Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Love, Freedom, Idolatry, and the Self-Made Person

Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the skilful; but time and chance happen to them all. Ecclesiastes 9:11

"Time and chance happen to them all." So it says, right there in the Bible. It's not really a startling statement, but it does run counter to the cherished American myth of the self-made man or woman. Those who are struggling may not embrace it, but those who do well are happy to attribute their success to their own strength, intelligence, and skill. And quite often, they are equally willing to lay the blame for poverty on the poor's lack of initiative, wisdom, and skill. No "time and chance" involved.

To me this smacks of good old fashioned idolatry. There's a reason that the Bible links greed with idolatry. (see Ephesians 5:5; Colossians 3:5) Those whose lives are motivated by wealth are often prone to a certain arrogance, imagining that they control their own destiny. No grace or blessing required for them. They grab, earn, take, and secure what they need and want. They dare not trust in the provision of God's abundance. The only thing they can trust are their own desires and their own efforts. There is not enough for all, and they must snatch theirs before someone else does.

Americans often speak of this as a "Christian nation," but it is a Ben Franklin version of Christian faith where "God helps those who help themselves." (That's not in the Bible. Franklin said it.) The Bible says something contrary. "Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain." (Psalm 127) There's no dishonoring of hard work here, but there is a warning against hard work that is simply for self, and this sort of effort describes the frenzied activity of many Americans in their endless pursuit of more.

Of course this isn't just an issue in the area of financial greed. Many of us who aren't necessarily "greedy" still have something we want, something we work very hard to achieve. (I want to be a successful pastor and an admired preacher.) And when we start to imagine that such achievements are purely a matter or our efforts, of our strength, intelligence, and skill, we wander into the arrogance of the greedy. No need for grace or blessings. No need to be sure we are building what God desires.

The American myth of the self-made person is closely associated with our love of freedom. But here again, I fear we have distorted the biblical concept of freedom. Ours tends to be little more than, "I can do whatever I want." In today's reading from Galatians, the Apostle Paul has a somewhat different notion. "For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another."

What do you need to be freed from in order to trust yourself to God and give yourself others?

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