Resurrection Power in a Self-Reliant Society (Mar 1993)

By Matt Dabbs

by Monte Cox
March, 1993

10My fifth grade teacher was Miss Porter. (I remember her name because she got married over the Christmas holidays, which was a big deal to a class full of fifth graders. I’m sure it was an even bigger deal to Miss Porter.) She indirectly introduced me to an important term which aptly describes much of our culture.

It happened during one six-weeks grading period in which, beside my conduct grade, Miss Porter had written the number “17.” Now I realize that many of you are not acquainted with the advanced grading system used by my home state. In Georgia, where I grew up, the teacher had the option of saying something more descriptive about the student, either a negative or positive description, by simply placing a number next to the conduct grade, corresponding to qualities listed on the front of the report card. For example, a #1 might be a compliment, such as “very cooperative”; a #10 could be “has short attention span”; and a #25 might correspond to “Have you considered sending your child to boarding school?” This was my first #17, so I was unfamiliar with its corresponding trait. Anxiously, I looked for a #17 in the key on the front of the card, and there I found the new term: “self-reliant.” I didn’t know whether to be nervous or proud. But as soon as I showed the report card to my parents and received abundant praise from them, I knew that self-reliance was a good thing. I determined then and there to live up to the label.

I could recognize real-life examples of self-reliance all around me, especially on Saturday mornings around the Cox household. While other children were sleeping ’til noon, watching Jonny Quest cartoons, and eating Count Chocula, I spent most Saturday mornings under my Dad’s car “helping” him change the oil, the plugs, the points, the engine – whatever. My dad was a dyed-in-the-wool do-it-yourselfer. “Why give my money to some other guy to fix it when I can do it myself? my dad would ask rhetorically as we lay beneath the car together. Somehow I knew that he wouldn’t be impressed with my very logical reasons why he should give his money to some other guy and let his self-reliant son sleep later on Saturdays. As I grew up in America, I realized that my dad was not alone in his personal pursuit of self-reliance.

From the self-service gas station, to the discount bag-your-own-groceries store, to the drug store where you can, with some limitations, diagnose a physical problem and treat it yourself, ours is a do-it-yourself society. I didn’t fully appreciate this cultural trait until I lived overseas among people who were alternately amazed and perplexed by my desire to repair my own car, build my own furniture, choose my own hardware (you’re often not allowed to browse in stores overseas; you have to tell a clerk what you need and let him get it for you), prescribe my own medicine, and own the things in my self-contained home.

Where did this spirit of self-reliance come from? When our forefathers struck off across the plains to eke out a living in the wilderness of the American West, certainly an attitude of self-reliance was common among them. Without it, they might not have survived. But I think the trait is more likely traceable to the successes of science over the last two centuries, though its roots go back to an even earlier time.

The foundations of modern science lay in the Deistic philosophy which held that God originated the universe, established Natural Law under which the world operates, then stepped away from it all where, according to part-time popular theologian Bette Midler, he watches us from a distance. Given such a world view, the men and women of science explored the universe with the confidence that nothing could prevent them from pushing back the veils of ignorance and unlocking the mysteries of nature. Relatively frequent and impressive successes in scientific exploration eventually convinced us as a society that we humans are capable of exerting a great degree of control over the forces which affect our physical lives. We no longer saw ourselves as victims of natural negative circumstances. Nature, we learned, could be manipulated for both constructive and destructive ends. For example, we could split atoms we couldn’t even see – an incredible achievement by itself – and produce electricity as well as nuclear weapons.

This sense of control over natural forces influences our views in other areas of life as well. For example, in American politics we believe that a person can rise from the lowliest position in life to the highest office in the land. Only a lack of will power and personal skill can limit the potential of the individual. In economics, it is this philosophy – the notion that we are in control of our own circumstances – that makes us look condescendingly down at the poor person as if he has some kind of character flaw. Otherwise, he might pull himself up by his own boot straps and overcome his negative circumstances. In medicine, we find it hard to deal with a terminal disease for which nothing can be done. People in other cultures do not resist death to the extent we do, in part because they do not share our confident expectation of finding a remedy for every physical problem. But what does any of this have to do with us, the people of God?

I remember the feeling of embarrassment that would come over me whenever a certain overweight, toothless, single, welfare mother would come forward at our church confessing her sins, her need for help. Hers was obviously a life out of control, I thought. For her, faith and the church were crutches. In my mind, this was no compliment. Yet, all of us had gathered there to worship the one who said, “Apart from me, you can do nothing!” (John 15:5). Our struggling sister, the lone representative in our church of the lower socio-economic stratum of our community, seemed to be the only one among us who was willing to admit that Jesus was right on this point. The rest of us were do-it-yourselfers who were too proud to confess that we could not do it on our own.

It seems to me that Christians, like the culture of which we are a part, have elevated self-reliance to virtue status when, in some ways, it is a spiritual handicap. Yet, there is something good about self-reliance, isn’t there? I want my children to be highly motivated self-starters as they go through life. I don’t want them to be whiners, weaklings, or pessimists, all of which I see as characteristics which betray a lack of self-reliance in one way or another. But I also want to teach my children how to depend on God. I don’t want to pass on to them this illusion of our culture that we are in control. I don’t want to wait for a traumatic experience – an accident or a terminal disease – something that reminds us that we are not in control, to teach them this lesson. And I don’t want to raise them in a do-it-yourself church in which there is little room for an active God. What does such a church look like, you ask? Consider the following areas of spiritual life in which an overdose of self-reliance can interfere with our approach to God.

