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God is not a spare tire

So don’t keep Him in the trunk

by Perry Engle

I’ve never been much for overly simplistic sayings (sorry, Twitter), so I always approach catch phrases with a questioning eye. One I’ve been processing recently is the admonition to “pray like it all depends on God and work like it all depends on you.”

It took me awhile to find the originator of the quote. One source cited reformer Martin Luther; another, revival preacher Charles Finney. Eventually, my research led me to a fellow bishop, Saint Augustine of Hippo, having made the statement sometime in the fourth or fifth century.

The adage has a lot of close relatives. The most familiar is, “God helps those who help themselves,” which, disappointingly to many, comes from Benjamin Franklin and not from Jesus. Another says, “Don’t wait until your ship comes in. Swim out to meet it.” There’s also an Indian proverb that encourages those in trouble to “call upon God, but row away from the rocks.”

I’ve been trying to figure out if “praying like it all depends on God and working like it all depends on you” has any parallels in Scripture. Certainly, we are called to “pray without ceasing” and to “work as unto the Lord.” God says, “Those who seek me find me,” and also declares, “I will bless the work of their hands.” It seems that Scripture affirms, in most contexts, an active human participation in bringing about the blessings of God.

The problem is that my default setting most always is to depend on myself prior to depending on God. More often than not, I use God like a spare tire. He only comes out in emergencies when one of the others goes flat. My tendency is to rely on God only when I run out of other options.

I’m thinking that there is nothing wrong with working like everything depends on us, as long as we recognize that everything doesn’t depend on us. As Paul told the God-seekers at the Areopagus in Athens, “For in Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). In other words, this God, who for Athenians was “unknown,” is the source of everything for those of us who believe. We’re fooling ourselves if we think we can do anything apart from Him.

The clearest view of Scripture seems to be that God helps those who cannot help themselves—whether it be Moses and his band of panicking Israelites trapped by the Red Sea, or a woman with a decades-old hemorrhage straining to touch the edge of Jesus’ robe, or a desperate Roman centurion seeking healing for his paralyzed servant. Yet, remarkably, in helping the helpless, God often involves them in the saving process. Moses raises his staff and the waters part; the woman touches the hem of Jesus’ garment and her bleeding stops; and the centurion simply believes Jesus, and his servant is healed.

As we rely on God for everything, we are expected to respond to this dependence with words, prayers, and actions of faith. Even though we work as if everything depends on us, still we know in our hearts that everything really depends on God.

Saint Augustine was also quoted as saying, “He who created us without our help will not save us without our consent.” I think that’s another way of saying that God doesn’t need to—but finds great pleasure in—including us in the process of redemption. It’s a profound truth and a beautiful partnership that we can work for God like it all depends on us, while knowing with absolute certainty that we can do nothing apart from His help.

This article originally appeared in the spring 2012 issue of In Part magazine.
Perry Engle

Perry Engle can’t help himself and knows it. He is bishop of the Midwest and Pacific Conferences of the BIC Church and lives with his wife, Marta, and their family, in Ontario, Calif.

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