Oliver Cromwell, during the English Civil War (1642-51), is supposed to have told his soldiers, “Put your trust in God, but keep your powder dry.”
A perfect blend of the “spiritual” and the “practical.”
And that blend, that same balance, is demonstrated in Nehemiah 4:8-9. “They all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and stir up trouble against it. But we prayed to our God and posted a guard day and night to meet this threat.”
The Persian king, Artaxerxes, gave Nehemiah permission to go to Jerusalem to rebuild the ruined city, especially its gates and walls.
He and the small number of Jewish people living in the city set about the task with enthusiasm, but there was opposition.
Nehemiah and his people found themselves and their work seriously threatened, so they prayed and then acted. But both were vital – two sides of the one coin.
Getting this balance right is still a challenge for us today.
There are Christians who are so “spiritual” that they would never dream of missing a service, a prayer meeting or a house group. But if you ask them to roll their sleeves up and get stuck into some practical task, you won’t see them for dust.
“So heavenly-minded they’re no earthly use” is a bit of a clichÃ©, but it’s not that far from the truth.
And there are others who are wonderfully practical, real activists, always busy about the church. But they can often be so busy that they never find time to nourish their relationship with God through worship, prayer and Scripture.
The danger is that in time they end up without any relationship with God at all, pretty much dried up or burned out.
God calls his people to cooperate with him: to pray, of course, but to work, too. He doesn’t say, “All right, just leave it to me, I’ll do what is necessary.” So much for the “let go and let God” school of thought.
But neither does he say, “Right, I’ve brought you to salvation, now you’re on your own.”
The challenge, then, is obvious: Have I got the balance right?
In my time as a minister, I’ve known Christians who, setting out on holiday, will pray, “Lord, give us a safe journey,” and then drive like idiots.
I’ve known students who will say they’re trusting God to help them succeed in their exams but never get down to any solid work.
I suspect that there are churches that pray earnestly that God will cause their church to grow, but who are conspicuously weak when it comes to the day-to-day business – I might even use the word grind – of service, witness, mission and evangelism.
God is a gracious God, but why should he bail us out of our laziness? That’s not faith; that’s presumptuousness.
Simeon Stylites lived in Syria about 400 years after Jesus, and he was so convinced of the evils of this world that he felt called to separate himself from it as far as possible and to devote his life to prayer and the contemplation of God. He became a hermit.
But somehow he could never get away far enough, so he ended up living on top of a pillar. Year by year, his pillar got taller and taller and he ended up living there for 37 years.
To be fair to Simeon, he was always glad to welcome adoring pilgrims who flocked around to talk to him; they could get to him via a step-ladder (which is also how he received his food from admiring local people).
Simeon had extraordinary zeal and “spirituality,” but surely his desire to serve the world by effectively separating himself from it was misguided, to put it mildly.
The old catchphrase says that Christians are to be “in the world, but not of it.” This sums up beautifully the example set for us by Jesus himself.
And I’ve always liked the story about Paul in Acts 27-28. He and his friends have been shipwrecked on the island of Malta, and they’re on the beach shivering with cold. So what does Paul do? Go aside and have a prayer session? No, he helps to gather wood to build a fire.
I think Nehemiah would have liked that! I hope we do, too.
We must strive to get the balance right. Be a pray-er, yes, of course. But be a worker, too.
Colin Sedgwick is a Baptist minister living in northwest London. He is also a freelance journalist who has written for several United Kingdom papers and various Christian publications. A version of this article first appeared on his blog, sedgonline.wordpress.com, and is used with permission.