I would like to recall to your mind two Biblical stories, and then make a point that comes out of them. The first story is that of Israel as they were about to enter the land of Canaan in Moses’ day. You recall in Numbers 13 that they were at the southern border of Canaan, and the Lord told them to send spies into the land. Moses told them “See what the land is like, and whether the people who live in it are strong or weak, whether they are few or many. How is the land in which they live, is it good or bad? And how are the cities in which they live, are they like open camps or with fortifications? How is the land, is it fat or lean? Are there trees in it or not? Make an effort then to get some of the fruit of the land” (Num 13.18-20). And that is exactly what they did.
Now for the second story. In 2 Corinthians the apostle Paul was defending the legitimacy of his apostleship. In chapter 12 Paul relates an experience he had, an experience that any rational person would consider and say “yep, Paul’s a real apostle.” He tells of being caught up into heaven to hear things which he was not permitted to repeat. No one had experiences like this, and the fact that Paul had this experience proved that he was indeed special to the Lord. None of his opponents could claim anything close to it.
It is in this context of Paul’s special and close relationship with the Lord, which resulted in him hearing privileged information, that he tells us a shocking story. He says that he had a physical ailment, a “thorn in the flesh,” and that he asked the Lord to remove it from him. Surely a man on such close terms with Jesus could count on having one small request granted. But it was not. Jesus said “no.”
There is a lesson that appears when we consider these two stories together. In the first story, God tells Israel to do considerable “leg work” in preparing to conquer the land of Canaan. There were all kinds of things they needed to know before they launched their first attack. Things had to be done, and God told Israel to look after them. It becomes quite clear that even though God would be with them as He had clearly promised, this in no way meant that Israel could just “sit back” while God did all the work. God was going to bless what they did, but they still had to do the necessary work of judging the conditions, making the right plans, launching the attacks, etc., but in the second story a man simply asks God to do something for him (which he feels he cannot do for himself). In the first story people are required to do much for themselves, but in the second story the man does nothing for himself. From the first story we might get the impression that when we undertake things in life, that it is mostly up to us (and that God will help us as we do our job). From the second story we might get the opposite impression, that we are actually quite helpless and that God needs to do basically everything if we are going to have any success.
Which is the correct picture of how help from God works? Which way is the way it actually happens with God? Is it that God only helps those who help themselves (as with Israel), or is it that God does what we cannot do (as with Paul)? When I ask God for something, should I simply wait in faith for God to do it? And am I doubting God’s power if I work on it myself? Which scenario is the model for how I should think of God’s power for my life today?
That is, God can work in both ways. He is not limited to one, the other, or any other possibilities. God can do things with us, he can do things for us, and he can do things in a host of other ways (most of which, I am confident, we don’t even know about). His ways and thoughts are not ours. Just because we can’t think of how to do it, that doesn’t mean God can’t think of a way. Or just because we believe a certain way will work does not mean that God is obligated to do it “our way.”
So how am I supposed to pray if I don’t know how God is going to answer my prayer? Am I supposed to work as if God will help my work, or should I not work and just trust God to do what he will do? The apostle Paul found the solution in 2 Corinthians 12.9-10. The Lord said “My grace is sufficient for you,” to which Paul reacted “Therefore I am well content.”
The key, you see, is to be perfectly willing to let God be God, and not to present God with limited options in our prayers (or in our thinking). Sometimes, like Paul, we pray for the very thing God will not do, and the very thing we see as a problem is in fact God’s solution to the whole thing, because we are taking a purely human point of view. What is required is the right perspective, the right orientation, on our part. We do our work, and if God is pleased he will bless it. But even if our work fails, this does not mean God has abandoned us. A “no” answer from God does not necessarily mean “never.” We need to be willing to accept God’s answer and method, whatever it is.
It all boils down to this: “Thy will be done.” If I am content to let God do his will in the way that pleases and suits him best, then I can both pray and work with the confidence that God will be for me whether it is through my efforts or apart from them. The important thing is that I learn to accept, with all contentment, whatever God wants do to. If we will do this, then we will not get caught up in the either-or dilemma of “will God answer my prayer through blessing my efforts, or will he simply do it himself?” God will do what is best and right for himself, for us, and for all things considered. It is because Paul had learned to accept God’s answer, whatever it was, because he had learned to submit himself wholly and not make demands of God, that Paul could now be content. The Christian’s contentment and peace of mind comes not from our knowing and managing everything, but from trusting that God knows and manages everything.
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