“Sometimes you must ‘pull yourself up by your own bootstraps.’”
That phrase lingers in our vocabulary as a testament to rugged self-reliance and dependence upon no outside force to bring rescue. The idea is that in the midst of the greatest difficulty, the deepest need or the hottest battle, we can lift ourselves from the chaos and plant our feet on solid ground by nothing more than a sheer act of will, gut-level tenacity and good old “know-how.” That is how we use the phrase, “pull oneself up by the bootstraps.” You reach down, take hold of the straps or loops atop your boots and lift yourself up by them.
The problem is that is not what the phrase originally meant. The earliest meaning of this common phrase is “trying to accomplish something despite a lack of power to do so.” You can’t lift yourself off the ground by pulling your own bootstraps. To try and do so would be an exercise in absurdity.
We like to think we are completely self-sufficient, both on an individual basis and as a nation, but all our power is derived power: it comes from outside ourselves. We are utterly dependent upon God, and any strength, power or ability ultimately comes from him.
Even if we affirm our own lack of strength, often we try wrongly to split the division of power between ourselves and God in an attempt to create a false sense of checks-and-balances. We think, “God can handle the 50% of my life that I cannot or that I don’t know that is coming, and I will handle the other 50%. It’s an equal partnership.” A supreme king does not exercise 50% of the power while relying upon his subjects to fill in the gap. An omnipotent God can’t be said to be all-powerful if half his power rests firmly in our hands.
Take prayer, for example. The very reason we pray arises from a clear understanding of our limits. The author Jared Wilson states the idea well: “Prayer is expressed helplessness. When we’re not engaged in prayer, it’s because we feel like ‘we got this.’ The extent to which you are not engaged in prayer is the extent to which you are relying on your own strength.” We don’t pray for our own power to rescue us, but for help to come by way of God’s power. We also must not turn prayer into a plea for partnership that only says, “I have my plans for my life God; bless my efforts so that I may succeed.” When you know your place in God’s plan, you won’t begin with “God, bless my work with success,” but will turn to “God, thank you for your mercy in giving me breath to do your will.”
Life with God begins with a recognition of our utter helplessness, not our inner strength. Reliance upon God alone can be frightening for those who desire to avoid vulnerability and maintain rigid control. It has been said that grace is both a relief and a terror. It’s a relief in that you don’t have to do it all yourself, and it is a terror in that you can’t do it all yourself. This fact is at the very heart of the words of Jesus: “Apart from me, you can do nothing” (John 15:5). The word “nothing” is not a broad-brush exaggeration by Jesus; it is the hard reality of existence.
You will only value God’s faithfulness when you understand your helplessness.
There are no spiritual bootstraps.
We will remember that the purpose of God overrules any of our plans. – Proverbs 19:21 Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the LORD that will stand.
No matter how strong we consider ourselves to be, we will rest in God’s eternal strength. – Psalm 73:26 My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
We will give God thanks for providing us with all things. – Acts 17:25 …Nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.
We will embrace the “relief and terror” of God’s grace. – Ephesians 2:8-9 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.