The self-reliant person lives in a fantasy world. It is not a real world because it is an impossible feat to achieve. Nobody can be self-sufficient. Not even Jesus had that ability.
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He grew physically (Luke 2:40, 52). He was tired (John 4:6) and became thirsty (John 19:28). He hungered (Matthew 4:2) and experienced physical weakness (Matthew 4:11; Luke 23:26). And He died (Luke 23:46).
To pursue a self-reliant lifestyle is to push yourself past the boundaries that Jesus would not dare to go (Luke 22:42). He resisted this temptation by choosing to do something that is counter-intuitive to self-sufficiency: He humbled Himself to the will of God (John 6:38).
“Though he was in the form of God, . . .
emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6–8).
Self-sufficiency is the self-deceiving and isolating process of trying to be stronger and stronger while resisting the help of other people, especially help from the Lord. It is a sinful desire to build a lifestyle and reputation that releases a person from trusting God. Christ resisted this lifestyle choice.
He set aside His glorious reputation and powerful position with the Father to become a dependent human being. He embraced weakness so that He could tap into the strength of God (Luke 22:42; John 6:38).
Though self-reliance and God-reliance are similar in that they promote a person, there is an eternal difference between them. The God-reliant person desires to make God’s name great. The self-reliant person craves to make his name great (Daniel 4:30; James 1:14–15).
The self-sufficient person presents the oddest of ironies. While his self-reliance projects the image of being strong and in control, the reality is he is weak and not in control. Like all humanity, he stands in need of God’s empowering grace.
Self-reliance is smoke and mirrors. It is a sham. It’s a form of insanity to pretend to be something you are not. You, like me, are broken and depraved (Romans 3:23). You are unable and incapable of successfully accomplishing and sustaining anything outside of God’s proactive intervention and provision (1 Corinthians 4:7; Ephesians 2:1–9).
You are God-dependent whether you want to admit it or not. The people in the world are clamoring to promote themselves while trying to prove to anyone who will listen how they have it all together because they have tapped into their true selves and achieved their definition of greatness.
While they may want to impress or give the appearance of being impressive, they are hopeless and bankrupt, frantically resisting humanity’s collective death march (Genesis 2:16–17). Real success has never been through self-effort, self-esteem, or self-reliance—three lifestyles that lead to competitive individualism.
“The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Psalm 51:17).
True success begins with a broken and humble posture before the Lord. You find the most profound picture of this gospel irony in the cross of Christ. His death on Adam’s tree was God’s strength and wisdom profoundly put on display.
“For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18).
Personal success is not through might and power (Zechariah 4:6). It is through weakness, as displayed by the humble heart who is willing to submit to God moment by moment, especially when life does not make sense (2 Corinthians 4:7 and 12:10).
The nature and expectation of self-reliance are to reject God. It is a choice as to whether you want to serve yourself or serve the Lord. You cannot trust God and yourself at the same time. Though Jesus was talking to the Pharisees about money, He laid out a universal truth about the impossibility of simultaneously serving God and man when he said,
“No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money” (Luke 16:13).
Because the temptation to be self-reliant is every person’s temptation and struggle, I developed a mind map on the next page to help you gain a better perspective of the challenges and the solution regarding your struggle with God.
Breaking Down the Self-Reliant Person
Self-reliance is a dysfunction of the heart that speaks specifically to how you relate to God. You are called to believe God. In the mind map, I used synonyms like belief, hope, confidence, trust, and faith.
These words convey the idea of trusting the Lord. I am not using the word “trust” or “belief” in a salvific sense, meaning a lack of salvation if you struggle with self-reliance. This sin is not the exclusive domain of the unbeliever. Anyone can be an occasional functional atheist even though they are born again.
Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24b)
Because it is not possible to perfectly trust God, you need to believe and re-believe over and over again. You must guard your heart daily while contextualized in a community that encourages and challenges your faith (Hebrews 10:24). If you do not place yourself in this kind of community, fear will begin to rule your heart. (The mind map depicts how this can happen.)
When Adam chose to un-believe in the garden of Eden, he immediately began to fear. If you are not going to trust God fully, you will trust someone or something else. The most common and logical option for you to trust is yourself.
But you intuitively know you are not trustworthy. There is always an element of fear when you rely on yourself. Self-suspicion is what Adam experienced when he chose to depend on himself (Genesis 3:8–10). Note the progression in the mind map from a heart of trust to a heart of fear.
Most “pretending-to-be-strong people” have a hard time admitting their fears (2 Corinthians 1:8–9, 4:7, and 12:7–10). Their self-reliant worldview disdains and dismisses fear. They cannot make this accommodation for what they consider to be an aberration of the psyche. Admitting fear goes against their carefully crafted self-reliant image.
