Working with God
(Reading time: 20.4 minutes)
There are many perspectives among Christians about the nature of our relationship with God, the extent to which we can interact with him, and whether he’s even interested in what we do. One school of teaching encourages us to give our best efforts as his servants to please him and earn eternal rewards. Another school portrays him as doing everything for us as an expression of his grace; that whatever we do is an act of the flesh and has no eternal value.
So should we expect God to do everything for us, or is there some level at which we get involved? If we should participate in what God is doing, what does that look like? Does God intend to be involved in what we do every day and, if so, how should that happen? In this study, we’ll address these questions and more.
While the Bible presents many spiritual laws and principles, it does so to show us how God works and what he expects of us. But ultimately its purpose is to introduce us to him and help us develop our relationship with him.
Most Christians will agree it’s possible to have a personal relationship with God, though many will limit that relationship to the spiritual realm or turn to him only when they need help. We generally exclude him from our daily lives because we’re accustomed to doing everything ourselves — running our own lives, setting priorities and making decisions. The Bible would describe that as a worldly perspective; not the active, healthy relationship God wants.
It’s possible to live according to spiritual laws and principles yet completely miss God’s will. They help us understand what God is doing, allow us to test what we think he’s telling us, or help us decide what to do in the absence of specific direction from him. They aren’t substitutes for relationship, but observing them can improve our relationship.
To have a healthy relationship with God and work with him, we must replace our ingrained values, standards and perceptions based on our natural ways of thinking. We must choose to do what God has said — which requires a radical change of our thinking — and rely on God to conform our nature to his.
God created Adam and Eve in his image, gave them glory and authority like his own. It’s clear God created us to rule and have dominion (see Gen. 1:26-28). He won’t invade our domain and intervenes only when one of us specifically asks him or allows him to do so. Consider the Lord’s Prayer, in which we ask for Father’s kingdom to come and his will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. That invites him into our domain and authorizes him to do his will here (Matt. 6:9-10).
He gave us authority and he honors our decisions and actions. He also created a spiritual law that allows us to experience the results of our choices, whether those choices are godly or not. Romans 1 provides an example, stating that men knew God yet refused to glorify him or give him thanks and even worshiped idols, so he gave them over to their sinful desires. As a positive example of experiencing the results of our choices, those who choose to give generously will benefit from their actions (see Luke 6:38; 2 Co 9:6).
As further evidence of God giving us free will and honoring our choices, consider the nature of the entire New Testament. It shows us God’s intent and encourages us to embrace his nature, change the way we think, participate in his kingdom and serve others. He presents the benefits of doing so and the consequences of doing things our own way. He then invites us to choose his way and lets us decide.
The New Testament clearly presents believers as God’s servants because that should accurately represent our attitude toward God; an attitude of complete submission and service (see 2 Cor. 6:4; James 1:1). While some Christians think that means we should have no mind of our own and need detailed directions regarding God’s will in every matter, that isn’t so. Jesus clearly provided examples in his parables of masters putting their servants in charge of their business, household or possessions (for example, Matt. 24:45, 47). His parable of the shrewd manager is about a steward managing his master’s business accounts (Luke 16:1-13). In that culture, a large household had a hierarchy of servants with some responsible for menial tasks and others with responsible positions, even supervising the other servants. Consider Joseph, sold into slavery and bought by Potiphar, one of Pharaoh’s officials, who put him in charge of his entire household and all he owned (Gen. 39:4-5). If a servant proved faithful, his master might give him greater responsibility or put him in charge of something, allowing him to exercise greater discretion (for example, Matt. 25:20-21). With this biblical model of a servant, being God’s servant clearly means we have authority to make decisions and exercise initiative.
Consider another model the New Testament uses for our relationship with God: that of his sons or children. Similar to the hierarchy of servants, there are different maturity levels for God’s children: a newborn infant, a young child and a mature adult. The New Testament uses the Greek and Roman practice of adoption to show our ultimate relationship with God. Unlike adoption in western culture, Greek and Roman adoption involved formally and legally placing the person into a position with all the privileges, responsibilities and authority due an adult family member. To be a child of God is to have both the right and duty to call him Father and conduct his business in his behalf.
So whether you prefer the model of a servant or of a child, the Bible portrays us as engaged in Father’s business with authority compatible with our maturity and responsibility. As we mature, we can exercise greater personal initiative in our service to him.
