In a previous article, I addressed three reasons that our understanding of the church gets distorted. One of those reasons was the influencing power of sin within us that causes us to trust our own wisdom. Paul recognized that this was a danger in church planting when he wrote to the Corinthians. He intentionally and carefully labored in such a way that would showcase God’s power, not his own wisdom.
1 Corinthians 2:4-5 “My speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.”
Paul recognized that church leaders could unintentionally trust man’s wisdom more than God’s revealed will. Even in attempting to accomplish the great commission, church leaders are in danger of self-reliance. Each of the following biblical characters were attempting to accomplish what they thought to be God’s purposes, but each ignored God’s instruction in doing so.
Genesis 15:3-5 And Abram said, “Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.” 4 And behold, the word of the Lord came to him: “This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.” 5 And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.
Genesis 16:1-2 Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. She had a female Egyptian servant whose name was Hagar. 2 And Sarai said to Abram, “Behold now, the Lord has prevented me from bearing children. Go into my servant; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.” And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai.
Abraham decided God’s promise was taking too long. He decided to produce the son of promise his own way. He slept with his servant and produced a son, but it wasn’t the son of promise. By trying to accomplish the Lord’s will Abraham’s way, Abraham displeased the Lord, brought conflict into his family, and the ripple effects would be felt for generations. You might even argue that Abraham’s intentions were good. He wanted to accomplish what God had promised, but he sought to accomplish it his own way on his own timetable. He wanted to accomplish godly ends by his own means.
1 Samuel 13:8-13 He waited seven days; the time appointed by Samuel. But Samuel did not come to Gilgal, and the people were scattering from him. 9 So Saul said, “Bring the burnt offering here to me, and the peace offerings.” And he offered the burnt offering. 10 As soon as he had finished offering the burnt offering, behold, Samuel came. And Saul went out to meet him and greet him. 11 Samuel said, “What have you done?” And Saul said, “When I saw that the people were scattering from me, and that you did not come within the days appointed, and that the Philistines had mustered at Michmash, 12 I said, ‘Now the Philistines will come down against me at Gilgal, and I have not sought the favor of the Lord.’ So I forced myself, and offered the burnt offering.” 13 And Samuel said to Saul, “You have done foolishly. You have not kept the command of the Lord your God, with which he commanded you. For then the Lord would have established your kingdom over Israel forever.
Several things become clear in this story. Firstly, God is serious about his instruction. He does not add situational qualifiers for his commands, nor does he make exceptions depending upon our good reasoning for disobedience. Samuel had commanded Saul to wait for his arrival, but when Samuel delayed, Saul devised his own pragmatic solution to the problem at hand. Saul’s intentions appear good. He wanted to seek the Lord’s favor. He wanted to offer burnt offerings and peace offerings unto the Lord. He wanted to unite the people around worship directed to the one true God, but he set out to worship God contrary to God’s command. Saul was showing that he thought himself to be above the word of the Lord. He relied on his own ability to discern what should be done, rather than trusting God for what, when, and how the worship was to be performed. By trusting in himself, he acted foolishly, and his self-reliance ultimately cost him the kingdom. He wanted to accomplish godly ends by his own means.
In the book of Isaiah, the people of Israel are guilty of a similar self-reliance. The enemies around them are increasing in strength and the threat of their annihilation was growing. Rather than turning to the Lord for his supernatural assistance, they collectively turn to Egypt for assistance. Based on the facts, it was the most logical decision. They needed a strong ally for the imposing threat, but God sees their decision as an act of faithless self-reliance.
Isaiah 31:1-3 Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help and rely on horses, who trust in chariots because they are many and in horsemen because they are very strong but do not look to the Holy One of Israel or consult the Lord! 2 And yet he is wise and brings disaster he doesn’t call back his words, but will arise against the house of the evildoers and against the helpers of those who work iniquity. 3 The Egyptians are man, and not God, and their horses are flesh, and not spirit. When the Lord stretches out his hand, the helper will stumble, and he who is helped will fall, and they will all perish together.
How tempting it is to bend, adapt, and neglect God’s instruction when his instruction does not seem to be most pragmatically beneficial in the present moment. When God’s way seems more time-consuming and more difficult, the natural inclination is to help God out by looking for a better way. We do this in our own personal lives often. Marriages end because divorce seems to be the more expedient, more logical, and even more providential way than the emotional, mental, and spiritual battle it would take to fight for restoration. Prayer is put on the sidelines because tangible productivity appears to be the more pressing need. We avoid hard conversations, we hold on to our money for our own comforts, we tell a little white lie, all because these paths seem to be the most effective paths for the desired result. Self-reliance leads to sin every time. Self-reliance is a sin.
Peter knew Jesus. He walked with Jesus. He sat under Jesus’ teachings and witnessed his many miracles. In Mark chapter 8, Peter has a high moment in his discipleship journey. Jesus asks the all-important question, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter spoke up per usual. But he got it right. He declared Jesus to be the Christ, the Son of the living God, and Jesus credited God the Father for Peter’s understanding of Jesus’ identity. But Peter’s high moment does not last very long.
Mark 8:31-33 And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 And he said this plainly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”
Peter accepted that Jesus was the Christ who came to accomplish the Father’s plan, but Peter rejected the plan. Peter rebukes Jesus for misunderstanding. Peter the fishermen takes aside the Jesus who walks on water to help Jesus think through a better plan for Jesus. Its comical. But its familiar. You can have good intentions yet make very bad decisions. Jesus’ response to Peter is telling. If there is one name I would never want Jesus to call me, its Satan. The point is clear. Peter’s perspective was a demonic one. Jesus came to die on a cross and rise again, but because Peter could not see how suffering could be a part of the plan, Peter rejected the plan Jesus had just explained. What if Peter could have somehow had his way? When he couldn’t clearly see the big picture, what if Peter could have stopped the cross from happening? He would have prevented the only means of salvation for God’s people. Peter needed to stop, listen, and trust Jesus’ actual words rather than trusting his own flawed intuition. So do we.
Church leaders beware of the ever encroaching sin of self-reliance. Even in our good intentioned attempts to reach more people, plant more churches, and spread the kingdom of God, we are always in danger of trying to accomplish great things apart from submitting ourselves to the whole counsel of God’s word. Don’t ignore God’s word in an effort to accomplish what you think is God’s mission.