Emerson, Bon Jovi and Me: The Want of Self-Reliance

Dear Church,

Jesus introduces his Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapter 5 with a series of statements called ‘the Beatitudes’ that tell us what characterizes someone who’s been born again; the first says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

In an essay entitled Self-Reliance, American poet, essayist, and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson argues for the necessity of relying solely on oneself for truth and guidance. I’ve only time and space to highlight one quote from his essay; Emerson writes,

Discontent is the want of self-reliance.

Here, “want” is a synonym for “lack.” Emerson’s thought pervades American culture even now. Our society tells us we’ll only be content when we are our own masters. Ralph Waldo Emerson was a prominent figure in the transcendentalist movement, which centered around individualism and a rejection of dependence on a higher power. He believed Jesus was a great prophet who came to teach not about his own greatness, but that you and I are great. Emerson believed that humans are innately good, and thus rejected the idea that each person is totally depraved, needing a Savior. In his theology, each of us forms our own reality through our intuition and feelings. As Christians, we read that and shake our heads in dismay.

Deep inside, though, how badly do we actually wish that Emerson’s theology were reality?

American rock band Bon Jovi wrote a song called ‘It’s My Life,’ which gives a more modern voice to transcendentalism. The chorus says,

It’s my life
It’s now or never
I ain’t gonna live forever
I just want to live while I’m alive
(It’s my life)
My heart is like an open highway
Like Frankie said,
I did it ‘My Way’
I just wanna live while I’m alive
It’s my life

According to Bon Jovi in this song, the want of self-reliance is bondage. I so often feel this. Do you? I want to be in control. I don’t want to submit myself to God, or to anyone. I buy the lie that life begins when I am free from authority. These lyrics are an anthem of our culture of individualism. In our sin, none of us want to admit how broken and needy we really are, do we? Because then we have to admit we need a Savior.

In the first Beatitude, Jesus breaks into our transcendentalism mindset with an earth-shattering, counter-cultural idea that those who are “poor in spirit” are the blessed ones. That means that the first step toward me living like Christ is acknowledging my need for Christ. It is realizing that I am broken, weak, and needy, and only Jesus can save me. He says that you and I are blessed when we live this way.

I grew up thinking that in order to “please God,” I had to make sure my good deeds always outweighed my bad deeds, and then God would be happy with me. My life was a balancing act, trying to keep God’s approval and maintain my image of a good Christian kid who went to church, read his Bible and generally tried to do the right thing. When I was fifteen, though, I went through a season of rebellion. I remember coming out on the other side of that time, looking back and realizing that my entire theology was useless. That I was not “basically good.” That I couldn’t ever do enough to earn God’s approval. That it didn’t matter what I did or did not do if I wasn’t trusting completely in Jesus’ blood and righteousness. I realized that trying to do life without Jesus is true bondage. I spent so much time in those days wearing myself out, always trying, trying, trying and never reaching my goal of having peace with God. I was trying to do it by myself, because I was a slave to my pride.

Don’t make that same mistake, friend. Ralph Waldo Emerson believed that the want of self-reliance is discontent. Bon Jovi wrote that the want of self-reliance is bondage. I pridefully live as though the want of self-reliance is chaos, but Jesus tells us that the want of self-reliance is peace and blessing. When you and I give up the idea that we are in control, Jesus takes charge and lifts a burden from us. It is a burden, you know, to live as though we are little gods. Because if we are in control, we are also in charge of saving ourselves. But if Jesus is in control? Well, then we can relax and rest in him for our salvation, and we can have joy in knowing that his favor rests upon us because he’s good. We can simply ask God to make us more like himself, to help us live lives acceptable in his sight, and he will begin to do that work in us. People who have been changed by the Holy Spirit are people who are controlled by the Holy Spirit, day by day.

Peace. Freedom. Joy. That is the want of self-reliance. Church, let’s live as though we believe that to be true.


Fellow Soldier


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