It’s been a decade or more since I had my first conversation with Ron Block, but I can still recall the primary subject that afternoon: identity in Christ. That is because nearly every chat I’ve been privileged to have with Ron has, in some way, circled back around to that idea.
Ron is best known as one of the world’s finest banjo players and a member of the Grammy-winning Alison Krauss and Union Station. As the band’s spiritual rudder, Ron has penned several songs within the group’s catalog in addition to other collaborative releases and his own solo work. Even with such accolades and achievements, however, Ron’s driving force for those who know him remains what he now calls an “abiding dependence.”
You can now add published author to Ron’s resume with Abiding Dependence: Living Moment by Moment in the Love of God due October 4 (via Moody Publishers). I asked Ron to have yet another conversation recently about the source and significance of that phrase and how success in the music industry has informed his spiritual formation.
I’ve known you long enough and at least well enough to know that this concept of Abiding Dependence has been a core consideration for you for a long time. Do you remember what sparked this as a life goal and passion for you in the first place and when that was?
We reach for a light because the room is dark. At first, this means we look to other people, or our skills, accomplishments, or possessions to light up our sense of worth, security, and meaning. It works, but only to a degree, because all those things fluctuate, sometimes wildly.
I had a mostly good childhood, but there were quite a few jagged events by the time I was 13 that knocked out my sense of worth and security. I started playing music, and in my teens, it became a kind of lifeline giving me a sense of worth. But by my late twenties, it wasn’t working any longer and I was having a kind of inner crisis.
I started playing music, and in my teens, it became a kind of lifeline giving me a sense of worth. But by my late twenties, it wasn't working any longer and I was having a kind of inner crisis.Ron Block
I knew there were answers in the Bible. I’d read it and heard it preached much of my life. But this involved taking off a lot of preconceived ideas – my “theological glasses” – and reading it as a child, taking the words seriously. Life, others, and my own thinking processes had trained me to think of myself in a certain way. But in this I found Jesus, Paul, Peter, John, and others often contradicting my view of myself, telling me I was more than I thought I was. “You are the light of the world,” “child of God,” “holy and dearly loved,” “a new creation” — all this began to change how I thought about myself.
How would you define “Abiding Dependence”? Can you unpack what you mean by those two words?
More than anything, abiding is about recognition. We recognize God’s reality, his presence, his goodness, his love, and the exceeding greatness of his power towards us who believe. We recognize we’re in Christ, and Christ is in us. We recognize we’re branches in the Vine, partakers of the divine nature, that in Christ lives all the fullness of the Godhead in bodily form, and we’re filled full in him.
This recognition is a daily practice. We grow in it, and grow up in it. It’s the opposite of independence, self-reliance, and self-sufficiency. In it we turn to the ground and source of our being, the God who causes his life to flow up into his branches, producing love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, goodness, humility, faith, and self-control. Yes, sometimes we forget, and we fail momentarily. But we never have to stay there. We can turn and recognize him again and again. To live this way is to worship in spirit and in truth. Trust, reliance, and faith all flow out of that simple recognition of the omnipresent, transcendent, immanent God who is over us, for us, with us, in us, and lives through us.
It feels like anyone can relate to this and also feel the counter-cultural pull, but you referenced music-as-lifeline as something that no longer worked at a certain point. It does feel like the music industry would be a heightened arena. Did that accelerate these lessons learned—the nature of your vocation?
The counter-cultural pull today is, “How I feel determines my identity,” which is the modern viewpoint. When I was growing up the pull was “How I do and what I do determine my identity.”
As a teen, I knew I had to play music full time. I had a deep-down sense of purpose and a fascination with it, and still do. But on a parallel track was this issue of identity and worth. I felt good when I played well, when others were moved by what I did. And yes, this did accelerate my lessons learned.
At this point, I had no idea that the Gospel was more than just “Jesus paid my sin-debt so I can go to Heaven” and also that God would take care of my needs (Matthew 6). It hadn’t entered my little bear brain to think about where I was getting my sense of worth.
Through my teens and twenties, I continued on an upward track, playing in bands, making better and better music. In 1991, I was asked to join Alison Krauss and Union Station. I considered them some of the most innovative and highest-level players and singers in the genre, and I was thrilled, to say the least; it was creative, well-played music, and they were thrilled to have me.
The world is full of temporary sources of identity, but there's only one source that never changes.Ron Block
But I didn’t realize what was happening in my sense of worth. What goes up must come down. A fluctuating source of identity and worth will raise you high but also throw you down. It’s unstable, especially if you’re as perfectionistic and as hard on yourself as I was. A worth based on circumstances or on other people is a house built on sand. By 1994 or thereabouts I was beginning to hash this all out with God, and it wasn’t pretty.
This wasn’t the only factor in my internal crisis. But the main point was that I found I didn’t have sufficient love, joy, peace, patience, or much else, because although I trusted the sacrifice of Jesus to get me to heaven, and trusted God for outer needs, I didn’t really know how to trust God for my daily, moment-by-moment inner needs.
Anything can be turned into a source of identity, worth, and security – relationships, career, money, our skill sets, our IQs, our education, our coping mechanisms, and even ministry. The world is full of temporary sources of identity, but there’s only one source that never changes.
Can you tell us about the format of the book and why you chose that route?
Moody felt a devotional-style book would work best for this first book, and I agreed. This was originally going to be solely an “identity in Christ” devotional, but I soon realized I couldn’t write on identity without first writing about who Jesus was and is, why he was born, how he lived his daily life, why he died for us, what the resurrection means for us.
There is so much more to the good news than “Jesus died so I could go to Heaven.” There is a daily, experiential life with God that comes by recognizing him, turning to him, having fellowship with him, listening to him. Other aspects of what we call “devotional life” have to arise from that recognition, or they can easily become “dead works” if God’s reality and presence are not the hub.
The first 12 or 13 days of the book focus on the life of Jesus in the Gospels. A central fact is that although he was God, he set aside his privileges as God and lived solely as a man having to recognize and trust in the Father within himself. He said, “….the Son can do nothing of Himself, but what He sees the Father do; for whatever He does, the Son also does in like manner” (John 5:19). He said, “Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father in Me? The words that I speak to you I do not speak on My own authority; but the Father who dwells in Me does the works.”
Jesus had to recognize, trust, and follow the Father because he was living as us. He was revealing the pattern, and so he says later, “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing.” He lived as a branch in his Father so that we could learn to live as branches in Christ.
After those devotional days focusing on Jesus, the book begins to diverge into what this means for how we see reality, our worth, our identity – always with that idea of recognition of the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit as central. Abiding Dependence was the best way I could find to describe this truly Christian way of living.
Matt Conner is a former pastor and church planter turned writer and editor. He’s the founder of Analogue Media and lives in Indianapolis.