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How Self-Help Can Become Self-Hurt

I recently got an email from a self-help guru offering to help me be the architect of my life. Its message was much like you’d see in the self-help section these days: if you’ll just do this or that, your life will be rich and full, and you’ll get your act together. Plan it out, budget your time, and optimize your life.

On the surface, it sounds pretty satisfying to design a grand life of purpose. I know I’m enticed by it. If we can put measurable steps in place to accomplish our big dreams, we can have everything we want. At least that’s the promise.

Yet there’s a slithering lie attached.

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Dangers of Self-Help

Since we have deceptive, dark hearts (Jer. 17:9), there is danger lurking in the self-improvement space. Since we worship what we believe will satisfy us, improving ourselves can become idolatry faster than we can say “positive mental attitude.” Self-help can become a self-glorification mission that, in the end, robs us of the joy of beholding Jesus as our treasure, our Savior, and our helper.

Here are five ways self-help can become self-hurt:

1. It is often prayerless.

At least in my experience, when I buy into the newest self-help craze, I’m inclined not to stop and ask God for help. My hands are too busy pulling at my bootstraps to fold in prayer.

2. It doesn’t account for reality. 

Much of self-help includes making a plan for your life, but we don’t control our life. Plan as we may, we are not the architect of our destiny. As Greg Carey observes in his book Self-Help and the Gospel, “Self-help preaching rarely accounts for the real world we actually inhabit.”

3. It focuses on the self.

Self-help shines a bright light on the self and encourages introspection. While some introspection can be healthy, too much navel gazing is not. C. S. Lewis said it this way: “True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.”

4. It wrongly assumes I have the ability to change myself.

We can change our habits and make healthy choices, but our souls only change when we encounter God. We do not need to focus on cleaning the outside of the cup, but rather the inside (Matt. 15:17–20; 23:25–26).

5. It puts the onus on us to shepherd ourselves.

The premise of self-help in Christian circles is that God helps those who help themselves. The gospel of Jesus Christ, though, is that God helps those who cannot help themselves.

Didn’t Work for Me

When I was writing my first book, I bought into self-help in a big way. In fact, that’s how I got on the self-help guru’s email list. As I was sitting in my bedroom, reading a well-thought-out action plan for building my audience, I was inspired and hopeful. I could use this prescribed social media strategy and then build an email list using these five steps. So I jumped in. I pictured the book signings and the lines of people who wanted to buy the book. I just needed to follow the plan.

But it didn’t work. I followed the plan but found it slow going. Apparently, launching a book as an obscure author is not a recipe for success, and overcoming obscurity is a long, slow, humbling process. You can refresh your social media pages all you want, but you can’t make people connect.

I soon found myself spiritually empty and a bit insecure. Instead of measuring my identity by the cross, I chose cheap metrics of likes, followers, and comments. And there were never enough to satisfy my heart. Even worse, I lost focus on the reason for writing the book in the first place, which was to help people connect their faith in Jesus and their work.

Things changed when God, by his great mercy, turned my attention back to him. Right around the book launch, I realized I was not in control. It was a slow realization, but the Spirit began to redirect my affections from self-promotion to Christ-glorification. Eventually the book launched, and I began a new journey of trusting in God’s sovereignty. I simply decided to be faithful to my calling and let him handle the rest. And I breathed a soul-filling sigh of relief.

His Hands, Your Grip

So should we trash all self-improvement efforts? Surely not. We should absolutely learn as much as we can in an effort to better ourselves. Much practical advice is helpful. We should learn effective time management, goal-setting, and leadership tactics. These are good things. But we must not place our hope in them. Instead, we must anchor our hearts on the rock of Christ. We must not let self-help become a false gospel or a counterfeit god.

The gospel aims the restless heart on that which actually satisfies. As a byproduct of beholding Jesus, we change. The real power to change rests in the nail-pierced hands of Jesus, so if we’ll loosen our grip on improving our station in life and cling to him instead, we will find our hearts rejoicing as we become more like him.

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