An Old Aphorism

Friday, September 16, 2011 — Week of Proper 19, Year One

Ninian, Bishop in Galloway, c. 430

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office (Book of Common Prayer, p. 984)

Psalms 69:1-23(24-30)31-38 (morning) 73 (evening)

2 Kings 1:2-17

1 Corinthians 3:16-23

Matthew 5:11-16

There is an old saying that I have ambivalent feelings about: “Pray as though everything depended on God. Work as though everything depended on you.” I’ve seen it attributed to St. Augustine and to St. Ignatius of Loyola. Sounds like Ignatius.

For such proverb to work, it seems to me that you really have to emphasize the first phrase, and work out of the joy, strength and discernment that comes from your prayer. Otherwise, it’s too easy to fall into the unhealthy pit of willfulness and control.

I sense some of this aphorism’s tension in the readings today.

Paul cautions the Corinthians about depending upon their own wisdom or upon the wisdom of this world. He urges them instead to trust God’s wisdom, which is displayed in Jesus’ surrender on the cross, which is, as he says elsewhere, an apparent folly and foolishness to the wise. He reminds them that “all things are yours, whether …the world or life or death or the present or the future — all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.” (1 Corinthians 3:22f) Sounds like “Pray as though everything depended on God.”

But this comes in the context of the previous paragraphs where he urges them to work, to build with care on the foundation that Paul has laid. “The work of each builder will be come visible, for the Day will disclose it… If what has been built on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward. If the work is burned up, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire.” (1 Corinthians 3:13f) Sounds a bit like “Work as though everything depended on you.”

Matthew 5 opens with an invitation to deep trust in God. The Beatitudes speak blessings to those who are walking in a path of trusting surrender. Sounds like “Pray as though everything depended on God.” Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the persecuted and reviled. God blesses and rewards you.

Then we are encouraged to be salt and light. Sounds like “Work as though everything depended on you. “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16)

I ran across a story attributed to Rabbi Levi of Berdichev:

Rabbi Levi taught that everything in God’s creation has good in it. A student challenged the Rabbi, asking him what could be good about atheism. Rabbi Levi responded: “The atheist can’t look at a poor person and say, ‘God will help you.’” The atheist knows that we must provide for our fellow human beings in time of need. We who believe in God, on the other hand, pray that God will bring an end to all forms of want and deprivation. We are tempted to let God feed the hungry or clothe the naked. And yet, we must act as if God has absolutely no power in this realm, giving freely of our own resources and time to alleviate poverty and inequality,illness and loneliness. (Does God Pray? Sermon given January 18, 2002, by Rabbi Barry H. Block,, quoted online at

I am convinced that God holds us accountable. God expects us to respond generously and compassionately to “end all forms of want and deprivation” and to ” alleviate poverty and inequality, illness and loneliness.” That is our job and our responsibility. As the epistle of James says, “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” (James 2:15f)

I also think this is a political as well a a moral responsibility. In August, 2000, Congress cut $12 billion from future food benefits. That more than twice what food banks and food charities deliver in a year ($5 billion). All of the food that people receive from food charities across the country amounts to about 6% of the food the poor receive from federal food programs, mostly food stamps and school lunches. At this moment, Republican lawmakers seem to have programs like these in their crosshairs for funding cuts so we can reduce a deficit created by tax cuts, unfunded wars, an unfunded drug benefit and a depression created by loose regulations on the greed of the financial industries. Sounds like “Work as though there is no God.”

I tend to need to be reminded first and foremost to “Pray as though everything depended upon God.” For me, it comes too naturally to “Work as though everything depended on you.” Such work becomes oppressive, for me and for others. There is a way to have low expectations and high hopes, to relax and let be, and then respond responsively in trust. I know how to do that, when I remember. But it has to start with prayer. “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Surrender. Trust. Love. Out of that comes the energy for compassion and responsibility that makes for good work. Otherwise, I’m projecting my shadow and my anxiety.

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