This is ultimately a question about the tension between God’s sovereignty and our actions. It would seem that if all things are from God, then our actions and free will either don’t’ matter or don’t exist. But if our free will and individual actions do play a role, what does that say about God being in charge all the time?
First off, does everything I have really come from God?
Well, all the good things you have come from God, and this applies to spiritual and the material. For the sake of this conversation, we are talking about the material, but the spiritual is very important too.
James 1:17-18 says:
17 Everything good comes from God. Every perfect gift is from him. These good gifts come down from the Father who made all the lights in the sky. But God never changes like the shadows from those lights. He is always the same. 18 God decided to give us life through the true message he sent to us. He wanted us to be the most important of all that he created.
In Genesis 1 we see that God creates the world, and after each thing he makes he says that it is good. Then, when he finishes making all things, including people, he looks at all he has made and says ‘it is very good.’ In a nutshell, every material thing we have comes from a good and orderly natural world.
Even if we work very hard to make money to buy a thing, or if we make a thing ourselves, the original materials of that ‘thing’ will always trace back to its original maker: the Lord. The food that we eat – the thing that we deeply need for basic survival but most of us take for granted – comes from the earth that the Lord has made. It may have been sown, cultivated, harvested, transported and sold by people, but it’s maker is the Lord. Likewise, the medicine we take when we’re ill does ultimately trace back to the natural world, and is researched and developed by people whom God gifted with wonderful brains and the ability to work.
In short, if we truly believe that God is sovereign and God is good, then every good thing we have does indeed trace back to him, even though it is stewarded and cultivated by people.
But God does not set the world up like clockwork and then step away for it to sustain itself while we use it to cultivate things that we need or want. Rather, we see in Psalm 65:9-13 that God continues to sustain the natural world through himself:
9 You take care of the land.
You water it and make it fertile.
Your streams are always filled with water.
That’s how you make the crops grow.
10 You pour rain on the ploughed fields;
you soak the fields with water.
You make the ground soft with rain,
and you make the young plants grow.
11 You start the new year with a good harvest.
You end the year with many crops.
12 The desert and hills are covered with grass.
13 The pastures are covered with sheep.
The valleys are filled with grain.
Everything is singing and shouting for joy.
I would suggest that our stewardship of the earth and God’s supremacy are not a zero-sum game, largely because we too were made by him, but also because we are guided and nourished by him, even when we do not realise it.
But what about the stuff that I clearly made, and I clearly worked for?
So, this is where we end up with an interesting tension. While all things are created by and sustained by God, it is people who build cities, generate economies, set up businesses, create artwork and make babies. This does not do away with God’s supremacy over the earth, but it does say something interesting about the unique gifts God has given people.
In Genesis 1:26-31, it says:
26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
27 So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
28 And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” 29 And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. 30 And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. 31 And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.
Being made in the image of a Creator-God means that we ourselves are creative. When we work, we are making things; be it software for communication, clothes for wearing, food for eating, medicine for healing, or art for enjoying. Or we are providing service for another person, be it driving a train for commuters or cleaning a house for someone. All honest work is good. Creativity is good. Cultivating the natural world to make things for survival and beauty are good. The only times when this is not good is when it causes harm or oppression to other people or other parts of the natural world, but we’ll get to that.
The point is that God did make us to cultivate and steward the natural world, and although the fall meant that work became hard, tiresome, and even destructive, it does not mean that labour itself is bad or unnecessary. In fact, Paul says in 2 Thessalonians 3:6-12:
6 Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us. 7 For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, 8 nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with toil and labour we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. 9 It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate. 10 For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. 11 For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. 12 Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.
But what about the poor and the sick?
I firmly believe that poverty and social injustice are not part of God’ plan for human flourishing. God provided abundance in Eden, and he promises abundance in the New Creation. We currently live in between those two events, and the fact that there is any suffering in the world right now is due to the fallenness of creation, which traces back to human sin.
