“When Christians pray, isn’t it true that they need to meet God half way? I mean, you shouldn’t pray for those things which you can do for yourself, right?” These questions were asked by my friend as we drove to pick up pizza for a game night. I’m not entirely sure, still, if this was a question or an accusation.
His question gets at a deep misunderstanding of prayer and the human condition. He was trying to emphasize – or see if I emphasized to the same degree he did – the role of human responsibility. His charge might go something like this: If your kid is sick and you pray for him to get better but you don’t take him to the hospital, you’re not following God. Instead, you should just take him to the hospital, and not pray. Or in another example: If you have no money and no job, instead of asking God for money, you should just go get a job. Prayers should be reserved for those things which are outside of you control.
In all of these instances, the question was “should I take action or should I pray?” The “or” is the fundamental problem with this question.
We live in a world of sowing and reaping. In the world of farming the farmer must do the sowing and the reaping if he expects to get a harvest. He must plow the field, sow the seed, water the plants, dig up the weeds, and collect the fruit when it is ripe. He must tend his garden. If he fails to do these things, his ground will not produce a yield. However, what actually makes the plants grow, and what actually produces the fruit, are the underlying process that are outside of his control. It’s God. The farmer is in a state of absolute responsibility wherein he must put in the labor and he is also in a state of absolute dependence wherein no matter what he does, a crop will only grow if God makes it happen.
The same is true for us non-farmers. We, too, are in a place of absolute responsibility to put in the work that God calls us to – to get a job, manage our money, take our sick kids to the doctors when necessary, etc. But in all of those cases we are also in a state of absolute dependence. No matter the effort we put forth, if God doesn’t act on our behalf, we won’t get the results we desire.
One caution to the metaphor above: In the case of the farmer and the field, the produce of the field is dependent upon both the farmer who plants the seed and God who makes the plants grow. But in reality, results are not dependent upon human action. God can act completely apart from human interaction. He can make fruit grow where no one planted a tree. We are completely dependent on God, but he is in no way dependent on us.
If that’s true, though, then why should we act? If God can produce results apart from our action then why plant the field? Why go get a job? Why go to the doctor? In doing so, aren’t we undermining faith? There have always been a few fringe religious groups who have felt this way, but it’s not the Christian understanding. We act responsibly for at least two reasons. First, we do so out of obedience to God. God calls us to act wisely so we do so. Second, we act responsibly because it’s consistent with the world that God has put us in and the way that he made us. God can act apart from human action but he rarely does. Instead, he requires the farmer to plant the field, the able-bodied adult to get a job, and the parent to take their kid to the hospital. And, in requiring that action, he lets us live out what it means to be made in the image of God. We get to participate in the divine actions of creation and redemption and this, in turn, provides meaning to our lives.
So how does prayer fit into this? Prayer is one of the ways that we remind ourselves of our utter dependence on God in every area of life, all while understanding the sowing and reaping nature of our world. So I pray for my sick kid, knowing that I am fully dependent on God to bring healing to my child’s body, all the while taking the action to help him feel better. I act as a responsible individual because God calls me to be a responsible parent and I pray because I understand that I need God to act on my behalf. The question of prayer is never “do I pray or do I act.” In all things we pray as dependent creatures and in all things we act as responsible individuals.
My wife and I just participated in Financial Peace University and in the last session we talked about generosity. One of the questions was “has anyone ever blessed you with a major gift?” At first I had some trouble thinking of a one-time event but then I realized that my entire life is simply the product of countless major and minor gifts. My life is the product of the generosity of God and human agents – from my parents caring for me, to employers providing me with a job, to the delicious food I ate last night at our church’s Christmas party – I am the beneficiary of radical generosity. I hope that in all this I have acted responsibly, that I have sowed the seed and plowed the field and gathered the harvest. But I know none of this would be possible if not for the incredible provision of God. As Dave Ramsey is fond of stating, “I am better than I deserve!”