Jackie lives a charmed life. Opportunities fall into her lap, she wakes up with creative thoughts, and she always seems to be in the right place at the right time.
Seth is the same way. When he didn’t have money for college, an anonymous donor paid his way. When his friends were still living with their parents and rolling burritos at Moe’s, he was starting an entry-level position in the field of his choice. Like a modern-day Midas, everything he touches goes viral.
Others, however, are not so fortunate. They sing the chorus of the old Hee Haw song: “If I didn’t have no bad luck, I’d have no luck at all. Gloom, despair, and agony on me.”
This disparity begs the question, does God love some people more than others? Like a first grade teacher, does he select a few teacher's pets on whom to bestow special lunch privileges while confining the rest to eraser duty?
The apostle Paul belongs to the ranks of Jackie and Seth. An apostolic hot shot, he hit the ground running after his dramatic conversion. Although he was late coming to faith, he quickly superseded the other apostles. Rising through the ranks like a Fortune 500 apprentice, he soon became known as ‘the apostle to the Gentiles.” He replaced frontrunner Peter and traveled the world sharing the Gospel.
Did God bestow a special measure of grace and favor on Paul? And on Jackie? And on Seth?
First Corinthians 15:10 sheds some light on the question. Listen to Paul’s words:
“But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect.”
Yes, God bestowed grace on Paul. He plucked him from the hopelessness of Pharisaical unbelief and planted his feet firmly on the Gospel of faith. He discipled him, sanctified him, and sent him out to evangelize the world. This was God’s responsibility—performing supernatural acts in Paul’s life.
But what was Paul’s responsibility?
“. . . No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.”
“Surely you remember, brothers, our toil and hardship; we worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel of God to you” (1 Thes. 2:9).
“We were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone's food without paying for it. On the contrary, we worked night and day, laboring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you” (2 Thes. 3:7-8).
Paul worked hard. So did Jackie and Seth. Jackie worked late into the night while her friends are scrolling through Facebook and reality TV. Seth worked two part-time jobs in college and submitted more than 100 job applications before he was hired. Both are people of faith, but they don’t use their faith as an excuse to be lazy.
In response to their efforts and to their faith, God bestows grace upon them. It’s a mystery, this symbiotic relationship between working hard and resting in God, but it’s the only way to live a productive Christian life.
There are two misconceptions that challenge this balanced approach. The first is the mistaken notion that God does it all, and we are free to sit back and receive his gifts like a king accepting gifts from his subjects. This makes us God and him our servant.
The second is the equally false belief that it’s all up to us. We work hard. We create opportunities. Our effort determines our success. Like the first danger, this mindset also places me on the throne, only instead of God doing all the work and us reaping all the benefits, God’s not in this picture at all. A friend of mine who believes this often says, “Who can I depend on for my success? Me, myself, and I.”
Paul, Jackie, and Seth understand the symbiosis—that a believer should work hard while simultaneously trusting God to lead, guide, and bless his or her efforts. A hearty dose of sweat and effort, combined with earnest, humble faith produce a grace-filled life that God is pleased to bless.
The next time you’re tempted to think another person’s success just fell into his or her lap, look a little closer. I bet you’ll find a whole lot of effort behind the grace they are enjoying. And if you’re looking for a model to chart the course of your life, why not adopt Paul’s?
“I worked harder than all of them-- yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me” (1 Cor. 15:10).
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