Last week I got our bicycle pump out of the shed to fill the tires on our baby stroller, and our four-year-old Samuel wanted to help. He commandeered the bicycle pump, and when I tried to teach him how to use it, he said, ‘No Daddy, I don’t need your help!’ It struck me as insanely irrational of my son to refuse the help of someone who is nine times his age and knows much better than he how to do the job. And then I realized I have often acted just this way toward God.
God does nothing & we do everything
Professing belief in God, I have often lived as a practical atheist. Functionally, I have adopted the motto of the convinced atheist: ‘God does nothing and we do everything.’ In fact, not long ago, I suddenly realized I had not prayed once about the thorny problem I had spent hours fretting and stewing over. Ouch. Faced with a challenge, I had instinctively turned to myself rather than to God.
Solomon seeks to undercut this way of living in Psalm 127:1. ‘Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain.’ The key word there is ‘vain.’ (It’s used three times in verses 1-2.) Life without God is fruitless. You might be able to build the house or guard the city - there are, after all, excellent atheist architects - but if you have a big house and a safe city and no God, it’s ultimately in vain.
God does everything & we do nothing
Practical atheism is a big mistake. But so is an opposite error into which we sometimes fall. The motto for this way of living is: ‘God does everything and we do nothing.’ There came a point last week (as Samuel struggled manfully but ineffectually with the bicycle pump) when I finally stepped in and began helping. After a few moments Samuel skipped off to do something more interesting. He figured I was doing everything, so he could do nothing.
We live this way, too, don’t we? Sometimes we wrap our laziness in spiritual garb. We say, ‘I’ll pray for you,’ instead of offering practical help that will cost us something. We might even be tempted to see justification for passivity and inactivity in Psalms 127. After all, Solomon says, ‘It is vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil…’ (verse 2).
But of course, Solomon isn’t minimizing the importance of healthy work (as we see clearly in Psalm 128:2). Instead, he’s speaking of the fruitlessness of painful, anxious, godless labor. Psalm 127 is no advocate for passivity or laziness. As John Calvin says, ‘It is not the will of the Lord that we should be like blocks of wood, or that we should keep our arms folded without doing anything; but that we should apply to use all the talents and advantages which [God] has conferred upon us.’
God does everything & we do something
Here’s a more biblical way to express the role God plays and the role we play: God does everything and we do something. The key to seeing this is noticing the two remarkable verbal parallels in Psalm 127.1: God ‘builds’ the house and laborers ‘build’ the house. The LORD ‘guards’ the city and those ‘guarding’ watch over the city. Does God build or do we build? Yes! Does God guard or do we guard? Yes!
After my son Samuel ran off to do something more interesting, I allowed our two-year old daughter Annie to take a turn with the bicycle pump. She placed her little hand on the pump handle, and I placed my big hand over her little hand, and we pumped together. She was pumping and I was pumping at the same time.
But although we were both pumping, it was clear our contributions were not equal. If Annie had stopped pumping, I would have continued pumping. If I had stopped pumping, Annie couldn’t have continued on her own. Here’s a crucial truth to realize: we do not contribute equally with God. Our relationship with God is assymetrical. It is true to say that, ‘Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.’ But it is never true to say, ‘Unless those who labor build the house, the Lord builds in vain.’ That is heresy. God graciously uses us to accomplish his purposes in the world, but he never needs us. William Carey, the 19th century Baptist missionary to India and father of the modern missionary movement, got it just right when he said, ‘Expect great things from God. Attempt great things for God.’ The order of those two sentences is crucial. The asymmetry of God’s contribution and ours is the reason we give God all the glory when things we’ve worked hard to accomplish go well. As Solomon says elsewhere, ‘The horse is prepared for the day of battle, but victory belongs to the LORD’ (Proverbs 21:31).
God does everything, and we do something. Solomon concludes Psalm 127 by illustrating this truth in vv 3-5. Where do children come from? Well, of course the readers of Psalm 127 know that mommy and daddy play a part in the procreation of the children. (There’s been only one virgin birth in history.) But there’s a deeper answer to the question. Children are given to parents by God (verse 3). Parents who have tried unsuccessfully month after month to conceive children know they cannot simply decide to have children. God must open the womb, as he is often said to do in the Scriptures. Where do children come from? God does everything and we do something.
As Christians, we’re called to be more active and full of good works than the world. But we’re also called to be more reliant, more humble, and more aware of our need for help than the world. We are therefore to give all the glory to God when he causes our efforts to succeed. Let’s not live like practical atheists (‘God does nothing and we do everything’) or passive slackers (‘God does everything and we do nothing’). Instead, let’s live like prayerful activists. God does everything and we do something.
Stephen Witmer (PhD, University of Cambridge) is the pastor of Pepperell Christian Fellowship in Pepperell, Massachusetts and an Adjunct Professor of New Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He has written for Themelios, Reformation 21, Bible Study Magazine and the Gospel Coalition website, and is the author of The Good Book Guide to Jonah and Restlessly Patient: How to Live in Light of Your Future (forthcoming).
For more on living in Christ, check-out the free edition of Winfield Bevin's book Grow: Reproducing Through Organic Discipleship available at Exponential.
For more resources on how the gospel changes our relationships & responsibilities, see: Relationships First: Reasons it's Difficult to Share Our Faith by Jonathan Dodson & Messy Discipleship by Jake Chambers.