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Self-help Christianity

Recently I had a conversation with a church leader. We had a good conversation ranging over several topics, some at a bit of a tangent.

One thing we discussed was how God cares for us. The church leader felt that God meets our needs through fellow Christians. It’s a platitude many of us may be very familiar with, although what it means both when we need someone to help us or when someone needs our help is less clear. I suspect we’re reasonably good at recognisingwhen someone needs practical help – like when someone wothout a car needs a lift to church. But, at least in my experience, we are much less good at helping people whonare struggling emotionally or mentally.

I have a chronic illness which, through a combination of tiredness, pain, frustration, boredom and loneliness often gets me down. Sometimes I need people around me. But apart from this leader, pretty much every person I know with whom I share some of my struggles has told me that I should not go first to people for support; I should go to God. I’ve described this approach to ‘strength in God’ in a previous post on the meaning of rest.

The church leader suggested that what I had been told was an over-application of the Western philosophy of individualism. It sounded like attempting to achieve a zen-like state of being okay in one’s own strength, not actually a godly approach to the challenges of life. He couldn’t think of a New Testament justification for such an approach; certainly the early church spent a significant amount of time in a community that deliberately set out to identify and help people who were struggling. There is no biblical mandate for forcing a spiritualised version of self-help down one’s throat. In fact, I think God through the Bible teaches the precise opposite – that we cannot live outside of a community; that we are and are meant to be dependent upon others. After all, even Adam in a state of perfection was not ‘good’ until he had a companion – even though he had no other suffering, and was in close communion with God.

I may have been misinterpreting what people around me have previously said. In fact, I’m pretty sure I am. I think what they were trying to say was that I could not rely on a specific individual, because no-one is perfect. But what I heard was that they themselves may feel disgruntled, annoyed or disapproving if I ask them for help. If I am in crisis and phone them for help, they’ll only help if it isn’t at all a problem for them; if it doesn’t require any self-sacrifice or re-arranging of their diary or their plans for that day. And even if they do re-arrange their plans to help me, they’ll only do so under the proviso of clarifying that I cannot expect them to help, a gentle rebuke that I should turn to God not people, and what I would do if they were unable to help? (That’s very simple. I’d contact someone else. I do have more than one friend)

I don’t feel upset when people are genuinely too busy to have time for me. I am bothered by the suggestion that Christian friends and leaders should not be expected to make time for me when I need it. I think that it is exactly the kind of sacrifice, generosity and kindness which God expects his followers to show.

Quite frankly, if a friend phoned me in crisis I would drop everything to get over to her. I love my friends deeply and I don’t want any of them to experience what I experience when I am on the floor, sobbing my eyes out, longing to phone someone and ask them to come over but not daring to for fear of rebuke. I don’t think that that is an unreasonable thing for my friend to hope for. I think that that is precisely what God does and what he meant when he described himself as a shepherd going out of his way to look for a lost sheep, and a father running with joyful abandon to greet a sinful son. I think it is what he expects his disciples to do.

The people who tell me I must not and cannot rely on them make me feel like an unwanted and inappropriate burden. They make me feel that I am failing for being unable to save myself through an appeal to God alone. I am failed as a Christian as well as a person. It makes me very unlikely to go to such people, even just for a bit of friendly companionship to stop my mood from deteriorating further. It means I’m more likely to reach a crisis point without anyone knowing I was on my way there, because I have been desperately trying to keep myself happy and carefree on my own (with God). I’ve been trying to do what they told me to do, and the result is unfailingly that I reach crisis.

For this church leader to tell me that he doesn’t think that that is a Biblical approach is immensely encouraging. It means I feel safe in talking to him. It means I am less likely to need to, because I feel safer and I feel cared for. Having somewhere to go in crisis means I am less likely to be in a crisis that means I need to go somewhere (having said that, the most recent time I was on the floor crying I didn’t contact him or anyone else. I feared too much what my other friends would say).

It makes so much sense to me. If the answer to ‘where is God when I need help’ is ‘in the body of his followers’, then it means God is actually there when I need help. I can seek him by going to one of his followers and asking for help – for a chat, for a cup of tea, for companionship whilst I watch TV or read a book. If I’m tired and unwell and cannot cook dinner for myself, I can’t ask God to cook it for me, but I can ask one of his followers to let me join them in their evening meal.

Jesus says that his followers are the ones who feed the hungry, clothe the naked and visit the prisoner. Most of the time I think of it from the point of view of the giver – the one giving the food, clothes or companionship. But one thing I am learning from this chronic illness is that I think God also expects each one of us to be a receiver. Not in the sense of it being something we should strive for, in the way that we work at being generous, but in the sense that he knows we cannot be anything less. Not a single one of us can be said to not be dependent on others. Even Adam, perfect in the garden of Eden with God and a bountiful nature, was not okay like that; he needed companionship too.

We should recognise our dependence on others. We should recognise that we cannot do this life alone. We should know that it is okay, when we are hungry, cold or lonely, to go to a follower of Christ and ask them to minister to us in Jesus’ name.

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