The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
April 7, 2019
A couple of years ago, New York Times writer David Brooks reported how there are people who count the words and phrases used on the Internet and draw conclusions from the data about changes in our culture.
Ever since the Internet became popular, there has been an accelerating increase in words and phrases such as “self-help”, “self-reliance” and “I can do it myself”.
These verbal changes are often associated with repudiations of traditional faith. For example, not long ago, actor Brad Pitt blogged, “When I got untethered from religion, it wasn’t a loss of faith for me; it was a discovery of self. I had faith I’m capable enough to handle any situation.”
Pitt’s attitude is not that unusual. A recent article in The Atlantic noted that, at the same time Americans are losing confidence in everyone else, they are maintaining a strong faith in themselves. Seventy percent of Americans believe, “With hard work I can accomplish anything.”
I wish that were true. If it were, I would have had a career in the NBA; I would have completed my doctoral dissertation in half the time; and I would today be a lot more like Christ than I presently am.
Do you believe you could, with hard work, accomplish any level of improved character or conduct?
I suspect that most people who have that confidence about their prospects for self-improvement are people who have lowered the bar about what it means to be good or to do good. After all, we do have a tendency to judge ourselves on the curve. We are satisfied with ourselves if we are just more decent than most folks. But is that much of an accomplishment in a culture that is – as almost everyone recognizes – degenerating into more selfishness, unfairness, dishonesty, cruelty and indifference to the welfare of all? And would we be that satisfied with ourselves if we aspired higher, made it our aim to become fully just and compassionate, and took on efforts that required of us great moral and spiritual strength?
If, for example, we hoped to become all the Bible says God hopes us to become, would we have as much confidence in our unaided self-effort? Would not those high aspirations bring us to the end of ourselves and make us realize that what we intend to have happen cannot happen without some support and help from beyond ourselves?
Today’s Psalm says, “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.” That is not to say that, without collaboration with God, they cannot build anything at all; but that, without God’s being engaged in their efforts, they cannot build anything like the house that could be built with God involved.
I cannot build the better me, the better students, the better church I hope to see, apart from God.
And all the rising up early and going late to rest, all the eating the bread of anxious toil, all the long hours and strenuous effort, cannot make up for the absence of the Lord’s making the contribution only He can make.
My making my contribution may be crucial, but it is never decisive. It may matter that I hammer in the few nails delegated to my responsibility; but I don’t have the strength to lift the heavy beams that frame the house, or the know-how and wherewithal to lay the concrete foundation on which the house becomes sturdy and enduring.
Our highest aspirations and best efforts are “in vain” if we try to build without divine-human collaboration. So how do we involve God in our building?
We allow God to be God in our building. We let Him take the lead, set the schedule, make the work assignments and do what He alone can do. We likewise commit to faithfully do everything He tells us to – and nothing more. Sometimes then we dutifully and diligently labor in our delegated task, and sometimes we just get out of God’s way and watch Him do it all. Either way, while it is important we are dedicated to doing our part, it is more important we are dependent on God’s doing His part.
In his book Defiant Grace, Dane Ortlund calls Christianity the “un-religion”, because it turns all our spiritual and moral instincts on their heads. He notes how the ancient Greeks told us to be whole by knowing and moderating our inclinations. The Romans told us to be strong by ordering our lives with wise prioritization and strict self-discipline. Buddhism tells us to be real by overcoming our false consciousness. Hinduism tells us to become ourselves by merging ourselves in the great all. Islam tells us to become worthy by submitting to God’s will. Agnosticism tells us to be at peace by doubting what we can’t be sure of. Moralism tells us to be good by discharging our obligations. “Only the gospel,” Ortlund writes, “tells us to be free by acknowledging our failure. Christianity is the un-religion because it is the one faith whose founder tells us to bring not our doing, but our need.”
“Without God, we cannot; without us, God will not,” Augustine said. We have something to do, but what we contribute is always secondary, responsive and derivative from God’s grace. Our work is to do, not what we can manage to do, but what God has given us to do. Thus, even our doing is ultimately God’s doing.
The great evangelist Luis Palau says he gained the right attitude for serving the Lord once he understood what God meant by showing up for Moses out of a burning desert bush.
After forty years in the wilderness, Moses encountered God in an ordinary plant that was likely little more than a dry, brittle bunch of ugly sticks. By making that bush a revelation, God was telling Moses, “I don’t need a pretty bush or an educated bush or an eloquent bush. Any old bush will do as long as I am in the bush. And if I am going to use you to build something, it won’t be by your doing something for me, but by my doing something through you. So don’t worry about how good a bush you are. Just make sure you’re my bush, and believe only I can make happen what most needs to happen. In fact, apart from me, you can do next to nothing of the utmost value.”
Let us face the facts and come to the end of ourselves. Let us find hope in a God who can use anything and anyone. Let us be dependable but dependent builders who allow God to build, in collaboration with us, what we could never build on our own.