Dependency – Key to our Needs View Printable Version
By: John Townsend Ph.D.
One of the most tender scenes anyone can experience is that of a mother nursing her infant. The baby is safe and warm as he takes in the milk he needs to survive; and at the same time, he also receives her love and care inside himself. The mother gently holds her child, freely giving of herself to him. While as adults, we are not as helpless as the infant is, this is still a beautiful picture of the fundamental nature of dependence, as designed by God for us. It is His plan for not only our childhood, but all through life. This article will explain the biblical concept of dependency.
What is Dependency?
Basically, to be dependent is to rely on someone outside yourself for some need. You cannot have dependence in isolation, it is impossible. More than that, dependency requires that we receive from someone else that which we do not have. The most important aspect of this idea is that there are many things that we cannot create, make or produce from ourselves: “what do you have that you did not receive?” (I Cor. 4:7). We are force to look outside of our skin for these things. Without them, we cannot survive.
Relational vs. Functional Dependency
It is important to clarify that there are two kinds of dependencies that you will encounter. They are very different in nature. The first, relational dependency, is the subject of this article. It has to do with your divinely-designed need to be sustained by relationship with God and others. Again, it is our fuel for life.
The second, functional dependency, involves the aspect of needing others to assist us in our responsibilities. Basically, God planned life so that your life is your problem. What you accomplish, how you handle problems and struggles, how you conduct your life, are all part of being stewards. We are to carry our own crosses daily (Luke 9:23). Yet, though each person is to carry his own load, we are also to help each other with the overwhelming burdens of life (Gal. 6:2-5). Part of maturity is knowing when to solve your own problems, and when to ask for help.
Problems can arise when someone becomes functionally dependent on another, not because of an inability or crisis, but because of resistance to responsibility. The caring person wants to help out, but ends up rescuing the other person from their own job of life. For example, the functional dependent may not want to get a job, or do dishes, or even take ownership of his or her emotions. In this case, the lines of responsibility become crossed. Boundary conflicts ensue.
Here is the key: give relational support to others, but without enabling. Love without rescuing the other from their own responsibility.
Aspects of Dependency
There is more than one reason that dependency is an important part of the spiritual growth process. Let’s look at a few of them.
Fuel for Life
Most importantly, dependency brings us love and grace, which are the essential fuels for survival. Just as a car needs gasoline, we are constructed so that we must have certain elements to keep us going. Even if we cannot experience the need for this fuel, we will find out that we must have it by what happens when it gives out. Life begins to break down.
Research is now proving what the Bible has been teaching all along: relationship is good for you: the love of God and His Body the Church “grows and builds itself up in love” (Eph. 4:16). Studies show that people who have maintained long-term loving connections will tend to have better and longer lives. By the golden years, they look back over their journeys and are satisfied with the meaning and purpose they experienced.
The other end of this is true, too. The lack of relationship causes problems. For example, many depressions, anxiety problems and compulsive behaviors are symptoms of lack of bonding inside the person. Isolation causes the soul to starve for nutrients, and problems are the result. Separation from relationship puts us in the darkness:
“They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, with a continual lust for more (Eph. 4:18, 19)”
As much as we might like to think, we really can’t make it in life without love. Simply using your wits, energy, willpower, commitment, resolve and all the other tools we have at our disposal will ultimately fail unless we are filled inside with love that we have not created ourselves. Relationship is the fuel for life, and dependency is the avenue by which we receive it. We receive “grace to help us in our time of need” (Heb. 4:16).
Learning to value connection for its own sake
The second aspect of dependency is that it teaches us that relationship is the most important thing in the universe. Connection is really the deepest value in God’s heart. He constructed everything, and He Himself exists, in terms of relationship: “God is love” (John 4:16).
When you allow dependent feelings and stances in life, you begin to live life the way God intended it. Relationship is not only a means to an end; it is an end in itself. Closeness to God and others is what life is all about. Life has meaning, fulfillment and purpose in relationship.
Some people have never experienced relationship as a good thing in their lives. For example, you may see dependency as being weak and vulnerable, or have fears of abandonment. Or you may have been so disconnected that there appears to be no real value in connection.
Where there is no hunger, it is hard to value dependency. We will deal with some of the obstacles to bonding later in this issue.
But, as you work through these difficulties, you can learn to experience closeness as something not only good for you, but as the “highest good” experience and position that God provides for us: “love never fails” (I Cor. 13:8). When people actually become close to God and others, for example, it is one of the major factors in them giving- up things they are in bondage to, such as addictions, destructive feelings and poor relationships.
Dependency Tutors us to Love
Dependency is part of a larger picture in God’s frame of growing us up. We will always be needy for connectedness with Him and others. However, life is not to end there for us. This is the beginning of the relational life. Not only are we to be dependent, but we are to begin the process of loving. Love is different from need. While they both have to do with connection, love is mutual, while dependency is not. Dependency is concerned more with getting needs met; love is concerned with the other person.
The Bible often refers to people in the early, dependent position as infants or children (I Cor. 14:20);(2 Cor. 6:13);(Eph. 4:14).This is seen as a good and necessary stage, where we learn to be connected, safe and bonded. We take in the “milk” of grace and love (Heb. 5:12). Yet, we were not designed to stay in this stage forever. We are ultimately to learn to love others as ourselves (Matt. 22:39).
