Mission trips. Volunteer work. Donations. Many college students and young adults try to be active members of their communities by helping out, locally and globally. It’s often inspiring to hear stories of their work. It’s often great work. Yet, sometimes, the heart behind the work gets muddled.
I love to-do lists. I can be very type A in that way. The feeling of a checkmark is unparalleled by anything else. After all, a checkmark means so much: it means completion. It represents being a step closer to my goals. It signifies that I am being responsible. Checkmarks and to-do lists can be very helpful. However, what is on the list matters.
Sometimes our projects and trips become nothing more than an item on one of these lists. An item on our “holiness” list. An item on our “make the world a better place” list. An item on our “Instagrammable Christian” list.
That is not even the worst part. The people we try to help become a part of these lists. One person baptized. Check. One family joined the church. Check. One bible study group led. Check.
At the core of this is the complex that affects every part of our Christian life: our Savior Complex.
The Savior Complex and Sin
Author Paul David Tripp in his book, Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands: People in Need of Change Helping People In Need Of Change, writes about the creation story of Adam and Eve. After the creation of everything other than humans in Genesis 1, there is a distinct pattern. God calls His creation good and moves on. With Adam and Eve alone, God creates them, and then before calling creation “very good”, He gives Adam and Eve a command.
And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. – Genesis 1:28-30 [ESV]
Why do only Adam and Eve receive such a command? Tripp explains that:
They [Adam and Eve] were created to be dependent. God had to explain who they were and what they were to do with their lives. They did not need this help because they were sinners. They needed help because they were human.
A part of the very essence of our humanity is to be dependent on God to be God. On God to be our Savior. Yet, so often we try to go against our very nature and God’s nature and make ourselves God. When Adam and Eve did this in the garden, sin was brought into the world, and every time we do this, we perpetuate sin in the world.
In another one of his books, Awe: Why It Matters For Everything We Think, Say, and Do, Tripp writes:
At a deep and often unnoticed level, sin replaces worship of God with worship of self…It replaces a rest in God’s sovereignty with a quest for personal control. We live for our glory.
This Savior Complex can often come to light as the crux of our sin. We attempt to be the god of our own lives, and so prioritize our desires instead of God’s desires, act in ways that make us feel good instead of in ways that give God glory, and think thoughts that are centered around ourselves instead of on God.
Put simply, having a Savior Complex just means that we view ourselves as the saviors of the world instead of Christ. When taken into missions and our calling, this Savior Complex becomes so much more.
The Savior Complex and Salvation
In their book, When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor … And Yourself, authors Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert write:
Until we embrace our mutual brokenness, our work with low-income people is likely to do more harm than good. I sometimes unintentionally reduce poor people to objects that I use to fulfill my own need to accomplish something. I am not okay, and you are not okay. But Jesus can fix us both.
The book explores the ways in which the church tries to help people struggling in poverty without thinking of those people as, well, people. Having a Savior Complex results in us hurting the people we think we are helping.
Even when we help someone close to us, like a friend, it is easy to look at them as someone who needs to be “fixed”. We want to fix their addictions, fix their interests, fix their language. But, do we see them as a person?
When we take this mindset into our spaces of service whether it be our jobs, mission trips, or volunteer work, we end up ultimately dehumanizing the very people we are attempting to help. This dehumanization carries into ineffective solutions and help.
Who is the Savior of the world? Do we really believe that it is Christ? Or, do we really rely on ourselves? These are important questions that test my heart daily. So, how does Christ as the true Savior affect my life?
The Savior Complex and The Savior
1. Dependent on God
First of all, as humans, we were created to be dependent on God. Not only are we dependent on Him for our daily needs, but we are also dependent on Him for salvation. Without Christ, we would never be able to save ourselves or to live in ways that reflect God. Although this may seem self-explanatory, often our lives do not show this truth.
No to-do list comes close to being as powerful as the Holy Spirit. When God lives in us and reminds us daily of who we are and who He is, our lives reflect God without us needing to reduce our character qualities and actions to a mere checklist. Our hearts start to care about God and others because of who God shapes us into, not because of how many check marks we want to collect.
Our to-do lists then rightfully become just another of the many tools we use in life and not something that controls our lives. We give control of our past, present, and future to the God who controls the world. It is pure freedom.
2. Interdependent with His Church
Although Christ does give us independence and freedom in so many ways, there is no independent living with Christ. Christ calls us to humbly serve each other. In light of our dependence on God, we can stop viewing people as tasks, but start viewing them as fellow humans. All of us need God’s grace in our lives in different ways. With Christ living in us, we can extend some of His grace to those we are able to relate to. Evangelism and outreach then become an outworking of our identity instead of them defining who we are.
You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. – Galatians 5:13
I know I am often guilty of attempting to define myself by my impact and reducing the people I want to help as items on my task list. In many of my relationships, this can even be the driving force of many arguments and disagreements. I try to be someone else’s savior, a role I could never fulfill, and end up hurting them in the process. We care about our friends and family and, at times, try to fix their problems without seeing the problems in our own lives and seeing God in their life. God always humbles me.
Instead of fixing people, I am learning to be interdependent with them. Helping them not to solve issues, but to share a bit of my Savior with them. Accepting the help they offer as we together see the Savior’s work in our lives.
I hope we all can grow in being dependent on God to be our only Savior and in being interdependent with those around us, to be a community that reflects the work of grace.