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.