Self-sufficiency. In our western society this is a virtue. If you can do everything yourself you’ll never need anyone else. Nothing will hold you back if you supply your every need yourself. You have perfectly good boot straps with which to pull yourself up and make something of your life, so why wouldn’t you?
However, there is a vice inherently lined within this “virtue” and that is selfishness. ‘Self-sufficient’ and ‘selfish’ both start with ‘self.’ A self-sufficient life is preoccupied with self in order to meet all the needs of that self. Therefore a self-sufficient life is a selfish life. It is also selfish of the “other” in this equation. If one is self-sufficient then the others around that self don’t have any responsibility for the self in question. The others can look at that person and say: Take care of yourself so I don’t have to. Take care of your stuff so it’s not in my way. If something gets stolen or messed up you only have yourself to blame. I’m left to believe that this virtue of western culture is no virtue at all, but really a vice with a nice makeover to hide its ugliness.
At the end of Christ and Culture Richard Niebuhr goes on a bit of a rant about Keirkegaard’s Concluding Unscientific Postscript (both of which are a thrilling read, I can assure you). In this rant he touches on this very phenomena within self-sufficiency. “[Kierkegaardian existentialism] abandons the social problem, not because it is insistent on the responsibility of the individual, but because it ignores the responsibility of the self to and for other selves.” (Christ and Culture, page 244) Niebuhr goes on to talk about how we are individuals, but we are a part of a time and a place filled with other people. We cannot separate ourselves from the others around us because their decisions affect us, and our decisions affect them. Because our decisions affect others, we have a responsibility in our existence to consider those others while making decisions.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t take care of ourselves and our stuff, I’m saying we shouldn’t raise self-sufficiency up out of its proper place. It is not something to be praised and prioritized above all else. We cannot prioritize self-sufficiency above all others either. How many times have you left someone in the lurch in the name of self-preservation? I have more times than I’d like to admit. Why do we need to preserve ourselves if not to make sure personal resources are available to meet our own needs? Self-preservation in the name of self-sufficiency puts that sufficiency above the golden rule of love thy neighbor.
With self-sufficiency out of place in priorities we are unsupported in life, and we leave those around us unsupported. If we spend our resources on others to fill their needs, we might not have enough to fill our own needs when they come up. So we keep our resources to ourselves and in the process end up isolated from those around us. Say one of us did help another, depleting personal resources. The person who helped would be short on resources and he would have the choice to go without, or (gasp!) ask for help. What self-respecting, self-sufficient westerner asks for help? Or goes without for that matter?
I am 100% guilty of this vice. People are messy and complicated. I don’t know what to do in the best of social situations, let alone a messy one. In my early experiences people liked to take, but they didn’t like to give; so when I gave no one gave back to me and I was left with nothing. This taught me to be self-sufficient and to stop giving. On some level I still wanted to help others, but I was scared to offer. I was scared to end up with nothing again. On top of which, I loathe asking for help. More often than not, I stop myself from helping others in order to keep from needing help myself.
Haven’t we all said at one time or another, “Someone else will do it”? Someone else can have the bleeding heart. Someone else can run the hopelessly overwhelmed non-profit. Someone else can dig the wells in Africa. Someone else can wash feet. Someone else can serve breakfast. Someone else can be broken and bruised for the lost. Someone else did: Jesus.
Jesus was not self- sufficient. He gave, and he needed. Jesus gave all he had in life and in death. He taught whoever would listen. He healed all the sick. He personally raised up leaders for his church. He cast out demons, even a legion of demons from the demoniac. Where did he get the strength and wherewithal to do all that? He got what he needed from God the Father.
When Jesus found himself in need he went alone to pray. In those times of prayer he found nourishment and replenishment from the Father. Jesus was sustained by his ongoing relationship within the Trinity, even when he was here on earth. He needed the Father and the Holy Spirit, he was not alone in his ministry. He also needed the disciples and their network of friends and family to supply food and shelter. Not to mention, needing the disciples to spread the gospel after ascending to heaven. Jesus supported others and accepted support.
Jesus didn’t stop with giving in life, he also gave in death. He died on the cross for our sins that we might be redeemed and brought close to the Father in right relationship with Him. Within that relationship we find support and with that support we are able to give support to others. In a right relationship with God through Christ we are no longer isolated, rather we connect with others around us and they are no longer isolated.
Paul brings up the issue of sufficiency in 2 Corinthians, “Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think of anything as being from ourselves but our sufficiency is from God, who also made us sufficient as ministers of the new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills but the Spirit gives life.” (2 Cor. 3:5-6 NKJ) In this passage Paul is talking about evangelism, but I think it applies to the rest of life as well. When we are in Christ we are empowered by the Holy Spirit to go beyond ourselves in friendship and love towards others, just as Christ did when He was here 2,000 years ago.
When we are in Christ we can step out of the shallow surety of our self-sufficiency and into the infinite surety of Christ’s sufficiency. We can go to the Father in prayer for replenishment, just like Jesus. We can be empowered by the Holy Spirit just like Jesus. We can give like Jesus. We will find ourselves in need, unable to attain self-sufficiency. But that’s ok because Jesus will be right there holding our hands and showing us His provision and grace every step of the way.
In Christ we can rebuild our communities. We can reach out to each other and support each other. We can be the hands and feet of Jesus to each other. No longer self-sufficient but Christ-sufficient.
– Etta Woods
Christ and Culture. Richard Niebuhr. Copyright 1951, Harper and Row. New York, New York.