Against the Self-Made Man…or Woman
Luke 4: 1-13
There is no such thing as a self-made man. Or woman.
I hope you won’t tune me out. I hope you won’t chalk this one up to “unrealistic preacher stuff” and let yourself off the hook. I also hope that what I’m about to say will help you give yourself a break and help make your life more interesting.
This ultra-American idea of the person who is “self-made” can be inspiring. He pulled himself up by his own bootstraps…He came from nothing and now he owns a company that employs 5,000 people…His grandfather used to be a janitor at that club and now he’s a member. The self-made person is supposed to have come from nothing (usually meaning no money, no social connections) and worked hard and been promoted all based on his own hard work and ingenuity. The self-made person is supposed to show us that if he can do it, so can we. No one is barred from success – you just have to work long and hard enough to attain it. Look at this guy!
Depending on your family, your schools, and your temperament, you may have been weaned on the self-made myth. I suspect that because you are here at UVA, you’ve at least heard an ample amount of self-made talk, whether or not you fully embrace it. And before I go any further, let me say that there is a substantial strain of this in my own family history: my dad, who grew up in a sharecropping family, was the first in his family to attend college, which he did here at UVA. So I get the power of this story. I get that there is much to admire.
But I’m here to say that there is no such thing as the self-made man or woman.
Even in these inspiring American-hero stories, the individuals in question are not really “self-made.” Sure, he got up early every day to go in to the office. But where did his breakfast come from? Who picked it or transported it or cooked it? Who made his clothes? The furniture in his humble apartment? My own father would readily admit that without the hard sacrifices of his parents and the high school administrators that went out of their way to put in a good word for him, he would never have gone to college. No matter how humble, we are made of connection and community and we don’t get anywhere completely on our own.
For Christians, we can blame it on baptism. Just as we are born into human families whose stories lay claim to us and help form us, baptism reminds us of God’s unfailing love for us, marking us as part of God’s own family before we are able to claim this or anything else for ourselves. Whether we are baptized as babies or when we are older, any belief on our part is preceded by God’s love for us and God’s grace in our lives. As Bishop Willimon says, “[P]art of the point of becoming a Christian is that it is something done to us, for us, before it is anything done by us” (William H. Willimon, Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002, p. 27).
Let me pause here to say this is does not mean your life is predetermined. This does not mean your life has nothing to do with you. This does not mean you have a free pass because God is pulling the strings anyway.
What it means is that you have context and tradition and history – whether or not you are aware of it. It means that you are given both roots and trajectory. The rest is up to you. But don’t be tempted to think you made yourself.
Jesus’ temptations are all about identity. The devil is trying, desperately, to get Jesus to see himself and his role differently. The devil says, You can feed yourself. You can make stones turn into bread. Why fast? No need – just make what you crave. The devil says, All you have to do to have power over all the kingdoms of the world is worship me. Choose your own god. Choose power, not servanthood. Choose these shiny kingdoms, not that ephemeral kingdom of God stuff. The devil says, See if God is really God. Test God by jumping off of here. I mean, if God isn’t who God claims to be, what’s that say about you? I’m just saying.
Here’s the thing about the wilderness and temptations, this season we call Lent: it’s about you and God. It all starts there and spirals out like a magnificent galaxy of love and interdependence…to all the other relationships and communities we take part in. If giving up chocolate or media helps you focus on this, great. If taking on running or centering prayer helps you spend time with God, great. But if not…If this whole giving up/taking on practice makes you feel like you have one more thing to prove, then let go. It’s supposed to be about God, after all.
Spiritual disciplines and fasts can be extraordinarily helpful on the journey. But sometimes they aren’t, and that is ok, too. Sometimes, with some people, we can start to get competitive and proud and boastful about this internal journey with God. There are no self-made men or women with God. No matter how austere or creative or devout or unusual or arduous your Lenten discipline, the point is to open yourself up so that God can really get God’s hands in there and work on you in some new and interesting and life-giving ways. The point is not to proclaim proudly on Easter morning I made it without chocolate! – especially before you even proclaim Christ is risen!
God is the primary Maker in your life.
Jesus has first-hand experience with how hard life can get. Straight from his baptism, the same Spirit that descended on him there and filled him, led him into the wilderness (Luke 3: 21; 4: 1). And after the 40 days of fasting and temptations, Jesus is filled up with the power of the Spirit as he heads back to Galilee (Luke 4: 14). Clearly, the promise that God’s Spirit will be with us is not a wispy, easy gift. The Spirit can lead us to dangerous and scary places…and it can bring us home again. But notice that Jesus is not ever left alone – and neither are we.
God does not make us, wind us up, and leave us to run out our own courses on our own. God’s loving, guiding hand and Spirit are with us even in the most dire places, in the spots when it seems we must be making it on our own because there is no one else around. And when we empty ourselves of the notion that we are in charge, charting our own destinies, and instead work with God, letting the Wind fill our sails and change our course, we end up in surprising places. We might even figure out that being self-made is a thin substitute for what God has in mind for us. We might find we would rather keep being made – formed, transformed – by God, than created by our own wits in any other image.
Thanks be to God!
© 2013 Deborah E. Lewis