Updated: Sep 6, 2022
Therefore, my dear friends… continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose. (Philippians 2:12-13 NIV)
My small group in college used to joke that it hadn’t really been a Bible study if someone hadn’t said a little bit of heresy (to be corrected, of course). The one I remember most vividly was the time I said, “It’s so frustrating that no matter what I do, my [at the time totally hypothetical] kids are still going to need God!”
I hardly know where to start unpacking all the wrong beliefs in that statement—someone could probably write a whole dissertation on it. But the big thing that sticks out to me was the idolatry of self-sufficiency.
The Gospel is so ingrained in me that I don’t think that’s what I was talking about. I knew my kids would need Jesus to save them from their sins; we all do (Romans 3:23), and only Jesus can redeem us (Acts 4:12), and it’s only by grace, not because of anything we’ve done (Ephesians 2:8-9). What I meant was more visceral—that my kids would need God to make it through ordinary life.
I’m a type-A, first-born computer engineer and a grammar pedant in my spare time. Everything about my personality screams, “I can do it myself.” (Please take a moment to pity what my mother’s life was like during my toddler years.) I take great pride in feeling competent at the things I’m expected to do.
That’s not all bad, obviously. But until I acknowledge my imperfection, I won’t be open to the Holy Spirit improving me. Fortunately, nothing brings one’s impatience and unreasonable expectations into sharp focus like the unending demands of one’s children. In parenting, I had to let go of my need for perfection—there was no way to come anywhere close—and chose to instead acknowledge the ways that I need God.
I wish I could protect my kids from every hurt in the world or comfort them enough that they’d never need God. I wish I could be a good enough parent that they’d never struggle. Frankly, however, they’ll probably need therapy because of my parenting (as many people who had parents do).
Furthermore, admitting I’m not perfect isn’t enough. I learned early in my writing career that a character who doesn’t have to work for his or her growth feels deeply unsatisfying. Readers will say that such an ending wasn’t “earned.” Why? Because in real life, our attitudes and behaviors don’t magically improve overnight.
God does call us to be sanctified—to be made holy (see, for example, John 17:17-19)—but it’s not a one-time thing. The penalty for sin was paid once and for all by Jesus, but our individual sanctification is a process. We “work out our salvation” and “God… works in [us]” (Philippians 2:12, 13 NIV). Our sacrifice is living (Romans 12:1)—that is, daily and recurring—and it’s related to the transformation we’ll undergo “by the renewing of” our minds (Romans 12:2). But it’s clear that we can’t do it on our own.
I’m grateful that God is a perfect Father, on whom both my kids and I can rely. He expects us to need him, and he will live up to his end of the promise.