“Jesus gives us the courage to give up our right to self-determination.”
by Nate Gibson (Tokyo)
Recently, my nine-and-a-half month old daughter discovered a taste for french toast, but under one particular condition: that my wife and I allow her to feed it to herself. She will not accept it if we try to put it directly in her mouth, but if we put the thin strip of toast in her hand, she devours it eagerly, and with startling haste. She makes a mess in the process, and as of now, still struggles to maneuver the last morsel from the palm of her hand into her mouth, but she simply will not have it any other way.
From a young age, before we are even able to articulate what we are doing, we fight tooth and nail for the right to self-determination. We long to make our own decisions, and not have them made for us.
This desire only intensifies with age as we experience and enjoy greater levels of autonomy.
Society, too, preaches the importance of self-determination–to individuals, to communities, to nations, even–albeit in ways and to an extent that may cause Christians to be uncomfortable with the very term.
I find the subject of self-determination fascinating and, in fact, dedicate an entire two-month unit of my school-year to studying the concepts of agency, individualism and victimhood with my 11th graders, digging into Scripture, history, literature and current events in order to navigate the difference between each of these topics, and their implications for our pursuit of justice in a broken world. It is my favorite unit to teach, and often, my students’ favorite unit of the year, as well.
To sum up two months of Humanities class in a sentence: making an idol of self-determination is foolish and destructive, but the fact remains that our ability to make decisions, whatever the consequences may be, is a fundamental piece of what it means to be human, and moreover, a key component of our identity as God’s image-bearers.
Former Michigan state congressman and Pepperdine political science professor Stephen Monsma writes in Healing for a Broken World that while God could have made Adam and Eve without free choice, “If he had done so, we would not have sinned, but we would have been less than God’s image-bearers.” Monsma goes on to describe the importance of pursuing public policies that “make possible–but do not force–creative, joyful, loving lives of service to others.” Similarly, Bob Lupton, founder of Focused Community Strategies Ministries and author of Toxic Charity sharply criticizes charitable actions that overlook or strip away the freedom of the poor or oppressed to make their own decisions.
Pastor Tim Keller echoes this in Generous Justice in a discussion of community development, citing urban pastor Mark Gornik as he says that “The community residents themselves must be the main ‘locus of analysis and planning’ and they must be in control of the type and pace of change that will affect their families, lives, and economic life.” Simply put, doing justice means ensuring that the vulnerable have a voice, protecting and preserving their right to make their own decisions.
The prompt for this reflection, also adapted from Keller, reads, “Jesus gives us the courage to give up our right to self-determination.” Given what a cherished right self-determination is, given how tightly we grasp onto it, and given just how easily it can become an idol, this is an unsettling challenge for us to hear.
As my young daughter is quickly discovering, we all struggle to relinquish our sense of control. Those moments when we find our agency taken away from us cause us to feel profound disequilibrium. So, we insist all the more fiercely upon having our way, and any call to self-denial can seem like madness.
And yet, as we examine Christ’s life, this is precisely the pattern we find laid out for us.
Jesus modeled the ultimate sacrifice of self-determination as he surrendered his will by “becoming obedient to death–even death on a cross!” (Phil. 2:8).
Self-determination may be a right, but we know all too well that just like in Eden, when we are left to our own devices, we stray. Like my daughter eating her french toast, our desire to make our own decisions more often than not leaves behind a mess. This does not cancel out our obligation to protect the agency of the vulnerable, and it certainly does not justify stripping away self-determination from others. Having self-determination forcibly taken away is not remotely the same as surrendering it–the latter is a significant act of faith and the former is not.
Although surrendering our right to self-determination is a leap of faith, it is not a leap into the dark. Jesus’ sacrifice and his triumph over sin and death ought to give us confidence–when we surrender all to him, we can trust that he will not lead us astray. When we take up our cross and follow, we can be assured, once and for all, that we have made the right decision.
As we look ahead expectantly to Christmas, may we have the courage to pray, as Jesus did, “not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42).