God created us with free will then gave us authority as his children to conduct kingdom business, but also to reign in life (Rom. 5:17). To reign in life literally means to act as a king — to make decisions, exercise authority and make things happen. So scriptural precedent exists for relying strongly on God for direction and for exercising our own initiative. The key is cooperating. Whether we’re engaged in Father’s work or he’s engaged in ours, cooperation is a key to working with him.
Preparing to work cooperatively with God involves specific steps. We need to become familiar with his nature and will — his kingdom and righteousness, what he wants done, what he’s like and how he works. We become familiar with this by studying the Bible, spending time with him and watching what he does. We learn about spiritual laws (boundaries) and principles (guidelines) the same way.
We must learn to recognize God’s voice so he can give us specifics — what to do, when to do it, how to do it and so on.
We need to identify the character God gave us — our spiritual gifts and personality traits — because it reveals our primary responsibilities, how he most frequently works through us and how we fulfill our destiny. He created us as specialists, designed and equipped specifically to fulfill our life purposes.
Then, if we think something needs to be done and he hasn’t given us specific instructions, we generally know what he wants and how he operates. We know the boundaries and guidelines, what’s appropriate and acceptable. We also know our purpose in life, what we’re supposed to do. Within those parameters, we have authority to do what we think is appropriate. It’s been said it’s easier to steer a moving vehicle than a parked one, so God might give us specific directions or details after we begin.
Learning to work cooperatively with God will be a lifelong experience, but we’ll become increasingly effective as we learn.
Jesus encountered situations and responded to them: a blind man beside the road, a tax collector climbing a tree to get a better view of him, someone approaching him about a sick family member, a religious authority challenging his teaching, a woman touching his clothing to receive healing, a demon-possessed man shouting at him. Nothing in scripture suggests God gave Jesus a daily itinerary with details of what would happen and how he should respond. Nothing suggests God had to tell him what to do every time something happened. Jesus clearly knew his purpose in life. He frequently spent time with God so he knew Father’s nature, desires, will and methods. So Jesus simply responded appropriately to what he encountered; so can we.
By ourselves, we clearly can’t produce the eternal results required in God’s kingdom. We can’t save people, heal them, deliver them or provide supernaturally for them. However, we respond to someone’s needs by doing our part and asking God to do his. We can’t do the supernatural part — only God can — and he won’t do our part because that would usurp our authority. It’s been said God only acts when someone prays; that is, he’ll do nothing in our domain until we invite or authorize him to do so. He gave us free will and authority and allows us to take the initiative. We don’t produce the needed results through our efforts; instead, God works through our efforts to do what only he can do. Our efforts must focus on his intent and depend on his involvement.
Consider the case of Peter and the lame man in Acts 3. Peter didn’t pray for the man’s healing, nor did he ask others to agree with him in prayer. He simply told the man, in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, to walk (Acts 3:6). Then he took him by the hand and helped him up. Paul exercised the same kind of authority several times. In one incident, a slave girl who predicted the future via a demon was following Paul and causing a disturbance. Paul eventually became troubled by the distraction and commanded the demon to come out of her (Acts 16:18). Nothing in scripture even hints that Peter or Paul waited until they heard from God about what they should do. They saw a need and initiated action, then God made it happen.
They were following Jesus’ model. He responded to situations as they presented themselves and commanded the needed results. “Be healed.” “Your faith has made you whole.” “According to your faith it is done.” “Rise up and walk.” To the wind and waves, “Peace. Be still.” To demons, “Be silent and come out of him.”
Obviously, we’re not Jesus, so we might think we can’t do what he did. However, Jesus is the “firstborn,” a prototype or model of what we’re to be and do (Rom. 8:29). We’re God’s children, placed in positions of responsibility and authority, tasked with conducting kingdom business, as he did (John 20:31; Gal. 3:26). We have the same Holy Spirit within us (Rom. 8:11). Jesus has authorized us to act in his name and perform the same functions he did (for example, Matt. 28:18-19; Mark 16:14-18). He said we should follow him, which means to emulate him or do what he did (Matt. 16:24). He commissioned us to do kingdom business, as he did on earth (John 20:21). While we’re not literally Jesus himself, for all practical purposes there should be no difference between our results and his.
In reality, these same points apply to everything we do, not just when we’re “ministering” to someone. For us, there’s no distinction between sacred and secular. We’re citizens and ambassadors of God’s kingdom, representing him in the world where we live (Phil. 3:20; 2 Cor. 5:20). On the job, at family gatherings, going shopping or on vacation, we never stop being God’s children.
God our Father created us in his image, granting us free will and authority; not so we can operate independently of him, but cooperatively with him in everything we do.
