Check out any bookstore and one thing will be in common. Self-help books – lots of them.
“Believe in yourself”, “Follow your heart”, “look inward to find strength”, and a plethora of other catchy slogans drive much of our culture’s thinking. There is an inherent desire within us to improve ourselves.
Open the Bible, and we will also find commands to improve and better ourselves. For example:
1 Timothy 4:7b, “exercise thyself rather unto godliness.”
Philippians 3:12 – “Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect: but I follow after, if that I may apprehend that for which also I am apprehended of Christ Jesus.
So which is it? Are scripture and pop culture books speaking the same language? Is it wrong to desire to achieve, or become stronger, or improve oneself?
But – I believe there is a world of difference between self-help and spiritual discipline. I believe that one path leads to life to the full in the language of Jesus, and one leads to a bankrupted life.
Self-help aims at creating who you are, while spiritual discipline uncovers who we have already been created to be in Christ. Self-help paints the individual as the solution to their own problems, spiritual disciplines paint the Holy Spirit and the Gospel of Jesus as the answer.
The Christian message is simple: we are not good enough, hence, we require an external force (namely God made flesh in His son Jesus Christ) to attain what we never could.
Self-help (as a rule) sends the opposite message: we have the necessary tools internally to achieve or accomplish all that we want to be – hence, we can attain anything and everything by elevating self.
An Identity Issue
It may seem like I am splitting hairs here, but there is actually a world of difference, a heaven and hell kind of difference between looking towards one-self for the source of help and looking to Jesus as the source of help.
But if we are not careful we can blur the two: we can cloak self-help in Christian language, and we can do spiritual disciplines in a way that will also lead to frustration and failure.
And I believe it all boils down to an identity issue.
I think Christians should work hard at improving and innovating and becoming flat out better people. I am not arguing for some kind of sit back and never try to go on a diet, never try to do a Bible plan, never pray kind of life.
See, all of our efforts must flow from an understanding that our identity is already sealed in Christ. We battle for holiness because we already are made holy, we pray because we realize we are already accepted by God, we exert effort not in an attempt to impress God but from the understanding that we have already been permanently loved and accepted by Him through the Gospel of Jesus.
Our identity as a believer in Jesus is fixed, therefore our spiritual disciplines are simply a way to step into experientially what our identity already is.
Spiritual disciplines flow from identity, self-help attempts to create identity.
One path leads to life to the full, one leads to frustration and sin.
Which one are you on?