Throughout the gospel accounts, Jesus tells us that good works are an essential demonstration of faith. Good trees cannot bear bad fruit, and every branch that is connected to the True Vine will bear fruit. We know that bearing fruit involves a process of pruning, transforming all those things that get in the way of our faithfulness to God’s leading. In ways both small and dramatic, our lives must change substantially before we are ready to bear fruit worthy of repentance.
But what does this process look like? As a people who trust in the immediate guidance of the Holy Spirit, we face a tension in our faith: On the one hand, we are responsible to act in ways that bear the fruit of repentance and righteousness. Yet at the same time we recognize that we can accomplish nothing lasting without the grace and inspiration of the Spirit. We are called to usher in the Kingdom of God on earth, but we are ultimately incapable of inaugurating this Kingdom through our own efforts.
As Quakers, our emphasis has long been on the quietistic, passive side of faith. By stripping away our own thoughts, ambitions, rituals and programs, we have sought to be radically open to the moment-by-moment inspiration of the Holy Spirit. We embrace a religious culture that downplays human understanding, effort and planning. Sometimes, we border on fatalism: “If it is meant to happen, God will make it happen; there is nothing we can do except to wait on God.”
Of course, it is possible to go too far in the other direction. The excesses of the church growth movement give a good example of how human metrics of success can skew our discernment. It can be easy to identify what “success” looks like – whether growth in membership, fund-raising, entertaining worship services or popularity – and to ignore the gentle nudgings of the Spirit to act in ways that seem “unsuccessful.” We humans have a long track record of preferring our own wisdom to God’s direction.
Seeing these two extremes – quietism on the one side, and a sort of technocratic human wisdom on the other – how can we as Christian communities chart a balanced course? How can we maintain openness and awareness of the continued leading of the Spirit while at the same time acting on the guidance that we have already received? What is the role of our human faculty of reason? Is there such a thing as Spirit-led strategic planning?
We as Quakers are acutely aware of the dangers of placing too much stock in human reasoning. So often, the Spirit acts in ways that surprise us and confound our limited understandings. We know that we need to stay open to the moment-by-moment guidance of Christ in our midst. Yet the Spirit calls us into work that spans years, decades and even generations. God draws us into labor that requires long-range planning and evaluation.
How do we know when we are being faithful? How do we evaluate the fruit that we are bearing as individuals and as communities? The Quietist might respond, “No one but God can judge the fruit of our lives.” The Technocrat, on the other hand, might reply, “We know we are faithful if we develop X number of programs, feed X number of people, or gain X number of new members.” Both of these perspectives offer glimpses of truth, but neither one fully captures the complex reality of how God works in our life together.
As creations of God, we are finite, limited beings. We cannot see the big picture, and we must rely on God’s grace and hidden power to guide us into lives of faithfulness. Yet God also purposefully created our human faculties of reason. God leads us, yes; but God clearly expects us to do our own share of the heavy lifting. God has given us all manner of gifts – including the ability to do strategic, long-term planning – so that we might be the tangible presence of Jesus in the world.
What are the implications of this in your life? Do you tend to lean quietistic, or technocratic? How about your local community – which way does it lean? How might we find a balance together, neither ignoring the inward promptings of the Holy Spirit nor abdicating our own responsibility to ensure that we are bearing fruit worthy of repentance?