Why Christians Should Be Cautious About ‘Self-Help’ Resources

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In this video, Kyle Strobel and Jamin Goggin address the problem of the self-help outlook influencing Christians and the alternative we discover in Jesus’s formula for self-discovery and flourishing.

The following is a lightly edited transcript; please check the video before quoting.

Kyle Strobel: Yes. I think this is one of the most disconcerting phenomenas we see in our culture today, and we constantly see it infiltrating the church as well. You know, one of the problems is there, well, there’s a lot of books and things like that, that go directly under the kind of banner of self-help. The problem is there’s quite a lot that don’t that are still just self-help. So, if you went into a bookstore and went to a Christian living section, sadly, what you’d find is a lot of books on self-help that have just been kind of redone with Christian veneer. They’ve been kind of dressed up in Christian garb. But at the end of the day, they’re just self-help.

And even more disconcerting—and this is even true of kind of serious academic books—at the end of the day what we find is something just like Aristotle. We can habituate practices. We habituate these things. We develop habits. We are transforming ourselves into people of character. But at the end of the day, that’s not what sanctification is about. That’s not primarily what growth in godliness is about.

And unfortunately, we see this popping up in all sorts of different areas in the church, whether it’s spiritual practices, whether it’s spiritual disciplines, whether it’s liturgy. All of these things can be used as forms of self-help if we’re not careful. So that question is, well, then what does it mean to be careful about these things? Well, I think first and foremost, we need to constantly re-more these questions to what does it mean to be holy as God is holy. In other words, how do we understand doctrine of sanctification but then also, what is the nature of grace, and what’s the nature of receiving and sharing in that grace?

In the Protestant tradition, we talked about means of grace, not really spiritual disciplines. See, the problem with spiritual discipline language is people are getting to think, “Oh, I know what a discipline is. If I do this, I’ll better myself. I’ll become a different kind of person.” That’s not being holy as God is holy. Means of grace are means of kind of receiving and sharing in God’s life.

But then the second problem is that, that word “self” right at the beginning of self-help that the word. The second we give ourselves to self-help, we are capitulating to a culture that assumes that self is centered, and now I just give myself to things to better myself, to identify myself. We really need to hear Jesus here, that if you try to save your life, you lose it. But if you lose it for my sake, you’ll find it. We need to heed what Paul says in Colossians 3:3, “Your life is hidden with Christ in God.”

If you want to discover yourself, you discover yourself in Christ. You don’t somehow create a self. You don’t establish a self. You discover it in him. You need to be open to laying yourself down so, not for the sake of just laying itself down, but so that you can receive your true identity in him.

If you want to discover yourself, you discover yourself in Christ.

Jamin Goggin: As a pastor, what comes up for me is the sense for people that oftentimes God is viewed simply as another resource for me to have the life that I have already determined is meaningful, and valuable, and successful. And sadly, I think oftentimes that we have even heard the gospel presented that way. We hear a lot about Jesus and what he’s done, but the end of the sermon lands with, “And here are some things you can do to kind of address these areas of your life that we all know you want to do better in so that you can feel maybe more okay with yourself in your life.

And a language that’s become, I think, really common, in the maybe more pastoral circles I run in, is the language of human flourishing. And I think it’s really good language if it’s understood properly. But I think it’s language that actually does touch on something that many of my people in my church and many of the churches I interact with do kind of understand, namely that kind of on this trajectory of becoming a more kind of thriving self. And where human flourishing concerns me is if it’s anchored in this notion of kind of self-actualization that I have certain capacities, and strengths, and abilities. And if I can just kind of home in on those and kind of my will can meet those with the right amount of ferv, and effort, and engagement I can kind of construct a life and a self that I can feel okay with. And God is really just a resource to help me get there and maybe he’s the best resource, maybe his principles are the best principles. But that’s all he really has provided me is another way to actualize myself.

The Scripture presents this radical other notion about human flourishing that actually human flourishing isn’t grounded in self-actualization but in abiding. It’s not the actualized self that is flourishing but the abiding self that is flourishing. It moves us into all these other categories of dependence, and trust, and reliance. The passage that surfaces for me right away as we talk about this is John 15 that “Abide in me, and I in you, for apart from me, you can do nothing.” Of course, in the Greek, it’s what’s called double negation, right, where Jesus is kind of literally inferring you can do nothing, really nothing. It’s one of those rare cases where Greek is actually helpful to bring up in talking about a passage. Jesus is making this emphatic point that if you abide in me you will flourish. You’ll bear much fruit. But apart from me, you can do nothing, really nothing. There’s this whole other philosophy of life that says flourishing actually comes from a deep dependence, and trust in me that power is really known in weakness, that strength that we have found in places where you recognize apart from me you can do nothing.

And so, as Kyle said, there is a place, of course, in the Christian life, we’re talking about practices. But I think the point he makes is the important one. These are means of grace. In other words, they are means by which we commune with Christ and come to know what it means to truly abide in him. There are means by which we draw near to him and the truth of our frailty, and our weakness, and our failure, and we ask for his help by the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives.