We’ve all encountered this view, and probably have believed it in one way or another ourselves. Sometimes it’s a very active belief, and we can marshal the arguments and proof texts with the best of them. Other times its more passive; perhaps we don’t even realize that we believe it, but our actions (or inactions) betray the true positions of our hearts.
When thinking on this subject my mind goes to the story of the paralytic by the pool, recounted by John in chapter five of his Gospel.
A disabled man waited by a pool in Bethesda where an angel was known to descend and stir the waters. The infirm gathered around its edge with expectation because the first person in the pool after the angel had troubled its placid mirror would see himself healed. But the miracle would restore only one person–the first person in–and the paralytic in question had been passed over countless times. The text says that he had waited for nearly forty years.
Then came Jesus. The Lord, seeing this man, walked up to him and asked, “Do you want to be made well?” The man didn’t answer yes. Instead, he deflected. “Sir,” he said, “I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; but while I am coming, another steps down before me.” Rather than address the comment or seek again for the answer to his question, Jesus simply healed the man, who then walked away well. But fix on Jesus’ question and the man’s response for a moment.
Do you want to be healed? Jesus is reaching into the man’s heart to find out his disposition, his real desire. Jesus could see that he’d been waiting by the pool unhealed for a very long time. Surely he could have managed to get down to the water’s edge once in the last four decades, right? But the man is defeated and down. He blames others for his plight. He sees himself as a victim, someone unable to help his circumstances.
The merciful Christ immediately took away his infirmity, but when he next sees the man in the Temple Jesus also takes away his excuses. “See, you have been made well,” says Jesus. “Sin no more, lest a worse thing come upon you.” This is a reality-check moment. Something is suddenly expected of the man. Jesus gives the him some responsibility to shoulder, possibly for the first time in his life. He can no longer only wait for God to move, like a spectator in his own life. Jesus thrust him into the role of active participant, someone who must now cooperate with the grace that Christ has given.
There are many lessons to learn from this story, but one has to be that God expects our engagement. We wait upon the Lord, yes, but the Lord expects us to act as well. Isn’t this what Paul is getting at in 2 Corinthians 6.1, “We then, as workers together [co-laborers] with Him also plead with you not to receive the grace of God in vain”? Or Philippians 2.12, “[W]ork out your own salvation with fear and trembling”?
We are co-laborers who work with the grace we’re given. If we don’t take it seriously, we risk receiving it in vain. This not a gospel of the Lord helps them who helps themselves. But the message is clear enough that who the Lord helps he expects to act. Perhaps the most compelling and stirring picture of this expectation is the Eucharist through which we commune with God himself. The Lord provides grain and grapes. We return bread and wine with thanks for his grace and mercy. Bread and wine do not make themselves.
Sitting by the pool blaming others is unacceptable. We are responsible to labor with God, alongside the merciful Lord who sovereignly enables and providentially empowers our action.