Why God-reliance and self-reliance are utterly incompatible

I know that I got under some people’s skin for beefing with Dave Ramsey on Red Letter Christians. I’ve never been in debt. If I had and some guy’s videos helped me out of it, I would be hurt if some random cocky young blogger was hating on my hero. So I wanted to try to explain where I’m coming from and why I felt compelled to speak out.

Self-reliance is the quintessential American virtue. There are many reasons it’s so endemic to our DNA. Part of it I’m sure came about through the pioneer process and its impact on the popular imagination through the man vs. wilderness ethos it created. Part of it is an off-shoot of the American affirmation of the basic dignity and equality of every individual person and our high regard for individual freedom and social mobility as contra distinct to the understanding of social hierarchy as a divinely ordained reality in which everyone has a place and God has anointed some to be kings and nobles and others to be peasants. There are legitimate roots for our ethos of self-reliance but let me share how it can become a very problematic and even heretical way of thinking for Christians.

1 Corinthians 4:7 is an important verse for us to be confronted by. Paul is calling out the Corinthians for their self-righteousness: “What do you have that you did not receive? And if you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?” Everything that we have is a gift from God. This is because God has given us whatever skills or virtues we have used to “earn” the money that we use to buy other things. God has used countless people and situations in our lives to make us who we are. Thus God deserves credit for not only the good we acknowledge receiving but also the good that He does through us. Self-reliance short-circuits this important recognition.

I know I beef with Calvinism a lot but the critical truth that it names is that God is the source of all good that happens. To claim my goodness as the product of my own being is the corrupt form of human nature that Augustine called homo curvatus in se. I am the source of nothing; I am the product of all that God has done and continues to do to create me. The basic realization within one’s conversion to Christianity is to repent of our delusion of self-reliance and recognize God’s sovereign providence over all that we are and all that we have.

When we are grateful, when we realize that every good deed God provides for us to do is a gift we don’t deserve, then we can be stewards of God’s property. We squander God’s property not because we’re not self-reliant enough but because we are ungrateful and have made a privilege into a right. This is why it’s abominable to say that God helps those who help themselves. That’s backwards. God is always helping us. Whether we receive it gratefully or not determines whether we will act in obedience not to help ourselves but to become another steward of God’s mission, a fruitful branch on the vine, a citizen of the kingdom of mercy.

I wonder what our nation will look like when self-professing Christians are converted from self-reliance to God-reliance. We currently have a social model in which individuals take care of themselves and pay the government taxes to take care of those who cannot or will not be self-reliant. Now we want to stop paying taxes not because we want to take on God’s work ourselves instead of the government but because we are ungratefully self-reliant and think those who aren’t should just buck up. If we were all grateful, God-reliant stewards, there would be no demand for social services because the body of Christ would have every need covered. Maybe that’s all Dave Ramsey is saying. If so, he needs to work on his word-choice.

9 thoughts on “Why God-reliance and self-reliance are utterly incompatible

  1. Wow, this self-reliance thing is really as you say incompatable to God-reliance. Everyone is paroting the phrase now-a-days that if you teach a man to fish it is better than giving him a fish and then they try to take this idea into the mission arena and teach people an occupation instead of teaching them Jesus! So when Jesus needed the tax requested of him at one point, why did he pull it out of a fish’s mouth. He should have set up a table and sold Girl Scout cookies and raised that money!!!! Wow, please Christians…read your Bible and quit following fads!!

  2. It seems like most believers somewhat have a chip on their shoulders on just about everything. Maybe humans in general are that way. Either group should not surprise us.

    In the religious ( I hesitate to use the phrase disciple of Christ) group many times when somebody is a bit grumbly, it is followed up by “rightly dividing scripture”.

    I guess my thought to the author is have you spent time with Dave R.? Have you discussed your differences? Would there be any point to do so? Does the written assault really make any difference in any human’s life?

    • I appreciate your criticism but I have to push back because you’re doing the same thing you accuse me of doing. This particular piece that you’re responding to is not an ad-hominem attack on Dave Ramsey. It deals with the issues themselves. Did you read the piece or did you comment first? If you have disagreements with this piece, let’s discuss those.

  3. First, let me say how refreshing your point of view is. I have tried to express my opinions on, not only the teaching of Dave Ramsey, but also the immense conflict between American Christianity (self-sufficient, self-reliant, self-justification masked by the ever present need to hold on the what we deem as “good Christian values” so that we can “look” the part) and that of being a Disciple of Christ (a follower of Christ whose main concern is their relationship with Christ and worshipping their Savior). There have many times that I have wanted to sit down and blog many of things that you have discussed here, but unfortunately, when I feel passionate about something I have trouble speaking (or writing as the case may be) with love. I am generally ready to attack and, as you mentioned in a previous entry, become puffed up by what I know so I choose to stay quiet online or rant in the privacy of my own home.

