The second hardest life lesson I’ve had to confront is asking for help. The hardest one has been actually accepting the help. (Note: I haven’t mastered either one yet.)
I’ve always been a capable person with the full calendar and resume to prove it. But ever since our oldest daughter was born with life-threatening complications, it was like having someone press my nose into the mud of my personal weakness and hold it there. It was a shock to discover how incapable I could be. It forced me to examine why it was so painful to accept that I need help. Why is it so humiliating to ask for and accept that help? It appears that I am not alone. Once I started looking for it, I discovered that this thread of I-don’t-need-help independence weaves through the American national identity and it influences how Christianity enters and merges with that national identity.
The Evolution of American Christianity
Resistance to asking for and accepting help is embedded in the fabric of American culture. Even though our individual heritages vary (some were forced here as slaves, some were here first and were conquered, some of us — including both sides of my family – immigrated here relatively recently), we all live and breathe and absorb our society’s characteristics. Our independent pioneer/cowboy spirit is the foundation these United States were built upon. The people who fled here from Europe and survived, the ones who pushed west, the pioneers who carved new lives from prairie, plains, and forest, the Lone Ranger… that kind of life takes grit and stubbornness and willingness to go it alone.
Yet, ours isn’t a noble story. The story of how the United States became what it is today is riddled with crimes against humanity. As a nation, we do not occupy any sort of moral high ground when it comes to the way we treat people who are different, have what we want, or stand in the way of what we want. Our cowboy independence feeds a willingness to trample others and the two spun together become a cord of superiority woven across our cultural DNA. Yes, it has made us a powerful and successful nation, but it is has a dark and deadly underbelly that still influences us today.
American Christians as a whole have struggled to rise above this superiority complex (or should I say “fall below?”). Jesus teaches us to be humble, love others, and not to worry about dominating or winning (the last will be first, remember?). This clashes with the Lone Ranger psyche we are born into, so we cut and patchwork it together into a deformed, Christian-in-name, distinctly American religion (Matthew Paul Turner has written an excellent and thorough history of this process in his new soon-to-be-released book Our Great Big American God: A Short History of Our Ever-Growing Deity).
This American-Christian halfbreed teaches that we can do anything if God is on our side–we can go it pseudo-solo (because we’re not really alone if God is with us, right?). It idolizes independence. And it culminates in the false gospel, “God won’t give you more than you can handle.”
Every culture and society has blind spots, places where our culture and society blind us to the meaning and intent of Jesus’ teaching. We delight in identifying these blind spots in others, forgetting that we have them too. I believe that this “God won’t give you more than you can handle” idea is the ultimate expression of our most dangerous American-Christian blind spot — independence.
Independence and Individuals
As an American Christian, woman, wife, and mother, I soaked it up without noticing. American Christianity told me that the perfect Christian, woman, wife, and mother was someone who could handle everything herself. I made that my goal, and of course I had to do it independently.
But by telling me “God won’t give you more than you can handle,” this false gospel also taught me that my failures were my fault. If I couldn’t handle something, it was because I was a bad Christian. I had been lazy, didn’t put forth enough effort, didn’t plan well, didn’t follow through, indulged myself instead of being self-disciplined, or had otherwise sinned in some way. (Sound familiar? Yes, this is the same pattern we see in name-it-and-claim-it Christianity.)
The false gospel of independence teaches that needing or requesting help is either a symptom of some other sin or a sinful attitude in and of itself.
Certainly some of my failures to handle things were and are my own fault, but not all of them. Sometimes, I do reach my limits. This happened regularly when Elli was alive, and it happened daily during the 15 months between the day the youngest was born and the day Elli died. We also met our financial limits trying to pay for the kids’ health care and accommodate her special needs. And I spent the years immediately following Elli’s death well beyond my ability to handle alone. And as my physical therapy records indicate, now that I’m getting older, I’m discovering my physical limits.
When I can’t handle things, I reach the point where I end and you begin. What happens next depends on our theology of independence and community.
Independence and Communities
I have the best husband. He’s reliable and steady. He washes dishes, mops and vacuums floors, does laundry, and basically is the absolute best tidy-up-the-house-for-company person I’ve ever known. He changes diapers and gives baby bottles and during the baby years he got up with each of our kids on Friday and Saturday nights so I could sleep. He follows through on commitments and takes action when something needs to be done.
