Faith: Active and Passive Voices


If you’ll forgive the grammatical terms, I’ve been living lately in the tension between faith lived in the passive voice and expressed in the active voice. Everywhere I turn, whether in my prayer life, the life of service, my preaching, or in thinking about our church’s mission, the tension between the two voices reveals itself and challenges me. As tempting as it is to believe that reality is one way or other, and that either God does all the work or leaves it all to us, I am learning to speak in the truthful tones of both the passive and active voices.

Faith in the Passive Voice

On one hand, our faith is the result of God working in us. It comes as a result of God breaking into the world with a revelation, the imposition of the divine into exposition. By the Spirit, God sustains and extends the work of the initial revelation, sending the Word to us that brings conviction, hope, and the word that recreates us, just as it is working towards the recreation of the world. As that Word does its work in us, we are drawn into the story of God, formed into the image of Jesus, and are utilized in God’s redemptive mission for the world.

But enough with vagaries—this really does mean stuff in the actual world. It means that when I pray, I depend on the work of God’s spirit. If I grow through prayer, it is not because of some automatic exchange, as though I followed a formula and that just yielded a spiritual result. When I serve my neighbor, I believe that the Lord is at work in the service, that God’s spirit will work in me to create a servants heart.  When I preach, I speak believing that the Lord will speak through the sermon, that God is at work in the text and in the act of the sermon, that people may, by the work of the spirit, hear a word from the Lord. When we think about the church’s mission, we are really talking about the Lord’s mission, and discerning what God is doing through and in the Church.

Faith in Active Voice

But on the other hand, I believe that there is a very real sense in which we choose to join God and participate in his working, or not. We actually have to take on activity, we really become agents in God’s work. I actually do take physical action, string words together, and place myself in contexts in which I believe God will work.

Though it will be the Lord who makes the prayer effectual, we still pray. Though the Lord will be the one who uses service to refine us, we still choose to serve, and we still work hard while we’re doing it. Though the Lord speaks through the sermon, I still have to work hard to develop and deliver it. Though it is the Lord that is at work in the church’s ministry, the church must choose to join the Lord, must choose to participate in God’s mission or to pursue its own.

Ultimately, the tension between the two is real, but not destructive. We have to learn to speak in both voices. The passive voice of faith reminds me that I am not all on my own, that is not all up to me. However, there is also an active voice of faith, one that may never speak on its own, without being coupled with a passive voice, but which is still essential to how God’s purposes become fulfilled in the world. God chooses to work with us, to partner with us, and we must choose as well.