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Jesus 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). Then He died (Luke 23:46). To pursue a self-reliant lifestyle is to push yourself past the boundaries of what Jesus would not dare to do (Luke 22:42). He resisted this temptation by choosing to do something counter-intuitive to self-sufficiency: He humbled Himself to the will of God (John 6:38), always seeking the Father’s will, even giving up many hours in prayer to know the purposes and directives of His Father.
Though he was in the form of God, . . .(He) 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 while resisting other people’s help, especially help from the Lord. It is a sinful desire to build a lifestyle and reputation that releases a person from trusting someone else. They believe in themselves, whether it’s the installation of an Adamic tendency or they have learned through many disappointments not to trust others. Christ resisted this habituating choice. He set aside His glorious reputation and powerful coequality with the Father to become a dependent human being. He embraced human weakness so that He could tap into the strength of the Divine (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 their name great (Daniel 4:30; James 1:14–15). The self-sufficient person presents the oddest of ironies. While their self-reliance projects the image of being strong and in control, they are weak and not in control. Like all humanity, they stand 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. We are broken and depraved clay pots (Romans 3:23; 2 Corinthians 4:7). We are unable and incapable of accomplishing and sustaining anything outside of God’s proactive intervention and provision (1 Corinthians 4:7; Ephesians 2:1–9). We are God-dependent whether we want to admit it or not. The world is 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.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise (Psalm 51:17).
While they try to dress to impress, 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 pursuits that lead to competitive individualism. True success begins with a broken and humble posture before the Lord. We 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. Listen to how Paul discussed it while instructing the Corinthians about gospel irony.
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, 12:10).
The nature and expectation of self-reliance are to reject God. It is a choice as to whether we want to serve ourselves or serve the Lord. Because Adam continues to reside in us, there is a temptation to choose his dark path over walking in the light. Christians intuitively know that we cannot trust the Lord and ourselves simultaneously. 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 struggle, I developed a mind map to help us better understand the challenges and solutions regarding our universal tension with God. Self-reliance is a dysfunction of the heart that speaks specifically to how we relate to God. He calls us to believe in Him, and because trust is at the heart of the issue, you’ll see several synonyms in the mind map, like belief, hope, confidence, trust, and faith. These words redundantly convey the significance of trusting the Lord.
I am not using the word trust or belief in a salvific sense, meaning you are not a Christian if you struggle with self-reliance. This problem is not the exclusive domain of the unbeliever. Anyone can be an occasional functional atheist even though they are born again. Because it is impossible to trust God perfectly, we must believe and re-believe repeatedly. We must guard our hearts daily while contextualized in a community that encourages and challenges our faith (Hebrews 10:24). If we do not place ourselves in this kind of community, fear will begin to rule our hearts, and our cry will be similar to the gentleman in Mark’s Gospel.
Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24b).
Adam began to fear when he chose to un-believe in the Garden of Eden. The logic says we will trust someone or something else if we do not trust God. The most common and straightforward option is to trust in ourselves—creating tension because we intuitively know we are not trustworthy. There is always an element of fear when we rely on ourselves. Adam had this self-suspicion when he depended 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 difficulty admitting their fears (2 Corinthians 1:8–9, 4:7, and 12:7–10). Their self-reliant worldview disdains and dismisses fear. They resist this accommodation for what they consider an aberration of the psyche.
Admitting fear goes against their carefully crafted, self-reliant image. Fear on the map is what you find in the self-reliant person’s heart. You could draw a heart around the word. Also, note the tributaries of fear—its spiritual feeders: 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 specific 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 hands. Though fear and self-reliance appear to be antithetical, as you can see, they are actually in cahoots. Self-reliance does an excellent job of masking a heart of fear.
A person will mask fears, doubts, and insecurities in many ways. In the mind map, you will see the word comfort and the ancillary tributaries that feed the desire for comfort, like appearance, money, and relationships. Being a god is hard. Self-reliance is exhausting, so the self-reliant person must 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:
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.
God calls us to live by faith in Him, not by faith in ourselves or our abilities (Hebrews 11:6), to keep things under our control. You will quickly discern if you struggle with self-reliance by how you respond when life moves out of your comfort zone. Anything outside the box in the mind map is out of your control. Those moments will force you to make a pivotal decision to trust God or try to regain control of your world according to your preferred outcome. Your responses to life situations will reveal the real motivations of your heart (Luke 6:45)—whether your default is self-reliance or God-reliance.
The self-reliant person will not humble himself to God. He will not experience the redemptive work that only God can do. The self-sufficient soul will 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 will his way through the difficulty. He has an “I can do all things through me who strengthens me” mentality (Philippians 4:13). He will alienate himself from his friends if he does not repent of his self-reliance, as demonstrated by building community. The self-reliant soul promotes individualism, perpetuating disunity, dividing people, hurting feelings, creating misunderstandings, and instilling relational dysfunction.
Self-reliance is a crisis of faith. The cure brings us back to the gospel. If you struggle with self-reliance, as I do, you must relearn how to re-believe. Self-reliance is a loud and proud declaration that God is insufficient to care for 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 how to change.
Rick launched the Life Over Coffee global training network in 2008 to bring hope and help for you and others by creating resources that spark conversations for transformation. His primary responsibilities are resource creation and leadership development, which he does through speaking, writing, podcasting, and educating.
In 1990 he earned a BA in Theology and, in 1991, a BS in Education. In 1993, he received his ordination into Christian ministry, and in 2000 he graduated with an MA in Counseling from The Master’s University. In 2006 he was recognized as a Fellow of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC).