The Myth of Self-Sufficiency

The Millennial Evangelical, Chris Martin, examines Galatians in regards to the hardships that we all bear and how to recognize and abstain from self-reliance.

Chris Martin  ·  January 3, 2017

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The Myth of Self-sufficiency

We all have burdens, and God does not intend for us to carry them by ourselves in isolation from our brothers and sisters. The ancient philosophy of Stoicism taught that the goal of the happy life was apatheia, a studied aloofness from pleasure and pain, and self-sufficiency, the ability to brave the harsh elements of life without dependence upon others. As the Roman philosopher Seneca put it, “The primary sign of a well-ordered mind is a man’s ability to remain in one place and linger in his own company.” But there is a vast difference between Stoic equanimity and Christian courage.

The myth of self-sufficiency is not a mark of bravery but rather a sign of pride. Paul’s maxim in v. 3 is aimed at this perverted understanding of the self. “If a man thinks he is ‘somebody,’ he is deceiving himself, for that very thought proves that he is nobody” (Phillips). Such an attitude of conceited self-importance leads to two fundamental failures in relationship: one, the refusal to bear the burdens of others, for that would be a task too menial and deprecating for a person who “thinks he is something”; the other, the refusal to allow anyone else to help shoulder one’s own burdens since that would be an admission of weakness and need. To live this way, however, is to practice the art of self-deception, for “no man is an island entire to itself.”

The Imperative of Mutuality

Because all Christians have burdens and since none are sufficient unto themselves to bear their burdens alone, God has so tempered the body of Christ that its members are to be priests to one another, bearing one another’s burdens and so fulfilling the law of Christ. Paul’s most extensive elaboration on the theme of Christian mutuality is in his discourse on the body of Christ in 1 Cor 12. There in the context of a fractured fellowship beset with rival parties and self-serving leaders,

Paul declared that God has so brought the members of the congregation into mutual relationship “that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it” (1 Cor 12:25–26). Luther said that a Christian must have “broad shoulders and husky bones” in order to carry the burdens of his brothers and sisters.125 The command to bear one another’s burdens in no way mitigates against the other New Testament imperative to cast all our cares upon Christ, since he cares for us (1 Pet 5:7).

The apostle Paul knew a great deal about burdens. On one occasion he was severely oppressed by afflictions at every turn— fightings without and fears within. In this moment of crisis, he later wrote, “But God, who comforts the downcast, comforted us by the coming of Titus” (2 Cor 7:5–6). J. Stott comments on this text:

God’s comfort was not given to Paul through his private prayer and waiting upon the Lord, but through the companionship of a friend and through the good news which he brought. Human friendship, in which we bear one another’s burdens, is part of the purpose of God for his people. So we should not keep our burdens to ourselves, but rather seek a Christian friend who will help to bear them with us.

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