On sickness: in most cases, most illnesses come about due to the overall fallenness of our broken world, and are not the fault of any living individual, but rather the cosmic consequence of Adam and Eve disobeying God’s instruction and wanting to redefine Good and Evil on their own terms. However, there are also some sicknesses that can literally come about from specific individual sins (i.e. some diseases come about due to obesity or drug-abuse, which traces back to the sin of gluttony). Some other sicknesses that affect one person may be traced back to the sins of others (i.e. some STIs originate from someone having sex with an animal, and then passing it on to the next person they sleep with. Likewise, it is arguable that Covid-19 came about due to mankind’s abuse of the natural world, which is clearly a sin.) Whether someone is sick due to their own lifestyle choices, or due to their genetics, or the pollution in their city, or the pesticides on the food they eat, or simply because biology sometimes goes wrong in a fallen world, ultimately it traces back to some kind of sin. The good news of course, is that God is in the business of bringing about healing for all people; sometimes through miracles, sometimes through advancements in medicine. And, in the New Creation depicted in Revelation 21-22, we are promised there will be no more pain, and some trees will bring healing for the nations. The frustrating part, of course, is that we are still waiting for this to happen, and in the meantime, we cry out to God to either heal us if he is willing, or to show us the power of human weakness and dependency on him if he chooses not to. The point is that sickness comes from sin, not from God, and God is using a variety of means (including people) to eradicate sickness once and for all.
On systemic poverty and social injustice: this too ultimately traces back to the sins of oppression and greed. While Jesus often warns the comfortable and the wealthy to not be ensnared by the love of money, I do not believe that poverty is a good thing at all. The Old Testament model required the people of God to each have an equal share in the promised land, according to their tribes, and every seven years debt would be wiped away so that any accumulated wealth would be redistributed to those who had fallen on hard times. The Jubilee Centre in Cambridge have some interesting teaching on this topic. While I don’t have time to go too far into this, I will say that I firmly believe there is more than enough earthly resource to sustain the human population. The problem is that those of us on the top of the socio-economic scale tend to fall into the sin of greed, which fuels protectionism and inhibits generosity. As a white South African, I have to acknowledge that many of my luxuries came at the expense of others; my privilege that comes directly from oppression is not from God, and as a privileged person who cares about my neighbour, it is my duty to work towards dismantling systems of oppression and injustice. Tearfund and Compassion are great organisations to partner with if you would like to consider doing that. Livejust.ly has a good theological resource to help explore these themes further.
This has deviated slightly from my main point, but I will reiterate again that the suffering of humanity and the earth does not impede God’s goodness or his sovereignty. Rather, it traces back to human sin, and God is currently in the business of making all things new, using us and our work in the process. Moreover, for those of us who are able-bodied and in positions of privilege, it is worth distinguishing between the things we have that are good which come from God and the things that are the direct or indirect result of oppression and injustice.
Well, it’s very easy for someone in ministry to say that all we have comes from God because they’re relying on the support of others… what about those who work normal jobs?
While ministry is a noble and challenging calling, not everybody is called to it as a full-time vocation. Indeed, we are all part of the priesthood of believers, but not all of us do this as a full-time job.
I would argue that people in ministry have an opportunity to live a life that shows them the reality of God’s sovereignty over all our lives, and the people who have secular jobs have the opportunity to live a life that shows them the beauty of work done by creative beings made in God’s image. Both are true, and both lifestyles reveal good things. The challenge then, is to realise which camp you are called to, and to pay attention to the truth that is less obvious to your calling and your lifestyle.
People in ministry can sometimes find it hard to see the direct correlation between their hard work and putting food on the table, because the nature of their support means that their income depends on God’s provision, no matter how hard they work. This way of living provides an excellent way of realising for oneself just how dependant we are on our ultimate provider and sustainer. However, the dark side of this can be that it is easy to forget the middle man; the people who have worked very hard in business or other work who regularly give money to sustain the ministry. If we say it all comes from God without acknowledging that our provision was costly to someone else, we risk degrading dignity of the people who God used to give us that money. Relationship here is key: if we say ‘hallelujah God provided again!’ without also saying ‘thank you’ to the person who God used for that provision, we risk devaluing the importance of their hard work and their generosity. This in turn can cause a lot of hurt and become a stumbling block for people who are thinking about giving. This is not about bolstering egos so that givers can feel better about themselves; this is about recognising that (most of the time) God choses to provide finances through people. Realising the beauty and value of the ones who are made in God’s image, as well as dignity of their vocation, is vitally important for all spheres of ministry.
On the flip side, those of us who have steady jobs tend to find it really easy to see the value and dignity of hard work. There are obviously exceptions for people who are ill, disabled, retired and the like, but overall if you know that if you spend your life saying ‘God will provide’ without applying for a job, you’re likely to go hungry (and/or live off a welfare state or charity if those things are available to you).
Proverbs 24:33-34 says,
33 A little sleep, a little slumber,
a little folding of the hands to rest—
34 and poverty will come on you like a thief
and scarcity like an armed man.
