Raised in a working-class home in Appalachia, I saw both of my parents laboring long and hard to put food on the table. We were not poor, but only because we stayed busy. It never crossed our minds to have someone mow our grass, fix our car or our house. Charity was something we gave; it was never to be received. We stood our ground, paid our debts, and didn’t ask anyone for anything.
As an adult, I still do most things myself. Isn’t that the American way? This idea is at the heart of who we are as people. We prefer to stand on our own two feet, to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. Does anyone really like to admit that they need help? I doubt it. Yet as a Christian, I wonder if “self-reliance” is a healthy attitude.
At the same time, the alternative—doing nothing or failing to use our gifts and skills—seems equally unhealthy. Humankind has accomplished amazing things. These wouldn’t have happened if people had just sat around moaning about their limitations.
But when do our actions come from our being made in the image of God, and when do they come from our broken, sinful nature? Two recent popular songs highlight this tension between our inevitable weakness and our incredible capacity as people.
With my own two hands
Ben Harper’s 2003 hit “With My Own Two Hands” is an upbeat reggae romp full of Les Paul guitars and B3 organs. As a listener, it makes me want to open my sunroof, crank up the stereo, and take on the world. Here is a sample of the lyrics:
I can change the world with my own two hands
Make a better place with my own two hands
Make a kinder place with my own two hands
I can make peace on earth with my own two hands
And I can clean up the earth with my own two hands
And I can reach out to you with my own two hands
Who hasn’t felt like this on a spring day? This song makes me feel strong. It causes me to dream big dreams. Listening to this song inspires me get out there and fix this world—and it makes me believe that I can. I love this song because it moves me out of my comfort zone and encourages me to get my hands dirty.
However, I have a confession to make. Most of the times that I have risked, I have failed. More often than not, when I have stuck out my neck and tried to change even a small situation, I find that I am not capable of much at all. I turned 47 this year, and I did not celebrate. Each birthday is a bitter pill to me: a reminder that my time is running short and that, despite my best intentions, I am not accomplishing what I thought I would have accomplished by this age. When I was a young man, I felt I could do anything. But the unbridled optimism of my 20s is now tempered with frustration and brokenness.
While I am quite happily married, have four great kids, and pastor a wonderful church, I used to dream bigger dreams, like those in Ben Harper’s song. I still haven’t contributed much to world peace, cleaning up the earth, or changing the world. Most days I don’t feel very self-reliant. As I try to tackle a problem, I feel as if I am trying to bale water out of a sinking ship using a bucket with no bottom. It doesn’t matter how hard I try, it just doesn’t seem to work.
I’m not able
That same sentiment reverberates through NeedToBreathe’s 2011 song “Able,” a soulful, piano-laced introspection featuring a sweet dobro solo. These lyrics speak well to how I feel most days:
Carry 'round the secrets
Only heaven knows
Crawl into our darkened rooms
Where only victims go
Though I feel I'm strong enough to carry all this load
I'm not able on my own
This song understands that North Americans are enmeshed in a culture that tells us to “just try harder.” But I have yet to find anyone who is this utterly self-reliant and capable of standing solely on their own two feet. Perhaps the most offensive part of the Gospel is the revelation that “I’m not able on my own.”
But equally scandalous are the words in John 14:12, where Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these [. . .].” Jesus Himself believes that we will do bigger and better things than He did. So far, I haven’t turned any water into wine, restored sight, or healed a lame man. Am I doing something wrong? Or did He mean that the things I would be able to do are greater than miracles? In Acts 1:8, we read, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses.” Could it be that the witness of my simple life of obedience—a preview of the coming Kingdom—is greater than feeding 5,000 people?
About halfway through “Able,” the lead male voice is joined by a whole choir, which belts, “Find your patience, find your truth / Love is all we have to lose.” The sudden flood of voices reminds me that we’re all in the same boat, and no one’s bail bucket is of any use. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but perhaps it is in our daily rubbing of shoulders with other broken people that we find our patience and our truth—the truth that we are desperately needy.
So who is right, Ben Harper or NeedToBreathe? I think both are on the right path, depending on where you are in life. Without the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, “Able” is correct in saying that “Though I feel I'm just as strong as any man I know / I'm not able on my own.” But once we have surrendered to Christ and are filled with the Holy Spirit, then maybe we can sing with Harper, “I can change the world with my own two hands.”
Where does that leave me? I need to remember that when I act upon my own plans and desires, I find myself in the same predicament as Adam and Eve: afraid, standing naked in front of God, ashamed of eating my own apples and searching for fig leaves of self-importance, self-reliance, and self-indulgence. I must learn to wait on God in prayer for the right plan to change the world and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit to make that plan reality.