Perhaps the single greatest problem Christians have had since the beginning of the church is that of participation with God. Nearly every mistake in discipleship or Christian living can be traced to mistaken approaches to participation. Just look at the problems the early church experienced:
- The Galatians tried to add Jewish law to their Christian walk.
- The Corinthians thought everything revolved around spiritual gifts.
- Some Corinthians thought the answer was in the nuances of Paul’s or Apollos’ or Peter’s teaching.
- Some of the people John addressed in his first epistle believed in total license, since God had taken care of everything.
- Those in Laodicea did not think they needed anything at all outside themselves.
- The church in Sardis was simply lethargic in regard to their Christian walk.
These are all mistakes in participating with God for life. And mistakes in participation have been one of the most persistent problems throughout the history of the Christian era. From doing penance in the Middle Ages to the present day reliance on self-effort, the balance between God’s part and our part has consistently been distorted into something other than what Paul taught and what actually makes a difference in our lives.
One of the most pervasive misunderstandings about participation today is this: “If you do your best to do what is right, God will give you the strength to do it.” But if that were so, we would not be witnessing the massive burnout rate among pastors that we see. For if this statement was true, then all their great effort to do what is good and right would elicit supernatural help from God to make their work possible, and they would not crash and burn. Yet for some reason we cling to this false premise, and try to find something wrong with what the pastors were doing in order to exonerate God. But the truth is that we have believed a lie about what it means to participate with God.
Participation, at its root, is about working with God in ways that permit Him to work in us. And one of the most important aspects of working with God is learning how to receive from Him and to allow Him to do a work in us that we cannot do. Paul says, “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in you …” (Phil.2:12-13). Note that receiving is not passive. We do not simply ask God to do something in us and then wait to see if it happens. That’s participating too little. Neither do we ask God to do a work in us and then go ahead and act as if it is up to us to make it happen. That kind of self-effort is another way of participating too little. We must learn how to engage with God, directly, and how to be intentional about the few things we can do (like make space for God, and direct our focus) so that He can speak into our life and write on our heart the things we need.
Learning how to participate is, in fact, the very essence of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. This is a learned process, not a switch we simply choose to turn on. We need to be mentored in this way of life, because that is the nature of discipleship or apprenticeship. I wish there was a short way to describe participation, but at present I do not know what that would be. I can only say that over time and with good guidance, we can learn how to engage with God in ways that balance His part and our part and change us from the inside out. The next best thing I can suggest is to read Forming: A Work of Grace or take the course Forming: Change by Grace. More than anything else, these materials are about how to participate with God for a transformational relationship with Him. And unless we discover this balance, we will continue to wonder why our growth and development seems so elusive. Meaningful participation is a key element in how to live in the Kingdom.