Self-reliance or God-reliance?

By Christopher Schwinger

Believing in yourself is a value preached by many in today's postmodern culture. What they mean is "Believe in your own ability, through your willpower, to succeed at what you want." Independence and individualism are good things except when they cause you to become self-reliant. But since God doesn't communicate with people in predictable ways, it can be very hard to know when we're depending on ourselves and when we're depending on God. "Self-reliant," in a spiritual context, means acting self-centered/selfish, neglecting to pray, and expecting God to do what you want. But when it comes to motivation and decision-making in life, we don't have super-spiritual experiences very often which seem to come from outside of us. Usually the decisions feel like they come from within us. That makes it hard to know whether we or God is making the decision. If we feel motivated and keep working at our goal, that does not mean it's in God's will, either, unless we seek first His kingdom (Matthew 6:33), which means putting character qualities like humility and love above our personal goals.

Additionally, feelings and instinct drive people's decisions subconsciously even if they try to logically work through them. Sometimes I've heard testimonies where Christians feel very strongly about a certain decision after praying, and it's a knowledge that they're supposed to do it even though they can't see all the factors which would weigh against another decision. Most of the times in my life, I've had to decide based on instinct or gut feeling after I've evaluated whether biblical principles are at stake in my decision. Biblical principles don't come to anyone all at once, either, so it's natural to doubt whether we've discovered the verses which are needed to help us understand the current situation we're in. But probably a bigger factor than finding the right verse is whether we have the right mindset — that God's will is more important than personal desire. It takes divinely inspired faith to believe our personal desire may not be the best thing for God's greater good. But if that desire continues to be strong, as has happened with me, I think it's probably a sign that God is behind it — unless it's driven by selfish ambition.

I think the Gospel of John is what made the most difference for me about how to make decisions. The Old Testament had a lot of scoundrels who used the casting of lots to try to figure out God's will and then had to conclude He either favored or opposed them based on the outcome. In contrast to their fatalism, the Gospel of John teaches self-empowerment through understanding our standing with God. In the New Testament, self-empowerment means your life has more purpose because you know God can redeem even bad situations for good — something which happened a few times in the Old Testament also (Joseph, the Exodus, the return from Babylonian exile...). Jesus proved this through the Resurrection. However, His struggle and success did not prevent us from having our own. It is significant that the Gospel of John has statements directed at future disciples, that they would understand their relationship with God so they can also make it through the storms of life. The reason the Gospel of John is so helpful for my understanding about believing in myself vs. believing in God is because of Jesus' perspective. He concludes God wants His desires to happen, just as He wants God's desires to happen, so He has no doubt about whether they're good desires. Since God and He are on the same page, and the desires are good, then it must not be God's fault when one of His desires doesn't happen, and God must have a greater purpose. It's theology built on the logic of God's goodness. Jesus speaks many times about His confidence that God the Father and He are on the same page in their desires, goals, passions, etc. When I discovered in 2014 the meaning of John 14:8-15, it fixed my confusion about whether I was depending on myself or Him. Jesus says the pursuit of virtue, which He calls "obeying My commandments" — to love other people and honor God by studying the principles of His Word — is the way to know God, and if you're doing that, you can know that the desires which you have are good ones, because you have good character motivating you. But there's a catch to this: Jesus didn't have every good desire fulfilled. In Gethsemane, He prayed for the cup of God's wrath to pass by Him, but added "not my will, but Thine," signifying that His desire was only part of the equation. God is not willing that any should perish, but all should come to repentance, says 2 Peter 3:9, but neither was Jesus "willing" (desirous) to go to the cross. People perish even though God doesn't want it to happen. Even God doesn't get everything He wants, thanks to sin.

When people have to give up their desires, trusting that God is good in spite of not giving them what they want, they exhibit the same heroism as Jesus. But since Jesus was still His own person, though the Son of God, He had to make His own decisions in accordance with what He knew was right, and He knew in advance what the cross would be about. So He depended on His own self, in that His own mind understood God's will for the whole Passion experience, but He depended on God to help Him go through with it. Self-reliance and dependence on God came together in that very hard decision, because His mind and will were His own, but were also submitted to God. When someone is inspired by God to write something, whether it's poetry, music, visual art, or a Christian novel such as Uncle Tom's Cabin or Ben-Hur, it's sometimes very clearly God-inspired. Handel's Messiah is the go-to example in music. However, we can't always know whether art is God-reliant instead of self-reliant, because some people create beautiful works but don't have any interest in God and aren't always such wholesome people. Sometimes Christians copy a style that's in a worldly context and it still doesn't turn out to be very good, even if the motivation was innocent enough.
In general, when someone takes what they've learned and determines to use it as a force for good, that's the healthiest form of self-reliance, because you're using yourself for noble purposes.
Again, the Gospel of John is helpful for knowing whether it's "pure" or "unholy" self-reliance. Art looks outside of oneself but also within oneself, combining self-reliance and God-reliance, and the closer the artist understands the character of God, the better the work will turn out. The Gospel of John showed me that God's will isn't something we have to strive for, like He's hiding it from us, but just keep an open mind and be prepared to give up preconceived notions for the greater good, and He will deliver. Jesus understood His Father's desires, and believed His Father wanted His own desires to come true, and there was no question in His mind that He was on the side of good at all times. None of us can achieve that level of confidence, but it helped me because Jesus' statements in the Gospel of John showed me the way our minds ought to work. We shouldn't worry about squelching negative thoughts as much as feeding ourselves positive ones; trying to control our own minds is self-reliant, whereas tapping into the good things God has revealed is how we get nourished by Him.

In sum, believing in ourselves is morally fine when we have skills which we've developed and can use in a self-empowering way or to help others. When it comes to decision-making, we have to have a strong spiritual foundation if we're going to make wise decisions, because every decision involves a degree of spiritual expectation about the future and a sense of cost about our own desires. If our own desires are good, they still may not be appropriate to pursue in that way, because they may serve as an encumbrance to the greater work God has for us (Hebrews 12:1). That's where the self-reliance subject gets more complicated. If it's just a question of using our own skills day by day, I don't see any reason to feel afraid of God's disfavor if we forget to pray about it. When we use our bodies, we don't usually think about God doing what we're doing, even though God sustains our bodies. But that doesn't mean we are being self-reliant just because we don't constantly think about God as we do something. Sometimes the best way to know you're doing God's will is if you're at peace doing what you do in daily life, with a sense of purpose based on the Gospel. It's sometimes that simple.

Image Credit: West Point; "Jared Breeden (1)"; Creative Commons

TagsBiblical-Truth  | Christian-Life  | God-Father

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Published on 7-26-17