AS WE SEEK to apply the Scriptures to our daily lives, we soon learn it isn’t all that easy. Sure, we can train ourselves to give thanks for the socks we are putting on and the food we are about to eat, but what about doing it from the heart? What about patience with that person who is always late? Or what about those persistent sin patterns we struggle with such as anger, anxiety, discontentment, immoral thoughts, and a sharp tongue? We soon learn we need a power outside of ourselves to deal with those areas of our lives. That power, of course, is the power of Christ applied to our lives by His Holy Spirit who dwells within us. (Remember the second “bookend” of spiritual growth?)
There is no doubt we are responsible to grow. All the imperatives of the New Testament assume our responsibility. At the same time, we do not have the ability to grow. We are completely dependent upon the Holy Spirit. It is our duty to grow, but only the Holy Spirit can enable us to grow. It is at this point I want to introduce one of the most important principles of spiritual growth: dependent responsibility.
We are both responsible to grow and dependent upon the Holy Spirit to enable us to do so. This is a difficult principle to learn. We tend to vacillate between total self-effort and passive dependence. One day we “try harder,” and the next day we want to just “turn it all over to the Lord and let Him live His life through us.” Both approaches are wrong. As Jesus said in John 15:5, “apart from me you can do nothing.” At the same time, He doesn’t do the work in our place. Rather, through His Spirit, He enables us to work (see Philippians 2:12–13).
So spiritual growth very much involves our activity. But it is an activity that must be carried out in dependence on the Holy Spirit. It is not a partnership with the Spirit in the sense that we each—the believer and the Holy Spirit—do our respective tasks. Rather, we work as He enables us to work. His work lies behind all our work and makes our work possible.
The Holy Spirit can and does work within us apart from any conscious response on our part. He is not dependent on us to do His work. But we are dependent on Him to do our work; we cannot do anything apart from Him. In the process of spiritual growth there are certain things only the Holy Spirit can do, and there are certain things He has given us to do. For example, only He can create in our hearts the desire to obey God, but He does not obey for us. We must do that, but we can do so only as He gives us the enabling power to obey.
So we must depend on the Holy Spirit to do within us what only He can do. And we must depend on Him just as much to enable us to do what He has given us to do. So whether it is His work or our work, in either case, we are dependent on Him. We are not just dependent on Him; we are desperately dependent on Him. Because we so often equate Christlike character with ordinary morality, we fail to realize how impossible it is for us to attain any degree of conformity to Christ by ourselves. But if we take seriously the Christlike character traits we are to put on, such as Paul lists in Galatians 5:22–23 and Colossians 3:12–14, we see how impossible it is to grow in Christlikeness apart from the influence and power of the Spirit in our lives.
WORK OR PRAY?
There are many instances in the Scriptures where the concepts of both dependence and responsibility appear in the same sentence or paragraph. For example, Psalm 127:1 says,
Unless the LORD builds the house,
its builders labor in vain.
Unless the LORD watches over the city,
the watchmen stand guard in vain.
The psalmist sees God so intimately involved in the building and watching that he says, “Unless the Lord builds the house, … unless the Lord watches over the city.” He does not say, “Unless the Lord helps the builders and the watchmen,” but unless the Lord builds and watches.
Yet it is just as obvious the psalmist envisions the builders laboring to build the house and the watchmen standing guard over the city. The builders cannot put away their tools and go fishing and expect God to build the house. Neither can the watchmen retire to their beds and expect God to watch over the city. The builders must work, and the watchmen must stand guard, but they all must carry out their responsibilities in such total dependence on God that the psalmist speaks of His building and His watching.
Consider the testimony of Paul in Philippians 4:11–13:
I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength.
Paul said he had learned to be content. He recognized it was his responsibility to be content, and he needed to grow in that area of life. He didn’t just turn it all over to the Lord and trust Him to do the work of being content. He worked at it. But he knew he could be content only through the Lord, who gave him strength. Paul also realized this strength from the Lord did not come to him as a “package sent from heaven,” as if Christ’s strength were a commodity to be received. Rather, he knew it came through his union with Christ, which Jesus referred to in His vine and branches metaphor in John 15:4–5. Because he was in union with Christ, he was able by faith to rely upon Christ working in him through His Spirit.
Bridges, Jerry. 2004. Growing Your Faith: How to Mature in Christ. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress.