1 Timothy 4:1-11
Imagine you are on a commercial airliner flying at 35,000 feet. Would you have a preference if the left wing detached or the right wing? Crazy question, I know. A jet is designed to be able to fly with only one engine but not with only one wing – both wings are absolutely necessary. For sake of illustration, let’s say on one wing is written dependence and on the other is written discipline. Jerry Bridges points out a crucial principle in the Christian life—we need both wings to fly, dependence and personal discipline.
When Paul told Timothy to “discipline himself to be godly” (I Tim 4:7), Paul borrowed a Greek word from athletics. He told Timothy to “train” himself to be godly. Training is crucial but it is not the only ingredient needed to grow. We also need God’s help to become the kind of people and church that He wants us to be.
To succeed in the Christian life, we must strike the balance between human effort and the Spirit’s (God’s) enablement. Let’s look at some of the instances in Scripture where the concepts of dependence and responsibility appear in the same context. Psalm 127:1 tells us, “Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchmen stand guard in vain.” God is intimately involved in building and watching. Yet it is obvious that the builders labor and the watchmen stand guard. They don’t go fishing and expect to come back and find the house is built and the city is safe. They work and watch but they do so in total dependence upon God.
Nehemiah faced opposition from the enemies of the Jews as he sought to rebuild Jerusalem’s walls. Notice he and the people prayed to God and posted a guard (Nehemiah 4:8, 9). Nehemiah’s response to the threat was to take action but also trust God. Today Christians can easily slide into one of two camps. The more “spiritual” people call for an all-night prayer meeting. The more “practical” folks organize the ministry and raise funds. Nehemiah’s people rightly did both.
There is not a single instance in the New Testament where we are taught to depend on the Holy Spirit without a corresponding exercise of discipline on our part. In Philippians 4:11-13, Paul worked to learn to be content. He knew contentment was pleasing to God and that God would provide him with everything he needed. In Colossians 1:28-29, Paul struggled and labored to perfect the saints. But he did it with the energy from God that worked in him. He was disciplined in the work but dependent upon God for the results. In I Corinthians 3:6-9, Paul uses a metaphor from farming to illustrate ministry. We plant and water seeds but God makes the seeds to grow. John 15:5 reminds us, “Apart from me, you can do nothing.” God is saying that nothing of spiritual or eternal value can be accomplished without His divine blessing and the working of the Holy Spirit.
After we strike the balance of human effort and Spirit enablement, we must also see self-sufficiency as the enemy of divine dependence. The best way to grow in a conscious dependence on Christ is through the discipline of prayer. Prayer is the tangible expression of our dependence. Psalm 119, the longest psalm, conveys the psalmist’s ardent desire for and commitment to the pursuit of holiness. Twenty-two times he prays to God for help in obeying the law. In Psalm 119:33-37, he asks God to teach him, to give him understanding, to direct him in God’s paths. But also notice his discipline in regards to the Word of God in verses 11-16. He stored up the Word in his heart, recounted it to others, rejoiced in obeying it, meditated on it and did not neglect it.
Our prayers of dependence generally fall into two categories: planned times and
spontaneous times of prayer. Nehemiah was a cup bearer to the Persian king, Artaxerxes. When Nehemiah heard of the condition of Jerusalem and the Jewish pilgrims, he sat down and wept (Nehemiah 1). Then he fasted and prayed for a period of several months—this was planned, persevering prayer. When the king noticed Nehemiah’s sad countenance (Nehemiah 2) and asked what was the problem, Nehemiah breathed a quick prayer to God while he was formulating his answer to the king. This prayer was unplanned, short and spontaneous. We need both types of prayer in our lives to show our utter dependence upon God. John Murray said, “The believer is not endowed with a reservoir of strength from which he draws. It is always ‘by the Spirit’ that each sanctifying activity is exercised.”
Prayer is a recognition of our own helplessness and our absolute dependence upon God. This helplessness and dependence is repugnant to our sinful spirit of self-sufficiency. Jesus himself said, “By myself I can do nothing” (John 5:30). He was completely dependent upon the Father and He willingly acknowledged that. If Christ was dependent on the Father, how much more must we be!