Face Up to Your Problems

You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes
You can steer yourself
any direction you choose.
You're on your own. And you know what you know.
And YOU are the guy who'll decide where to go.

So begins Dr. Seuss’ Oh the Places You’ll Go, a book I now read almost every evening.[1]  Dr. Seuss has hit on one of America’s proudest cultural trophies: personal responsibility. As he later says to his readers, “I know you’ll hike far and face up to your problems, whatever they are.” We often retell our greatest stories of history through the lens of personal responsibility and we try very hard to instill it into our children . . . via Dr. Seuss perhaps. In any regard, it was a gigantic emphasis in the way my own parents raised me.  

Once, when I was a boy, I found a dead snake in the backyard.  I thought it would be funny to scare my mother with it, so I put it in our garage on a step-stool that she used often.  It was pretty clearly dead, limp as it dangled off both sides of the stool.  However, it did scare my mother . . . scared her right into anger.  When she confronted me about it I just couldn’t bring myself to admit that I had done such a thing.  I couldn’t take responsibility for my actions; I couldn’t bear the consequences of my choice. My refusal to fess-up only made things worse.  Had I admitted it I probably would have lessened my punishment.  As I’ve grown it’s become increasingly important to me that I should be willing to take responsibility for my choices.  I’ve even told people that this is the difference between a man and a boy.  

The reality, however, is that if you take this perspective of personal responsibility to an extreme you’ll find yourself alone, isolated, and with no help when you fall.  At a certain point, personal responsibility is actually bad advice.  In my own time in homeless ministry, for instance, the #1 piece of advice to men and women afflicted with homelessness was that they needed to grow up and take responsibility for their actions.  My push back to this has always been, “If Jesus treated us with that kind of attitude salvation wouldn’t be available to anyone.”  Jesus enters into our brokenness and bears the responsibility with/for us, pulling us out of our depravity.  At the heart of our faith is not a God who demands personal responsibility, but a God who wishes to carry the cross with us and for us; a God who chooses to build with us a relationship of, shall we say, “mutual responsibility.”  The problem with telling a homeless man to just pull himself up by his bootstraps is that he normally doesn’t have bootstraps.[2]  He has no safety net of community, often his mind is robbed of its faculty by addictions, and his inner voice torments him with the axiom: you’re not worth saving.  So we tell him to do something that cannot be done. He’ll dig himself out of his hole just as quickly as I’ll achieve my own salvation. He needs a community to lock arms with him and walk the road of recovery to its completion—a group who will bear the burden together. 

I’m not out to write a tome against personal responsibility.[3] Here’s what I do want to advocate for: discipleship is not just a matter of you steering yourself any direction you choose and you facing your problems whatever they are.  Discipleship is a cord of three: you, God, us.  A trinity of mutual responsibility not quickly broken.
9Two are better than one,
    because they have a good return for their labor:
10 If either of them falls down,
    one can help the other up.
But pity anyone who falls
    and has no one to help them up.
11 Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm.
    But how can one keep warm alone?
12 Though one may be overpowered,
    two can defend themselves.
A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.
Ecclesiastes 4 (NIV)

The writer of Ecclesiastes suggests that the smartest, perhaps even most mature endeavor is to find someone who will share life’s responsibilities with you.[4]  You’ll produce more, and when you fall you’ll have someone to pick you up.  He too is an advocate for “mutual responsibility.”  So let me ask you, who are you sharing the responsibility with?  Or have you been hoodwinked into thinking that you just need to steer yourself?  Discipleship will lead you into dark corners, make you face things about yourself that will scare you.  I say, don’t go there alone.  Allow your discipleship to be a cord of three strands.  Face up to your problems, whatever they are, but don’t do it alone.  Let’s share the weight of that responsibility.  Let us together be steered by the lingering Spirit of Christ who bears with us and for us.[5]

[1] It’s actually the second stanza, but you get the point. 
[2] It’s equally problematic to just say that a gov’t, non-profit, or church program will dig people out of the holes they find themselves in.  Mostly because programs rely on techniques that “guarantee” concrete results—you gotta report back to the stakeholders that the program is working. Thus the programs become so focused on the technique that real conversation and relationships are at best diminished and at worst, they’re not present at all. That’s not to say that these programs can’t play a role, but I think they have to play a role that is propped up by real, mutual relationships.
[3] I actually do think personal responsibility is extremely important for human maturation.  But just like two tires on an axle hold each other in place by pulling against one another, I think mutual responsibility should be held in balancing tension with personal responsibility.
[4] Someone or multiple ones.
[5]Additionally, continually bear with one another, when someone feels a debt is owed they should be gracious; just as the Lord had grace on you all so you should have grace on one another. But above everything else is unconditional love; love is the bond of maturity. Also, make the peace of Christ the referee between your hearts.  For he called you all into one body, which should be a continuous cause for the posture of thanksgiving.  Let the word of Christ completely take up residence in your community as you coach and correct one another with wisdom, singing Psalms, praise songs, and spiritual songs to God with grace in your hearts” (Colossians 3:12-16, my own translation).


Popular Posts