Last night was one of those nights when I had an unscheduled 3:00 a.m. Life Assessment session. You know, when you innocently roll over and snuggle down under the covers, fully expecting to drift gently back to sleep; then, out of the blue, you are pelted with concerns regarding your life and the lives of every family member, close friend and acquaintance you’ve ever known. Typically, by hour two you are convinced that the end of life as you have known it is imminent and unavoidable.
As I was entering that phase, brutally reexamining every bad parenting move I have ever made and the lasting effects they have had on my now grown children, the words, “I, alone, can fix it” came to mind. I admit that I have been a bit preoccupied with politics lately, so, because that expression had been used in that context, I just assumed my very tired brain was simply rehashing something I had read earlier. But, all of a sudden, I was brought up short by the realization that this phrase was not as disconnected from my train of thought as I had originally thought.
The words, “I, alone, can fix it”, would be spoken by a person who firmly believed they were uniquely qualified to deal with whatever problem was at hand; one who was confident that he or she knew what was best, in a way that was superior to any other. Those words are intended to discourage consideration of anyone else to address the pressing issues. The person is essentially saying, “I’m the only one who can save you.”
As I was pondering those words and beginning to feel the audacity of them, I suddenly recognized that audacity in myself. I saw the numerous times and situations where I had been convinced that only I was right, only I clearly understood, only I had correctly assembled all of the facts and had arrived at the only logical conclusion. I could see myself arrogantly brushing aside the ideas, thoughts, opinions and viewpoints of family, friends and coworkers. I coveted all of the respect and recognition. I desired to be the one who was important and admired. I wanted not just to be dependable, but for people to be dependent on me. I wanted them to think, “She, alone, can save us.”
I saw that attitude for what it truly is, the natural driving force in every human heart. Martin Luther calls it incurvatus in se, meaning that we always curve inward, desiring all things for our own glory above God’s glory.
I realized this “I, alone” attitude is what taints even our most righteous deeds, rendering them as filthy rags.
Each one of us is inclined to believe the lie that we are independent of God; that we are capable, on our own, of greatness and are therefore deserving of the credit. It is unnatural for us to consider that anything we have to impart to others was first given to us by God; and, not because we earned or deserved it, but because Christ earned it and deserved it for us. This truth has to be revealed to us and we are not typically responsive to it until we have been humbled enough to make us receptive.
In the book of Daniel we have the story of Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon. God used him as an instrument to bring judgment on the Kingdom of Judah by carrying its citizens off into captivity. When Nebuchadnezzar later had a dream of a statue with a head of gold, God, through Daniel, told Nebuchadnezzar that the golden head represented the Kingdom of Babylon. Then God revealed that Babylon would be followed, down through history, by a chest of silver, middle and thighs of bronze, legs of iron and feet of iron mixed with clay, representing the other kingdoms God would bring to power after Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar, however, refused to accept that his kingdom would ever be replaced, which showed that he also refused to accept that God, and not his own might, had brought him to prominence. He then erected a statue with not only a head of gold, but the rest of the body made entirely of gold and decreed that the people must worship it on penalty of death, clearly demonstrating his “I, alone” attitude.
He maintained that attitude until one day, as he was walking on the roof of his royal palace, he was saying to himself, “Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty?” (Daniel 4:30) While those words were still on his lips, God struck him with madness, “He was driven from among men and ate grass like an ox, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven till his hair grew as long as eagles' feathers, and his nails were like birds' claws.” (Daniel 4:33)
For seven years Nebuchadnezzar remained in that state. At the end of that period, this is what he had to say:
“At the end of the days I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes to heaven, and my reason returned to me, and I blessed the Most High, and praised and honored him who lives forever, for his dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom endures from generation to generation; all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, “What have you done?”
“At the same time my reason returned to me, and for the glory of my kingdom, my majesty and splendor returned to me. My counselors and my lords sought me, and I was established in my kingdom, and still more greatness was added to me. Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and extol and honor the King of heaven, for all his works are right and his ways are just; and those who walk in pride he is able to humble.” (Daniel 4:34-37)
God humbled Nebuchadnezzar until he was ready to confess the truth, then God, in his kindness, restored all of Nebuchadnezzar’s earthly power and riches.
As for us, when we demonstrate our arrogance, God has mercy on us, too. He lovingly humbles us to a point where he can enable us to see and confess our dependence on him, and then he gives us all of his glorious riches in Christ.
This “I, alone” attitude not only leads to self-importance, it also leads to the flip side of that same coin, self-pity.
In 1 Kings, chapter 19 we find a story of the prophet Elijah. Elijah’s life as God’s prophet had not been easy, but God had always been with him. Elijah had just been involved in an impressive showdown with the prophets of Baal, the pagan god. Israel, under King Ahab, limped back and forth (1 Kings 18:21) between belief in God and Baal. God led Elijah to set up a challenge of power between himself and Baal. You can read the story in chapter 18, but suffice It to say, God impressively won the challenge.
This victory, however, did not sit well with the King or his wife, Jezebel. In fact, Jezebel vowed to kill Elijah. When this news reached Elijah, he gave up. He sat down under a tree and asked God to let him die. Instead of being angry with Elijah for his apparent lack of faith, God sent angels to feed and strengthen him, then sent him on a long trek to the “mountain of God.”
There God told him to “Go out and stand on the mount before the Lord.” And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper. And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, there came a voice to him and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
“He said, “I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.” (1 Kings 19:9-14)
A few verses later, we discover that Elijah was not alone after all. There were actually seven thousand others who had never bowed their knee to Baal. The point is that, the posture of “I, alone” always leaves us feeling desperately alone, even when we are not. We all suffer from that affliction. God knows, and takes pity on us. In Elijah’s case, rather than condemning him and turning away, God listened to Elijah’s request to die and, instead, took him straight to heaven without having to face death.
God’s answer to us, as we sit in our self-pity, sadly proclaiming “I, alone”, is to point us to Immanuel, which translated means ‘God with us.’ He gently whispers to us that we have never been alone, and then reminds us of Jesus’ promise, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live,” and that, like Elijah, “everyone who lives and believes in me, shall never die.”
The Lamb who was slain, alone, is worthy to receive power and riches and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and blessing, (Revelation 5:12) yet, amazingly, Christ receives his due and then, despite our utter unworthiness, he graciously bestows it upon us.