Prayer and works - how to know which one to do when

This is a concept I used to grapple with, and still do: the question of when it's important to pray, and when it's important to do works.

Ideally one would do both.

Still though, there are times in the Bible where it has been made clear that one or the other is more necessary, depending on what the situation was at the time. One of the clearest examples is when Jesus was arrested in the garden of Gethsemane. Prior to that, he had been praying. He had even asked his disciples to pray, but they were tired and fell asleep.

When the soldiers came to arrest Jesus, Peter immediately acted, but not in a way that Jesus wanted. Peter cut off the ear of one of the soldiers with a sword. Although from Peter's point of view he was defending Jesus, it was not something that was necessary. Let's read the passage:

Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “The one I will kiss is the man; arrest him.” At once he came up to Jesus and said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” and kissed him. Jesus said to him, “Friend, do what you are here to do.” Then they came and laid hands on Jesus and arrested him. Suddenly, one of those with Jesus put his hand on his sword, drew it, and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the scriptures be fulfilled, which say it must happen in this way?” At that hour Jesus said to the crowds, “Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a bandit? Day after day I sat in the temple teaching, and you did not arrest me. But all this has taken place, so that the scriptures of the prophets may be fulfilled.” Then all the disciples deserted him and fled.

Matthew 26: 48-56


In this situation, Peter had tried to move in the physical dimension (cutting off the soldier's ear) when what was needed more was movement in the spiritual dimension.

In hindsight, which is always 20/20, Peter could have prayed for spiritual strength for himself and for the ability to resist temptation. The events (of Jesus's arrest and impending death) were coming to pass as had been prophesied, although Peter wasn't aware of this. To be fair, I don't think any of us would have done any better in his place either. So Peter moved in the physical dimension, whereas really at this point moving in the spiritual dimension (praying for strength and fortitude) would have been better.

In other words, moving in the physical dimension is like moving in the x-y plane, while moving in the spiritual dimension (praying) is like moving in the z plane. Yes, both are important overall, but depending on where you are and what is going on, one or the other type of movement might be more necessary.

For example, if you are dealing with something where spiritual intervention is absolutely needed, then you can move all you want in the x-y plane doing good works, but that won't affect the situation. Moving in the z plane (praying) is the only way you might be able to impact the situation. Prayer is incredibly powerful (read my separate post on the power of prayer). Prayer can result in happenings in the x-y even though it moves in the z. These happenings are through God, not from ourselves.

Of course, this is not to say that we should ignore situations where we could do good works. There are certainly times when we are expected by God to move in the x-y.

The challenge is determining the instances where we need to move in the x-y (good works), and those where we need to move in the z (prayer).

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