    Something that we have been discussing a lot Bible studies and leadership meetings (and random conversations at the local bar where we hold a community group) is the seemingly innate human desire to work for our salvation. After a Bible study one night, one of the women stated that she did not like one of the local churches because they did not “shame” people, they didn’t make the “backsliding” Christians feel bad about what they had done or what they wore; this was another moment when I had to walk away for fear that I would not speak with love. Something amazing to me, that I am just now kind of figuring out, is that as Christians, we are righteous not because of something that we have done (including praying a prayer or reading our Bibles), which is something that many of us know, but don’t quite get- we generally say that we don’t have to do anything to get God’s love, but it seems like we try to work to keep it, but because we are CALLED righteous. Christ has changed our name (as one of my favorite worship songs says). This is the main reason that I feel that self-reliance (financially and spiritually- which as we learn in the story of the rich man, where we put our money generally shows where our hearts are (and this is also stated by Christ in the sermon on the mount)) has no place in the Christian faith, if everything about us, right down to our names has been changed by Christ and we have died to self, we can only be reliant on Christ.

    Sorry for taking up so much of your blog with my comment, I will keep my comments shorter next time. It would be great to talk again, but until then, I will keep reading and enjoy knowing that there are others out there who are like-minded.

    • Wow. Thank you sister. Exactly. We are reliant on Christ alone. That’s what conversion means. It’s when we are given that realization. Don’t worry about long comments. I am honored and grateful to hear God’s word through you. Keep reading, keep talking, keep writing. God bless you!

  4. Sir,
    I feel you properly represented Mr. Ramsey’s views only in your last sentences. As one of the folks you alluded to at the beginning of your piece (Dave Ramsey taught me how to handle money) I can tell you that Mr. Ramsey’s thoughts on money management do not consist of sitting on a big pile of hundred dollar bills exclaiming “Look what I earned!” Mr. Ramsey’s views involve giving significantly to others? Why? For the exact reasons enumerated in your piece: because we are called as Christians to take care of each other. What Mr. Ramsey is advocating is discipleship; a willingness to walk into God’s ways of handling money and life. I paid for my father to join me on a mission trip to Honduras this year and was able to give one of my interns a much-needed pickup truck free of charge all because God used Dave Ramsey to teach me how to steward the gifts entrusted to me by the Lord.
    Sincerely,
    Chris Jones
    Director of Student Ministries
    Covenant Presbyterian Church
    Jackson, MS

    • I’m glad that you have been blessed by Mr. Ramsey’s teachings. I was responding to the promotional video for the Great Recovery campaign in which he does a whole lot of propagandizing about economic systems and the virtue of self-reliance that he didn’t need to do. Discipleship is exactly what it’s about. It’s about being responsible for myself so that I can be available to take care of others.

  5. I may be journeying into the treacherous territory of semantics, but I don’t think it is necessary to demonize “self-reliance.” This is not a biblical quote, but I’m thinking about the saying regarding teaching a man to fish. When you teach the man to fish, he becomes self-reliant. In order to do that, he had to learn the process from someone else. He can use the process to feed himself, but his gratitude should always go to the one who got him going in the right direction and gave him the tools to succeed. Similarly, our Heavenly Father has given us instructions and tools, we just need to use them to the best of our ability. You can choose to use what you have been given and do your best to support yourself (self-reliant), or you can choose to ignore the opportunity and allow others to support you (keeping in mind that God has given everyone different talents and resources to work with, so one person’s ability to be self-reliant may be different from someone else’s. Those who have less give those who have more the opportunity to be humble and serve). We can be self-reliant while still always giving thanks to the one who gave us a brain with which to think, gave us the hands to do the work, and gave us the resources that we use. It is not a bad thing to be able to provide for your family, where people get tripped up is not then sharing what they have gained, whether it be knowledge or material goods, with those around them, or not thanking God for how they have been blessed. Self-reliance is one thing, selfishness and excessive pride are entirely different.

    • You’re right. It’s a semantic disagreement. What you’re calling self-reliance I would call stewardship. I don’t have any quarrel with your form of self-reliance.

      I still think the point needs to be made though that salvation means admitting that my goodness does not come from myself but I am completely dependent on the One who gives me everything that I have. There are many people who think that they are the source of their own goodness, and this self-infatuation causes them to be unmerciful towards others. There are also many people who take responsibility for themselves and are grateful to God in all things and generous to others in all things. I want to be like the latter type of person.

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