I’m in Charge of Me

This is one essay in a series that concerns the topic of government.

Are We Self-Governed?

In the order of the cosmos, God has established different kinds of governments, all of which we will get to in good time. These are overlapping and interlocking governments that sometimes live in tension with one another, which is a good thing. (One such tension is between the authority of church government against the authority of civil government). But most fundamental to any government is self government, which sometimes goes by the name of responsibility.

Self government, the act of taking responsibility for one’s self, is a necessary government if any of the other governments are going to work well. Those who refuse to rule their own lives will wind up as slaves to something else just as the sinner finds himself a slave to sin (John 8:34). A child comes into the world with no ability to self-govern and one responsibility of parents is to ensure that the child learns self-government. We teach them to control their bodily functions. We teach them to control their emotions. We teach them to develop virtues, healthy relationships, spiritual disciplines, etc… And if they accept the mandate of self-government, they will be free in that they will have few masters. Your son will wake up in the morning and prepare himself for the day ahead without his mommy barging into his room and yelling at him every three minutes until he complies. Self mastery will replace mastery by others.

Self-government is not the same thing as genuine righteousness. Depravity is universal but it is not universally deep. God has not left unregenerate man without some measure of defense against sin that would roll over him like the waves of the sea. But self-government can be abandoned. The Proverbs tells us of the slothful, who refuses to exercise his energy and effort. It speaks of the glutton, who refuses to leash his physical pleasures. It speaks of the drunkard, who refuses to govern himself in the arena of addictive substances (of which there is more in our world than the ancient world). It tells us of the adulterer, who refuses to govern himself in the arena of sexuality. It tells us of the thief, who refuses to curb his covetousness. It tells us of the violent, who refuses to harness his anger. And it tells us of the scorner, who refuses to regard himself with honesty.

When self-government is abandoned, man will have many masters. There is no liberty for the the one who refuses to take responsibility. If you will not be responsible for your life then someone else must. Extreme examples are easier to see: The violent are locked up in jail. The adulterers are the victims of blackmail and murder. The drunkard is homeless. The covetous are in debt.

Because of pride, it is possible for self-government to yield a conceited self-righteousness in which everyone who fails to “measure up” is a slacker/loser. The self-made man is really abominable because he can only see his success and not his failures. But there is a kind of self-government that prepares the soul for grace. Think of Cornelius, who was a successful man as well as a just man, and one who receives the message of salvation with gladness of heart. His success did not rob him of human kindness or of humility. Or think of John the Baptist who came to prepare the hearts of man to receive the Messiah. What was this preparation? Repentance. A virtuous people recognize superior virtue and love it, while a depraved people only regard themselves as virtuous and hate True Virtue. (John 8:42)

So I am in charge of me. This is self-government. But what does that mean? It does not mean existential autonomy and indepenence. Being in charge of me means that I am responsible for my life reaching the fruitfulness of which it is capable, just as a farmer is responsible for his crops reaching the fullness of their potential. But since our lives are multi-faceted, we are more like a garden than an acre of corn. There’s lots of work to do and that work must be done in different ways and unto different ends. When the garden is properly tended, it is not only fruitful but glorious. And we were made for glory.

To reach my full potential, I need some idea of what my potential is. Is my potential riches? Or skills? Or fame? Or power? These things may come with self-government, but if taken as the ultimate telos they would just be a cheap knock-off (sometimes known as an idol) of what human life is FOR and would destroy humanity itself. Humanity exists to know God, love God, serve God, and enjoy God. Which means the first step of self-government is to cast my life away and die unto myself that I might live unto God. Death must precede life.

As I govern myself, several things begin to happen that may seem counter-intuitive at first blush. First, I appreciate lawful government. Second, I am in a position to help others. Third, I am careful not to usurp the development of self-government in others. Let’s explore.

Since self-government takes such effort and yields such blessings, the self-governed are appreciative of lawful government. They like it that civil government will not allow the covetous to accumulate wealth by stealing the riches of those who labor. They appreciate that there is fairness in adjudicating disputes in the church. And they see the benefits of lawful government in an orderly society. To the self-governed, the ruler (in the civil sense) is the servant of God to punish the wicked and reward the just.

The self-governed tend to be those with the resources available to help others in times of need. Now it must be said that the self-governed may at times need help themselves. But overall, it will be those who work hard, handle their money responsibly, and generally behave opposite of that nameless prodigal who wasted his inheritance on riotous living who can come to aid of a brother in need. This concept becomes hugely important for the work of the church because if everyone is in the pit, no one can help anyone out of the pit.

Now it may seem with this final fruit of self-government, that of refusing to usurp the development of self-government in others, we are leaving a door open for some Pharisaical miserliness a la Matthew 23:4. Unfortunately, such people do exist. There is no pity in their hearts for the poor, or the addict, or those unfortunate enough to be caught in a larger social structure of deprivation (such as slavery or sex trafficking). But the self-governed ought to know that they must bear one another’s grievous burdens for a season because in the end, we must all bear our own loads. This bears thinking through.

We have come to a place in America where, at least according to Mitt Romney, 49% of the population received some kind of government aid. If that is true, it should frighten us. We are left with only 2 options. One is that we have created a civilization of such complexity that it is out of reach of a huge swath of people. That is a possibility. When the government legally requires all of its citizens to purchase a specific product (for fun let’s just say health insurance) from the marketplace but then ensures that the market place can only be stocked with unaffordable products, there’s a problem. Option 2 is that we are rewarding a lack of self-government and subsidizing foolish behavior. In any society, you get more of what you reward and less of what you punish. I happen to believe that in America both of these options are true, which makes for a bad situation.

God has designed a world that is full of natural consequences which are intended to instruct us. When the slothful is hungry and has no food, he is learning a lesson that no amount of classroom instruction can impart. It may be that next season he will get his butt out of bed and go plant some stuff, even if it’s really cold outside. But when his slothfulness gets subsidized and the local food bank, which is stocked by those who did get out of bed and plant some stuff, simply gives him food, more slothfulness will ensue. In our world he could get a subsidized housing unit (I know of a healthy young person who pays $4 a month for an apartment, the remaining $446 of which is paid by income earning taxpayers) and food stamps, essentially living at the expense of those who labor. No only is this unjust to those who do labor, it is unloving towards the slothful who will never achieve his potential.

This concept matters to Christian because one of our mandates is to love others. And we do not love others well when we rob them of the opportunity to learn the principles of self-government. God forbid those who have received abundance of grace and mercy should ever be without pity. The world has been enriched by orphanages, food banks, hospitals, and schools that were all the product of Christendom. But every wise parent knows there is a time for letting our children feel the full weight of the consequences of their actions and this painful act of parental love is usually appreciated later in life when the child is a functioning adult.

At the end of the Princess and Curdie, the king says to his virtue-less citizens, “I would have freed you, but ye would not be free. Now ye shall be ruled with a rod of iron, that ye may learn what freedom is, and love it and seek it.” And he said it because he was a good king, not a bad one.

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