The dangerous lie of self-reliance

We live in a world based on personal choices.  Our society is based on the freedom to choose: we can decide what we want to be when we grow up, and work towards it; we can choose who we want to marry; more than ever before, we can choose where we want to live, as families are spread out across the world; we can choose our leaders at the ballot box; we can choose which church we attend, or not to attend at all.  Modern society is founded on the idea of choice.  Even when it comes to controversial topics, the virtue we hear spread far and wide is the ‘virtue’ of minding your own business.

Now don’t get me wrong – there’s a lot of benefits that come from our freedom to make decisions.  As Kristina and I celebrate 10 years of marriage this week, I’m reminded that even 60 years ago, our marriage would have been practically impossible: she was raised a Roman Catholic, and I’m an Anglican; it’s not that long ago in Newfoundland that the idea of ‘intermarriage’ would have been completely unthinkable.  Or, even my freedom to answer God’s call to ministry: it wasn’t that long ago that the son of a fisherman simply couldn’t choose to attend university, let alone find himself kneeling before a bishop to present himself for ordination.  There’s a lot of good that comes with the ability to choose.

But there’s a flipside to that, one that we rarely think about.

As “mind your business” has been drilled into us by the world, we’ve learned along the way that my life is my business.  We’ve learned that, just as we’re free to make choices, we’re supposed to depend on ourselves to carry them out.  And, when things don’t work out, what are we taught to do?  Forge ahead, making lemonade out of lemons.

The flipside of the freedom to choose is the lie that life is meant to be every person for themselves.

Building one another up.

One of the most radical – and, sadly, under-emphasized – ideas of Christianity is that it’s not each to his own, come hell or high water.  The radical truth that we proclaim is that your efforts won’t secure your success; that it isn’t up to us to pull ourselves up and dust ourselves off; that the most important choice we can make is to surrender our supposed freedom to the Lord and accept the shared life of the Body of Christ.

But it’s a hard lesson, isn’t it? The best choice we can ever make is to stop relying on ourselves alone.

This lie of self-reliance, the flip-side of everyone having to mind their own business, is truly heartbreaking.  If our eyes are open, we see the effects even here in our little church.

Every week… no, closer to every day that I walk around town ‘in uniform’, I run into hurting people who come straight out and say “oh, you’re the minister?  I can’t come to church until I get my life back together”, or, “you wouldn’t want someone like me in your church”.

It’s gut-wrenching.  There’s all sorts of explanations, but a big part of it is the lie that we have to put ourselves back together.  It’s the downside of a world that tells us to “mind your own business”.

Maybe you’ve experienced it yourself: what’s the instinct when you’ve had a bad week, when something embarrassing or sensitive has happened, or when word gets out that your marriage is in a rough place, or money is too tight, or you had too much to drink and made a fool of yourself, or it turns out that your child isn’t a model of good character?  Our instinct – taught over and over again by a society built on self-sufficiency – is to hide away.

At those very moments when God has provided the Church, the Body of Christ, and instructed us very plainly that we are to carry one another’s burdens, not just to rejoice with those who rejoice, but to weep with those who are hurting and, when someone finds themselves beat up and lying in the ditch of life, to bind them up and nurse them back to health. The twin lies of minding your own business and relying on no one but yourself lead us to reject the fellowship and ministry of the Church… at least, we say, until we straighten ourselves out first.

As we read this morning in Ephesians, the message of the Gospel is the exact opposite, almost uncomfortably so.

“walk… with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love.” (It’s as if Paul knows it’s going to be messy!)  “… There is one body and one Spirit…” and the work of the ministry that we offer to each other isn’t from a place of ‘having it all together’.  No, what does Paul write?  He says that on our own, we’re immature, “tossed two and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine” and by craftiness and deceit.[1] 

On the one hand: ouch!  That’s pretty harsh, especially as those raised to fend for ourselves: Paul says we’re immature and easily tossed around.  But if we can get away from that lie of self-reliance, we’ll find that the message of the Gospel, that God’s plan, is for us to be knit together, a family where every person – broken though we may be – has a place and the opportunity to both build one-another up and to be built up by the ministry of God through others.

Just look at that last line from today’s epistle: “when each part is working properly” – joined to Christ, the head – it “makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love”.

Do we build ourselves up?  Do we pull ourselves up by our bootstraps?  Does the person lying beaten in the ditch have to clean himself up first and take a shower before the Samaritan can bring him to hospital?  Does the family carrying the burdens of life need to get their act together before they come to  my office?  Does the drunk on the bench at the four-way need to get sober before she’s welcome at a recovery meeting?  No!

Sure, it’s insulting, but Paul’s pretty clear: you can’t build yourself up, you’ll only be tossed about and blown around by lies.  What we need is to come together, all of us as imperfect followers of Jesus, and the result is that we’ll all be built up together, better than we could ever be alone.

It takes that harsh realization that yes, all I once held dear, and everything I’ve tried, everything I’ve built my life upon, at worst it backfired; at best, it’s going to be worthless because I can’t take it with me.  It takes the bold move to go against everything the world teaches, and instead of putting on a brave face and listing the things that make you a “good person”, admitting that the greatest thing you can do is make the choice to surrender, to proclaim not yourself – successes and failures – but proclaim the love of Jesus, and to say together with all the Body that Christ alone is the sure foundation, our only strength and stay amid the waves and winds of life.

Just imagine if word got out that the Church was the place to go when life is rough, not the place to hide away from until you get your life together or make yourself “good enough”.  Just imagine if word got out that the Church was a hospital for sinners, where our business isn’t “minding your business”, but carrying one another, lifting one another up, working together as apprentices of Jesus our Master, as we are built up together.

It’s a choice.

As great as it is to live in a world of choices, a world where we can choose to be what we want to be, it means we have to be honest about the shocking message of the Gospel. 

More than ever before, we’re told to seek what makes us happy; we’re told to find fulfilment and to find our purpose; to be mindful and seek our well-being, to satisfy that inner hunger.  We’re not unlike that crowd in the Gospel, who had their bellies filled with loaves and fishes, so they showed up the next day looking to get their bellies filled again.[2]

But the choice of turning to Jesus, the choice of coming into the embrace of the Church isn’t one of choosing what fills you up or makes you feel good.  It’s the stunning act of saying “yes, I’m free to choose; I’m free to go it alone.  But, I choose to come as I am – not as I hope to be, I choose to surrender, I choose to give up chasing what fills me up or makes me happy, and instead I offer myself as a servant, to begin the work of being built up by the Body of Christ, as I also let myself be used by Christ to build up others.

That’s the key to growing into maturity as followers of Jesus, of becoming all that God wants us to be to do the work he has given us to do.  And, in a world of choices, yes it starts with a choice: the earth-shattering, life-changing choice to stop going it alone, to admit that, yes, as harsh as it sounds, left to my own devices, I will be blown around by the lies of the world, so I choose the sure foundation that is faith in Jesus.

Relying on ourselves and following our bellies will leave us tossed about and empty.  But whoever turns to Jesus will never hunger or thirst, and will find themselves built into something greater than we could ever ask or imagine. To God be the glory. Amen.

[1] Ephesians 4:1-16

[2] Luke 6:24-35

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