“I can do it myself!” my daughter announced as she raced ahead of me down the sidewalk. My heart did a little sideways flip-flop as I watched her neon shoes hit the pavement, causing her Lalaloopsy backpack to bounce against her narrow frame.
It was the second day of kindergarten. At my oldest daughter’s pleading, I had allowed her to ride the bus home from school. As the bus rumbled to a stop and the kids filed out, I did not catch sight of her. Worried that she had been placed on the wrong bus, I peered in to ask the driver and found my daughter giggling with two new friends on the front seat.
Looking surprised to see me, she jumped out of her seat and bounced down the stairs onto the sidewalk. Her feet had barely hit the pavement before she whirled around and insisted, “I can do it myself!”
Obviously, she had no idea where to exit because this was her first time riding the bus home, but rather than admit her need for my help, she declared that she would have been just fine had I not leaned in and collected her.
Watching that determined little girl skip away down the sidewalk, I felt a rustle in my spirit. Isn’t this what I do to God on a regular basis? How often does He fetch me off the “bus” only to see me claim that it was all my own doing?
Perhaps that heart flutter I felt was because I am often the little girl in this interchange. I am the one telling God, “I can do it myself.”
Independence as a Coping Mechanism
A can-do spirit has always been stitched into my DNA. My parents would most likely corroborate, but in looking back, I also developed self-reliance as a weapon I used to fight back against circumstances I couldn’t control.
I had some situations in my childhood where I tried to voice my needs, and I was answered with irritation, anger or silence. I soon discovered that it was easier not to assert myself in some situations. Easier not to create a problem.
I became self-sufficient so that I wouldn’t impose on anyone. I built a fortress of one to protect myself. I didn’t realize that whether or not people always have good reactions to me, I need to share my needs. God doesn’t want me to cover up who I am in an unhealthy way to please others. I am not a problem if I speak up or express how I feel.
Giving up Self-Sufficiency for God-Dependency
Self-sufficiency wasn’t the only way that I tried to manage others and make them like me; I also made the decision to be really useful. Not only would I never inconvenience the people in my life by expressing what I wanted, but I would also display how productive I could be — how successful. I would prove to everyone I was worth it.
Particularly in college and the first few years of teaching, I became extremely performance-driven. Although I didn’t recognize it as such, I was relying on my own fleshly attitudes to make it through my life. I believed in God, but I didn’t really know that He could help me with all the finite details of my emotions. I didn’t think He cared about that. My “It’s all up to me. I have to make this happen” attitude in college took a toll on my body.
I developed a nervous stomach and paralyzing fear and anxiety. While other people agonized over the extra pounds they were gaining, I fit easily in size zero jeans. All of my worrying whittled me down to very thin. One particular Sunday, I went forward at church for prayer when stress had brought me to the point of near collapse — and the preacher happened to say something about the cause of anxiety during the prayer time: fear.
A light bulb went off in my head, and I began to see how my terror that I wouldn’t measure up or succeed was paralyzing me and causing me to over-work myself in an effort to succeed. When I realized that the antidote to fear is trust, and I could hand over my worry to God and rest, my schoolwork became a lot more manageable. Because at the bottom of all of my self-reliance was a huge fear that I would fail. I would fail in relationships. I would fail at being successful.
And when I failed, I had an even bigger fear — I would be rejected.
Acting Out of the Flesh
What I didn’t realize a few years ago is that by trying to change myself to please people, I was attempting to manufacture acceptance from the people around me with my actions. The desire to do things without God is something every person attempts to do whether he or she recognizes it or not. Even Christians can operate in the flesh.
According to a By Divine Design conference I attended, living in the flesh is when we attempt to meet our own needs for love, acceptance, worth, and security apart from God. This desire to be independent came into the world when Adam and Eve sinned (Genesis 3:1-21). Our flesh wants control, but we cannot experience abundant life when we live out of our flesh rather than His Spirit (John 6:63).
I’d grown up in church and had only heard flesh defined as our sinful nature that leads us to lie, cheat, steal, lust, etc. However, I didn’t realize that flesh is a little more encompassing. Certainly, we may be tempted in those areas that I just listed, but acting out of our flesh also includes all the ways — even those skills considered socially acceptable — we try to do life in our own strength and the coping skills we use to get what we want out of our environment (By Design). I tried to do this with my independence and performance; however, there are other coping strategies that exist as well: criticism of others, workaholism, stoicism, escapism, perfectionism, and the list goes on.
The more I tried to cope by using my own flesh patterns, the more tied up in knots I became. It’s not wrong to have needs or express them, as I learned, or let the people in our lives help us feel loved and cherished; however, it’s a problem when we lean the entire weight of our identity on others’ reactions and our own achievements. God never intended us to generate our own devices to get through our circumstances. Consider what God says about how we are to approach life in Proverbs 3:5,6: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. In all of your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight.”
The New Living Translation actually says that this means not to depend on our own understanding. Therefore, the Bible teaches a dependence on God — not on our own flesh. In practical terms, this means seeking out the advice and will of God in our choices, relationships, and actions. In fact, The NIV Application Commentary suggests that not leaning on our own understanding goes beyond just asking for help in daily decisions; depending on God means “not being wise in [our] own eyes” (Prov. 3:7).
We shouldn’t necessarily feel guilty if we go somewhere for lunch before consulting Him; however, this does mean that our attitude is one of acknowledging God’s wisdom as surpassing our own. Trying to bull-doze through life on our own strength is being wise in our own eyes. Being dependent doesn’t mean we don’t have a personality or a brain. Being dependent means giving up our self-made strategies and learning God’s better ones. Being dependent means trusting so that we don’t have to fall for the lie that it’s all up to us.
Because the other part of Proverbs 3:5-8 is this: When we choose to depend on God’s ways over our own, He “makes [our] paths straight.” The Hebrew word for “straight” indicates “travel made safe by clearing and leveling the road” (The NIV Application Comm.). That means when we choose to lean on God instead of ourselves, He literally clears the way. It doesn’t mean we won’t be met with obstacles, because we will, but we will be traveling a way leveled in advance for us by the Almighty God.
We can rest because He’s got our back. And I don’t know about you, but that way sounds a whole lot better than trying to “do it myself”!
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*Adapted from a post published November 3, 2017.