of the way and then have it demonstrated to them that each step will be safe and worth their while. This cannot be done. For the journey of spiritual growth requires courage and initiative and independence of thought and action. While the words of the prophet and the assistance of grace are available, the journey must still be travelled alone… No words can be said, no teaching can be taught, that will relieve spiritual travellers of picking their own way, working out with effort and anxiety their own paths, through the unique circumstances of their own lives, towards the identification of their individual selves with God.”(Scott Peck, ‘The Road Less Traveled’)
This quotation pierced the outer veneer of spirituality I was adopting (surely there’s nothing wrong with wanting a Biblical experience of God?!) to reveal the true motives of my heart: the sense in which I felt that I needed ‘proof’ of God’s will, that I preferred safety to risk, that a cast-iron vision of God removed any need for faith and that it was a much ‘safer bet’ than stepping out in a new direction with no guarantee of ‘success’ along the way. I also found it highly ironic, because one of the things that frustrates me immensely as a teacher is a pupil who wishes to be spoon-fed the answers all the time rather than finding the exhilaration of discovery for himself, yet here I was actually wishing God would spoon-feed me the next steps of my journey with Him or speak to me in red text (Garry’s Bible has the words of Jesus in red, which makes it so much easier to distinguish God’s voice from all the other voices we hear!)
To grow spiritually really does require courage and initiative and independence of thought and action. The journey of faith is not for the faint-hearted. But as we seek to ‘work out’ our salvation – often, indeed, with fear and trembling, with effort and anxiety – we can be encouraged by the fact that we never walk alone.
“Standing on this mountaintop
Looking just how far we’ve come
Knowing that for every step
You were with us.
Kneeling on this battle ground
Seeing just how much You’ve done
Knowing every victory
Was Your power in us
Scars and struggles on the way
But with joy our hearts can say
Yes, our hearts can say:
Never once did we ever walk alone
Never once did You leave us on our own
You are faithful, God, You are faithful.” (‘Never Once’, Matt Redman)
‘Never Once’, Matt Redman