The American Gospel of Self-Reliance

October 1, 2012

Last Friday, I ruined a Bible verse for everyoneamerican-pioneers

Well, that’s because it’s not really in the Bible at all.  The verse, oft quoted by well-meaning Christians is “God will never give you more than you can handle.”  Whenever life is rough, you can count on a Christian friend trying to perk you up with that little saying.

As the comments rolled in, and I thought over the weekend, I realized we were on to something bigger.  Much bigger.

Several people shared ways in which God is giving them more than they can handle.  It was amazing and humbling to read their stories.

As I read what many of you were saying, it struck me that we were only touching the tip of the iceberg.  We’ve actually uncovered an extremely pervasive false gospel that permeates the whole of American Christianity.  It goes against everything the gospel teaches.

It is the false gospel of self-reliance.

You Can Handle This…So Don’t Ask Me to Help You

How do fish know what “wet” feels like when they are always in water?  They don’t.

It’s the same with American Christianity.  We are soaked in it, so we often don’t realize the American myths that have polluted it.

From the time we are born, we are Americans.  We are taught the history of our country, founded by Pilgrims, expanded by tough, salty pioneers who drove wagons across the wilderness.  We worship the pure determination and grit that forged our culture as we know it.

We are indoctrinated with the gospel of self-reliance, of individuals pulling themselves up by their bootstraps.  When we say that “God will never give you more than you can handle,” we are hoping our downtrodden friend will read between the lines: “Buck up! You can handle whatever God throws at you…by yourself.  Please don’t ask for my help.  You can handle this.”

We believe that “God helps those who help themselves” is also in the Bible.  That’s actually Aesop’s fables, borrowed by Ben Franklin.  Not God.

Godless Christian Socialists

When I read in Acts that “none of the poor Christians lacked anything because the rich people sold property and provided for their needs” (my summary) it makes me uncomfortable.  Because it sounds a lot like socialism.  And we’re used to jeering Europe and muttering under our breath about the godless socialists.  (Of course the difference is that socialism in first century Christianity was voluntary, not compulsory.  That’s why it worked.)

But it makes little difference.  I read about those poor Christians getting hand-outs from the wealthy, and my American mind balks that they aren’t working for their food.  Probably a small fraction of the community was providing for the needs of the many.  Did the church cut the unemployed off after 99 weeks?  Did the poor people start popping out extra kids so they could get a bigger hand out from the church?

See how our American gospel is a two-edged sword?  I want to be self-reliant, but it also hardens my compassion against those in need, because I believe they should be self-reliant too.  Since I’m part of the half of the country that pays income tax, I take my righteous indignation about the American economy, and transfer those godless Christian socialists two-thousand years ago.

The funny thing is, if we actually met those early American pioneers who were so “self-reliant,” they would seem downright superstitious in their reliance on God to provide silly things like rain.

Stop Relying on Yourself

Think about all the examples of God providing something for his people.  He gives Abraham a family and a home country.  He gives the Israelites manna, quail, water, and the law.  He gives Joshua the Promised Land.  He tells Ezekiel that He will take out the Israelites hearts of stone and give them hearts of flesh.  He tells Malachi that if people tithe, He will bless their crops so much they can’t even handle all of it.  Jesus provides salvation for humanity, the Holy Spirit provides fruitfulness in the Christian life.

God is busy.  

It is clear that our American gospel of self-reliance is not God’s gospel of reliance on Him.  The most important things that happen in the Bible are not the accomplishments of mankind.  It’s not when people “handle” what God throws at them.  It’s not when people pull themselves up by their bootstraps.  It’s not when people forge their own path with grit, self-reliance and determination.

The greatest things happen when people learn to stop relying on themselves, stop trying to handle everything, and start to rely on God’s actions.

What do you think?  Does the description of the Christians “freeloaders” in Acts make you queasy?  Have we bought a false gospel that’s more American than it is biblical?

30 responses to The American Gospel of Self-Reliance

  1. The verses in Proverbs about work and laziness get used a lot to judge the motives of people getting help. I almost want to say “How did you know the believers in Acts deserved help?” Besides that, who sets the standard for enough hard work? Me? What was the original purpose of those verses, to create a burden and judgment for others or to examine our own hearts and motivations? If the latter, and we’re honest about it, I’d like to think we’d become more compassionate through it. But like you said, self-reliance has shot our compassion to hell. Self is the key word.

