It is through God’s grace we have anything at all
“For none of us lives to himself alone, and none of us dies to himself alone. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.” (Romans 14:7-8)
Have you heard the expression, “a self-made man?” I guess today we would want to be more inclusive and refer instead to a “self-made person,” but the basic concept is that of someone who rises through their own initiative and hard work rather than through family connections or inherited privilege.
I think the idea of the self-made person is a peculiarly American one. Our country has long prided itself as being a nation where industry and brains and elbow grease are sufficient to help one get ahead. None of that Old World reliance on family connections for the young USA. Benjamin Franklin was the prototype of the self-made man. His father was a candlemaker, and as a very young man, Franklin himself worked in a printer’s shop in Philadelphia. Through diligence, intelligence and sound morals, he rose to wealth and prominence during the founding years of our republic.
From a lowly printer’s boy to a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a framer of the Constitution, if Ben could do it, so can we all. So goes the self-made credo. It’s surely true that many men and women over the history of our country have indeed gone from rags to riches because they’ve worked hard and applied themselves, and it’s to our national credit that transformations like that are still possible today.
But while the ideal of the self-made person has much to recommend it, I want to suggest that Christianity offers an alternative way of looking at our lives, and that is the concept of grace. Rugged individualism and striving can take us only so far. The “American Dream” largely has to do with material success, after all.
In answer to the idea that people can “make themselves” comes the response of faith. It is God, alone, who is our Maker, and our lives are in his hands. It’s through God’s grace that we have anything at all. The raw materials of our lives and of our ambitions rest on the foundation that is given to us — our families, our circumstances, our intelligence and talents. All of these are gifts from God, and come to us as grace, which is traditionally defined as God’s unmerited favor.
There is nothing we can do to earn God’s love — it just comes, like grits at a diner in the deep south. Grace stands as the counter-example to self-making. What should be our human response to God’s outpouring of gracious love and favor? Nothing but gratitude, and an acknowledgement that, as we sometimes say in our prayer of blessing over the offering in Sunday worship. “All things come of thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee.”
What if we began every day, not by making a mental to-do list even before we get out of bed, but instead by offering a thank-you list to God? First thing in the morning, why not lift a grateful heart for life, for health, for shelter, for food to sustain us during the day, for the web of relationships of which we are a part. It’s all grace — a river in which we swim daily.
So work hard, for sure, but remember who gives us that ability.
REV. SUSIE THOMAS is lead pastor of Farmville United Methodist Church. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.