Every now and then my car needs a tune-up. Not necessarily because it stops working. It can still take me places. But when it needs tuning, the engine runs sluggishly, the cylinders might start to miss or fire out of sequence, and the exhaust might start blowing out smoke. A mechanic fixes all that with a tune-up. The car runs more efficiently and burns cleaner. And the ride is far more pleasant.
A piano tuner does essentially the same thing when he adjusts a piano’s strings and hammers; discord turns to harmony. Tuning a radio screens out static noise and focuses on the specific wavelength of the broadcast so that it can be heard clearly and crisply.
Keeping your Christian life properly tuned is a bit more complex, but it’s quite do-able. There are various helpful checks and diagnostics available in Scripture to assist us in running cleanly, harmonizing with and hearing God.
We are saved by grace. But that does not mean that God causes everything that happens in our lives and that we are responsible for nothing.
Just as well! Because there’s much in our culture that can throw a Christian life out of tune. Take, for instance, that popular old chestnut: “Pray as if it all depends on God and work as if it all depends on you.”
The idea is made credible by its originator: the celebrated St. Augustine of Hippo. It sounds reasonable. There is just one problem.
It doesn’t work.
It confuses the reality of our dependence on God.
It throws the Christian life “out of tune.”
Consider this: If everything depends on God, what would be the purpose or value of our thoughts and efforts? Did God make us robots, or did he give us creativity and unique personalities and talents to use in his service? On the other hand, if everything depends on us, how can we succeed in the face of our inherent weakness, inadequacy, shortcoming and faithlessness? As serious disciples, we certainly set out to do our best, but we know that our best isn’t good enough.
The result: frustration, uncertainty, fear, wasted effort, discord, static and blowing a lot of smoke. Because we’re out of tune.
I’m familiar with this problem from experience. I have always believed in salvation by grace; never believed in salvation by works. But I did accept Augustine’s advice uncritically at an early age based on the words he said—without actually understanding what he meant.
You see, “It all depends on God” is true of salvation: we are saved by grace. But that does not mean that God causes everything that happens in our lives and that we are responsible for nothing.
Likewise, the statement “It all depends on us” can leave us wide open to the vagaries of salvation by works. I’m sure it is not what St. Augustine intended, but 1,600 years later, such a statement can be a clear and present danger to a well-tuned Christian life. We have many things for which to thank Augustine. But this particular quote might not be one of them.
Ignatius of Loyola, another historic notable, offered an alternative: “Pray as if everything depends on you; act as if everything depends on God.”1 This reversal of the admonitions still leaves the original problem. Awareness of our shortcomings should inspire fervent prayer. Confidence in God should bring assured strength and life to our own efforts. But the admonitions as written still imply that in daily life God is “way up in heaven” somewhere needing to be desperately begged for help, and that since everything depends on him, we actually have no responsibility for the outcomes we see in our lives.
As people who know and acknowledge our weaknesses, who know and acknowledge our complete dependence on God, who live and walk by faith, let’s have a shot at tuning the terminology to something relevant and practical for today, while preserving the original intent of these two great churchmen.
How about: “Do everything knowing God loves you, stands beside you and will never forsake you.”
The evolution of language is a funny thing. By tuning their respective Christian life statements like this, although using different words, we’re actually agreeing with what both Augustine and Ignatius meant. We’re drawing on the rich heritage left by such men—and we’re clarifying it for practical use in our present-day context.
It’s astounding how much clearer—and freer—and hopeful—and positive—the Christian journey ahead became, once my thinking on this matter had been tuned. And it wasn’t a huge adjustment. Tuning is often just a tweak. But it makes all the difference. It’s more than worth it. I’m no longer constantly frustrated and fearful. I’m more in harmony with God, there’s less static and I don’t blow as much smoke!
The unexpected bonus was a quantum leap in my functional grasp of the “joy of salvation”2, its accompanying peace of mind and calm confidence that every step of the journey is safely in the care of the Master. The ride is indeed far more pleasant.
My car, unfortunately, despite the best efforts of General Motors, is not a Christian. It’s only a dumb machine. It is therefore incapable of thoughts and emotions. But if it were thus capable, and if it were able to read what you’ve just read, I’m confident it would agree wholeheartedly, from its own equivalent experience.
1 Francis R. Smith, S.J., “The Religious Experience of Ignatius of Loyola and the Mission of Jesuit Higher Education Today” (paper presented at the Fourth Institute of Jesuit Higher Education, University of San Francisco, San Francisco, CA, June 6-9, 1990), 2-3.
2 Psalm 51:12; Galatians 5:22, etc.