In My Spiritual Life, How much is Up to Me?
Dear Father John, I am confused. I keep reading in spiritual books about how, in the spiritual life, everything is up to God. That God is the one who makes us holy, that we just have to let go and let God. But when I read the New Testament, I keep finding spiritual to-do lists. So, which is it? Is it up to God to make me holy, or is it up to me to make me holy?
The typical answer to this honest and essential question is usually too short. It goes like this: “Both.” It’s both up to you and up to God. And that’s true. But it’s not enough. The most destructive heresies in the history of the western Church, in fact, have flowed from a failure to understand the depth of this paradox. And so, I want to take some time to affirm the frustration and confusion that you feel, that any honest Christian will sometimes feel. And then, perhaps, we can look at some practical consequences.
Does Jesus Contradict Himself?
You are right: Jesus seems to contradict himself. On the one hand, he tells us that “without me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). He is the vine, he explains in the same passage, and we are only branches, completely dependent on the flow of sap and life that comes to us through the vine. The word used for “nothing” in the Greek, in fact, is the simple, total negative – nothing at all, absolute zero.
Yet, on the other hand, Jesus looks us in the eye and implores us, “Strive to enter through the narrow door, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough” (Luke 13:24). Here he begs us to put all our effort into following him, obeying him, seeking him. The Greek word for “strive” connotes struggle, fight, and the kind of intensity that amazes us when we watch, riveted, as Olympic athletes battle for the gold.
What is going on here? How can we reconcile our Lord’s injunction that we are absolutely helpless and dependent in the spiritual life with his command to fight, as it were, to the death in order to achieve spiritual maturity and salvation?
St. Paul to the Rescue?
What a relief it would be if St. Paul were to resolve the dilemma for us. But, this time anyway, he comes up short. He too, it seems, contradicts himself. In defending his Apostolic credentials, he points out to the Christians in Corinth that “…by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me has not been ineffective. Indeed, I have toiled harder than all of them; not I, however, but the grace of God with me” (1 Corinthians 15:10).
Paul attributes all that he is and all that he has accomplished as a follower of Jesus to “the grace of God.” But in the same breath, he claims to have contributed to his Christian greatness by having “toiled harder” than anybody else. The Greek word used for “toil” connotes wearisome, backbreaking exertion. Etymologically, it harkens back to a term associated with the demanding, harsh, and unrelenting work of an agricultural laborer before the advent of mechanized farm equipment.
We can see no light at the end of this tunnel. We are stuck with the paradox: Our Christian life depends entirely on God, yet it depends equally on ourselves. It is a partnership.
Accepting the Reality
Our theologian-pope, Benedict XVI, affirmed this paradox, without trying to explain it, when commenting on our Lord’s parables about seeds: “Every Christian, then, knows well that he must do all that he can, but that the final result depends on God: this knowledge sustains him in daily toil, especially in difficult situations.” The Holy Father went on to quote the cavalier-turned-mystic, St. Ignatius of Loyola, to drive the point home: “Act as if everything depended on you, knowing that, in reality, everything depends on God” (Angelus, June 18, 2012).
How do we do that? Unlike your first question, this question has no short answer. That’s what the spiritual life is all about, in fact. But if we take the time to assimilate this fundamental paradox – that I am wholly dependent on God’s grace, but that God’s grace is dependent on my cooperation – and to accept it in the depths of our heart, we will avoid the jerky movements of an unbalanced spirituality, and our progress in holiness will be quicker and more peaceful than if we just skim its surface and pretend that we understand it with perfect clarity.