  2. You are on to something here. Where we run into trouble, however, is not when people stop depending on themselves and start depending on God to help, but when people stop depending on themselves AND on God, and relax into depending on somebody else to bail them out.

    • The funny thing is that we never think about – what if the rich young ruler had obeyed Jesus and given everything away? He would’ve been forced into a position of reliance on God and the community instead of self reliance.

  3. It doesn’t make me queasy because it wasn’t like they were sitting around doing nothing and getting something from the rich. They worked too…they just didn’t make enough to really live (unless they were disabled.) And the rich gave because they felt the call of God on their lives to do it. That’s not socialism. That’s living like Jesus.

  4. Didn’t Paul also say that if you don’t work you don’t eat? I don’t think he meant for any able-bodied person who could get a job to not work. The Communist ideal of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” is nice on paper, too.

    The problem with capitalism, socialism, communism or just about anything else is that people are selfish and will use the rules to their advantage. I mean, take a certain politician and his tax returns. Everyone wanted to know about it because they were sure something evil happened. He finally releases them and people are stomping about saying it’s not fair he followed the rules because he got to keep so much of his own money.

    I like the part in Acts where they make sure that people who are administering aid to the poor were full of the Holy Spirit and discerning. Even then, prejudices and other problems arose when it came time to actually hand out the benevolence fund. :)

  5. I totally agree with you. In fact, Pete’s entire ministry is based on the idea that we need to rely on God, even when we think we know what to do. Independence and self-reliance is rampant in the business/technology world. When you have an MBA or are otherwise highly trained, how do you “lean not on your understanding”? We must be intentional about allowing God to be in control.

  6. This is one of those thoughts that floats around in my head. I really need to compile them all in a “things I don’t understand about Christianity in the USA” or something like that. And it isn’t so much that I don’t understand them, it’s that I don’t understand how we propagate so many things as Christian when they are not. I’m sure I’m guilty of it too.

  7. Maybe the “gospel of self-reliance” is attractive because then we’re in control. If God is actually in control and I can do very little on my own, then I can’t guarantee that I’ll be successful (according to whatever definition I have for “successful.”)

    It’s easier to believe in a set of rules that God/society follows- “those who work hard will be successful”- because then I can control God in order to get what I want.

  8. Another great article. What you described in Acts is called “personal liberality” rather than “coerced liberality” which is what socialism/communism is. I believe that if everyone practiced personal liberality then government wouldn’t be able to practice as much coerced liberality.

    There are a couple of things to remember: first of all, Jesus said that we would always have poor people among us, so even if every Christian became extravagantly liberal in their spending to help others, it will never end the problem of poverty. President Johnson was leading the American people on a journey of pride when he convinced them to enact laws “to eradicate poverty” because, despite the noble-sounding intentions, he was saying that Americans could do better than God. Another thing to remember as we minister to the poor is something that pesky Paul said, in one of his “T” books: poor Christians should stop sponging off of others and get a job (my interpretation). So we really need God’s guidance on who to help financially and who to help by giving them work to do or helping with childcare or unexpected costs.

    Here is a related thought that might spur on a new topic: In addition to helping the widows and orphans, God calls us to help the aliens living among us. (Leviticus 19:10,33,24).

  9. EXCELLENT EXCELLENT EXCELLENT…… Thank you for sharing this blog and view point!!!

  10. Great post.

    I think the lesson in the 1st Century Church is about agreeing on purpose … when you decide the WHAT you stand for, the HOW you get there gets easier.

    Today, I think the questions are deeper than just whether someone deserves a handout … I truly believe most people would work and earn if there were ways to do that effectively … or as a wise man said, “You can give a man a fish and feed him for a day, or you can teach him to fish and feed him for life — but today that doesn’t go far enough. You also have to ask who put up the fence around the lake and who is pouring the pollution into the water?”

  11. But how exactly does one rely on God? You have to act. You can’t sit and cast lots on every decision. You have to have self-discipline to get things done. Is it just some sort of fluffy comfort or what?

    • How was God’s strength sufficient for Paul when he was weak? It’s not a fluffy feel good message, but it is mysterious in some ways.

      It sounds totally foreign to us because we are in a culture that idolizes independence so much.

  12. Good stuff, Matt. I never get queasy with the Acts Christians. I guess I compartmentalize that. It gets a by because it’s the bible. Now, in real life…

    There is the compulsory element and the overseeing governmental element you alluded to. Maybe we are more patient if we feel the recipient is “trying.” I do believe we have made the story of the “self-made man” a little to heroic.

