The world has many sore needs, and one of the purposes for which God has put his church into the world is to meet those needs. It is natural, therefore, that we love to be busy helping people. There are times, however, when the best thing we can do for others who need help is to do nothing–at least on the surface. We should always be helping them by praying within ourselves for them, of course, but there are times when it is best not to spring into action right away.
Jesus gives us an example of this when his good friend Lazarus was sick. Knowing his friend was seriously ill, did Jesus then immediately drop all that he was doing and rush to go heal his friend? No. The scriptural account of this incident says that although Jesus knew that this was a life-threatening illness, “yet when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days” (Jn. 11:6 NIV).
Why on earth would Jesus do such a thing? Did he not really love Lazarus after all? But, no, Scripture begins its record of this incident by removing all doubt about this by saying, “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus” (v. 5).
Well, then, if Jesus loved Lazarus, why did he not hurry to his side and heal him? That was, in fact, the question which the crowd was wondering. “Some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?'” (Jn. 11:37 NIV).
Yes, of course he could have. Jesus is the Son of God. Having the power of Almighty God at his disposal, he can do anything. But he does not use this limitless power except at the Father’s bidding.
“Jesus answered them, ‘I tell you the solemn truth, the Son can do nothing on his own initiative, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise'” (Jn. 5:19 NET).
Jesus did not act on his own initiative but only as he saw his Father acting. From a human perspective, when we are confronted with a life-and-death situation, our natural reaction is to do everything possible to prevent death. Normally, this is the proper and right thing to do. There are rare occasions, however, when God overrules our natural reactions for his own, better purposes. In the case of Lazarus, this was one of those rare occasions. But what possible reason could God have for letting someone die? Is this not the question that burns within our hearts when someone we love dies? Where was God when he was sick? Why did he let him die?
The answer is not always the same for all types of this situation, but we can be sure that it is not a lack of love by God that is the cause of such deaths, for “precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints” (Ps. 116:15 NIV).
In the particular case of Lazarus’ death, God graciously gives us the reason why he allowed this to happen–gracious because he is under no compulsion or requirement to tell us the reason why such sorrowful things happen in our lives. Yet sometimes he does tell us and that is the case with the death of Lazarus. Speaking to his disciples concerning this, Jesus told them, “For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe” (Jn. 11:15 NIV).
Our relationship with God is not to be just a mental assent to some teaching or principles, not just an ideal we admire; it must become real in our very lives and being. It must be proved true in the sorrows and trials of life, or else what good is it? The world has enough teachings and philosophies and religions already that purport to teach us what reality is all about; it doesn’t need another one. But what it does need is the one, true Word of God that has power, even over death.
“For the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power” (1 Cor. 4:20 NIV).
If the kingdom of God can conquer even this ultimate enemy, then it is supreme over all. But in order for this supreme claim to be proved true, someone must suffer the supreme test: He must die and be raised back to life again. Lazarus died so that others could believe in the One who raised him back to life. That is what Jesus said: “For your sake I am glad I was not there (to prevent him from dying), so that you may believe.”
Lazarus died for the sake of others. In this, he was a precursor to the death of Jesus, who likewise did the same. In fact, because the death of Lazarus had the intended effect, that of bringing others to faith in Jesus, those who opposed Jesus and his work sought to kill not only Jesus but Lazarus.
“Meanwhile a large crowd of Jews found out that Jesus was there and came, not only because of him but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests made plans to kill Lazarus as well, for on account of him many of the Jews were going over to Jesus and putting their faith in him” (Jn. 12:9-11 NIV).
The chief priests saw beyond the miracle of raising a dead person back to life to the implication of that miracle: that the one performing it was who he said he was: God in human flesh, with power even over death.
“The Jews gathered around him, saying, ‘How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly’
“Jesus answered, ‘I did tell you, but you do not believe. The miracles I do in my Father’s name speak for me, but you do not believe because you are not my sheep'” (Jn. 10:24-26 NIV).
“Do not believe me unless I do what my Father does. But if I do it, even though you do not believe me, believe the miracles, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father” (Jn. 10:37,38 NIV).
“Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the miracles themselves” (Jn. 14:11 NIV).