Some Christians place so much emphasis on “works of the flesh” (Gal. 5:19, NIV) and “acts that lead to death” (Heb. 6:1; 9:14) that we’re left with the impression that anything we do through human effort has no value at all. While it’s true our works don’t save us (Eph. 2:9), it’s not true that everything we do is worthless or sinful. God created us to do good works (Eph. 2:10) and uses specific people within the church to prepare others for good works (Eph. 4:11-12). Scripture repeatedly refers to good works (see Col. 1:10; 2 Tim. 3:17). Our good works don’t qualify us or earn anything for us, but are to be natural expressions of our relationship with God.
Almighty God — who has all authority and power — has chosen to work through us because he wants us to participate in what he does, have experiences like his and engage in what he’s doing. He wants a relationship like he had with Adam, only better. He wants us to get to know him by working with him, to learn how his kingdom and the spiritual realm work. Passivity and inactivity are not acceptable in his kingdom, and that’s an important point. Consider the parable of the talents, in which the master judged the servant who simply protected what he gave him as wicked and threw him out of the household (Matt. 25:26-30). Eventually we’ll reign with Christ and he’s giving us hands-on training now, so we need to participate in what he’s doing and learn from the experience (Rev. 20:6; 22:5).
The Gospel of Matthew quotes Jesus twice as saying that whatever we bind on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever we loose on earth will be loosed in heaven (Matt. 16:19; 18:18). The first time he said it to Peter and the second time to all his disciples. Whether the verbs mean “will be bound” or “will have been bound,” as different translations read, it’s clear we’re to initiate the action on earth. God has already completed the work in heaven and our involvement secures it for us. God doesn’t obey what we say and we don’t force our will on him. We’re to work cooperatively with God so we participate in or apply on earth what he is doing in heaven.
Consider briefly some evidence that God wants us involved in what he’s doing. He will crush Satan under believers’ feet (Rom. 16:20). He chose people the world considers foolish, weak, lowly and despised to do his work so he alone would receive the glory (1 Cor. 1:27-29). He gave us the ministry of reconciling men to him, making us Christ’s ambassadors, his representatives making his appeal in his behalf (2 Cor. 5:18-20). The Lord gave a command through the apostles; that is, the apostles were speaking for him (2 Pet. 3:2). Though we can’t produce the needed results, we do have control over our willingness to serve, which allows God to do his work through us.
Sometimes God gives us specific instructions on what he wants us to do and we see examples of this in scripture. The Lord told Philip to go to a certain road where he would speak to an Ethiopian eunuch. Philip did as the Lord said and another person entered God’s kingdom (Acts 8:26-35). God told Ananias to pray for Saul’s sight and the result was Saul’s conversion to the faith and eventually becoming the mightiest apostle of the first century (Acts 9:10-18).
In other cases, God’s instructions were more general. For example, God commissioned Paul and Peter as apostles to different people groups (Gal. 2:8). They understood the role of an apostle, so they knew what God intended them to do.
God wants us actively engaged in his work, cooperating with him in his kingdom business. Yet even when he says what he wants us to do, he allows us to exercise initiative in our response. As we showed earlier, being a servant or child of God includes having authority, being able to make decisions and exercise initiative.
Faith is essential to our relationship with God; in fact, it’s impossible to please him without it (Heb. 11:6). When we base our faith on what the Bible shows us about his nature and ways, we can expect the absolute best results.
The results we get will be in proportion to our faith, not because our faith produces the results, but because stronger faith gives God more room to work. Our decision to act allows God to produce the needed results. Faith motivates us to act outside our comfort zone, or reach for an impossible goal, or position ourselves for extraordinary results, and this opens the door wider for God to do his supernatural work. The more we stretch, the more he acts like God. The more we depend on him, the more faithful he proves himself to be.
God will do far more than we can ask or imagine because of his power that works in us (Eph. 3:20). That power is the Holy Spirit’s, not ours, but he uses it in proportion to our faith. Jesus rebuked his disciples several times about their lack or “littleness” of faith and we often suffer from the same problem. Sometimes, however, our faith seems strong but we’re unclear about God’s will or timing and we step out in presumption rather than faith. If his power isn’t producing results through us, it’s time to reevaluate; maybe we’re the obstacle.
Everyone enters God’s kingdom with a childlike simplicity, dependent on both his direct and indirect care through other believers. As new believers, we were incompetent in spiritual matters and gradually had to learn the basics. Jesus repeatedly said the greatest in God’s kingdom is like a little child. So as we grow spiritually, we’re to have a childlike dependency on God even as we develop our relationship with him and learn to function in his kingdom. Being childlike involves trusting God implicitly, accepting whatever he gives us and believing everything he says. We’re to keep those qualities as we grow.
