How Autonomy Fails and Grace Prevails
In our culture, we desire autonomy, and self-determination and self-reliance are some of our highest ideals. But eventually, every man comes to the end of himself. When you find yourself drowning, what’s your next move? And importantly, what is God’s?
By Brett Clemmer
President & CEO
Have you noticed that “tolerance” has somehow become the highest value in our society? That’s because we live in a world where autonomy is sacred—where my own feelings, beliefs and desires are inherently good, and outside moral frameworks and belief systems are stifling and, well, intolerant.
Disagreement at the objective moral level is intolerance. We want the ability to decide for ourselves what is true and not true—“my truth”—and we want to do as we please. Especially in the West, these ideas of self-determination, self-direction, and self-reliance are among the highest ideals.
The problem is that when we’re autonomous, our experience of liberty, empowerment, and self-sufficiency is only temporary. We still experience hardship, heartache, sickness, and brokenness. The world is still difficult, and we are still wounded. Our efforts to save ourselves from this hopelessness prove fruitless.
Drowning in Autonomy
We desire to be whole, healthy, and in good relationships with other people. But the more we rely on our own morals, truth, and abilities to get us there, the farther away we can end up.
As Paul describes it in his letter to the Romans:
For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? (Romans 7:15, 21-24, ESV)
Paul is putting words to this dilemma that we all have in our hearts and souls: we know we need to be saved, but we can’t save ourselves.The dilemma we all have in our hearts and souls is this: we know we need to be saved, but we can’t save ourselves.Click To Tweet
Yet, when we focus on autonomy as our primary value, we try to do just that, desperately. We’re furiously treading water, trying to convince ourselves that we are making headway, even though it’s all we can do to keep our head above the surface.
As a result, every man eventually comes to the end of himself.
Into this quagmire of human existence, a loving Father sends a solution. We see it in the next verse from the Scripture above (7:25), as Paul goes on to answer his own question: “Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
The Power of Grace
Over the last five weeks at the Man in the Mirror Bible Study and on this blog, we’ve been looking at Paul’s words to Timothy in the first chapter of 2 Timothy. Look back at previous articles here.
Paul builds on the foundation of the first part of the letter as he starts the next: “You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 2:1).
This grace that Paul is telling Timothy to be strengthened by is the same grace that rescues Paul “from this body of death.” It brings strength when your own strength fails you. It’s a breath of fresh air in a rotting world, and it brings a restoration of the order and harmony of God.
To understand its power, we must first understand what Paul means when he says “grace.”Grace is a breath of fresh air in a rotting world. It brings a restoration of the order and harmony of God.Click To Tweet
Timothy is in Ephesus when Paul writes 2 Timothy, so it is likely that Timothy already had access to Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, where Paul wrote this about grace:
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. (Ephesians 2:1-3)
We can see from the first verse that autonomy is a ruse. Apart from Christ we are not autonomous, but rather subject to influence from the world and Satan, along with our own desires and thoughts. We are compelled to follow along a path that leads to death.
A man may think he’s living according to his own hard-established values when what he’s really living according to is the world’s value of maximizing his wealth, his pleasure, or his kid’s talents and status. These idols that we worship above God separate us from Him. It’s not our autonomous, self-determined course; it’s the world’s. We get seduced by its power, and it brings death. And Paul says that is our starting point!
Then Jesus enters into our messy stories:
But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. (2:4-7, emphasis added)
How strong is this grace that Paul tells Timothy to be strengthened by? Strong enough to raise us up and seat us with Christ in the heavenly places.
So when our frustrations and sins wear us down, God shows the immeasurable riches of His grace and kindness. God comes into our corruption and confusion, and He makes us alive together with Christ.
Our best efforts add nothing. It is only the power of grace, the free gift of God, that saves us. It’s not about autonomy; it’s about faith. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.” (2:8-9)
The Rescuer We Need
When you’re drowning in this world, despite all your efforts, how do you see Jesus?
Do you see Him over on the shore, watching you from a distance, waiting to see if you’ll make it?
Or do you see him as a life ring? All you have to do is grab on and then it’s up to you to hold tight? Are you scared to death of falling off at any moment and slipping under?
When we’re drowning, Jesus is neither like the passive observer nor is He like the life ring. He’s more like a Coast Guard swimmer.
Knowing you need to be rescued, Jesus comes to find you. He jumps in the water and wraps His arms around you.
If, in your panic, you fight the rescue, a Coast Guard swimmer will knock you out if needed so that he can save you. How much more determined is Jesus is to save you! In your struggle, you can kick and scream to try to remain on your own, but He won’t let you.
This is the power of grace. Paul is telling Timothy to be strengthened by the conviction that Jesus won’t let him drown. He will stay with him.
THE BIG IDEA: Autonomy says, “I can save myself.” Grace says, “You can’t save yourself, but Jesus can. And He will.”
The way that you resolve the conflict between autonomy and grace is you surrender. You say, “I’m not going to be in charge. I’m not going to be in control. I’m not going to decide what’s right and wrong. And I’m not going to fight the guy who’s trying to rescue me.Autonomy says, “I can save myself.” Grace says, “You can’t save yourself, but Jesus can. And He will.”Click To Tweet
“If he tells me to lay on my back so he can wrap his arms around me, I’m going to lay on my back so he can wrap his arms around me. If he tells me to be still so that he can pull me more efficiently, I’m going to be still. If he tells me to keep my head back and my eyes up, I’m going to keep my head back and my eyes up so that the nasty, briny seawater that has the power to fill my lungs and drown me can’t.”
Paul understood everything Timothy was and would be up against when he wrote: “You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus.”
Your autonomy will eventually drown you. Surrender to the one who comes to save you from your autonomy, and you will find grace. This is the source of true strength.