During an episode of AMC’s Breaking Bad, two cancer patients sit side by side, awaiting PET scans. The younger patient describes to the older patient how cancer destroyed all his plans: a family and a new business. As a result, he finally learned to stop attempting to control his life. The older patient looks at him incredulously and responds, “Every life comes with a death sentence.” He coldly continues, “But until then, who’s in charge? Me. That’s how I live my life.”
The older patient never plans to relinquish personal control of his life. No, he's the master of his destiny, the all-sufficient provider of every need. He embodies a common American ideal: self-sufficiency, which is the foolish belief that true freedom in this life can be found in ourselves, living by our own strength, means and ethics, for our own sake and pleasure. I am free, only when I rule over me.
But we weren't made to be self-sufficient rulers. We were made to live in reference to a sovereign God, by God’s will, sufficiency, and strength. So when we live self-sufficiently, without reference to God, we destroy our lives (Ps. 53:1). Augustine put it well when he wrote, “We commit sin to promote our welfare, and the result is rather to increase our misfortune.” We think self-sufficiency promotes true freedom, but instead it increases slavery to sin. The self-sufficient are free in one regard: self-destruction.
We're like cancer patients pretending we're free when we're not. We're slowly dying from a self-made disease we cannot fix; that's not freedom.
True freedom only comes from God's sufficiency for us. Why? Because God designed us so that our well-being could only come from him. We experience true freedom when God's grace makes us what the Bible calls "poor in spirit," when we understand and feel our creaturely need for the creator's gracious provision for our life.
One place that I’ve found helpful in understanding spiritual poverty is Psalm 86. So let's meditate there for a moment, looking at the heart of true freedom.
The poor in spirit…
…know their insufficiency. David begins Psalm 86 by pleading to God on the grounds of his own insufficiency, “Incline your ear, O LORD, and answer me, for I am poor and needy.”
…see God’s all-sufficient greatness. David sees God's glorious power over all things, “You are great and do wondrous things” (10). Moreover, he praises the greatness of God's “steadfast love" (13). Therefore, he trusts God to be both able and willing to meet his deep needs.
…look to God for forgiveness and grace. David writes, “For you, O Lord, are good and forgiving, abounding in steadfast love to all who call upon you” (5) David doesn't look to his religious deeds to make himself right with God. Instead, he trusts God to forgive and make a way to answer his “plea for grace" (6).
…trust God’s promised security. David does not look to himself for provision or security. Instead, he looks to God to “Preserve my life” (2). He proclaims that, “In the day of my trouble, I call upon you, for you answer me” (7).
…seek God as the highest source of joy. David does not seek joy in himself. Instead, he seeks joy in God, “Gladden the soul of your servant, for to you, O Lord, do I lift up my soul” (4). Seeking joy in God meant following God's plan for his life, “Teach me your way, O Lord, That I may walk in your truth” and fearing him, “unite my heart to fear your name” (11).
The path to freedom is never found in “my way” or faith-in-self. The path to eternal freedom is found through spiritual poverty: trusting in the sufficiency of God for everything (Matt. 5:3).