The Danger of a Self-Directed Life
What is a self-directed life? Are you living one right now? What does the Bible have to say about this approach?
If you were to type “how to be successful” into a search engine, you’d get literally millions of results. Piles of books have been written about the subject of success—what it is and how to achieve it. This topic is so popular because many people are searching for ways out of their difficulties.
But even with all the advice about success available, many people’s lives are rife with problems—usually because of their own decisions.
People certainly do not intend to live unsuccessfully. Nobody sits in his or her thinking chair and begins to brainstorm, “How can I be more unsuccessful?”
But it happens.
What is the issue? How can we prevent it? How can we be successful? Let’s explore one roadblock to success and discover how we can overcome it.
The danger of self-directed lives
When King Josiah died at the end of the seventh century B.C., the state of Judah gradually spiraled into a political and spiritual mess.
Josiah, having been a righteous king, led the nation in a rededication to God and His commandments. During his reign, the temple was purged of pagan objects of worship, the idolatrous high places were destroyed, the Passover was reinstituted, and the mediums and witches were removed from the land. He was Judah’s last good king (2 Kings 23:25).
A self-directed lifestyle is simply living life according to our own ideas and feelings—rejecting and ignoring the guidance and wisdom of God and His Word. But after his death, the people returned to their sinful ways. The idols returned, and the priests fell back into pagan teachings. People were mistreated, and God’s Sabbaths were profaned. Surely, destruction was on the horizon for the nation of Judah.
Jeremiah, the prophet to Judah at that time, saw the downward trajectory of the nation and knew it was heading for a fall. Under God’s inspiration, Jeremiah lamented people’s self-made attempts to live successfully on their own. He lamented, “O LORD, I know the way of man is not in himself; it is not in man who walks to direct his own steps” (Jeremiah 10:23, emphasis added throughout).
Notice Jeremiah said, “I know.” He did not say, “I suppose.” This was something Jeremiah was convicted about. He knew the history of the Israelites. He knew the ebb and flow of their occasional obedience and frequent disobedience. He knew captivity was imminent.
But the truth is, Jeremiah 10:23 does not apply only to the people of Judah 2,600 years ago. The statement, “It is not in man who walks to direct his own steps,” has to do with all mankind, all the time. History has seen Jeremiah 10:23 play out repeatedly, both on a personal level and on a national level.
The lesson from this verse is that human beings will always fail to bring lasting peace, prosperity and success when they “direct [their] own steps,” or live a self-directed way of life.
A self-directed lifestyle is simply living life according to our own ideas and feelings—rejecting and ignoring the guidance and wisdom of God and His Word.
The book of Proverbs puts it this way: “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death” (Proverbs 14:12).
We always do what seems like the right thing to do—what comes naturally, what is easy. Our problem is that we rely on ourselves for the answers. We are bent on taking life by the horns and doing things our own way without any guidance and direction from God. We effectively tell God, “Get out of my business!”
Are human beings today any different than they were 2,600 years ago, or even before that?
For more insight on the problem with relying on ourselves for direction, read “Gut Feelings: Is What Seems Right, Right?”
Failure to acknowledge the problem of being self-directed
The people of Judah had plenty of opportunities to repent before God finally allowed them to be devastated by the Babylonians. Jeremiah continually urged them to repent—which would have spared them from captivity. But the kings, priests and the people refused to listen.
God, speaking through Jeremiah, pleaded with the people, “‘If you will return, O Israel,’ says the LORD, ‘return to Me; and if you will put away your abominations out of My sight, then you shall not be moved’” (Jeremiah 4:1).
If the people of Judah would only stop being self-directed, repent and turn to God, He promised He would protect and deliver them!Again, God assured the people, “The instant I speak concerning a nation and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, to pull down, and to destroy it, if that nation against whom I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I thought to bring upon it” (Jeremiah 18:7-8).
If the people of Judah would only stop being self-directed, repent and turn to God, He promised He would protect and deliver them!
But instead of thanking God for His mercy and obeying Him, the people chose to be stubborn and defiant.
Their response was characteristic of human nature: “That is hopeless! So we will walk according to our own plans, and we will every one obey the dictates of his evil heart” (verse 12).
They chose to ignore God’s offer for protection and deliverance and do their own thing instead. In other words, they insisted on living self-directed lives.
The self-directed lives of the kings of Judah
After the death of King Josiah, Judah became a vassal state to the Babylonian empire. For a nationalistic people, this was a yoke of bondage. They wanted out, and the kings tried to make that happen.
