One of the most insidious devices used by Satan to destroy us (personally and socially) is the story of the self-made woman ... who, by dint of her own energies and creativity, masters the world and achieves success.
American mythology is filled with images of frontier women and men bravely hacking their way through the impenetrable wilderness, fighting off wild beasts and staving off savage attacks from those who would foolishly resist progress. The loner. The entrepreneur. The successful!
American religion, as well, has drunk deeply from the well of this salvation-by-works view of life, turning many an American pulpit into a podium for motivational jargon and silly stories that always bring a tear to the eye without the genuine transformation essential to the gospel of a real Christ - a living Christ who invites us to deny ourselves, trust God radically, give away profoundly, take up our cross and follow unconditionally.
Why is this notion of a self-made woman such an insidious idea?
Well, for one, it's patently false!
If one probes beneath the surface of the lives of the successful, one discovers the hidden imprint of grace, an imprint discernible through the lens of faith, itself a gift from God.
That's the point, I suppose - life is a gift from God, every bit of it, determined by God. Though we must be careful - this idea has been used by the powerful and the wealthy to justify the poverty of others and the maintenance of the social status quo as if it were the will of God, forever and immutable. Hence, the Victorian objection to Darwin who suggested that systems actually change. Churchly high pulpits linked arms with positions of privilege to fight Darwin's ideas and to promote the "created order ordained by God" to keep others in slavery and some in the lap of luxury. How convenient to believe that poverty and privilege are ordained by God.
But the point remains: the Bible and the work of good theologians point to the mysteries of grace that bestow wealth and power without our participation. Wealth and power - gifts from God, irrespective our character, our morality, our faith or our intelligence. Ouch! Did I just say that?
Socially, the myth of the self-made woman perpetuates the kind of pride that divides a society against itself - the "successful" person, imaging her success to be of her own making, looks down her snoot at everyone else, and then publishes a book or two about how smart she is, and if working-man Pete and single-mom Susie could only be as smart and as hard-working as she's been, why, they'd be successful, too, living on easy street and enjoying the well-deserved fruits of their labors.
Clearly, one of the fiery darts used by the Evil One to puff the soul and destroy our social conscience.
On the other hand, when one confronts the mystery and the joy of grace, one realizes, quickly, just how fragile our success is - how a million little factors, way beyond our purview and control, have brought us to this point in life. It truly is "amazing grace," and such grace leaves us spell-bound and grateful and utterly humbled.
In the face of grace, we begin to see why God has blessed us ... so that we might be a blessing to others (without questioning and judging their status even as we question and judge our own status in the light of grace), and use our position to fight the larger evils that oppress and destroy body and soul.
The wealthy and the powerful, if they truly understood the source of their wealth and power, would all become deeply radical, working tirelessly to change the hideous systems of disparity and death, even supporting a much higher tax rate for themselves, because taxes are the means of a shared responsibility to care for one another, paying their taxes with joy, giving thanks for what they have without demanding ever-more.
Living in the power of grace, the wealthy and the mighty would devote themselves to legislation and programs to provide the best of schools for every child everywhere, to promote unions for the protection of the guys and gals who turn our beds and serve our food and wash our cars and clean our streets and fight our fires and solve our crimes and fight our wars. Living in grace, the powerful would work to change the world rather than using charity as a sop to the poor and a salve to a greedy conscience.
Grace no longer asks the question: Why are poor people poor? As if it were their fault.
But asks the larger question: Why has God given me so much?
And then grace rolls up her sleeves, figures out how to spend a whole lot less on the self and engage a whole lot more in making this God's world, as it should be, after all.
Grace - who want's to hear it?
But it's the truth, and only the truth, the gracious truth, shall set us free at last.