God is in the transformation business—He’s always changing things. He changes caterpillars into butterflies. He changes the seasons. He changes CO2 into food for trees and oxygen for people. He changes the food we eat into energy and replenishment for our cells.
And while it’s true that God does these things through the natural world He has created, we must not miss the point that it is nonetheless still God who is doing them. Paul told an audience of idol worshipers in Lystra that God had “not left Himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; He provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy” (Acts 14:17). The blessings they had received weren’t the result of randomness or good luck—they were the result of God’s activity in their lives.
Paul later told a group of philosophers at Athens that God “is not far from any of us. For in Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:27-28). So the idea that God simply set everything up and now it runs on its own while He is off doing something else isn’t an accurate one. We are to understand that He is intimately involved in our world. He causes the sun to shine, the rain to fall, knows when a sparrow falls to the ground and how many hairs are on our head. We’re not to trivialize this by calling on Him to find us a parking spot or helping our team to win, but we are to have a serious appreciation for His presence and work among us.
So God is at work transforming things and His best work is done with people. He changed some dirt into a man and a rib into a woman. The Bible is one long record of God changing people. He changed Moses from a man who was herding flocks for his father-in-law to someone who would lead the nation of Israel out of Egypt. He took a shepherd boy named David and raised him up as king. He took a persecutor of the church named Saul and transformed him into a missionary to the Gentiles.
But He did none of these things without their cooperation (what the Scripture refers to as faith). God changes the seasons, transforms carbon dioxide and converts food into energy unassisted, but when it comes to humans, He won’t force transformation upon us—we must pursue it with Him through faith. And this can be hard, difficult work (much more than the word “faith” or “cooperation” might on the surface seem to suggest). Paul will speak of working harder than the rest, pressing on, and straining toward. There’s often nothing easy or passive about allowing God to work in our lives. It’s usually more of a roll-up-your-sleeves situation.
All of this begins to (partially) develop the towering truth of what it means to say that God is with us. Though diligence is required on our part, it is His presence and work that brings transformation. This is why Paul will say “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8). Paul will talk about his efforts for Christ and then say that it was “not I, but the grace of God that was with me” (1 Corinthians 15:10). He tells the disciples at Philippi to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill His good purpose” (2:12-13). God is present and working in our lives through faith that won’t give up, give in or let go.