Resisting the Pathology of Self-Sufficiency
I was the speaker at a conference the first time I heard the phrase. A gifted actress had made us laugh and wince at the harried life of a fictional-but-recognizable mother, and she built with considerable force to her culminating line:
You. Are. Enough.
The audience cheered, riding waves of affirmation and relief. The monologue had clearly touched a nerve – a sense of insufficiency gnawing at the souls of so many in the room.
The issue of “not-enough-ness”–feeling not productive enough, attractive enough, smart enough, spiritual enough – is so prevalent that the phrase “you are enough” has popped up everywhere. There are bestselling books, acclaimed TED Talks, themed conferences and even T-shirts – all proclaiming we are indeed enough, just the way we are.
In the context of the Christian faith, the phrase can be a wonderful reminder of the immeasurable worth of every human being – each made in the image of God. It’s an important proclamation that we don’t have to earn our way into God’s favour – He loves us immeasurably and always will. And it’s an invitation to escape the trap of comparing ourselves to others and begin the journey toward becoming who we actually are.
Yet there’s a problem. “You are enough” does not, ironically, say quite enough about the reality of the human condition.
As surely as we are unshakeably loved, we are also undeniably bent. Saint Augustine (and Luther and many others after him) pointed out that, in our condition of sin, each one of us finds ourselves incurvatus in se – curved in on ourselves.
Scripture, not to mention the history of humankind, points to an indisputable truth. It is possible for a person to gradually become unbent, but we can’t do it on our own. It takes something truly supernatural to straighten out human nature.
The Apostle Paul puts it this way. “There is no one righteous, not even one … for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:10; 23–24).
Should you wish to live the unbent, abundant life Jesus came to offer, here’s what you need to know: You are NOT enough.
You need Jesus.
The problem with an otherwise helpful idea like “you are enough” is that, in our bent condition, we are susceptible to hearing an affirmation of self-sufficiency, rather than God-sufficiency. This is a big deal because the temptation to rely on ourselves instead of God has been curving us in on ourselves for a very long time. After all, the Original Sin of our original parents was the attempt to be and have enough apart from God.
The Quaker author Parker Palmer has diagnosed our tendency to try to be enough on our own as “‘Functional atheism,’ the belief that ultimate responsibility for everything rests with us.”
This functional atheism, warns Palmer, is the “unconscious, unexamined conviction that if anything decent is going to happen here, we are the ones who must make it happen – a conviction held even by people who talk a good game about God.” What first seems like healthy self-sufficiency, Palmer warns us, will eventually cause “pathology on every level of our lives.”
So how do we avoid the curved-in pathology of functional atheism? It’s good to remember Jesus came not to offer us self-sufficiency, but the opportunity to “abide in Him” (John 15:4). And it might help to proclaim (if you’ll indulge a paraphrase) with the Apostle Paul: “But God says to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in your insufficiency.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my not-enoughness, so that Christ’s power – which is more than enough – may rest on me” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
From my July/August Faith Today column …