Prayer:

Do you remember in the movie Shenandoah the scene in which the family gathers around the table for a meal? As Jimmy’ Stewart’s character offers thanks, he says something like this: “Thank you, Lord, for the food. We plowed the field ourselves; we planted the seeds; we cultivated the crop; we harvested it and stored it in barns we’d built with our own hands, and our women have spent the better part of two days preparing it so we could eat it.” And then, with a perplexed look on his face, he concludes with something like this: “We don’t exactly what you had to do with it, but we thank you for it all the same!”

What kind of prayer would you expect from people who believe that God is only watching us from a distance? For the do-it-yourselfer, prayer doesn’t call on God to do much of anything. It is not uncommon these days to hear folks ask God to heal people, whether or not he chooses to use a doctor to do it. But such a prayer still seems shocking to some. Yes, there is a difference between the dangerous chicanery of televangelists’ healings and the genuine power of God. But we must learn to utilize the power God makes available to those who pray with the faith that he is near and active.

Growing:

In a discussion during a Bible class in which we were studying Romans 8, as the majority of us were agreeing that we no longer struggled with such rudimentary sins as alcohol addiction and the urge to use foul language, but dealt more often with the sins of the more mature, like selfishness and anger, one member of the class announced that, as a new Christian, he was still struggling with an alcohol problem. What help, he asked, was God promising him in this section of Scripture? We all looked down dutifully at our Bibles, but sat in awkward silence until finally, the teacher said to this brother, “I guess you’ll just have to try harder!” None of us could come up with anything better to add, so that was it! And we had just read verse 13: “If by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.” What does the Spirit have to do with overcoming sin? How do I cooperate with God’s invisible presence in my life in order to overcome sin? It didn’t seem to matter at the time. “You just have to try harder, brother,” we told him. Maybe we were trying to avoid sounding overly theological, so we shied away from what may have seemed like an impractical solution revealed in Romans 8. Or perhaps we were assuming that the only thing which stood between our classmate and the conquering of his alcohol addiction was a lack of will power on his part. Maybe we all believed that it was within his power to overcome this sin. I think he was searching for a higher power that he might plug into for assistance. But we couldn’t think of one on the spot. No, he had to go to AA to hear about the higher power! I don’t say this to criticize others. I was in that class, too! Could it be that, for too long, we have had little to say to those who felt powerless to overcome sin because we ourselves conceived of sin as something we overcome by simply trying harder?

Trusting:

I am the kind of guy who has a hard time letting someone else drive when I am in the car, even if it isn’t my car. My wife, for example, is an excellent driver. But if you ever see her driving and I’m in the car with her, you can be sure that I am near death and she is taking me to the hospital. Why do I struggle with this? I think it’s because I like to be in control. And if it is difficult for me to relinquish control of my car to someone else, imagine what it’s like for me to try to allow God to direct my life, to ask and watch for his guidance as I make decisions. I do want to trust in the Lord with all my heart and lean not on my own understanding, but this is a very difficult thing to do in a do-it-yourself culture.

Forgiving:

I often hear people say, “I just can’t forgive myself.” While I know that this usually indicates that the person has experienced something in the past which we should discuss, my first inclination is to say, “You’re right! You can’t forgive yourself! I’m so glad you know that already. What else would you like to talk about?”

Serving:

I know what it’s like to prepare a message and to deliver it, calling on the ability God has placed within me “naturally” to communicate it to people, without really including God in the process. And I know what it’s like to begin a project by humbly asking God to provide the ideas, the resources, and the people to make it happen. The difference between the two approaches may not be readily observed by others, but I know the difference. I can feel the difference. One sermon or project is self-propelled. The other is fueled by the power of God.

Paul warned Timothy about the kind of people who “have a form of godliness, but deny its power” (2 Timothy 3:5). This power deficiency, Paul said, would be evident in the sinfulness of people. Had God’s power been involved in their lives, these people would not have been so sinful. God would have transformed their lives to conform tot he image of his son.

The resurrection of Jesus is perhaps the most significant display of God’s power, the same power made available to those who believe. This power is at work in remaking us in his image. His power is not reserved for desperate, single, welfare mothers and others whose brokenness drives them to seek it. All of us must learn to lean on his power, to become God-reliant, not self-reliant people.

We face an uphill struggle in this do-it-yourself culture to avoid being a do-it-yourself church. But we must not cut ourselves off from our Power Source, apart from whom we can do nothing. We must rethink our culture’s assessment of self-reliance as a virtue and see the inhibiting effect of a self-sufficient attitude on the child of God. And we must resist popular philosophy and affirm the nearness and the power of God in a society which believes that, if God exists at all, he is only watching us from a distance.Wineskins Magazine

Monte Cox recently returned from Kenya and is now teaching Bible and Missions at Harding University.

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1583 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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