But of course, the flip side of working a steady job is that it is very hard to remind yourself that God is completely sovereign over your ordinary existence. Your hard work doesn’t make God’s supremacy less true; it simply makes it harder to see this truth in your every-day life. Therefore, while those in ministry are challenged to remember the value and beauty of secular work, those who are in secular jobs are challenged to take up regular practises that remind their hearts and bodies that they are not totally in control of their lives. One of the best things you can do to help your mind and your body realise this truth is to take up the practise of regular fasting.** This serves a variety of purposes, but one helpful thing it has done for me is that it has brought my body and soul into alignment with this truth: that I am ultimately dependent on and sustained by something outside of myself. In short, it helps me get over my own self-absorption and realise that I am less autonomous than I think I am. Another important practise is giving away some of your money, because it dilutes your self-sufficiency, helping you remember that all your material provision ultimately traces back to your creator.***
One final point I will make on the topic of work, is that I’ve been thinking recently that gardening and farming may be the perfect jobs that combine these two extremes. On the one hand, it is much easier to recognise that you depend on a Sovereign Being outside of yourself because your work depends on the weather, the seasons, and the overall natural order of things. Recognising that God made all this is much easier for someone in that vocation than it is for someone who lives in a large city built by human hands. The key may be proximity to nature or ‘the wild.’ You feel less in control of everything, and the myth of self-sufficiency dissolves pretty quickly. On the other hand, it is also much easier to value the dignity of honest hard work, because if you don’t cultivate the ground and plant the seed, there will be nothing left for you to harvest and live off! I wonder if more of us ought to be getting back in touch with nature and supporting creation-care charities so we can connect more with God through the natural world? Worth a thought.
So, to summarise: yes. Everything you have (that is good) comes from God. This is because he is our ultimate maker and sustainer. However, this does not do away with the importance of work. While poverty and social injustices are tragedies that come about from human sin, this does not do away with the steadfast fact that all our good provision does indeed trace back to God. Those who work in ministry tend to see this more clearly in their lives because they live by faith for their finances, but sometimes they struggle to acknowledge the dignity of their parishioner’s secular vocations and the value of these image-bearing people in God’s process of provision. Likewise, those in such secular vocations may see very clearly the importance of hard work for their own material provision, but they may struggle to see evidence of God’s sovereignty in their everyday material provision. Spiritual disciplines such as fasting and giving can help curb this. I personally would like to get closer to the earth by living in the countryside and growing my own food, because I think it may help me strike a balance between those two.
In short, God’s sovereignty and our agency are not a zero-sum game. Both are vital to human flourishing, and different life-callings can reveal different aspects of this multi-faceted truth.
*This is a huge generalisation. Obviously people in ministry can still see their own hard work being good and important, and people with ‘secular’ jobs can see God’s sovereignty in their lives. But the point is that it is easier for people living by faith for their income to see God’s provision than it is for people who work a steady job. Likewise, many people I know who work steady jobs tend to struggle to see how their pay-check comes from God and not themselves.
** Bridgetown church does a four-part teaching series on fasting, which I highly recommend: https://bridgetown.church/series/fasting/. Richard Foster also has an excellent book called The Celebration of Discipline, which includes a very informative and helpful chapter on fasting.
*** There is lots of debate on how much we should give and to whom. The Old testament model is to give away an average of 23.33% each year. Each year 10% would go to the Levitical priests, 10% would go to the poor, and then every third year an extra 10% would go towards a large feast that was supposed to be put on for the Levitical priests and the poor. The early church in the New Testament dismantled this model, partly due to grace trumping the law, partly because this law was only for Jews and non-Jews are now allowed to be followers of Jesus, and partly because they believed that Jesus was coming back in their lifetime. Therefore they decided to give 100% and redistribute the resources equally, which is often seen as a proto-communist model. However, we are now living 2000 years later; Jesus has not yet returned, that model in both religious and secular contexts has proven to not work sustainably in the long term, and those of us in the West live do have a welfare state, which contributes (albeit imperfectly) towards helping the poor, the sick and the retired. Therefore, my recommendation would be to follow Paul’s advice in Corinthians 9:7, which is, ‘each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.’ A good place to start for someone on a middle income is 10%, but that should never be done out of a spirit of legalism, and if you find that easy then more is even better! Those with a much higher income and/or those without dependants like children might want to consider giving more, since 10% is unlikely to make a serious dent in your life, and you might still struggle to align yourself with the truth of God’s sovereignty. On financial giving in general, I recommend this very helpful (and non-legalistic!) podcast: https://bibleproject.com/podcast/story-god-money
Other Helpful Resources:
A short video on humans being unique and creative creatures who are made in God’s image: https://bibleproject.com/explore/video/image-of-god/
A short video on God creating the heavens and the earth: https://bibleproject.com/explore/video/heaven-and-earth/