This development occurs in stages. The first step is the position of isolation and disconnection. Here, we are in a world of our own, and it’s not a good one. We are without love inside, and cannot find love outside. This describes the newborn’s experience. He is in a graceless position, all alone, lost, angry and in terror. He is totally dependent on Mother to “find” him, make contact and help him feel safe. The second involves dependency without awareness of the caregiver. We don’t begin life as loving beings. We are much more concerned with getting our needs met than in the other’s welfare! Watch a small infant, how he panics without Mother and is soothed by the holding, but without a real send of Mother as a person. He responds, but more to the functions than the individual. The third is need with an awareness of the caregiver as a person. Here, the child begins to interact with Mother, making eye contact and with an interchange of facial expressions.
In this stage, the baby is still primarily dependent in the relationship. However, Mom is more than a “safety zone” for him; she is an individual in her own right. The fourth is mutuality. In this stage, we have internalized enough love to be concerned about the feelings and problems of the other person. The relationship is a give and take that flows in between the two. The fifth is altruism, in which we consider someone else as more important than ourselves (Phil. 2:3). This altruism is the basis of God’s love that moved Him to the crucifixion: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:18).
This was a very brief overview of a very complex subject; hopefully, we will develop it more in another article. But in terms of dependency, look at yourself and evaluate where you are. Are you living in a detached world of isolation from bonding? Are you learning dependency, but still more concerned with the needs than the caregiver? Many people find themselves in marriages, for example, where they are the caregiver; it looks like love, because closeness exists, but it is not mutual. Ask God to help you gradually move through the stages. He wants to make you a lover like Himself (Eph. 3:19).
Foundation for Aggression
Life requires much of us. I hope that’s not news for you. Not only were we designed to connect, but also we need the ability to be aggressive, in order to survive and produce a good life. Aggression is that part of us that is active; it is concerned with truth, responsibility and righteousness (Psa.50:6). There are two primary ways we need aggression.
The first of these is task. Everyone has their own job description, be it school, childrearing, career or ministry. Like Adam, we are to “fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen. 1:28), in some way that God calls us to. This requires lots of productive, risk-taking, initiative-taking abilities.
People who are dependent on God and others for their connection needs have a source to go to, to help withstand the rigors of their task: “pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up” (Eccles. 9:10). This is why you have something called home to go to after work. It should be a place of love, warmth and comfort to help you get ready for the next day.
Secondly, we need aggression for conflict. Life also demands that we solve problems in life. This can range from working out a financial struggle in marriage to being able to set limits with an irresponsible or out-of-control person in your life. The world, the flesh and the devil are all working against us. You need aggression to work through problems, because probably nobody is going to solve your but yourself.
Dependency brings us the essential foundation to develop aggression. Doing and willing is based on attaching. Love fills us and makes it safe for us to take risks and enter into conflict with problems people. Without it, we would be in jeopardy of either total failure or condemnation. One of the main benefits of Jesus’ death is that we can be imperfect with no condemnation (Rom. 8:1). Thus, we are able to try, fail and learn. Consequences are the only negative for the believer. Loss of love and relationship is never at stake.
Another aspect of this is that we need to take in love in order to withstand task and conflict. These two take much out of us. This is why the Bible teaches the principle of asking God to “encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word” (2 Thess. 2:17). How many times, for example have you had the experience of going into some conflict with another person, but from an isolated position? The result is often that we give up to the other, due to caving in inside; there is no loved position (Eph. 3:17), supporting and encouraging us. As we often say, you cannot set boundaries in a vacuum.
Ask God to help you learn to reach out in times of stress, hurt and struggle with others. Your tendency may be to withdraw and “go inside.” Begin to ask others for their love and comfort to strengthen you in the dark days.
Dependent on Whom
Let us take a look at the two suppliers of need that we are to become dependent on.
Our most significant dependency is that which we have upon God Himself. The Scriptures teach that He is our primary source of all good things, including life itself: “For in Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). God designed you from the beginning to live in this type of dependent relationship. We are to look to Him for existence, grace, love, strength, wisdom, forgiveness and many other of the necessities of life.
This type of relationship not only provides what we need, but it helps us deepen our love and gratitude for Him. Much in the same way that a child moves from dependency to love, we are nourished, grow and respond back to God’s love with our own: “we love because He first loved us” (I John 4:19).
The second place for dependency is safe people. God designed us to need connection with someone with skin on. It was not good that Adam was alone, even having God Himself (Gen. 2:18). We are a major delivery system of God’s grace to others (I Pet. 4:10). This is one of the reasons God sent Jesus: to give us someone who has “been there”. He knows how we feel and experience life: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet was without sin” (Heb. 4:15).
Remember: you have a God-shaped hole and a people-shaped hole. Stay connected to both.
We will always need God and safe people. Yet as we humbly receive love, support and truth from the outside, we are strengthened to grow. The love we have internalized from others becomes a part of who we are, and we are able to then draw from it in times of isolation, stress, failure and loss. However, even that may not be enough at times. Stay in contact with those you trust, and live in relational dependency: “so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God” (2 Cor. 1:4).
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