Over the last few summers, I’ve enjoyed doing something that many people consider crazy. I compete in triathlons. While I generally enjoy the event, there is one aspect of a triathlon that is especially challenging: the swim. However, the most difficult aspect is not the actual swimming, but the mass of splashing, swinging arms and legs. You see, my problem is not that I’m a bad swimmer. My issue is that I panic. No matter how hard I train, I have to fight – almost the entire swim – against the tendency to “freak out.”
Understanding this tendency has been helpful. It has adjusted how I prepare for a triathlon. But more practically, this “panic-awareness” has changed how I think when competing in a triathlon. I no longer “freak out” when I start to “freak out” in the swim. I have learned to deal with my panic.
In the same way that “panic-mode” is my default during a triathlon, I’ve learned that self-sufficiency is one of my most familiar barriers to following Jesus. I have to battle my natural tendency – even after becoming a Christian – to trust in myself.
Five Problems Connected to Self-Sufficiency
In James 4:1-5, James identifies five basic problems related to our self-focus:
1. Self-centered passions (James 4:1)- There is a war taking place inside every human being – even those who are committed Christ-followers. We have self-focused “passions.” This is the Greek word from which we derive the word hedonist. It means self-centered pleasure seeking. Love for oneself lies at the core of the human heart. This is our basic problem.
2. Ungodly desires (v. 2a) – Self-centered love expresses itself in desires that are strong and often frustrated. You want something and when you don’t get it, you are willing to do outrageous things. Inside the human heart is an ever-churning caldron of wrong desires. The conflicts, fights, and quarrels come from here.
3. Prayer-less living (v. 2b)– A significant symptom of broken desires is a lack of prayer. Self-centered people who are filled with ungodly desires are marked by an absence of prayer. Self-sufficient people do not pray. And even if they do, there’s another problem.
4. Selfish prayers (v. 3) – Tragically, our selfish passions can infect our prayer life. The motivation for seeking God’s help can be self-focused. We try to use God as our lackey. We can even offer prayers that sound religious and spiritual but are really just the gross expression of our proud and covetous hearts.
5. Cultural drifting (vv. 4-5) – James uses some very strong words. He calls this selfish orientation of the heart “spiritual adultery” and “friendship with the world.” Further, He says that this puts people on the wrong side of God – “makes himself an enemy of God.” God did not intend for His children to follow the current of the culture. After explaining all that is potentially wrong with the human heart, James cautions us that the entire system in which we live is characterized by self-oriented, self-trusting living.
Gratefully, the Bible doesn’t stop here.
A Powerful Promise to Believe
James moves from the deep surgery of the previous five verses to a beautiful promise that is at the heart of how we overcome the self-sufficiency barrier. Here’s what the text says: “but he gives more grace” (Jam. 4:6). In other words, we are not without hope. There is a divinely-given path to counter our self-sufficiency. This grace comes to us through a relationship with Jesus Christ. The hope of the Bible is that God keeps giving grace. It’s not just that He offers His favor, help, and mercy to us through Jesus once. That’s only the beginning.
God is able to supply grace for all the “gaps” in life as well. God promises to give the help we need.
Therefore, the battle with self-sufficiency comes down to which promise we believe. In a crisis, are we going to live as if we can “fix it?” Are we going to live as if we can figure out what to do on our own? For some this leads to anxiety, investing emotional time and energy as if it’s up to us to figure things out or control the future. Others run to anger. We try to use the force of our will and impose it on others in order to chart a path forward. Do you know anxiety and anger come from the same kind of heart?
Self-sufficiency is a belief problem. It places our trust and hope in ourselves and not in God’s ability to give us more grace.
So, if that is true (and it is), how should we respond or live?
Steps for Repenting from Self-Sufficiency
In verses 7-10 we learn what kind of attitude, orientation, and practical steps should mark our lives. James gives a series of short statements reflecting our need to embrace a repentant posture. Whether you are under the weight of a crisis that has awakened you to your self-sufficiency or whether you are seeing a concerning pattern start to emerge, here are six steps of repentance you can take:
1. Submit to God (v. 7) – The first posture acknowledges God’s rightful place in our lives. Or to say it another way – “stop resisting God.” We need a posture of a willing heart under his rule. Self-sufficiency puts us in a position where we act like we are God.
2. Resist the Devil (v. 7) – James acknowledges that there is a real spiritual battle taking place. Satan doesn’t want us to be desperate for God. He doesn’t want us to be dependent on God’s grace. He wants us lulled into thinking that we can make it on our own. The devil hates God, and he hates those who love and depend upon him. So resist the Devil by submitting to God. Realize that you are in a battle – a fight.
3. Draw near (v. 8a) – Prayer, worship, and reading the Scriptures are the key ingredients here. Central to the strategy of stepping out of self-sufficiency is a regular reminder of what God is like through worship. Drawing near is a weekly or daily exercise in desperation. We draw near because more than anything else, we need God. And notice the promise! As we draw near to Him, He draws near to us.
4. Reflect (v. 8b) – In the text, we find phrases like “cleanse your hands” and “purify your hearts.” These were the kinds of activities which were part of the preparation to meet with God. In the context of the New Testament, James is calling upon believers to reflect on what God has done for them, to confess their sins, and to realize how far they are straying from God’s purposes for them. As you think about the last few days, weeks, or months, how much self-sufficiency do you see? Much like pride (because they are so closely connected) self-sufficiency grows in the soil of an unexamined and non-reflective life.
5. Lament (v. 9) – James turns the tables on our natural penchant for laughter and lightheartedness. He calls for moments where we are to “be wretched” which means expressing sorrow for what we’ve become. To mourn, to weep, and to turn laughter and joy into mourning and gloom is not an encouragement for us to be depressed. But it is a moment for us to mourn how easy it is for self-sufficiency to take over our lives, leading to all kinds of negative consequences.
6. Humble Yourself (v. 10) – This is the final step in our posture before God. It is not only the last one, but it is a summary of everything in this text. Self-sufficiency is a pride issue. And the hope in this passage is that those who acknowledge their need for God’s help are the ones who God exalts.
This is the upside-down logic of the Christian life: those who exalt themselves are humbled and those who humble themselves are exalted. The greatest barrier to God’s grace and the outpouring of His help is our belief in ourselves. So if the circumstances of your life have made you realize you cannot make it on your own, be thankful! Use the brokenness of your life as a platform to reaffirm your trust in God’s grace. Tell God you need Him.
If you find yourself with dry eyes, a cold heart, and stubborn will, why not sever that pattern today. Resist the devil! Submit to God. Lament your sins. Run to Jesus.
In so doing, you’ll not only conquer the barrier of self-sufficiency, but you’ll also discover how true the promise really is: “He gives more grace.”