Strachan: Self-reliance

“American Intellectual History is in some ways a great contest between two erudite New Englanders: Ralph Waldo Emerson and Jonathan Edwards. In 1841, Emerson published his famous essay on self-reliance, which opens with the admonition,”Ne te quaesiveris extra,” or, “Do not seek for things outside of yourself.” Self-reliance, Emerson contended, is the essence of true humanity. One does not trust outside authorities; one listens to the inner voice, and follows one’s own instincts. That is the essence of human flourishing.

Few people today would know to cite Emerson for these thoughts, but this worldview clearly conflicts with that of Jonathan Edwards, who writes,”Christ will not receive those…who trust to themselves, their own strength or worthiness” but only “those alone who entirely rely on him.”

The problem with Emerson’s argument is simply this: As fallen and fallible humans, we cannot trust ourselves. We are not God. We make terrible and tragic mistakes. We commit great ungainly blunders. We bruise feelings and blow up friendships. We can barely balance the checkbook, let alone unerringly guide our own souls to self-realization. We need a rescuer. Trusting “thyself” has not brought lasting happiness; it has not even brought temporal happiness. We need Christ. Today, let us graciously resist wisdom that in truth is unwise. Let us cry out to God and rely entirely on him.

Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep your word. You are good and do good; teach me your statutes. (Psalm 119:67-68)

-Owen Strachan, Always in God’s Hands: Day by Day in the Company of Jonathan Edwards, 301.

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