Summary: Picking yourself up by your bootstraps is a great idea but the impossibility of doing that is like finding salvation by your own efforts.


A Call to Faith

We have heard the expression "Pick yourself up by your bootstraps." The picture this brings to mind is that of someone pulling on his or her shoes and as a results being lifted off the ground. In a way, this is rather humorous when we realized the impossibility of it. Of course, the idea of the expression is attempting to communicate is that by hard work and initiative a person can rise above his circumstances. People in poverty can work their way out of poverty. People without any education can get an education on their own. We like the idea of people being able to be successful if they will just apply themselves and work hard. This concept is part of the American dream.

The problem with the "dream" is that, as stated, is just that -- a dream or a fantasy. The expression overlooks the underlying foundation of all that has gone before us. Who could educate himself without the benefit of an alphabet, books, and perhaps a tutor. Now, this argument is not to depreciate the significance of the hard work involved in obtaining an education. The hard work is needed but so are all the substantial resources one might use in the process. In the same way, lifting oneself from poverty requires making use of resources beyond the person himself. Consider the situation of a person who has no home and no job. He decides he is going to find a way out of his condition by collecting and selling old newspapers for recycle. If he were successful, then we might say that “he picked himself up by his bootstraps.” However, closer examination shows that many people had to give him the newspapers to start with. There had to be a recycle system and a paper industry that needed the product. There was a substantial foundation already provided for him upon which he could build. Again, his application of initiative and hard work was necessary for him to be successful, BUT the most important ingredient was already there and he did nothing to make that happen.

A simpler illustration is that of climbing the stairs from one floor to the next. You walk to the base of the stairs and take one step at a time and eventually get to the next level. You might say "I did it." In a way, you did; but, the most important thing that allowed you to be at the higher level was not your ability and energy but the fact that the steps were there. Someone had already provided the means so that many people can go from one floor to the next.

In the last four verses of Romans Chapter9 Paul had compared the response of the Gentiles to the Good News of the Gospel of God’s Salvation in Jesus Christ with the response of the Israelites. Following the symbolism of getting from one floor to the next, Paul noted that the Gentiles found their way to the next floor and the Israelite had failed to recognize the staircase.

Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved. For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge. Since they did not know the righteousness that comes from God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. Romans 10:1-3 NIV

God had dealt with the children of Israel and had given them instructions regarding their relationship to Himself and to others. The Ten Commandments were the basic rudiments of relationships. These could be liken to learning how to walk or climb. The Israelites added many refinements to the basics but did little more than to add "style" to the ability to walk. They practiced their walking and put all the refinements into place because they thought this was what was pleasing to God. They were devoted to God; but, as Paul pointed out "not based on true knowledge." It was as if they had been walking the halls but had not discovered the stairs. They failed to realize that the purpose in their knowing how to walk (the carrying out of the Law) was so they could climb the stairs and arrive at the next level. They thought that keeping the Law (walking the halls) was all there was.

Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes. Moses describes in this way the righteousness that is by the law: "The man who does these things will live by them." But the righteousness that is by faith says: "Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’" (that is, to bring Christ down) "or ‘Who will descend into the deep?’" (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). Romans 10:4-7 NIV

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