There is a cultural current in all of us against which it is very hard to swim. I find it particularly hard precisely because we are told, even in the church, that we ought to swim with it. Our overwhelming instinct as American Christians is to so thoroughly go with this flow, that to even suggest that it is at odds with God’s plan for his people is to smack of madness. It’s the current of what one famous commentator called “the Protestant Work Ethic.” It is the flow of thinking that if we only work hard enough and smart enough we can carve out our own little piece of the world. In its American form, it’s a particularly pernicious view that suggests we can by our own labor make our own names great for and by ourselves. It is fundamental self-reliance, and it stems, I submit, from the root of faithlessness.
Harsh words, you say? Perhaps. The very harshness of them to the American ear lends itself to my argument. The idea that I would even suggest that to work hard is antithetical to the Gospel promises of our God might strike some as the pinnacle of an attitude of entitlement in which my generation so thoroughly marinates. But I ask you to bear with me for just one moment. I am in no wise arguing that God does not want us to work hard. Quite the contrary in fact. To work hard is one of the things that defined our humanity before that sin nature business snuck in a mucked it all up, a fundamental aspect of our created constitution. In fact, it is the very perversion of a creational work ethic by that sin nature business that is at the heart of what I am saying. In a fallen world, we work to get our own before someone else does. We strive for our own piece of the pie because we do not, at the core of our being, truly believe our Lord when he tells us that our Father in heaven knows that we need material provision. We are sick with frustration and distrust, so we slave away with work so that we can feel safe in that name that we make for and by ourselves. For the sake of clarity, I will rename this kind of work “striving,” a reliance on our own energies and strengths to get what we think is ours. Rather, God would have us wait on him and receive.
Allow me to use a biblical example to illustrate what waiting and receiving looks like. King David is a prime example of a man who never strived in his earthly labor. He simply went about his business day to day, faithfully executing whatever charge he happened to have at the moment. When given the chance to make a name for himself, and to take what was seemingly rightfully his, he instead waited on God to provide. When Samuel was brought in by the Lord God to anoint one of the sons of Jesse as the next king of Israel, Jesse did not even bother to bring David inside from his work in the field, since he was the youngest and thus seemingly least fit for such an office. But after all the other sons had been vetted, God so moved Samuel to have David brought in and anointed him on the spot at the command of God (1 Samuel 16:1-13). Later, when David was serving as a commander in Saul’s army, Saul became insanely jealous of David’s accomplishments and tried to have him killed twice (1 Samuel 18:10-11; 19:9-16). David fled into the desert with a small band of faithful followers, where he lived in the fringes of society for years (1 Samuel 19—2 Samuel 1). At such a low ebb, we might expect David to do everything in his power to reclaim the honor Saul had so unjustly taken from him Indeed, David was provided with two opportunities to do just that, when he secretly encountered Saul alone and unaware. In both cases, David could have slain Saul by the power of his own hand and taken what was so clearly his. But he refused. He knew that if God was going to make him king of Israel, it was going to be in a way that everyone knew was the work of God alone (1 Samuel 24 and 26). Later, when David sought to build a permanent house for God in Jerusalem, God prevented him from doing so. Instead, God promised David an eternal throne from which a son of his would build God’s house. David did not seek to thwart God’s plans in this way despite the original intention of his heart, but instead thanked God for looking so favorably on him (2 Samuel 7). Finally, when David was forced out of Jerusalem by a coup d’état led by one of his own sons, David refused to allow his own guards to defend his honor in the face of mockers (2 Samuel 16:5-13). Rather, he waited to be vindicated by God alone, and cast himself on God for such vindication (2 Samuel 15:31b). Indeed, the only time David strived on his own, we are told it went very badly for him. Having usurped the privilege of his own office, graciously given to him by God, by sleeping with another man’s wife, no amount of scheming on David’s part could hide his actions from God. In the end, a righteous man lost his life and David mourned to death of his own child (2 Samuel 11-12). When David was called out by Nathan about it, he immediately confessed and submitted himself the Lord’s judgment, much to the amazement of his attendants (2 Samuel 12:21). In all his successes in life, David had learned to wait on God. Rather than striving and taking for his own, he waited to receive from his loving Creator.
None of this is to suggest that David did not work. Nothing could be further from the truth. He excelled at music, so much so that he garnered the attention of the king (again, we might add, without David striving for such attention) (1 Samuel 16:14-23). He committed his physical prowess to combat, and won for Saul and Israel many battles (1 Samuel 17-18). In fact, when on the run from Saul, David committed his services to a Philistine king, and his sense of duty to that commitment even compelled him to go into battle with the Philistine army against Israelite troops! It was only at the Philistine king’s insistence that David not go up that David remained behind to guard the Philistine army’s rear (1 Samuel 29-30; we perhaps see in this example how God was working to keep David’s hands clean of Israelite blood even despite David’s intention to honor his commitments!). David always committed himself faithfully to whatever charge God gave him in each moment. However, God alone worked behind the scenes to make his plans for David come to fruition. David never had to strive. He only had to wait and receive.
Saul, on the other hand, strove. When God rejected him as king, he humiliated himself before a large crowd by pleading with Samuel to have mercy (1 Samuel 15). When Saul’s own son saw God’s hand on David, Saul strove to kill even him (1 Samuel 20, especially verses 32-34). When Saul heard that David had been assisted by the priests, who had no knowledge as yet of the feud between them, Saul had them all murdered in a flagrant abuse of his God-given power as king (1 Samuel 22:6-19) Even as his enemies moved in around him, Saul resorted to witchcraft for a word of comfort from God, only to receive a word of rebuke instead (1 Samuel 28). In the following engagement, Saul took his own life (1 Samuel 31), and even then David refused to take credit (2 Samuel 1). Even at the very end, Saul strove on his own strength. He did not wait on God, but tried to take and hoard what he saw to be his. As a result, he received nothing from the God of all good gifts.
We are all called to the same level of obedient trust. Our God is eager to pour out blessings on his people. In this life, the blessings may not always be what we’d expect. David wandered in the desert for years before being vindicated, and even after he was acknowledged as king, he faced opposition, rebellion, and even his own sinfulness. But God provided a great name for David. We have likewise been given a great name by God in Jesus. We have been grafted into the vine of his people, and have been promised an eternal inheritance that far exceeds anything David could have hoped for. Our Lord has told us if we seek this inheritance with all our hearts, and wait patiently on him, all the desires of our hearts will be satisfied in him. We do not need to strive and to take what we think is ours. We only need to wait and receive from our God who is gracious to give.