“God’s got my back. But I’ve got my front.” A Manna House guest was explaining to me his approach to life.
“I’m getting old. I can’t be catting around like I used to. I gotta find a regular place I can call my own.”
“How long have you been out on the streets?” I asked him.
“Ten years more or less. Here and there. Sometimes I’ve had a place, but never as steady as I’d like.”
“What’s kept you out here?”
“I can’t seem to keep a job. I don’t know. I get anxious. I wander off. Something in me isn’t quite right. I’m on medication now. That helps. But for years it was just me.”
“What do you mean by ‘God’s got my back. But I’ve got my front’?
“I’ve got to take care of my own business, but God makes sure I make it through.”
I spent last week at Bethel University teaching in the Program of Alternative Studies of Memphis Theological Seminary. This program is for persons who are seeking ordination in the Cumberland Presbyterian Church but for one reason or another cannot pursue a seminary degree. I taught a class called “Spirituality and Social Justice.”
Part of our discussion was about the spiritual foundation that inspires and sustains our seeking justice and being engaged in the work for justice. So we read together from the Cumberland Presbyterian Confession of Faith, looking for spiritual resources for commitment to the long haul struggle for justice. We came across this statement:
“As believers continue to partake of God’s covenant of grace, to live in the covenant community, and to serve God in the world, they are able to grow in grace and the knowledge of Jesus Christ as Lord. Believers never achieve sinless perfection in this life, but through the ministry of the Holy Spirit they can be progressively conformed to the image of Jesus Christ, thereby growing in faith, hope, love, and other gifts of the Spirit” (Cumberland Presbyterian Confession of Faith, 4.22).
I heard in this theology from the church an echo from the Manna House guest’s theology from the streets. “God’s got my back” or in other words, God “through the ministry of the Holy Spirit” makes it possible for me to “be progressively conformed to the image of Jesus Christ, thereby growing in faith, hope, love, and other gifts of the Spirit.” “But I’ve got my front.” In other words, “As believers continue to partake of God’s covenant of grace… and to serve God in the world, they are able to grow in grace… [but] never achieve sinless perfection in this live.” I have a responsibility to attend to my business, to seek God’s will for love and justice in the world.
I also heard an echo from Thomas Aquinas who said, “grace perfects nature.” God graciously, that is lovingly, works within each of us respecting our human nature, the very human nature that God created. We are called to grow in God’s love and justice, consistent with our nature as human beings.
There is a true humility in this theology of God’s work in our lives. “God’s got my back” recognizes that I am not on my own. I do not make it through this life, I did not even come into this life, without God’s ongoing love. “But I’ve got my front” acknowledges I have a role to play as well. I am not a passive robot or a plaything of God (consider in contrast how the ancient Greek and Roman gods messed with humans). God loves us enough to create room for us to have responsibility to take care of our human business, to seek to live with each other with dignity and justice.
Maya Angelou put it this way, “It is this belief in a power larger than myself and other than myself which allows me to venture into the unknown and even the unknowable.”
Knowing that God’s got my back gives me the hope that love and justice are attainable, are worth struggling for, that as Dr. King said, “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
Knowing that God’s got my back allows me to confess that something in me is not quite right, and I need to face that truth honestly. I need to reach out for help, from God and from others, so we can struggle together for love and justice. Taking care of my own business requires that I acknowledge my responsibility and confess my sin, trusting that God does have my back. God has not abandoned me in this struggle for love and justice. God will make sure I get through. I can rely on God’s grace. Sin and injustice will not be triumphant.