The Sunday school classes have generated a great deal of questions around the issue of human and divine causality. My hope was to explain why the statement "God can do anything" is true, but if not understood properly it becomes a barrier to ministry. As theology it is core truth, as a 'slogan' it is misued to disobey God, to generate inactivity, to deny the scriptural understanding of church and to create many of the problems we see around us.
Perhaps this is expressed in juxtaposing two Scriptures.
Psalm 127 is a wonderful expression faith in God the Source.
"If the Lord does not build the house, in vain do its builders labor on it.
If the Lord does not watch over a town, in vain does the watchman look out.
In vain you rise early, sit late, eaters of misery's bread. so much He gives His loved ones in sleep."
The message is clear, trust God and He will take care of it. However, these verses from Haggai 1 provides another stream of revelation.
"[The word of the Lord] Is it time for you to dwell in paneled houses, while this House (Temple) is lying in ruins?... Go up to the hills and get timber, and rebuild the House, then I will look on it with favor and I will be glorified... You have been expecting much and getting little...Because of my house which lies in ruins, while you hurry to your own houses."
Whatever it may means to say "the Lord builds the house," it does not mean that human labor is unneeded. Does this mean that God needed human beings to build the Temple? No, but.... Could God not have created the Temple out of thin air? The answer appears to be yes, but no. Yes, God could have created and generated the Temple out of thin air. No, God does not work that way in the world. He accomplishes His goals through humans. In the end, it all depends on what the meaning of "needs" is. Ultimately God does not need us, period. However, in the world as He created it, a world where humans have dominion and autonomy, a world where God (a pure spirit) works in and through created, material reality, there is a sense in which one can say, "God has created a world where He needs us." For some this is unimaginable blasphemy, for others it is a theological insight into the incarnation.
How does "God build the house"? Apparently, Solomon and assorted others were key players in building the first Temple. Humans cut, drug, piled, hammered, and did all the grunt work. Was God at work building the Temple? Yes! But in and through them, not alongside them or in place of them. He didn't finish up the day's work while they slept. There was no 50-50. It was all provided by God, 100% and it was all done by humans 100% Therein lies the mystery!
In the early church, the incarnation of God the Son was the subject of much debate and discussion. In the end they said, "Yes Jesus is human, but not only human. Yes Jesus is God, but not only God. No Jesus is not a mix of God and Human, He is both, totally and completely human and totally and completely God." I think this is vital for understanding our roles as "the Body of Christ," "apostles sent by Jesus," "Ambassadors of God" or whatever other term one wants to use. Perhaps this illustration will help.
What is 1 + 1 ? 2! What is 24 + 37? 61! Basic math, pretty simple.
What is 23 + Red? what is it? well, unless we change the meaning of Red into a number, or 23 into a color, the answer is "you cannot add 23 to red."
What is red plus yellow? Orange. What is blue plus yellow. Green. So although you cannot add a number and a color, you can add two colors.
The reason is because they are of the same kind of thing. When we talk about God, we can forget this. We are creatures. He is creator. He is not another thing like us. He is above and beyond us in "inapproachable light"! As far as East is from West, so far is He from us. So to go back to our number analogy, What is 87 plus infinity? what is 16 plus infinity? what is one million plus infinity? When we talk about God we cannot give Him a number, like He is one of us (even a really big number). God is infinity. He transcends numbers. So when we talk about God working "with" us, "helping" us, "being alongside" us---all those words are trying to express the mystery of infinity in the midst of finitude. They are analogies or similes or metaphors for something which we cannot fully express in human language.
God is God. He is the Creator, the Source and Ground of everything. Without Him there is nothing. However, He created and this creation is real and it exists. It follows the rules He created. There are processes in place which occur naturally. He doesn't have to create rain or store up lightning to make a storm. It happens on its own (except everything depends on Him for its being). Life is not an algebraic equation where one of the variables is God. God is the source of everything, but He is outside of it.
This is why the workers sweat over building the Temple and fell into bed each night exhausted by their labors. There were times when they sense God with them, other times maybe not. It doesn't matter. They built the house, but so did God. They did 100% of the work. So did God.
God is the ultimate cause of everything. "All things were made through Him, and without Him was not anything made that was made." (ESV John 1:3) However, God exists outside of time and space, He is not a creature, so He must enter time and space (whatever that means) to interact with creatures. Hence, the mediated presence (or incarnation) of God is a fundamental principle of orthodox Christianity. Divine revelation is in human words. Theophanies look like fire, lightning, and clouds, and sound like thunder or roaring waters. God's ministry is through human instruments (Moses, prophets, Jesus, the apostles). So when He acts in the world the typical mode of action is in and through humans.
2 Corinthians 4:7 "But we have this treasure in clay jars (vessels made of the earth---see Genesis 2) so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belong to God and does not come from us."
Humans cannot make "it" happen (it being salvation, healing, transformation). That is the work of God. However, humans can and do preach, teach, pray, declare, etc. and thereby serve as the tools. That is the (God-given) work of humans. Genesis says that humans have dominion on the earth. And throughout salvation history the work of God is (to the horror of Gnostics!) seen IN and THROUGH creation; a sacramental manifestation which is frequently dependent upon human activity--not because God cannot do it on His own, but because God has chosen to construct a world which operates in that manner.
So the failure of Christians to be faithful in their vocation as the Body of Christ is not an act of faith but an act of deceit (because The Father and Lord Jesus trusted us and we hide behind pious words to deny it), an act of disobedience (Jesus sent us but we didn't go), an act of unbelief (He gave us the Spirit and power of His Name, and we act as though He didn't)---and it has severe impact on the life and salvation of those whom we were sent to serve (as earthen vessels carrying His extraordinary power). If a parent does not feed a baby God entrusted to their care, the child dies; likewise, if a church does not do the work entrusted to it then manifestation of the LOVE of God and the MERCY of God and the GOODNESS of God and God's saving work are diminished. I do not know why God would limit Himself in the world like this. I do not understand His faith in us at all. But the Bible makes clear over and again, "God said, "I have seen and heard and know their troubles, I have remembered my promises, I have come down to save them---I send you!"
Our mission is God-given. It all depends on God as the sole Source of Salvation. God alone is God. God sends us. As Mary once said, "Do whatever He tells you." He has spoken. Clearly.