by James Ryan
It sometimes happens in the Christian life that we are unsure how to balance prayer and action. Once we’ve prayed for God’s guidance on a matter, should we then take action, or should we wait for God to handle things for us? Are we to be like Gideon, thinning out the armies of our own efforts so that the glory can go to God? Or are we to be like Moses, gathering our people together for a powerful movement? As God’s people, how are we supposed to get things done? In the language of theology, this is the question of “agency.” An agent is the party responsible for a particular action. When a woman drives herself to work, she is the agent responsible for the direction of her car. When God intervenes in human history, God is the agent responsible for the miracle that results.
Certain qualities of the experience of recovery can cause recovering people to question their status as an agent. When we experience healing and growth, is it a result of our hard work, or is it something that is a gift of God, independent of our labor? Certainly, change comes only after we take action. But once we have experienced change, it really feels as if we can’t take credit for it no matter how hard we have worked. Are we the agent, or is God?
A popular Twelve-Step slogan addresses the question of agency: “Pray for potatoes, then pick up a hoe.” Of course, depending on how this slogan is presented, it can mean one of three things. When the emphasis is on “pick up a hoe,” the slogan seems to mean that the really important thing to do is to get to work. God isn’t going to just give you potatoes for nothing, so get out in the fields and get dirty. Often, when the potato slogan is used this way, the implication is that prayer is not really an effective way to get things done, as implied in the platitude “God helps those who help themselves.” Prayer, in this view, is the equivalent of sitting on the side of the field and doing nothing. If anything good is to happen, it will be us that does the work.
However, when the first phrase of the potato slogan is given priority, as in, “Pray for potatoes, and then pick up a hoe,” the slogan takes on a different meaning. Stated this way, it warns us about taking action without consulting God first. Before we do anything, even something simple like picking up a hoe, we had better get down on our knees and check in. After all, haven’t we made a terrible mess of things in the past by thinking we were capable of handling life on our own? Presented this way, the potato slogan suggests that even if we can take action to forward our recovery, we are much better off turning the agency over to God.
Finally, when “pray for potatoes” and “pick up a hoe” are emphasized equally, the slogan seems to shrug its shoulders at the whole question. We do stuff. God does stuff. Who can sort it out? There is a balance between what we do and what God does in the recovery process, but the nature of that balance remains a mystery. If you are not in the field, you’re not planting potatoes. At the same time, if you’re not praying, the potatoes may not grow. When the slogan is presented this way, the agency is shared.
The agency question is complicated further by a long history of theological debate on the matter. Like the potato slogan, the history of Christian theology covers the full spectrum of possible ideas about the involvement of human agency and its impact on our relationship to God.
In this article, we will look at three theologians who roughly mark the ends and midpoint of the spectrum of views on this issue. Our goal is not to create a perfect map of the theological terrain here. What we are most interested in is how different theological views of agency impact our lives. After presenting the views of each theologian, we will ask how their theology plays out in everyday experience. What does it look like when we live according to a particular idea about agency? What are the consequences for our recovery and for our relationship with God? Once we’ve answered these questions, we may be able to make some evaluation about what kinds of views of agency might work best for us.
Pick Up a Hoe Theology
We begin with Pelagius, about whom little is known except that he was born in England in the mid-300’s A.D. and was shocked by the low morality of the priesthood on a visit to Rome. Pelagius saw corruption and excess and concluded that the only way to reform the Church was to place the full responsibility for sin on the individual free will. The doctrine Pelagius advocated was so strong that it denied the necessity of grace. For all practical purposes, each believer had the power to choose whether or not they committed any sin. Therefore, we also choose our own eternal destiny. According to Pelagius, God in his infinite wisdom granted each of us the natural capacity to attain heaven on our own, the only effort necessary being that we make the effort to practice virtue and abstain from sin.
Pelagius was charged with heresy by St. Jerome, and later suffered a papal condemnation by Pope Innocent I. However, the influence of Pelagius’s thought spread in the early Church even after it was declared to be a heresy, and a coherent philosophy that came to be known as Pelagianism gradually formed. Pelagianism emphasized the value of individual effort, willpower and moral strength. The only real grace available to humans is the grace present in us as the faculty of free will.