In 601 B.C., Nebuchadnezzar unsuccessfully invaded Egypt and suffered heavy losses. This failed military campaign led to uprisings among the surrounding vassal states, including the state of Judah. Jehoiakim, then king of Judah, saw a window of opportunity and rebelled against Nebuchadnezzar—something Jeremiah warned against. The result of his self-directed decision was another Babylonian invasion of Judah where he ultimately lost his life, fulfilling Jeremiah’s prophecy (Jeremiah 22:18-19).
King Zedekiah was also influenced by the spirit of self-directedness. As Jerusalem continued to weaken and the threat of Babylonian invasion grew, every king looked to himself for deliverance.
To insist on living a self-directed way of life apart from God is a recipe for failure, not success. All the while, Jeremiah had the answer to their problems, and he continued to warn the people that the city would become ashes if they didn’t repent. But Zedekiah decided to lean on the counsel of his inner court for an alternative. Their solution, in summary, was to enter an alliance with Egypt and, with their combined power, try to throw off the yoke of Nebuchadnezzar. But being the indecisive person he was, Zedekiah also asked Jeremiah for input.
Jeremiah counseled against Zedekiah’s plans and told him, “Thus says the LORD, the God of hosts, the God of Israel: ‘If you surely surrender to the king of Babylon’s princes, then your soul shall live; this city shall not be burned with fire, and you and your house shall live’” (Jeremiah 38:17).
Here Jeremiah told Zedekiah exactly what he needed to do, but Zedekiah confessed, “I am afraid of the Jews who have defected to the Chaldeans, lest they deliver me into their hand, and they abuse me” (verse 19). Zedekiah was afraid of being viewed as a coward and becoming a laughingstock or worse.
After ignoring Jeremiah, Zedekiah secretly entered the alliance with Egypt and openly revolted against the Babylonians.
The result was all too familiar. Jeremiah’s prophecies regarding the destruction of the city came true. People were massacred. The buildings were torched.
In one last-ditch effort to protect his life, Zedekiah tried to flee. He made it as far as the plains of Jericho before he was captured and brought before Nebuchadnezzar. There, the Babylonians killed Zedekiah’s sons and then gouged out Zedekiah’s eyes and hauled him off to Babylon in chains.
In spite of these last kings’ self-concocted attempts to deliver themselves, they failed.
Did Jehoiakim and Zedekiah want their lives to end the way they did? Did they expect their plans to result in death?
The answer is, of course, no.
But to insist on living a self-directed way of life apart from God is a recipe for failure, not success. Jehoiakim and Zedekiah trusted in their own counsel, strategies and plans, and it backfired.
With these examples in mind, the words of God, spoken through Jeremiah, are affirmed: “Cursed is the man who trusts in man and makes flesh his strength” (Jeremiah 17:5).
For more insights on avoiding bad decisions, read our article “Wrong Choice.”
From a self-directed to a surrendered life
We rely on a self-directed approach because it appeals to our physical senses.
In Zedekiah’s case, he refused to see the protection God offered him. He chose to see only what the Egyptian military could offer—the numbers, the weapons, the chariots and so on.
God gave us an instruction manual, the Word of God, to reveal that way to us. He lays it out through His commandments, His instructions and His words.Needless to say, his physical senses failed him. He was wrong. And, like Zedekiah, we can fall into that same ditch.
So, what hope is there for you and me?
The good news is that there is another way—an alternative to a self-directed life. There’s a way that guarantees success (according to God’s purpose and timing), and that is the surrendered life. It’s a life surrendered to God and His direction. We could also call this a God-directed life.
Because God’s way often contradicts human reasoning, we can find it hard to believe Him and act on what He tells us. Since His benefits are not always immediately visible, our natural reaction is to take control of the steering wheel and, in effect, say, “God, let me handle this. You don’t know what You’re doing!”
The surrendered life is not attractive to the five senses. The surrendered life takes faith.
But we can be encouraged by the fact that God knows the right way to go. He gave us an instruction manual, the Word of God, to reveal that way to us. He lays it out through His commandments, His instructions and His words.
The question isn’t necessarily just, “What should we do?” (We can find the answer to this question and learn His will by reading the Bible.) The question is, “Will we allow it to direct us?”
Isaiah 55:8-9 says, “‘For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,’ says the LORD. ‘For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts.’”
When we live a surrendered life, we are acknowledging that God is immeasurably better equipped to guide our lives and direct our steps.
So, avoid living a self-directed way of life. Seek God’s will and His counsel by reading your Bible, and then allow the words of Proverbs 3:6 to describe your life: “In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths.”
Seeking to live a surrendered, or God-directed, life is one of the first steps to a truly successful life.