Some lovely person came up to me this Sunday after church, someone who had spent a few minutes with my fifth child, a four year old girl, and said to me, "Marigold" (that's her blog name) "is really independent isn't she?"
"Oh yes" I said, laughing, and then I looked in this lovely person's eyes with a sinking heart, "you mean Rebellious, don't you? Not independent."
She laughed. "Well yes. Rebellious."
It's cute in a child, rebellion. And sometimes it's hard even to detect because it comes with a toothy grin and it's just so cute and you think, if you're a bad parent like me, "oh, she's just expressing herself. She's just being who she really is." And that's true, up to a certain point, but not the person she should be.
It's a thin line, between independence and rebellion, we might even say two sides of the same coin. They aren't opposite of each other, exactly, but more like two points on the same line. The question is which direction you are walking.
Independence, that state of thinking and acting for yourself, is a valuable quality, one which I think every parent and every child across the world has a relationship of necessity with. When you were born you could not live without the totalitarian and life giving choices and presence of your mother. For food, for warmth, for safety, for everything, you depended on her, and probably your father, or some necessary care giver. But those closest to you, lest they loose their minds, needed you to grow and learn to do important things by yourself. Walk, eat, speak, cross the road, drive a car, study for an exam, manage a check book, enter into relationships with people who were not them. Babyhood, childhood is so precious, so lovely, but there's a reason it needs to end before age 20. Your parents would have died of exhaustion if you hadn't grown up. They love you. They are probably willing to give their lives for you. But if you don't grow up and get a job, you will send their poor gray hairs is sorrow to the grave. I say this as someone who only began sleeping through the night this year. I stopped sleeping with the birth of my first child, eleven years ago, started sleeping again this year now that the youngest is 3. Indeed, with the youngest, long after she had stopped waking up to be fed, I continued to wake up from the memory and habit of it. This kind of dependence, though beautiful, is apt to kill you if it doesn't end. So Independence is good. It is necessary. And it is given to a child by parents who don't need the child. They maybe gain love, eventually, but it's not a reciprocal relationship where the parent gets very much back from the child.
Even when independence is given as a gift, it doesn't come easy. This American cultural is saturated with the message that you have the right to determine your own course in life. You can do anything! You've been told by Disney in every movie for the last thirty years. The most important person in the world is you and your choices are supreme over all things! Perhaps, as you struggled through adolescence, you made choices and pursued your dreams but you ended up feeling more dependent than ever on your parents and friends. Stupid Disney, perhaps you thought, as I did. Now you are here, self determining your classes and relationships and food choices and everything else, but still you probably write home, or maybe text, for money. I am so old, I used a fax. You want to graduate and get a brilliant job. Your parents are praying with all their souls that you don't have to move home any time soon. They want you to be you, an individual with thoughts and feelings and aspirations. The parent who doesn't want that, who wants the child to stay really close, who wants to make all the decisions, who obscures and muddies who you are, or the friend who does that, is muddying the water between good dependence, which only happens when two people are properly independent and weird bad dependence which happens when one person won't let the other person be an actual person. Independence allowing for the right kind of dependence, is good, even when hard won.
Let's turn the coin over and look at the other side, or the other point on the line. Rebellion. To see what this looks like we will go back to the ancient story of Adam and Eve. You've maybe heard this story. Another time we could argue about how and whether this story is true. For now, go with me to my Christian paradigm. This is how God articulated the beginning of all things, and the beginning of humanity.
In Genesis 1 and 2 God created Adam out of the ground--not a baby, crawling around on the garden floor eating bugs--no, a full grown human man, a man with a personality and identity. Adam had work to do. He was supposed to name all the animals and care for them and the garden. But God created Adam, independent walking around Adam, with a lack. He created him lonely. After naming all the animals and looking them over, Adam realized something was missing. There was him, and the animals, and God, hmm, something else was needed. And so God put him to sleep and took a rib and made Eve, beautiful, self possessed, different and distinct from Adam. WhenAdam woke up he was so delighted. You are the one I've been missing! he cried. You are bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh. Let's be together forever. And God married them and they lived happily ever after.
Just kidding. It's not Disney. There's another piece to the story. While Adam and Eve could walk and talk and eat food they actually were not supposed to be completely independent. They were distinct from each other but supposed to depend on each other--to work together in the garden, to help each other and relate to one another. They weren't supposed to absorb each other into their own beings, manipulating or managing each other, nor keeping each other at arms length, preserving a careful boundary around their own psychic space--no, depending on each other and even more they were supposed to depend on God.
That's something Christians say a lot--depend on God. It's an easy thing to say and impossible to really do because of what happened next. Adam and Eve were hanging out in the garden, doing whatever they were supposed to be doing when a great temptation came upon them. The serpent, Satan, came to Eve and said, God doesn't really love you. He hasn't given you everything you need. You would be happier if you had more independence. Wouldn't it be great to know things the way God knows you, to be like him. He doesn't want you to really be who you are. He's trying to obscure and muddy your true identity. He is a bad father. True happiness lies in independence from God.