So, this is a case in Scripture when God delays acting for a higher purpose than the immediately visible one. That is one side of the coin, when we should wait on God for his purpose to be fulfilled more fully than that of which we are aware. But there is also the other side of the coin, when God waits for us to take the initiative.
Whether it is a believer desiring to come closer to God or an unbeliever making that first step towards finding God, God sometimes waits for initiative on our part. That is why he says, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink” (Jn. 7:37 NIV).
In his Son, God has already done all that is required to set the groundwork and foundation for such initiative. “For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 3:11 NIV).
“His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness” (2 Ptr. 1:3 NIV).
The foundation has been laid. Jesus Christ has come and died on the cross for us, to save us from ourselves and our sin. Now it is up to us to build upon that foundation. We must seek the ultimate–God–or else choose something less. It is up to us. We must take the initiative. Two examples from Scripture serve to illustrate this principle and the two opposite stances one can have towards God. One is found in James:
“Come near to God (our initiative) and he will come near to you (God’s response)” (Js. 4:8 NIV).
To those who come as sinners needing forgiveness, this same verse goes on to command repentance for this closeness to be possible. “Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.” This is the scriptural example of initiative on our part and God’s favorable response on his part: seeking God and being close to him.
The other type of initiative which can be taken by human beings with free will, as mentioned, has an opposite stance, to seek to separate one’s self from God, to be one who, far from wanting to be close to God, seeks to be as far removed from him as possible. Many take this initiative, even to the extreme of denying God’s existence, certainly, at least, denying him any entrance into the heart. This initiative is possible because of the free will God has given us human beings. Thus it is possible to deny God on our own initiative, to which God responds by denying us as well.
“If we disown him, he will also disown us” (2 Tim. 2:12 NIV).
“Whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven” (Mt. 10:33 RSV).
Now, this really is a most remarkable–and serious–thing, that we weak and frail human beings have the profound power to determine an action of God. We can either cause him to come close to us in love and forgiveness, or we can cause him to abandon us to our own sin, shame and eternal death. That is the incredible power of free will, that which gives us the initiative to act on our own.
But we must not let this truth go to our head. It is quite true that we do really have such initiative. But it is also true that this is possible only because God has already taken the ultimate, first step in everything. After all, there would be no sense in speaking of our having any initiative at all except that God first initiated all of creation, including ourselves. He first created us, brought us into existence and gave us free will. Without either of these things first being done, it would be meaningless to speak of us having initiative. We must first exist before we can do anything. Therefore, the glory and credit goes to God our Creator, not to us. Our power of initiative is a secondary one; his is the primary power and initiative.
Nevertheless, this does not mean that our power to initiate actions on our own is an illusion or false. It is true and real, contrary to the false teachings of some religions that all is illusion. Our power of initiative to act on our own is very real–but it is also secondary or derived. We need to remember both of these aspects, that our initiatory power is both real and derived. We need to remember this so that we do not fall into either of two opposite traps regarding this issue.
The first possible mindset against which we must guard ourselves is to overemphasize this tremendous power to initiate actions on our own and thus fall into pride. We smile when a child tells us to watch him or her do some small stunt: “Look at me! Look at what I can do! ” When an adult has the same attitude, it becomes an affront to the incomparable greatness of God and what he can do.
The other extreme we must guard against is the opposite of this, the mindset of despair, thinking that we are meaningless puppets or robots, that there is no real choice that we can make, that some sort of mindless destiny controls us all. There is as much danger in this attitude or outlook as in the other. Neither extreme is good and both are to be avoided.
“The man who fears God will avoid all extremes” (Eccl. 7:18 NIV).
In between these two extremes lies the middle ground where we acknowledge our extraordinary power to choose our own destiny–eternity with God or apart from him–but also recognizing that this power of initiative we have is derived from the more fundamental power of God to act on his own. He is always the first and highest or deepest, most fundamental initiator.
But just because the wise viewpoint is the middle ground between two extremes does not mean that we can choose not to choose, that is, not to make a definite decision to surrender to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and still expect for things to go well with our soul. Jesus himself took away this possibility from us:
“He who is not with me is against me” (Mt. 12:30 NIV).
“Because you are lukewarm–neither hot nor cold–I am about to spit you out of my mouth” (Rev. 3:16 NIV).
All human beings are born with a sinful nature that is against God. “I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me” (Ps. 51:5 NIV). Because a holy God cannot tolerate sin in his presence, his just wrath abides on sinful man. If something is not done about this, there is no hope for any of us. What are we to do, then? What can we do? We can do nothing. But what we cannot do God has already done through the sacrifice of his Son Jesus Christ upon the cross. Through that sacrifice, our sinful nature has been put to death and new life in Christ has arisen (Rom. 6:4,5).
But that is true only for believers in Christ. The new life in Christ is not automatically imposed upon all. It must be appropriated through faith, and “not all have faith” (2 Ths. 3:2 RSV). Therefore, not all have the new life in Christ that is available to them.
First John 2:2 says that Jesus “is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.” God, in Christ, took the initiative and saved the whole world. This is good news. The whole world is thus saved–right? Well, why then does the Bible speak so often of many more going to hell than to heaven? Because there is something that we must do to make this salvation earned for us by Jesus to be active in our being: We must believe that he is our Savior from our sins; we must have faith.
Jesus is our deliverer from our slavery to sin into which we were born as human beings. When God delivered his people from slavery in Egypt, all were delivered. But after being set free, some did not accept that deliverance as being from him. They made, of all things, “an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool. Then they said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt'” (Ex. 32:4 NIV).
So what was God’s response to their initiative of making an idol? He destroyed those whom he had already saved.
“Though you already know all this, I want to remind you that the Lord delivered his people out of Egypt, but later destroyed those who did not believe” (Jude 5 NIV).
Faith is required to be saved. “Without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him” (Heb. 11:6 NIV).
Seeking involves initiative. One who seeks takes it upon himself or herself to seek out someone or some thing. God honors such initiative when that being sought is himself. Once again, we remind ourselves that such human initiative is secondary, however. Jesus is the Good Shepherd who actually seeks out the lost sheep (Lk. 19:10). But after that initial divine act, God expects and honors those who seek him. He first seeks us, then we seek him. In other words, that divine action needs to find a home in our hearts; otherwise, it is all just noble ideals and not actual reality in our hearts.
The question then becomes not, “Has God done all he could to save us?” but “Have I taken hold of what he has already provided for me in his Son?” Is my salvation theoretical or real? It all depends upon how real my seeking of God is.
“You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart” (Jer. 29:13 NIV).
That is true initiative and it is initiative that is well within our grasp to undertake.
“Turn to the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.
11 Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach.
12 It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, ‘Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?’
13 Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, ‘Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?’
14 No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.
15 See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction.
16 For I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in his ways, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess.
17 But if your heart turns away and you are not obedient, and if you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and worship them,
18 I declare to you this day that you will certainly be destroyed. You will not live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.
19 This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live” (Dt. 30:10-19 NIV).
God wants and even demands us to initiate a seeking after him. And those who do so can do so with no fear that he or she will be turned away. “Whoever comes to me I will never drive away” (Jn. 6:37 NIV).
So, the question remains, then, have I truly sought God with all my heart and laid hold of that which he has already freely provided for me? Have I taken the initiative of seeking after God with all my heart and all my soul and all my strength? This is the supreme question of our time, for the time is swiftly approaching when we will have no more time, no more chance for initiative; rather, what we initiated earlier in our life will determine forever our place in God’s supreme initiative of coming to earth in human flesh in Jesus Christ, to save us. As the time of his second coming is close at hand, so too is the last moment for any initiative by our hand to accept him as Savior and Lord. And then will come that last initiative, when the Father installs the Son over all.
“Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury, saying, ‘I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill. . . . I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. You shall break them with a rod of iron, and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.’ Now therefore, . . . be wise; be warned. . . . Serve the Lord with fear, with trembling kiss his feet, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way; for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him” (Ps. 2:5,6,8-12 NIV).
“While they went to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast; and the door was shut. Afterward the other maidens came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’ Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour” (Mt. 25:10-13 NIV).
“As God’s fellow workers we urge you not to receive God’s grace in vain. For he says, ‘In the time of my favor I heard you, and in the day of salvation I helped you.’ I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 6:1,2 NIV).