Many women would kill to have a husband like that. Which makes it all the more awful that my reaction when he helped around the house used to be anger. I was insulted, my pride was hurt, and I felt like his help meant that I was falling short on my responsibilities. While I was relieved to have help, it felt like condemnation.
I’ve had years to learn to accept my own limits and face how hurtful my prideful independence is. God has forced me to face the truth that, in fact, I’m Not All That. I can’t do it myself. I actually do need help.
This is the monumental thing that our American Christianity gets wrong: God didn’t create us to be self-sufficient. He created us to live together, to complement each other’s weaknesses with our strengths, and allow their strengths to complement our weaknesses.
You can easily enough see how this kind of thing works by looking no further than your own body. Your body has many parts—limbs, organs, cells—but no matter how many parts you can name, you’re still one body. It’s exactly the same with Christ. By means of his one Spirit, we all said good-bye to our partial and piecemeal lives. We each used to independently call our own shots, but then we entered into a large and integrated life in which he has the final say in everything. (This is what we proclaimed in word and action when we were baptized.) Each of us is now a part of his resurrection body, refreshed and sustained at one fountain—his Spirit—where we all come to drink. The old labels we once used to identify ourselves—labels like Jew or Greek, slave or free—are no longer useful. We need something larger, more comprehensive. …
I want you to think about how all this makes you more significant, not less. A body isn’t just a single part blown up into something huge. It’s all the different-but-similar parts arranged and functioning together. …
But I also want you to think about how this keeps your significance from getting blown up into self-importance. For no matter how significant you are, it is only because of what you are a part of. An enormous eye or a gigantic hand wouldn’t be a body, but a monster. What we have is one body with many parts, each its proper size and in its proper place. No part is important on its own. …
The way God designed our bodies is a model for understanding our lives together as a church: every part dependent on every other part, the parts we mention and the parts we don’t, the parts we see and the parts we don’t. If one part hurts, every other part is involved in the hurt, and in the healing. If one part flourishes, every other part enters into the exuberance.
You are Christ’s body—that’s who you are! You must never forget this. (Selected verses from 1 Corinthians 12, The Message)
Each of us will encounter something we can’t handle without help. Some of us will spend years there, while others have only fleeting moments of need.
And this means all of us will come into contact with people who need help. This is normal, healthy, and can be beautiful. It is a privilege to help one another, but that requires someone to receive the help. It brings people together and allows us the opportunity to live out the commands Jesus gives us to help those in need, give food to the hungry, water to the thirsty, help to the helpless.
Independence’s Sinister Underbelly
The false gospel of independence teaches that needing help is sin, but it gets far more sinister and deadly. The natural outworking of this theology is to conclude that offering help must also be sin. The logic goes like this: “if that person is asking for help, they must have screwed up somewhere. They are sinners. I need to let them experience the natural consequences of their sin. It would be sinful of me to give them an easy out.”
This is what we’re thinking: If God won’t give you more than you can handle, don’t come running to us, our churches, or the U.S. for help. You need to handle it on your own.
Sounds like reincarnation and karma. Sounds like a gospel of independence, retaliation, arrogance, and judgment. It does not sound like Jesus.
Where is the grace and mercy of Jesus in a theology that causes us to withhold help from the people who need it most?
I believe this false gospel is the reason we see protestors pounding on buses full of desperate children fleeing death threats in their home countries. It is the reason so many families are living on the brink of homelessness (please click that link and consider helping out).
The false gospel of independence not only hurts the people we turn our backs on, but it will hurt us too.
Jesus’s words in Matthew 25, where he says:
You’re good for nothing but the fires of hell. And why? Because—
I was hungry and you gave me no meal,
I was thirsty and you gave me no drink,
I was homeless and you gave me no bed,
I was shivering and you gave me no clothes,
Sick and in prison, and you never visited.’
“Then those ‘goats’ are going to say, ‘Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or homeless or shivering or sick or in prison and didn’t help?’
“He will answer them, ‘I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you failed to do one of these things to someone who was being overlooked or ignored, that was me—you failed to do it to me.’