“Trust God and keep your powder dry” is a phrase originally attributed to Oliver Cromwell, although it first appears in written form in a poem by Lieutenant-Colonel William Blacker, entitled “Oliver’s Advice.” The words are lifted from one stanza from that poem:
The Pow’r that led his chosen, by pillar’d cloud and flame,
through parted sea and desert waste, that Pow’r is still the same.
He fails not—he, the loyal hearts that firm on him rely—
so put your trust in God, my boys, and keep your powder dry.
That phrase was meant to impress upon its hearers the need to trust God but use the means God had given them. As the pre-battle jitters came over them, they were neither to rely solely on their weaponry, not sit on their laurels and pray alone. Wet gunpowder is useless in battle. Cromwell’s advice to his fellows was to display their trust in God by being properly prepared for battle. Trust in God and preparedness for battle go hand in hand. In the words of another leader, “The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but the victory belongs to the LORD” (Proverbs 21:31). Trusting the Lord for victory is displayed in preparing the horse for battle.
No doubt, you’ve given much thought to the necessity of trusting God during these strange days. I recently had the privilege of preaching about trusting God from the book of Proverbs. During that devotional sermon, I focused on trusting in God largely from an emotional and psychological standpoint. Our default mode when faced with a challenge is to want to do something. Realising our own impotence and inability to affect the future, we feel anxious, depressed, and hopeless. I still think that our biggest temptation is to worry about tomorrow and try to wrest control of the wheel from the circumstances that afflict us, forgetting that God is the one driving this car.
He loves us and is infinitely powerful to get us to the celestial city along the very best route. I maintain that, for most of us, the biggest challenge is admitting that we are finite, terribly small, and powerless. For most of us, our biggest struggle is living in complete dependence on God.
But, as is often the case, we have a narrow path to tread, and can fall into a ditch on one side just as easily as the other. On the one side we must be careful to avoid the deeper ditch of panic, anxiety, and hopelessness—living by sight and not by faith. But on the other side of the road, we have a shallower ditch, which we must also be careful to avoid. This second ditch is no less dangerous, though it be the ditch less travelled. This ditch is the ditch of inaction. This is the furrow which catches the lazy, the sinful, and the apathetic. The trouble is that, if we are honest, we can all be lazy, sinful, and apathetic at times.
God is working behind the scenes. God is moving all things to work together for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purpose. God is working for our good and his glory. But God works through means. We must pray hard and take our medicine. We must pray hard and not play in the traffic. We must trust God and keep our powder dry.
This is fairly obvious on the face of things, but it can be very tempting, and very pious-sounding, to speak about trusting God when we really have no right to be doing so. We can say we are trusting God when, in reality, we are presuming upon his kindness.
In Romans 2:4 Paul cautions, “Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” Many people have “trust” in God for their eternal destiny without having first obeyed the command to repent. As believers, we can often act in a similar way—when we refuse to obey God’s instructions to us, which are his means for experiencing his deliverance. “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10). “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities” (Romans 13:1). “[Do not neglect] to meet together, as is the habit of some” (Hebrews 10:25). “Honour your father and your mother” (Exodus 20:12). “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers” (2 Corinthians 6:14). “Train up a child in the way he should go” (Proverbs 22:6). “Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak slow to anger” (James 1:19). “Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray” (James 5:13).
The above are just a few examples of instructions we must heed in order to be trusting God. To obey and implement God’s instructions is trusting God. This obedience is precisely what trusting God in a fallen world looks like. Fretting and worrying and working without regard to the Lord’s care and protection betrays a lack of trust in God. But so does continual prayer in the absence of concrete obedience.
Let’s consider one brief case study.
The student has an exam on Monday. He has known about it for the last two months. But he also has had other things to do. He has had online games to play and people to see. He’ll get to those books closer to the time.
Sunday arrives and he has hardly begun to learn his work. “No matter,” he says to himself, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” So, he skips church in order to study. Not having enough time, he begins to fret a little. But he reminds himself that he really can only do what he can do. Later when his aunt asks him how he is feeling about his exam, he replies that he would have liked to know his work a bit better, but he is trusting God to help him.
To paraphrase James 2:14, 17, what good is it, my brothers, if someone says he trusts God, but does not execute God’s instructions? Can that faith save him? So also “I’m trusting God,” by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
Let’s be done with worrying about tomorrow—with needless fear and anxiety about the future. God’s got this. Let’s say we trust God—say it loud and clear—but also actually trust in God, believing that he can and will bless obedience with gracious results. Let’s trust God and keep our powder dry.