Now, this was a great lie, but a bewitching one. There were two kinds of dependence that Eve had on God up to that moment. The first was for her very existence. She was walking around on her own feet and picking fruit to eat, but she actually owed her very breath and existence to God. God was holding up her being alive in the palm of his hand, in his very breath. He sustained her existence materially and physically. The second was for her spiritual existence. God kept her spirit alive and he also loved her and she was able to perceive that love and to experience it. And Adam with her. They could talk to God and be with him as one is with a parent and a friend. As long as they depended on God, they experienced true independence.
This relationship between independence and dependence didn't spring from nowhere, it's a reflection of God himself. God the Father is related in perfect love to God the Son. Everything the Father has he gives to the Son. Everything the Son has he gives to the Spirit and the Father. They are perfectly unified. The technical word is One. They are one in being and heart and purpose. But this perfect unity is only possible because God is three, the father, the son, and the spirit. They are perfectly distinct from each other. They are not weird outgrowth avatars of each other, the Son some kind of manifestation of the father. No, they are distinct persons within the Being of God. They have unique roles. The father is not the son. The son is not the father. Neither are the spirit. So they have something actual to pour out, to give to each other. Adam and Eve were a reflection of this distinction that produces unity.
Until the moment of temptation. Be like God but do it without him, said Satan. And so Eve took and ate the fruit she was not supposed to eat and became truly "independent". Except now the word is called Rebellion. It's doing things your own way as if there is no God, as if you yourself are God. And we all have it. If you see a child look in her mother's eyes and say 'no!' you are seeing rebellion. If your parents say, please come home for Spring Break and you say you have too many papers to write and go to Cabo, you are being rebellious, not independent. If a friend says, I really need you to have a coffee with me because I'm coming unglued and you say, get your own life together I have better things to do, you are really being kind of selfish and rebellious. If you say, to your friend or room mate or anyone really, I'm not going to let you be who you are, I'm going to manage and manipulate you to suit myself, you are being rebellious. But at the center of it, if God says to you, Love me more than yourself and obey me and be related to me, and you say,
No, I love myself more than you and I will do things my own way,
That is true rebellion.
It looks like independence, it feels like independence in the moment, it probably feels good, but it's rebellion.
Here's the trick, God created you to be you. He created you to glorify him and enjoy him and do interesting and useful things. But he always meant to be loved by you. He made you expressly to be in a relationship with him and to depend on Him. Your "independence" is conditioned on your total complete unconditional and willing dependence on him.
Your walking around and making your own life choices does not negate the fact that he holds your very breath in the palm of his hand. His existence sustains you. Were it not for him, you would be as dust on this gray floor. You might go around feeling awesome and empowered and alone, but that is not the fact on the ground. You depend on him for your existence. The question is will you willingly depend on him for your life.
Will you trust him with yourself? Will to give your whole self to him to be his? Will you glorify him by depending on and being depended on by those around you?
Why would you want to? What's so bad about rebellion, you might ask. Well, one big reason is that the rebellion side of the coin is ugly.
I'm very sorry to say that the Sunday after my daughter was identified as rebellious, another friend asked me what I was speaking on.
"Independence" I said. And the person spit his coffee out with laughter.
"What!" I cried. "I'm not independent! I'm not rebellious!"
But I am. I get irritated when my kids want me to do stuff for them that they can't do for themselves. When people articulate weakness, I am tempted to say, 'Just get it together why don't you.' When Matt isn't living up to my plans for him I want to manipulate and destroy him. When I am weak, I want to hide it from the world so that everyone will think I'm fabulous and independent and have it altogether. But really, I'm rebelliously making my own way to have knowledge and good things without God.
The opposite of Rebellion isn't independence as I said in the beginning. They are two points on a line. The difference between independence and rebellion is which direction you are walking. The true opposite of Rebellion is Love. Love is acting for the good of a distinct other. It's not just a feeling of affection, it is an action for the good of another. So God, in pouring out himself for us, is acting in love. When you give up your own agenda and plans and give yourself to God or to another person, you are acting in love.
The trouble is that while God has the power to pour himself out to you, you don't have the power to pour yourself out for anyone, let alone God. Eve destroyed the perfection of dependence on God that brought true independence. You are carrying around a great lack. You aren't holding up your own material existence and you can't perfectly meet your own needs for love or anything.
If rebellion and independence are two points on a line, and there you are on the line, maybe you're waffling between both or just fully in the grasp of rebellion. There you sit, knowing you ought to walk towards God, not really wanting to or being able to. Meanwhile, God isn't waiting for you to make up your mind and get it together. He came down to the line himself. The Son, the second person of the trinity, came down to show us his true identity, to cut through the rebellion. The Son, as you probably know, is Jesus. He is the true picture of love. He gives himself to you to be depended on, to give you what you need, so that you can stand up and be who you're supposed to be and then to actually have something to give to others. You don't need to absorb and obscure others because Jesus has given you his whole self.
To the outside world it may look like you are no longer truly independent. But really, you have walked away from rebellion towards God. You have given up yourself for another. You have said, maybe to God, not my will but yours, not my plans but yours, not my way but yours, not my knowledge but yours. Do you then loose your identity? Do you become a religious sap or nut who cannot think or act with any independence or creativity? No, instead what you have done, when you have given yourself in love to God, is become a true person, a person with no lack, a person who is free to walk closer and closer to God, a person whose identity is less and less obscured and muddied by temptation and sorrow, no longer alone, but bonded to another, closely, truly.