Posted September 6, 2016
A young lad was standing near a department store escalator staring at the moving handrail. A curious woman approached and asked him if something was wrong. “Nope,” he replied. “I’m just waiting for my chewing gum to come around again.”
Like the lad waiting to retrieve his gum, for many of life’s problems (not all), we need to learn to simply wait for the solutions to “come around,” rather than to struggle to solve each and every problem—a lesson seldom learned, and even then, only after numerous discouraging missteps. Even our prayers of petition may become strenuous efforts to “twist God’s arm.” We must learn to wait for most prayer answers to “come around” in God’s time and in his way.
When we don’t prayerfully discern how the Lord wants to act in a given situation, we may spend far too much time and trouble trying to swim against the current. It’s like driving the wrong way on a one-way street, without seeing that it’s much easier—and safer—to “go with the flow,” accommodating to God’s all-pervasive will.
To put all this into a theological perspective: The ideal spiritual mentality is expressed by the all-embracing scriptural prayer, “May he work in us what is pleasing to him” (Heb.13:21). That mentality allows God to take the initiative, jump-starting” the soul with “prevenient grace”—a form of “actual” grace that prompts the soul to respond to God’s will, without forcing it or vitiating human free will.
God seeks out and blesses conforming souls. “The eyes of the Lord range throughout the earth to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to him” (2 Chron.16:9). In Jericho, in that same godly search mode, Jesus glanced up and saw conscience-sensitive Zacchaeus watching him from above the crowd from sycamore tree. Jesus then initiated a grace-flow for conversion by inviting himself as a guest: “I must stay at your house today” (Luke 19:5). Zacchaeus agreed to “go with the flow,” welcoming him gladly.
We can learn from Jesus himself how to “go with the flow,” allowing God to guide us. In his human nature, he subordinated himself to the Father’s initiative: “The Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing …Whatever the Father does, the Son also does” (John 5:19). “Not my will but thine be done,” was Jesus’ Gethsemane prayer, asking for relief of his anguish.
The example of Jesus subjecting himself in his human nature to the divine initiative can help us to respond to it in all our own spiritual activities. “No one can come to me unless the Father…draws him” (John 6:44), for “there is no one who [of himself] seeks God” (Rom.3: 11). In anyone who is seeking God, God is working to cause it (of course without impugning human freedom). In Paul’s words: “It is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose” (Phil.2:13).
But there’s more to the Lord’s initiating action than just to activate us to do something. More importantly, he wants to prompt us to experience or “know him in his loving presence: “This is eternal life: that they may know…the only true God” (John 17:3). In Paul’s rhapsodic prayer for the Ephesians (Eph.3: 17-19), he emphasizes that God wants us to have an ongoing experience of an intimate love relationship with him that is real and exquisitely personal. While we excitedly yearn for this mystical experience of God’s love, only he can start it. But, praise God, he wants to start it, more than we want it! Our task is to conform to his initiating grace-flow—not so much by acting, but by “savoring” his loving presence.
This experience isn’t engineered by a program, a study or a method; it is the enjoyment of a creature-Creator relationship—a personal and presential relationship: “The upright shall dwell in your presence” (Ps.140:14). The Lord takes the initiative, as he did in inviting himself to be the guest of Zacchaeus, but seeking an even more permanent hospitality than his visit with Zacchaeus: “If anyone loves me…my Father will love him and we will come to him and make our home with him” (John 14: 23,26).
As we live with God and he with us continually, he crafts this relationship to become ever more intimate, as we experience his love and grace at work in us. He reveals himself, his plans, his purposes, and his ways, for, as friendship grows, so does self-revelation (see John 15:14-15). As we come to truly “know” the Lord he invites us to join him, where he is already at work in fashioning our soul and in building his kingdom. It becomes fascinating to watch him take the lead, and he gently reminds us that all he asks of us is to “go with the flow” of his grace.
All of this seems so “passive”; it’s not easy to be passive when we have been so conditioned to be actively involved in our sanctification. Of course, activity is needed on our part when we exercise virtues like charity, generosity to others, etc. But those “active” virtues are really responses to grace; to respond to such a grace is to “go with the flow” of that grace. Open-armed readiness to receive is “active passivity”—or “active receptivity” (to borrow Thomas Merton’s oxymoronic phrase).
Growth in holiness is not what most people think it is—a formidable challenge—an arduous struggle to acquire all the 56 virtues in the catalog of virtues—a labor of heroic effort. Jesus is not a grueling taskmaster; he reminds us that his yoke is sweet and his burden light (Matt.11:29), and invites us to approach him without trepidation: “Come to me and I will give you rest.” There’s no rest comparable to the deep peace of soul experienced in melting into the warm loving embrace of our precious Lord, our Savior-God.