–March of 2008
Radical independence is a highly admired characteristic in American culture. From the earliest pioneer to the twenty-first century entrepreneur, Americans take pride in the man who can “go it alone” and “make it happen.” These rugged individualists possess a homespun philosophy of life that says, “if you need a helping hand, look at the end of your arm.” We applaud their independence, quote them in leadership seminars and teach our children to emulate their self-reliance.
This independent spirit is to some degree helpful and healthy, but when taken too far it can have devastating consequences. A part of what it means to be created in the image of God is that we are created to relate to and interact with other people. Just as the Divine Persons live in intimate Trinitarian relationship, humans cannot fulfill their created role without intimate relationships. The very nature of true relationships requires inter-dependence. We were not created to be “stand alone” people, but members of a family and a community that is interconnected and dependent. We draw emotional and spiritual strength from one another that we need to be a whole and healthy person.
This is never truer than in our own spiritual lives. “There are two things we cannot do alone,” said Paul Tournier, “one is to be married and the other is be a Christian.” We are part of a living body that depends upon “connectedness” to God and to one another to function properly and develop normally. It is true that we draw our spiritual life from the source and fountainhead of all spiritual life – God himself. But it is also true that we draw precious and necessary resources from one another that enable us to function as a healthy part of the body of Christ.
This line of truth is so important that Jesus included it in His final discourse he had with His disciples the night before His crucifixion. It’s found in John chapter fifteen and is explained with the analogy of the vine and the branches. It teaches us a least three important lessons about being connected to Him and to one another.
First, we are not self-originating. “I am the Vine you are the branches.” In counseling sessions I have often reminded people that we are only stewards of the life God has given us and we are not free to do with it as we please. But occasionally I hear these words in response, “No! It’s my life! I’ll do . . .” It is a fundamental error to think that our life is our own. Only God is self-originating. The source of all life both physical and spiritual is always in another – someone outside ourselves. The branch does not exist without the vine. Our life is not our own! It is a gift from God!
Second, we are not self-sustaining. None of us have life within ourselves. Only as we “abide in the vine” do we have life. Just as physical life is maintained by the air we breathe, the food we eat and the relationships in which we engage, even so is spiritual life maintained by connection with Christ and with the members of His body. It is, “in Him we live, and move, and have our being.” And living in Him also means living within His body the Church. Saint John of the Cross wrote, “The virtuous soul that is alone . . . is like the burning coal that is alone. It will grow colder rather than hotter.” The Christian faith is not merely an intellectual, internal faith. It can only be lived in community. Abandon the Body and your faith will fade.
Third, we are not self-fulfilling. Joy, happiness, meaning and value come only in and through a relationship to God and service to one another. Real life comes to us through the Vine. We have no ability within ourselves to bear the fruit of a meaningful and satisfying life. It can only be found as we relate to and draw from the Vine and the other branches.
Too many branches of the visible church believe and practice isolation. They isolate themselves from the Church at large, but worse yet, they isolated themselves from those within their own religious tradition and in some cases from those within the same four walls of their own local church. They have developed an approach to discipleship where people are exhorted to do what is right and then placed under rigid structures of accountability or fear of rejection to see that they do it. This has yielded poor results because it ignores the deepest need of the human soul – true connectedness to another Christian. I have seen my share of people in spiritual trouble and in so many of their cases there was more than a stubborn will that needed firm admonishment involved. There was a desperate hurting soul that needed the nourishment that only a loving community and a meaningful relationship could provide. (I believe isolation and the resulting loneliness may be the devils most successful tool in luring people in to sin.) One poor soul expressed it like this, “they preached to me and prayed with me, but no one ever asked me over for lunch.” It is often true that those churches that stress accountability and the “you need to stand on your own two feet” approach often do so because they simply don’t know how to relate to other people. They either don’t know how or are too afraid to lock arms with those who are struggling. Building meaningful relationships with needy people is time consuming, uncomfortable and costly. But the successful results are indisputable. If you are still unconvinced, take special note of the words spoken at the next communion service you participate in. The Minister will hand you a piece of bread or a wafer and say, “The Body of Christ, broken for you. . .” The Church was founded by One whose body was broken to give us life. Shouldn’t we then go forth and pour out our lives for one another?
There really are no “self-made” men in our world, but men and women who have been fortunate enough to have other people invest so much in them that they in turn were able to make a huge difference on the visible stage of life. If you are reading this article and truly want to make a difference, then find someone to connect with and pour your resources into them. When we truly “connect” we can change a thousand lives – one at a time!