This entry in the series “Things the Bible Doesn’t Say” is a recommendation from a pastor friend of mine. I imagine you have heard this phrase numerous times whether you’re involved in a church or not. ”Let go and let God” has become one of the American Church’s favorites, somewhere between a proverb and a cliche.
Every culture has its proverbs and its cliches. Proverbs are short, catchy vehicles for some bit of wisdom. What is important to understand is that proverbs, whether cultural and/or biblical, are not necessarily promises or truths that are relevant to every situation. Some are intended to be. Some are not. For instance, is it better late than never or does slow and steady win the race? Yes…depending on what the life situation is your are talking about. As we’ve seen with some of the other “things the Bible doesn’t say,” there tends to be an element of godly wisdom/truth in many of our American Christian proverbs. Problems arise when we try to make them into something they are not: an entire philosophy of life wrapped up in 12 words or less.
Which brings us to “Let go and let God.” What is the good, solid, Gospel wisdom behind this pithy aphorism? Well, I actually think there is Gospel right at the heart of it. The Gospel (“Good News”) has many dimensions and can be expressed in a variety of ways. But one of the keys to the Gospel is that it is something that God has done before it is something we do. It is God who allowed an aged Sarah to give birth to the child of promise, God who liberated the Hebrew slaves from Egypt, God who fights his people’s battles for them, God who delivers Judah from the hands of the Assyrians, God who enters into the world and delivers people from sin, God who raised Jesus from the dead, and God who is making all things new. The list goes on and on.
In fact, you could point to story after story in the Scriptures where the whole point is that if we try to do things our way in our timing with our strength, we act futilely. Think of Abraham and Sarah enlisting Hagar to bear the child God promised, and God’s rejection of that plan. Think of the sound defeat of the Hebrew army when they presume to go into battle without Yahweh. Think of God’s rejection of Saul as king because he took matters into his own hands. Think of Paul’s wonderful words, “it is by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not of your own doing; it is the gift of God.”
So, might “Let go and let God” be a really helpful reminder? Absolutely. People who are striving for blessing instead of receiving God’s gift must let go of their preoccupation with earning and let God give them the gift of salvation. People who think that they need to reach some standard to earn God’s love need to let go of their lone-ranger efforts and let God bring transformation into their hearts. People who are clinging to certain ways of thinking and doing need to let go of their own ideas and let God guide them onto the Way of Christ.
Here’s the “but.” But “Let go and let God” is not all there is to the Christian life. As James reminds us, “Faith without works is dead.” When Jesus teaches us how to love him, he speaks of obedience. When people ask Peter on Pentecost, “What must we do to be saved?” Peter does not answer, “Let go and let God.” He answers, “Repent and be baptized…”
As Dallas Willard has helpfully pointed out, there is a difference between earning and effort. Earning is non-Gospel. Effort is active participation in the new life of Christ. There is also a difference between doing our things and responding to God. Doing things on our own is non-Christian. Responding to God’s call is the work of Christian discipleship. In order to be helpful, the one who encourages another to “Let go and let God” must wisely discern if the situation is appropriate. Let me finish by giving a little more concreteness to where “Let go and let God” will probably not be appropriate theologically or practically:
- If someone is wrestling with something the Spirit has laid on their heart to do (think the rich man asked to give up all his possessions and follow Jesus). In our culture, “Let go” may well imply passivity, whereas we dare not sit back “in God’s grace” and ignore some way we have been called to actively obey his commands.
- Similarly, (it should go without saying) “Let go and let God” can be a pretty awful approach to the mission of the Church. ”Let go and let God…” …feed the hungry? bring the Gospel to remote parts of the world? seek justice? sit with the one who is grieving? I don’t think so.
- If someone is dealing with grief. In fact, most pithy proverbs are utterly unhelpful in grief situations. It is nearly impossible to simply “let go” of emotions. It may not even be a good thing to begin with. We often need to sit in our grief, loss, and disorientation until God meets us there and leads us on the path out. In this case, it’s often the “comforter” who needs to “Let go and let God” bring deep healing and comfort to the person in grief while simply being present and available.
- If it means sitting on the couch and watching The Bachelorette ”Letting go” doesn’t mean “do nothing.” It is an active process of bringing whatever it is we need to let go of before the Lord. There is a direction to our “let go.” As Peter exhorts, “Cast all your anxiety on [God] because he cares for you.” To “let go” of things that need to be let go of takes supernatural strength sometimes. Addictions, anxieties, and sinful patterns rarely can just be “let go.” ”Waiting on the Lord” is not passive. It is a difficult movement–empowered by the Spirit–towards God, towards God’s Community, towards practices that form us into Christ-likeness
One of my favorite TV shows is Project Runway (yeah, I said it). The designers focus on making a cool garment, and then they are availed of an “accessory wall” with shoes, jewelry, etc. Tim Gunn, the designers’ “mentor,” always encourages them to “use the accessory wall…thoughtfully.” Such is the case with proverbs. “Let go and let God” can be a helpful encouragement…at times. But use phrases like this…thoughtfully. Know what they mean, when they apply, when they come up short, and when something more personal or nuanced might be better suited. And just remember, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Am I right?