The New Testament emphasizes that we should consider ourselves as God’s servants, which focuses on discovering and doing his will. This is totally appropriate because we’re to have an attitude of humble service to God. The church stresses the importance of agape-love, yet agape can’t exist without humility. We can’t overemphasize the importance of humility.
We must nurture the qualities of humility, childlike trust and a servant’s heart, and doing so requires conscious effort. As we develop these qualities, God is free to entrust us with increasing responsibility and authority.
Several scriptures show us that God responds to our purpose and faith, meaning he allows us to exercise personal initiative then uses his power to produce the needed results. This is an important aspect of our working relationship with God, which is a true partnership.
As we’ve seen so far, God gave us free will, delegated authority to us and honors our decisions. Whether he gives us specific guidance or allows us to use our discretion, he wants us to act in a way that’s compatible with his nature and the spiritual laws and principles he defined. Within the parameters he gives us, we can do our part and rely on him to do his.
In Matthew 16:19 and 18:18, as we saw earlier, Jesus said that whatever we bind or loose on earth will be bound or loosed in heaven. It’s easy to see how we could misuse this to satisfy our self-centered desires. Where there’s great authority to act, there also is great potential to abuse. Yet Jesus didn’t surround these statements with limitations or warnings. It’s as though God knows we might misuse what he gives us but chooses to give it anyway so we can learn to use it appropriately.
The Father intends for us to learn to use the authority he gave us and the spiritual laws and principles he created. What is not so clear, however, is that our spiritual maturity governs how God allows us to learn this. If a believer is spiritually immature, God is more likely to stress the importance of step-by-step, detailed instructions for everything he should do. As that believer matures — gets to know God better, understands how he operates, recognizes spiritual laws and principles, and proves himself more trustworthy — God can give him more latitude.
Paul wrote to a church of believers who were growing in faith and love, and were persevering in persecutions and trials. To those believers, he wrote that he prayed God’s power would satisfy every good purpose they have and every act prompted by their faith (2 Thess. 1:11). Notice that spiritual growth is a factor: growing in faith and love, persevering in difficulties. God’s primary emphasis is on our growing into his image, not on making our lives on earth more pleasant. If you’re growing in faith and love, and you’re persevering in whatever difficulties you face, you can expect God to satisfy every good intention you have and every act prompted by your faith.
Most Christians turn to God whenever they need help of some kind, but otherwise take care of things themselves. This is equivalent to treating God as an assistant, a vending machine or genie in a bottle. Working with God is a revolutionary concept for most of us. Like so much in the New Testament, doing what God wants the way he wants it requires us to radically change the way we think.
We might imagine God as someone who’s with us all day, someone we can talk with anytime. When something enjoyable happens, we can mentally express our appreciation to him — “Thank you, that was nice.” We can ask him questions and wait for him to respond — “Wow, I didn’t see that coming. What should I do now?”
We’ll discover that God responds in various ways. A spontaneous thought may come to mind as a word, a sentence or more. We may have what we call a “gut feeling,” an impression or hunch, which are very typical ways for God to respond. Someone else may say something that answers the question we asked God, or we may read a very relevant scripture in the Bible. Being aware of God’s presence involves anticipating him speaking to you and recognizing the ways he does.
These responses can be subjective so we need to assess what we “hear.” Scripture is the absolute standard, because God will never violate his Word, so the first test to apply is whether what we heard conforms to scripture. God is always true to his nature, so we can expect everything he says to be compatible with his nature. Also, we can expect to have a sense of peace even if our mind is troubled.
It’s impossible to have an effective relationship without two-way communication, so developing our skills for communicating with God is important.
Developing a God-awareness and learning to communicate with him will take some time, but as we patiently work on this, we can expect to see gradual change. Our biggest problem is changing the way we think, because we’ve been thinking like the world all our lives and it takes time and effort to reprogram our thinking. But it’s possible and it’s essential, and the result will be unbelievable!
Almighty God has chosen to work through us because he wants us to participate in what he does, have experiences like his and engage in what he’s doing. To do this, we need to cooperate with him, which requires us to become familiar with his nature and will, what he wants done, what he’s like and how he works. We become familiar with this by studying the Bible, spending time with him and watching what he does.
We must nurture the qualities of humility, childlike trust and a servant’s heart to work cooperatively with him. As we mature spiritually, he honors the free will he gave us and what we’re motivated to do. Becoming aware of him and learning to communicate with him are critically important to working effectively with him.