Breathing. Physiologists say it is one of the involuntary actions of the human body. It just happens. We don’t need to learn how to do it—although most of us need a good slap on the bum to get it started, then the next 23,000 breaths per day (on average) just flow forth involuntarily. They are reflexive.
Conversely, there are those times when the doctor or nurse says, “Breathe out through your mouth,” while he or she is listening to see if the lungs are healthy. That would be an occasion of voluntary action, a movement “accompanied by a conscious awareness of what we are doing and why we are doing it”, when “our attention is directed toward the action or its purpose.” [78 Steps Health Journal]
What an amazing illustration of this intricately created body! We are created to have this cooperation between the actions we intend to perform and those that happen due to an inclination buried deep within our DNA. When we grasp, speak, walk, point, caress, serve, worship, we are doing so voluntarily, with “a conscious awareness of what we are doing and why.” All the while, our blood circulates, fat is absorbed, our eyes blink, our lungs take in and exhale oxygen, and our heart beats.
But, it seems it’s not always easy to pinpoint whether an action is voluntary or involuntary.
Even such a highly conscious act as threading a needle involves the unconscious postural support of the hand and forearm and inhibition of the antagonistic muscles—those muscles whose activity would oppose the intended action, in this case, the muscles that straighten the fingers. . . .
[M]ost motor behavior is neither purely voluntary nor purely involuntary but falls somewhere between these two extremes. Moreover, actions shift along this continuum according to the frequency with which they are performed. When a person first learns to drive a car with a standard transmission, for example, shifting gears requires a great deal of conscious attention, but with practice, the same actions become automatic. On the other hand, reflex behaviors, which are all the way at the involuntary end of the spectrum, can with special effort sometimes be voluntarily modified or even prevented. [78 Steps Health Journal]
We find Scripture often uses the functions of the human body to illustrate our spiritual union with Christ and other believers. In the same incontrovertible way that the flesh and blood members of a human body are connected, individual Christians united with their Savior are also just as incontrovertibly connected with one another—and as such, make up the church, the bride, the body of Christ. One unit, many functioning parts. Man, the microcosm of the church. (1 Corinthians 12:12-27; Romans 12:4-5; 1 Corinthians 6:15; Ephesians 4:12; Ephesians 5:30; Colossians 1:18)
When God acts in history, he does so to highlight his glory and to govern and preserve his people. He manifests his purposes through the voluntary and involuntary actions of the spiritual body and its members. We generally are not aware of it, though. We just thread the needle. We just drive the car. We just breathe.
What the Christian or the church determines to do is done by the power and decree of God. What the Christian does reflexively, being a creature reborn in Christ, he does by the power and decree of God. How a Christian responds to the commands of Christ he does with an obedience (voluntary action) made possible with conversion, with a will that is newly responsive to God (involuntary action).
It’s what happens when I come down with strep, and I am suddenly very aware of how hard it is to swallow, an involuntary action that I usually pay very little attention to. Similarly, we usually are not aware of the preserving and providing work of God until we encounter failure, affliction, or resistance. And then what do we do? Question God’s sovereignty. Wonder how he could have let things get out of control. Let doubt grow as to whether he really is good. Start to plot our own wiser voluntary actions to get out of this situation.
What if the failure, affliction, and resistance are part of God’s plan? I don’t see my blood circulating or my skin cells reproducing, but I know they are doing so—I trust my body to keep functioning. And when I get strep or back pain or I break my ankle, I don’t see it as a reason to stop trusting my body’s functions—not even those ailments that are signs of aging. What I do is reflect on whether I could have done some things differently: wash my hands more, exercise, pay attention when I step off curbs in a new city. But I find I don’t put even that much trust in God’s unseen hand determining the means for my sustenance, the path for my sanctification, the circumstances that will purge my heart of idols, trigger my involuntary actions to love and forgive and serve, and make me more fit for heaven.
J.I. Packer writes,
“Not merely does God will to guide us in the sense of showing us his way, that we may tread it; he wills also to guide us in the more fundamental sense of ensuring that, whatever happens, whatever mistakes we may make, we shall come safely home. Slippings and strayings there will be, no doubt, but the everlasting arms are beneath us; we shall be caught, rescued, restored. This is God’s promise; this is how good he is.”
Good enough to breathe life into us. Good enough to determine every misstep for my good and his glory. Good enough to guide us and govern us and preserve us to the very end.