  13. Just a thought, I think you make a great point, but you may want to throw a quote of 1 Corinthians 10:13 in there just to show what it actually does say.

  14. I do get queasy. I cannot lie. It’s not because I don’t believe that what they did was true. I just fear following what we are actually called to do. The American way seems so much better, but too bad it is a lie. Yet we “win” so many people with it.

  15. Love it. “God never gives us more than we can handle” is actually one of my ‘pet-peeve’ sayings. (That and the one from Aesop’s Fables) So anytime someone says it I find myself saying…. “Ehhh… actually… God gives me way more than you and I can handle!! That’s the point when we learn to depend on Him. That’s when we either surrender or go under. So this IS more than we can handle. But my God’s got this.” And then… I have to have faith He does, indeed, “have it” since I like to have all the answers. Haha!

  16. I love this scripture:
    “If among you, one of your brothers should become poor, in any of your towns within your land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be. Take care lest there be an unworthy thought in your heart and you say, ‘The seventh year, the year of release is near,’ and your eye look grudgingly on your poor brother, and you give him nothing, and he cry to the Lord against you, and you be guilty of sin. You shall give to him freely, and your heart shall not be grudging when you give to him, because for this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.’” Deut 15:7-11

    We are a nation that hates weakness. We hate the weaknesses in ourselves and are disgusted by the weaknesses in others. We expect to be completely autonomous, rejecting help from both people and God. And you’re right, we feast off the teet of American self-glorification from the moment we are born. We are heirs to self-righteousness, entitlement and utter lack of humility.

    But I agree with you, God can and does change us when we embrace him. Through him we can see our weaknesses as opportunity to be made whole by God. The less power we have, the more of God’s power comes into our lives!

  17. I’m pretty sure Paul said something to the effect of “those who don’t work, don’t eat,” so they probably weren’t all just moochers (which makes it easier for me). Plus, as others have said, it wasn’t compulsory. It was one body, working together for everyone’s mutual betterment, which is what the Church is _supposed_ to be.

    This is the crux of true evangelism:
    1) we each individually live lives according to the Scriptures
    2) we participate fully in the Church as it was designed to be (a body, in it together, for the betterment of all)
    3) we help those in need in the world around us

    If any group of believers actually _did_ those things, people would want to be part of it. People would want to know why they acted the way they do. Believers would be given the lots of opportunities to share “the hope that they have.”

    But we’ve watered down “the body” into this “seeker-sensitive, relevant” crap. So many believers never get to the point where they are mature enough to know how to even _start_ “living their lives according to Scripture” and they have no idea whatsoever what church is supposed to be, other than entertaining, experience-driven programs.

    But how do we change it? Do we leave the institutional church and start our own? Do we stay within and fight the current? To go deeper in relationships and in our walk with Christ requires sacrifice and vulnerability. We’re good at talking about “authenticity” lately, but are we good about actually living in community with the local body of believers? What does that even really look like in this day of mega churches? Small groups? House churches? Something else?

    I’m all questions here….

  18. This hits me hard. My father, as were many in the rural area where I was “born & raised” (since many debate whether I actually grew up or not), was proudly “self-sufficient.” In part he had to be. On those rare occasions where we would get snowed in, snow plows couldn’t even get down the single 30-ish mile stretch of road that was the only way off our little peninsula-on-a-peninsula for a couple of days.

    Because of my health, though, I knew all too well that I would never be self-sufficient. It seemed everybody else knew it, too. Since that was part of what I was “supposed to be,” though, it left me ashamed and empty.

    It still does, in fact, and I think this post touches the tip of why.

  19. The other side of the American gospel lie that we’ve swallowed is that we need to be wholly and completely comfortable. Provide for ourselves and feel good. We’ll put in comfortable chairs in the church. The fact is that when my life is most memorable is when I am uncomfortable. I have the best stories from the time I overcame something, some challenge, some hardship. Always with God’s help, often with the help of others.

  20. I think the people in Acts were actually poor. Like they wouldn’t have eaten if they didn’t have help. Even the American view of poor is stupid and filled with entitlement.

    Poor people during the times of Acts regularly died of starvation, not lived in a ghetto with a cell phone and food stamps. Most American’s have never even seen poor.