Though Pelagianism has died out, its influence remains in Christian thought. Anytime an approach to Christian life and belief emphasizes the value of free will and personal effort above all else, we can say that the approach owes something to Pelagius. For Christians in recovery, approaches to our faith that are reminiscent of Pelagianism are similar to approaches to recovery that emphasize the value of personal effort. Pelagius was a “pick up a hoe” type of theologian who encouraged believers to get to work if they wanted to see results in their life of faith. The agency is entirely ours.
Unfortunately, most people find that theologies that emphasize personal effort result in spiritual lives that are highly strenuous. When we believe in salvation by personal effort and worship a God who expects us to work, we end up working really hard to feel assured of our salvation. Any impulse toward immoral behavior must be squelched, and any sign of deviant thought must be hidden from view. The risk of living out this kind of theology is that we end up deeply embattled within ourselves, fighting off all things within us that we feel might be displeasing to God. Instead of a spiritual life based on our dependence on God, we end up in a state of self-reliance, depending on our own efforts for spiritual sustenance.
There is nothing wrong with effort, of course, but approaches to recovery that emphasize personal effort and only personal effort usually end disastrously for addicts. By pitting our wills in a fight against the force of our addiction—that force over which we are powerless—we suffer greatly. If we are lucky enough not to relapse, the constant battle with the voice of our disease exhausts us and leaves us irritable and depressed.
Our experience demonstrates that none of us are capable of willing ourselves into perfection. Therefore, when we are trying to work hard to please God, we generally end up working hard to look perfect. Not only do we begin living a lie, but the effort required to keep up appearances is simply beyond most of us. We end up just as exhausted, irritable and depressed as if we were constantly fighting off the urge to use. Pelagianism by any name is a “work hard” theology. In our experience, work hard theologies do not work at all for Christians in recovery.
Pray for Potatoes Theology
Our second theologian is John Calvin, who was born in Noyon, France, and then died in Geneva in the 1500’s. His Institutes of the Christian Religion is widely considered one of the greatest works of early Protestantism. Calvin’s theology and the schools of thought that followed him (known as Calvinism) emphasized the sovereignty of God and the depravity of man. God’s sovereignty, for Calvin, meant that God was beyond the bounds of human conception, and that God’s will was absolute law. Calvin’s view of human depravity was that we humans are so lost in sin that we can never attain a right relation with God through our own activity. God saves people, not the other way around.
Calvin’s thinking on God’s sovereignty drew him to the conclusion that salvation operated on the principle of double predestination. Because God saves and humans are incapable of saving themselves, those who are saved are chosen by God. Likewise, those who are not saved are those who are not chosen for salvation by God. The evidence that one has been chosen by God to be saved is revealed in the nature of the believer’s conduct. Human depravity naturally leads the unchosen to sin, and they are powerless to do otherwise. The saved, however, are subject to the irresistible and overwhelming power of grace and therefore conform to God’s desires.
At first blush, this theology would seem to be the exact opposite of Pelagianism. Instead of working hard and using our free will to gain salvation, we have to give up the idea that our will can save us and let God do the work. The agency belongs entirely to our Creator. This would make Calvin a “pray for potatoes” type of theologian who insists that we are not able to use our free will to any benefit unless we are aided by grace. However, the devil is in the details, and in actual practice Calvinism and similar theologies often lead to the same kind of highly strenuous spiritual life as Pelagianism.
The crux of the problem seems to be in Calvin’s insistence that grace is only for a chosen few. In a theological system that draws a clear line between the haves and the have-nots, it becomes extremely important for believers to make sure that they are in the right camp. To feel assured of salvation, believers need some way of knowing whether they have been chosen by God to receive grace. Calvin proposed that the chosen could be identified by their behavior. Therefore, in actual practice, Calvinism often leads to a life characterized by the hard work necessary to be on good behavior and appear as one of the chosen few. Practically speaking, there may not be that much difference between working hard to appear to be chosen by God (Calvinism) and working hard to appear to be perfect in order to earn God’s approval (Pelagianism).
