To the Christian who Can’t

One of the saddest claims I hear from Christians struggling with suffering, sin, or bad circumstances is “I can’t do anything about it so I’ll just have to let God do it.”

It’s a claim that sneaks into so many contexts. Even questions like, “What are some helpful tips that could make us better listeners?” elicit responses like, “rely on God’s grace.” My guess is that churches have accidentally provided an environment where phrases with very little actionable content are considered wise.

There are several reasons this way of speaking has become popular. I’ve written about them here before.

But the ancient church simply did not see it that way, nor should we. Here are two passages from a wiser age:

The chief part then of our improvement and peace of mind must not be made to depend on another’s will, which cannot possibly be subject to our authority, but it lies rather in our own control. And so the fact that we are not angry ought not to result from another’s perfection, but from our own virtue, which is acquired, not by somebody else’s patience, but by our own long-suffering.[1] – John Cassian

 

And the consequence of this [the manner with which the demons became evil] is, that it lies within ourselves and in our own actions to possess either happiness or holiness; or by sloth and negligence to fall from happiness into wickedness and ruin, to such a degree that, through too great proficiency, so to speak, in wickedness (if a man be guilty of so great neglect), he may descend even to that state in which he will be changed into what is called an “opposing power.”[2] – Origen

Both of these men believed thoroughly in God’s grace and man’s moral weakness, but when it comes to Christians, they wrote that we are thoroughly morally responsible for our spiritual state. And this makes perfect sense. The Bible says that God’s grace enables us add virtue to our faith, it does not say or ever even imply that grace enables us to passively become virtuous:

His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, that through these you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of passion, and become partakers of the divine nature. For this very reason make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these things are yours and abound, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.[3]

Now this is not to imply that I’ve attained great virtue or learned to fully take responsibility for my own spiritual state. Like Cain I tend to wonder why circumstances don’t make it easier (which is an indictment of God) rather than wondering why I haven’t made myself more adept at managing myself. But I do strive to make such a practice my own. And if I have a central message or theme as a Christian educator other than, “believe the gospel about Jesus,” it’s “take full responsibility for yourself, sort your life out, and then take responsibility for the world around you.”

I don’t think any of that is opposed to God’s grace, any more than Jesus telling people to “go and sin no more” or “the greatest among you shall be the servant of all” is opposed to God’s grace.

References

[1] John Cassian, “The Twelve Books of John Cassian on the Institutes of the Cœnobia,” in Sulpitius Severus, Vincent of Lérins, John Cassian, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. Edgar C. S. Gibson, vol. 11, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1894), 262.

[2] Origen, “De Principiis,” in Fathers of the Third Century: Tertullian, Part Fourth; Minucius Felix; Commodian; Origen, Parts First and Second, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, trans. Frederick Crombie, vol. 4, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 260.

[3] Catholic Biblical Association (Great Britain), The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition (New York: National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA, 1994), 2 Pe 1:3–8.

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