  21. I think the people in Acts were actually poor. Like they wouldn’t have eaten if they didn’t have help. Even the American view of poor is stupid and filled with entitlement.

    Poor people during the times of Acts regularly died of starvation, not lived in a ghetto with a cell phone and food stamps. Most Americans have never even seen poor.

  22. This is a wonderful post! Thank you Matt. Certainly one of the ultimate paradoxes of the Christian faith and one of the hardest things to balance is reconciling the notions of “fairness”/earning what’s MINE/American Dream materialism with Christian themes of humility/sacrifice/collectivism.

  23. Michael, The Lord definitely gave my husband and myself more than we could handle. In fact, had we known how much more, I’m sure we would not have heeded his Word. I’m sure of it. I recently emailed a close friend that I know why folks don’t heed the Word of God when asked to do something. This friend, and she is a friend, didn’t reply to that email, though she replied to another email about something lighter. I think one thing that has surprised us is the unwillingness for members of the church to help, or even engage on any level.

    We believed with all of our hearts the Lord was asking us to adopt three beautiful (in fact physically gorgeous) little girls who were in foster care. They are half-sisters and we got them through a program for adopting tweens and teens. In fact, I used to speak to groups on behalf of this program urging others to adopt. I no longer do that because I believe all the lovely, sweet, wonderul PR and/or marketing we were doing in those meetings was deceptive. I believe my husband and I were deceived by that not-for-profit adoption agency, and by the foster care agency who had these three children because the family court judge was pressuring to get these lovely looking girls adopted already as ties with the biological family had already been severed.

    We adopted them at ages 6, 7, and 9. Let’s just say that at those ages, the older two girls already had behavior that was, ahem, “unseemly.” They and my husband and myself began to get a less than warm feeling in our church as they used language they were familiary with, some of it having definite sexual overtones. Even at those ages, the older two girls were suggesting a knowledge to boys that was uncomfortable to parents…though nothing overt from the girls. I can and do understand the concern of parents. What I don’t understand is the swift, judgemental and cold reaction of those Christians. Though members of the church knew full well we’d adopted these children, we began to be treated as if we were not good parents. That we had somehow raised these “unseemly” girls and were at fault. We were certainly at fault for brining this into their heretofore comfortable church.

    So, we switched churches. In the new church, I was in the ladies room and overheard the pastor’s wife say to two other church ladies, about my oldest daughter, “That child is so street. Do you see the earrings she wears? She looks like a gypsy. How can her mother let her come to church looking that way?” If she knew how hard it was to get this girl, then at age 11, to want to come to church. She didn’t look like anyone in that church or the one we had attended before. She had been sent to church by the bio family (picked up by a church bus) only for the food and this got rid of them for a few hours on Sunday. The girls ate their fill and often snuck food home. The bio mom (heroin addict) and grandmother (alcoholic) did not spend money on food.

    So we sought another church. We finally found an urban, seeker church in NYC, on the model of Mars Hill. The girls fit in as far as looks, but the older two were now a bit older and firmer in their resolve that they did not like church and had no intention of being Christians. The middle one had been influenced by a foster mom who was into Santoria and she was intrigued by the modern Youtube and street Illuminati movement so many high school kids who plan to drop out are into. She was always sneaking it on and I would tell her to turn it off.

    We made them go to church. We were gong and they had to go with us. The urban church we attended closed and moved to another location in the metro area and we didn’t attend church for about 8 mos. Finally, we found a Vineyard Church on an urban model that worked for us. This is years later, the older two girls have run away…having exhausted my husband’s health and cost us a great deal of money for teenage substance abuse programs that we had too high an income to get for free.

    So, yes, God did send us more than we could handle. We just heard, because they gave a legal aid attorney our phone number and address as a bogus number, that the older two were arrested in a neighorhing state a month ago for stealing $400 worth of merchandise from a Wallmart.

    The younger one is doing really well. She made honor roll at her public high school the first quarter. This is a kid who was in special ed when we adopted her at age 6. We put her and the other two into Christian schools and the younger one’s grades took off. When the older two ran away, I homeschooled the younger one to catch her up to grade level. I’m happy to report that my husband’s health has recovered.

    The thing is, there’s a mess out there the church is not addressing because if we do address it, our comfort will be greatly reduced. We will have to admit “unseemly” people to our churches. They may never get the rough edges sanded away, even if they give themselves entirely to the Lord and we will have to sit next to them in church.

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