Pray and Work

Blind Faith (No. 6, 2016)
Weekly Devotional for February 11, 2016
Pray and Work

“Pray as if everything depended on God and work as if everything
depended on you.” I have run into this maxim several times recently. Perhaps
you have stumbled across it, too. It is a modern proverb known quite widely,
but often viewed somewhat controversially. Compare the version quoted above
with a transposed wording some claim to be the correct statement: “Pray as
if everything depended on you; work as if everything depended on God.”
Attempting to verify the authentic quotation, I found various eloquently
argued cases for the authenticity of each version. Both of them offer
succinct reminders of the approach to prayer and work followers of Jesus
would do well to embody, and especially during the season of Lent (which
began Wednesday).

A popular assumption is that the quotation originated with St.
Augustine. Many mistaken preachers and writers give the Augustinian
citation. A much smaller minority ascribe the words to Brigham Young,
although virtually all compilers of quotations quickly dismiss that notion.
The adage appears to be from Ignatius Loyola (1491-1566), a Spanish Roman
Catholic priest who founded the Society of Jesus – the Jesuits. No direct
connection can be made with any of Ignatius Loyola’s writings, but the
thought is very consistent with his life of faith and the spiritual
exercises he promulgated and taught.

The first version quoted seems to be the proper form: “Pray as
if everything depended on God and work as if everything depended on you.”
That is verbatim from the Roman Catholic catechism, paragraph 2834. Many
official Catholic sources attribute the words in the paragraph to Ignatius
of Loyola. Commentators point to early biographies of Ignatius to support
the veracity of the citation. Jesuit teaching emphasizes ardent work by
followers of Jesus to spread the gospel of Christ and to deepen Christian
spirituality. The primacy of God’s works of grace always tempered whatever
success might be claimed for human efforts in education, social justice,
evangelism, or any other work in the world. The Jesuit motto, “to the
greater glory of God,” underscores the paramount importance of faith in God
and God’s actions over even the best we created beings can do.

So, what positive meaning can the phrase have for our daily
lives of faith in God? Consider the first phrase: “Pray as if everything
depended on God..” Of course everything does! A bedrock confession of faith
is “there is one God and Father of everything. He rules everything and is
everywhere and is in everything.” (Ephesians 4:6 NCV) We have an amazing
opportunity to communicate with the Creator of the universe, frail and
fragile as we are. But even our prayers depend upon God’s power and grace,
“for we don’t even know what we should pray for, nor how we should pray. But
the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in
words. {27} And the Father who knows all hearts knows what the Spirit is
saying, for the Spirit pleads for us believers in harmony with God’s own
will.” (Romans 8:26b-27 NLT) Almighty God does reign supreme, and we are
graciously invited to talk with him about our deepest needs and how to live
faithfully as his children.

The second phrase offers us a positive challenge for faithful
living: “Work as if everything depended on you.” Scripture calls for us to
give our best effort in service to God. Hebrew wisdom issues a universal
directive: “Whatever work you do, do your best.” (Ecclesiastes 9:10 NCV),
and Paul echoed that word for a Christian audience: “whatever you do, do it
all for the glory of God.” (1 Corinthians 10:31b NIV) Paul instructed his
“son” in the faith, and through him teaches us, “work hard so God can
approve you. Be a good worker, one who does not need to be ashamed and who
correctly explains the word of truth. (2 Timothy 2:15 NLT) Serving God
demands the very best work we can do, as Paul testified of his own efforts:
“.straining toward what is ahead, {14} I keep trying to reach the goal and
get the prize for which God called me through Christ to the life above.”
(Philippians 3:13b-14 NCV) But we must recall the folly of the builders of
the tower of Babel who thought that they could reach heaven by their own
labors (see Genesis 11:3-9). Our work is inherently insufficient to elevate
us to the level of God, but we are nevertheless called upon to work
diligently, strenuously to distribute God’s grace. We are reminded, “You did
not save yourselves; it was a gift from God. {9} It was not the result of
your own efforts, so you cannot brag about it. {10} God has made us what we
are. In Christ Jesus, God made us to do good works, which God planned in
advance for us to live our lives doing.” (Ephesians 2:8b-10 NCV) Prayer
centers our faith in the priority of God for all of life. Our faithful work
serving God and others should be the very best we can do, not just slip-shod
drudgery.

While the reflexive, transposed maxim probably is not the
original form, it does present stimulating considerations for our faith.
“Pray as if everything depended on you” is a call to passionate prayer. What
would your prayer life look like if world peace, your family’s health, the
faith of others, and true justice all did depend on your prayers? We are
called to devote ourselves energetically to prayer. Paul tells us: “Pray in
the Spirit at all times with all kinds of prayers, asking for everything you
need. To do this you must always be ready and never give up. Always pray for
all God’s people.” (Ephesians 6:18 NCV) Faithful, fervent prayer is a
profound privilege and one that calls for passionate faith. James tells us:
“The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.” (James 5:16b NRSV)
But we do not pray alone. As we read earlier in Romans 8, the Holy Spirit
prays along with us and for us in ways too deep for us to immediately
comprehend. “Pray as if everything depended on you.”

“Work as if everything depended on God” is somewhat curious.
This could be taken to absolve us of breaking a sweat in service to God and
others, since the load is put wholly on God’s shoulders. But there is an
important point to be made. We can take comfort that ushering in the Kingdom
of God does not depend on our feeble efforts. God is always at work in the
world, and our task is to join with him wherever we identify his work of
grace.
We have the awesome joy of being God’s assistants. Paul reminds us that “we
are labourers together with God.” (1 Corinthians 3:9a KJV) God is no
sluggard – as we too often are – and is eternally at work to bring us to
full and meaningful life. The caution turns into a blessed assurance: our
salvation is not the work of our hands, but is the gift of God through grace
and the work of Jesus. The God whose handiwork has been ongoing since the
dawn of creation will continue to work out his grace – with or without us –
for all eternity. Paul is sure of God’s inexhaustible work: “I am confident
of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to
completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 1:6 NRSV) We are given
peace and freedom, knowing that all of creation and redemption depends on
God, not on our shoddy work.

Choose one and live by the principal: “Pray as if everything
depended on God and work as everything depended on you” or “Pray as if
everything depended on you and work as if everything depended on God.”
Either can lead you to pray and work positively in response to God’s grace
working in Christ Jesus.

– J. Edward Culpepper