To be fair to the Reformed tradition, Calvinism is not the only theology that has the potential for leaving its adherents full of anxiety about whether they have been chosen. This kind of thinking and anxiety are present in many churches and denominations. In fact, it may not be Calvin’s theological propositions that are the problem so much as the way we treat them. Calvin’s goal was certainly not to fill Christians with anxiety about the status of their salvation, but rather to find a way of expressing his conviction that God insists on grace rather than works as the basis of salvation. Nevertheless, we seem to be able to turn Calvin’s insistence on grace into a reason to work hard to earn God’s favor. Whenever someone outlines the qualities of those who are graced by God, many of us leap on those qualities and do our best to produce them in our lives by our own efforts, rather than trust that God will deliver those qualities to us through grace.
When a theological tradition emphasizes good behavior as the evidence that one is chosen, some of us work ourselves to death trying to be good enough to feel secure as one of the chosen. If feeling a strong and constant love for Jesus is the evidence that one is chosen, we exhaust ourselves to generate the right intensity of emotion to suggest that we are among the chosen. If being included in the chosen is determined by sharing certain convictions or experiences, we work hard to make sure that we have just the right convictions or just the right experiences to be included. Laboring to think right, to feel right and to do right are all forms of working hard to earn salvation and/or recovery. Not only are these efforts useless according to Calvin’s theology, but they leave us spiritually depleted.
Pray and Pick Up a Hoe Theology
Our third theologian is John Wesley (1703— 1791). Wesley lived and died a member of the Church of England, but his work led to the rise of Methodism and the eventual establishment of the Methodist Church. Wesley’s Methodism followed on the themes of Arminianism, a system of thought initiated by Jacob Arminius (1559– 1609). Arminius held that salvation was available not only to an elect few, but was offered by God to all. An individual could either resist or consent to the action of grace, and therefore salvation was a matter of free choice. Arminius also saw the Christian life not as a static state of being but as a process of spiritual development and improvement in which the soul achieves greater godliness through a deepening immersion in grace.
One of Wesley’s many developments on Arminianism was the idea that human perfection was attainable in this lifetime. In 1764 he published A Plain Account of Christian Perfection, in which he argued that Scripture identifies perfection as something that could happen after accepting salvation and prior to death. Perfection, for Wesley, meant freedom from sin, both outward (active sin) and inward (temptation and evil thoughts). A Christian was to arrive at a state of perfection through their love of God. By loving God, one expelled sin and became perfect.
Because his take on Arminianism emphasizes cooperation with grace, Wesley can be called an even-handed “Pray for potatoes and pick up a hoe” type of theologian. He acknowledges that there is work that God does for us and that we also have a role to play in that work. The agency is divided between God and us. Wesley also nuances the idea of working toward perfection in two ways. First, perfection is something that happens after the believer accepts salvation. In theory, at least, this means that the soul’s salvation is secure and does not depend on perfection in order to count itself a member of God’s family. Second, perfection happens not through the free choice of behavior, but through love. Again, in theory, this means that one cannot will oneself into perfection, but simply consents to the action of grace already present in one’s life and then steadily and naturally grows in the love of God.
In practice, however, things never quite match up with theory. Even though Wesley states that perfection happens after salvation and through love, it is all too easy for us to hear the word “perfection” as God’s expectation of us. We were not saved to become less than perfect, or so the theory goes, and so if we are not steadily becoming more perfect, we are likely to think that there is something wrong with us. Because Wesley emphasizes love as the means to perfection, we are likely to wrench our hearts trying to love hard enough to attain perfection in this lifetime. Any sign of inward or outward sin is simply proof that we don’t love God enough.