The word fear on the map represents the self-reliant person’s heart. You could draw a heart around the word. Also, note the tributaries of fear—its spiritual feeders. I have placed four in this map: worry, anxiety, stress, and concern. You must feed fear for it to survive, and these four feeders keep fear alive and functioning in the self-reliant heart. The longer fear stays active in the heart, the more the person will be prone to doubt. Doubt is the natural outworking of fear.
This fear-to-doubt construct works out in the self-reliant person’s behaviors. For example, he will become afraid or anxious about certain outcomes. Rather than trusting God, he will default to a habituated self-reliant mode to regain control of the situation. One of the most common “modes” to restore order to his self-controlled, self-perpetuated universe is anger. Anger is a manipulative tactic of the fearful person to regain control of what he believes he’s losing.
In these anxious moments, he is not sure God will come through for him, so he takes matters into his own hands. Though fear and self-reliance appear to be antithetical, as you can see, they are actually in cahoots. Self-reliance does a good job of masking a heart of fear.
There are many ways a person will mask fears, doubts, and insecurities. In the mind map, you will see the word comfort and the ancillary tributaries that feed the desire for comforts, like appearance, money, and anger.
Being god is hard. Self-reliance is exhausting work, which is why the self-reliant person has to find rest from running his universe. He does this by seeking means of comfort—a respite from self-centered, kingdom-building work. His go-to comfort cravings depend on the kind of person he is and how he enjoys sin (Hebrews 11:25). Here are a few examples:
Reputation – He finds comfort building his reputation. His self-made greatness feels good. It brings comfort. He can go to nearly inexhaustible lengths to maintain and promote his “I am in control—I am somebody” image.
Pornography – He finds comfort through women, whether on the net, his spouse, or someone else. The porn addict creates a theater for the mind, where his women are under his spell. Whenever he needs a “self-important booster shot,” he can turn to his woman of choice to feed his ego.
Anger – He finds comfort by keeping his world in tightfisted control through the mechanism of anger. He uses anger either passively or aggressively as a manipulative tactic to stay in charge.
Anger caveat – He rarely chooses anger outside of a few close friends because he wants to maintain his reputation to the world at large. In most cases, only his wife, family, and a few associations will see his anger.
Because he is not God and cannot rule his universe like God, he has to whittle his world down to something more manageable—something he can control and perpetuate. This smallish universe is his comfort zone. You see it at the top of the mind map.
His comfort zone is the place where he enjoys what he has created. He is in control as long as he can keep his life contained in his hermetically sealed universe. Of course, the problem with this worldview is that life is not that neat, contained, or manageable. Life was not meant to be controlled by our self-effort.
You are called to live by faith in the Lord, not to live by faith in yourself and your abilities (Hebrews 11:6). You will quickly discern if you struggle with self-reliance by how you respond when life moves out of your comfort zone. You will be forced to make a decision either to trust God or try to regain control of your world according to your preferences.
Your responses to life situations will reveal the real motivations of your heart (Luke 6:45). The self-reliant person will not humble himself to God. He will not experience the greater work the Lord could do in his life. His primary objective will be to exercise whatever means necessary to regain control of his life.
His determination to be self-reliant makes it hard for him to trust others. He struggles to perceive there could be another way of doing things. His native response is to demand, manipulate, and engineer his way through the difficulty. He has an “I can do all things through me who strengthens me” mentality to get his way (Philippians 4:13).
If he does not repent of his self-reliance, he will alienate himself from his friends. Self-reliance does not build community. It promotes individualism. It does not create unity. It divides people, hurts feelings, creates misunderstandings, and instills relational dysfunction.
Call to Action
Self-reliance is a crisis of faith. You cure it by coming back to the gospel. If you are prone to rely on yourself, you must relearn how to re-believe.
- What is a circumstance that tempts you to rely on yourself?
- What do you think is motivating you to take matters into your hands?
- Can you articulate why you are this way?
Self-reliance is a loud and proud declaration that God is not sufficient to take care of your life. You may be a believer in that you have been born a second time (John 3:7), but you are not entirely trusting the Lord in your sanctification. Here are a few questions that will assist you in thinking about why you are this way.
- What is it about God that tempts you to not rely on Him?
- Are you afraid of Him?
- Are you angry at Him?
- Are you unaware of how God can do more through your weakness than through your strengths?
The solution is to restore this gospel-dysfunction of the heart. It will not auto-correct. You must explore and repair what is broken. Your first call to action is to find a friend who will walk with you through this journey. With whom will you share this chapter?
Also published on Medium.