‘Self-sufficiency’ is the sociologist’s term for the ability to survive alone, as a Robinson Crusoe. Only Paul used it in Scripture – just three times. However, a major theme of his was Christian fellowship, how we should operate together socially and not as mere solitary units. Each of us must find his functional place in the body of Christ, because none of us as a solo act could ever be the full expression of the Christ on earth!
Paul first used the expression self-sufficient in his second letter to the church at Corinth (2 Corinthians 9:8).Previously, he had mentioned ‘sufficiency’ five times (see 2 Corinthians 2:6, 16; 3:5, 5, 6).
(1) When he wrote his first letter to that church a year or so earlier he had to rebuke them for their lax morals in allowing a man to continue in fellowship who was cohabiting with ‘his father’s wife’ (1 Corinthians 5:1-13; 6:9-20). It was now plain to Paul that their ethical pendulum had swung to the opposite extreme. They had disciplined the erring man (or maybe another man for a similar gross offence) by withdrawing fellowship from him. But now they were slow to restore him after he had duly proved his repentance.
‘For such a one, this punishment by the majority is enough, so you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow’ (see 2 Corinthians 2:6-11).
(2) Next, Paul asked concerning their mission to spread the gospel: Who is sufficient for these things?’ (2 Corinthians 2:16) and then went on to answer his own question:
‘Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant’ (2 Corinthians 3:5-6).
Paul is not boasting of superior abilities, but of divine enabling – Greek arketos, meaning:
- satisfaction from Latin satisfacere (satis = enough + facere = to do), ‘to fulfil a need’
- sufficiency from Latin sufficiens (sub = under + facere) ‘adequate but not luxurious’
- contentment from Latin contentus = ‘restrained and contained’
The word Greek autarkeia prefixes the ‘sufficient’ with autos (‘self’), as do our words:
an autocrat rules by himself; autonomy is literally a law to oneself; an autograph is written by oneself; an autobiography is a life story told by oneself; an automatic works by itself; an automobile is a self-propelled machine; and autism stops its victim from communicating beyond oneself in empathy with the feelings of others. Paul uses it thus:
(a) ‘God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all [self-] sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work’ (2 Corinthians 9:8)
It’s a favourite text of those who preach a prosperity gospel. But read it in the light of:
(b) ‘I am [not] speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content [self-contained]’ (Philippians 4:11). Indeed
(c) ‘[P]eople who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth … imagin[e] that godliness is a means of gain. Now there is great gain in godliness with contentment [self-sufficiency] … [I]f we have food and clothing, with these we will be content [arkeo]’ (1Timothy 6:5-8).
* Like Paul, let’s learn spiritual self-sufficiency in God’s school of hard knocks!