A Practical Approach
At this point, we may see a pattern in our own behavior. It seems that regardless of the structure of our convictions, we have a tendency to turn the practice of theological ideas into an effort to earn grace rather than receive it. Given this tendency in ourselves, it may be that, in all the theologies we have looked at, there is good stuff we are not able to appreciate. When we are busy looking for ways to work hard to please God, we tend to overlook more helpful ideas and only take with us those things that encourage us to work harder. This “take what doesn’t work and leave the rest” approach to theology will not serve us well.
At the same time, it is clear that some ideas are more likely to lead to a “work hard” spiritual life than others. The idea that it is up to us to earn our own salvation; the idea that we need to think, feel or act a certain way to prove that we belong among God’s chosen few; and the idea that we can and should work to be perfect in this lifetime are all ideas that are particularly dangerous for Christians in recovery. These ideas directly affirm our tendency to attempt to earn rather than receive grace. In the language of agency, we have a tendency to try to take as much agency as we can by working hard at pleasing God. Because we have a tendency to turn all theology into “work hard” theology, the answer to our problems with agency cannot be just an intellectual one. We could try to come up with a theological position that is as contrary to “work hard” theology as possible, but in all probability, sooner or later we’ll find a way to turn this new theological position into yet another reason to work hard. The answer to our trouble with agency lies on the level of our tendency to work hard, not in the realm of ideas.
In order to find a practical theology of agency that works well for Christians in recovery, we have to first acknowledge our tendency to lean too heavily on “pick up a hoe” types of thought and practice. If we can start to lean away from emphasizing our own agency without giving up completely on the idea that we do have some role to play in our recovery, then we are probably moving in the right direction. Some parables from Mark’s Gospel might be useful here. In Mark 4, Jesus speaks to his disciples about how to spread the Good News, and he uses three parables that use the metaphor of seeds to help explain the disciples’ task. This is one of the places in the Gospels where Jesus tells his famous “sower of seeds” parable, describing the disciples spreading the kingdom of God like seeds, some falling on good soil, and others falling to birds or rocky soil. Jesus’ second “seed parable” speaks more directly to the question of agency:
“The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.” (Mark 4: 26-29 NRSV)
This parable offers not so much an abstract, systematic theology of agency as a practical guide for dealing with agency in our daily lives. There is work for the disciple to do: sewing seeds and harvesting the grain. There is also work for God to do: making the grain grow. The emphasis in this parable is on the mystery and power of God in giving life to the seeds of the kingdom. These verses are a strong reminder that we should not try to do God’s work. It is not the disciples task—or ours—to make seeds grow.
Jesus uses this parable to tell his disciples that they are simply to share the Good News and let God do what God will with the “seeds” they have planted in people’s hearts and minds. This is good advice to anyone interested in evangelism or sponsorship, but it is also advice that can be applied to the seed of the kingdom that God has planted in our own lives—that is, our recovery.
We can think of working a Twelve Step program as an act of helping God to plant a seed of the kingdom inside us. Knowing that our tendency as recovering Christians is to work hard and try to earn grace, we will want to be careful not to meddle with this seed too much. Once the seed is planted, our job is to stay open to the sun and the rain, and let the seed lie in the field. We don’t have to dig the seed up every twenty minutes to see how it is doing, or replow the field every time we get nervous. For most of us, sitting still in God’s presence and waiting for God to make our seed grow will be really hard. It requires us to fight back against our tendency to try to take control and turn our recovery into an exercise in self-will. Ironically, the hard work of recovery is the work required to stop working so hard.
We wrestle ourselves down at the side of the field and wait. We find just enough faith to trust that maybe God really will do something with that seed if we leave it alone. And then, in time, God sends forth a sprout. The earth “produces of itself ” and we do not know how. Time after time, we feel compelled to take control of our recovery, to earn grace, and we have to ask God for the strength to surrender instead. As time passes in this way, that little sprout starts to grow. Each time we hold back our own efforts and let God do God’s work, we get to have a firsthand experience of grace. God acts in our lives, and we grow in faith. Before too long, we find that the promise of yet another “seed parable” from Mark 4 is being fulfilled in our lives:
“[The kingdom of God] is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” (Mark 4: 30-32 NRSV)