Author Greg Koukl
Published on 03/18/2024
Christian Living

Christian Living Is Not a Solitary Enterprise

Greg and Amy consider what it means to do something “in your own strength” and discuss how our efforts balance with God working through us and in the world.


Question: I’ve heard some Christians say that they realized they were doing something “in their own strength” and that this is why something they were doing was wrong or unsuccessful. Is this a biblical concept? It seems difficult to distinguish what proportion of my efforts come from my own strength versus God’s strength at work in me.

Greg: I think that’s a fair question, and I think the concept is confusing. Scripture says anything that’s not of faith is sin, and there it’s speaking specifically. If you are acting in a way that you believe to be wrong, even though it isn’t, you are not acting in faith, and therefore you are violating your conscience, and you’re doing something wrong in virtue of that.

Scripture talks about “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Philippians. In Galatians, Paul says, “I live, yet not I, but Christ who lives in me, and the life I live now I live by faith in the Son of God.” So, there is this sense of cooperation that we have, and, in my view, it is a cooperation. It’s not all of God, none of me. I think that’s an errant understanding of sanctification. And, briefly, the reason I think it’s errant is because we as Christians are told to do lots of things. We are to apply our will and exercise our energy to pursue godliness. Now, if we are told to do that, that’s because, as regenerate people, this is something within our capability, but it’s not a solitary enterprise. That is, God, who is at work with us—in us—both to will and to work for his good pleasure. It’s interesting, that verse in Philippians is preceded by this statement: “Work out your salvation in fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work within you.” So, you have this dual nature of interaction, which I call 100% God and 100% man. In other words, God is 100% responsible for his part of the equation and his responsibilities, and we are 100% responsible for ours. So, we trust God to work on his side while we address the responsibilities that we have.

Now, this phrase, though, that I’m trying to “do it in my own strength,” it’s a common phrase that people offer. I think there are times we try to accomplish something without bringing God consciously into the enterprise, and we’re not saying, “Okay, God. You’ve got to help me with this. You’ve got to accomplish these things through me.”

There’s a piece of advice that was given to me by a leader of a very successful missions organization, a dear man, and it was just a basic encouragement that I read thoughtfully once a week. He encourages me to keep loving like God does. Keep forgiving like he does. Keep caring and protecting and providing as he does. And then, he says, keep praying, and allow God to speak and do what you can’t. All right? Keep praying and allowing the Lord to speak and do what you can’t. Now, I take this “allowing the Lord to speak” to mean that when we’re working with other people, trying to resolve things, there are some things we just can’t do. God has to speak into that circumstance on behalf of that other person. There are other things we can do, and this is meant to keep us from being frustrated. Here’s what you can do, Greg, my friend says. Here’s what you can’t do. And even the things that you do, you can do them because God is helping you to do them.

Now, the helping by God is on God’s side of the equation. I can’t get God to do what God can only do. God’s going to do that. That’s his commitment, but it does change my focus and my sense of wellbeing when I realize my incapability and his capability in the midst of my incapability. We work, but it’s not us. It’s God who works within us. So, we work, trusting God to help us to be the kind of people he’s asked us to be and he’s asked us to try to be. Then, on the other hand, with regards to other people who we can’t change, we can live out our lives towards them in a certain way. We can act towards them in a particular way. And here I think of 1 Peter 3, where he’s actually giving some instruction for relationships. He of sums it up: “And let all be harmonious, sympathetic, brotherly, kindhearted, humble in spirit, not returning evil for evil, but blessing instead.” Wow. That’s pretty good stuff. I actually read that multiple times a week. That’s how I know it, because it’s such an important action guide for us. So, this is in our side. This is our responsibility. And then, as we seek to do those things, we are trusting God to help us to do that. It’s an attitude while we labor on these things, but it is also trusting God for the outcome in others’ lives that we can’t change.

Amy: I agree, Greg, that people use this in kind of strange ways. If somebody says this to you, the best thing to ask would be, “What do you mean?” Because I don’t even think people really know what they mean when they use it a lot of times. They might just mean you’re doing something apart from God. Like, you like mentioned this, Greg. You haven’t brought God into this. You haven’t prayed about it. You haven’t asked for his help. That sort of thing. But I can remember one time, many years ago, when I asked a pastor for help in being more disciplined at—I can’t remember if it was prayer, reading the Bible, or whatever it was—and I was told that I was trying to do something in my own strength. In other words, the pastor was calling discipline “doing something in your own strength,” which I think is completely wrong. We’re clearly supposed to discipline ourselves for godliness. The Bible’s very clear about this.

So, somebody could be using it in that way, and that’s illegitimate. It’s not about discipline. But even beyond this, I’ve been trying to think if there’s any place in the New Testament where somebody’s plans fail because they were doing something in their own strength, and I can’t think of any place there where that’s ever mentioned or talked about or anything. So, it’s almost difficult to believe that I, as a Christian with the indwelling Holy Spirit, can do anything in my own strength. Everything I do, for God especially, will be done in the strength of the Holy Spirit, who’s praying for me, even when I don’t have the words to pray.

So, I’m not sure exactly, since this concept doesn’t really come from the Bible. I’m not sure what people mean or how legitimate it is. I think it just depends on how they’re using it and what they’re trying to tell you to do, because if they’re just telling you that you need to pray and ask for God’s help and seek the help of his other followers and all those sorts of things, then, yes, I agree with that. So, you probably just have to drill down a little more to find out what they mean by that concept.

Greg: I think what you’re speaking of at this point, now, is a type of focus, and this is what my friend was encouraging me in. He gave me behavior encouragements—keep forgiving, keep loving, keep caring, keep protecting, keep providing. In other words, whatever else is happening here, you have a responsibility in the circumstance you find yourself in. Keep doing those things. That’s obedience. But at the same time, keep trusting, praying, and allowing, in a certain sense—it’s an odd word, because we don’t have to give God permission, and it isn’t like we’re getting in the way of God. This is the way people talk, sometimes, that I don’t think is biblically sound, but the point is, it’s a reminder. There are some things that I cannot accomplish and only God can do.