For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a self-help book junkie. Hey! I had lots of problems left over from childhood abuse to solve! At the same time I was reading self-help books, I was listening daily to The Old Fashioned Revival Hour with Rev. Charles E. Fuller and studying my Bible. I wanted help and I didn’t care where it came from!
I’ll never forget the day I sat in Carrows alone, eating lunch as I opened my freshly purchased copy of Scott Peck’s The Road Less Traveled. His first chapter begins with these words: “Life is difficult.”
Scott Peck had me at difficult. This I knew. All my life, I’d struggled with poor self-esteem and crippling, uncontrollable fears. Yet in my family’s conservative Christian circles, a good Christian never needed therapy—ever. Self was to be denied, not embraced.
Peck goes on to say life isn’t supposed to be easy; difficult is OK. Reading hungrily as I ate my meal, I suddenly felt less lonely than I had in a long time.
Later, when I headed to college and self-help groups to discover “God’s will for my life,” I gravitated toward bookstore self-help shelves, seeking answers in secular titles that promised healing for my wounds—Codependent No More and Taking Responsibility. What was my justification for this interest?
I was fixing myself for God! And if it took a U-Turn Back to Self, so be it.
I continued to read self-help for years. But after years of chasing the self-help dream, I faced a serious marital crisis. At the prospect of becoming a single parent, I found myself turning to God—not my self-help books—for the answers I desperately needed. Don’t get me wrong; secular self-help isn’t without some sound psychological insights. But too often these insights come wrapped in falsehoods. Here are four that popular self-help gurus promote—and that Christians should avoid. 1. You should put you first.
In Take Time for Your Life, author Cheryl Richardson writes, “When you practice extreme self-care and put yourself first, you are then fully available to others without resentment or anger.”
At first glance, Richardson’s words are a simple call to establish healthy boundaries, permission to get off the merry-go-round of people pleasing. When I was younger, I ate up such advice. Self-help told me I’m special—and I should treat myself as such. But then I encountered people who didn’t understand me, care about me, or even like me. Without an inflated sense of self-worth, my attempts to put myself first seemed obnoxious and ridiculous. God established the truth about my personhood in Genesis 1:26, when he says, “Let us make man in Our image, in Our likeness.” I, along with the rest of humankind, am an eternal spirit of immense potential, created in God’s image. Ironically, self-help gurus have it backwards: I don’t learn to value myself by selfishly ignoring the value of others; it’s in identifying their value that I begin to learn how tall I truly stand. So when I meet people mastered in the art of self-love and self-promotion, I confirm their hunches: “Yes, you’re full of remarkable possibility, but then so is everyone else, including me.” 2. You should set aside any draining or burdensome relationship. This second principle is a natural conclusion of the first. If your primary focus is to serve your best interests, then you must abandon whatever—and whoever—stands in the way of accomplishing that end.
A friend once voiced these sentiments: “We know how to rid our houses of unnecessary clutter. But we haven’t figured out how to clear out the clutter of the bonds that drain our lives.” In my bitterest, most self-pitying moments, I’ve dreamed of giving a great number of my relationships the old heave-ho. Yet Christ didn’t model this type of behavior. In fact, contrary to what self-help recommends, He didn’t gather around Himself a band of cheerleaders. Instead, He built radical relationships with Peter, a disloyal follower, Judas, a scheming betrayer, and Thomas, a doubting downer. In fact, Thomas was the type of person Jay Carter, author of the self-help guide Nasty People, calls an invalidator.
Fortunately, Christ doesn’t hold to this view. In God’s economy, loveliness happens when we love less-than-lovely people. In the last several years, at least three difficult friends about whom I’d privately grumbled came to my aid, especially in the midst of my marital crisis. When I refuse to toss away people who drain or invalidate me, sometimes I bless, but even more often I’m blessed.
3. You can fix yourself by yourself. Rhonda Britten’s frankly titled book Change Your Life in 30 Days opens with: “Congratulations. You have decided to embark on a sacred journey to find your true self. By picking up this book, you have committed to making dramatic changes in your life in the next 30 days. I’m asking you to dedicate this month to your self.” Her congratulations underscore a tantalizing offer: Do as I say, and you, all by yourself, can get results.
If the core message of secular self-help is selfishness, then the core method is self-generated transformation—the promise of the quick fix. I’d love to believe willpower and a bit of knowledge alone are a force strong enough to do anything.
So would my friend Ashley, the quintessential can-do person. Prior to her second son’s birth, she’d been able to conquer her weight challenges by herself. But this time was different.
Ashley needed help. She put down her self-help diet books and joined a weight-loss support group. She soon discovered that on her own, she’d fought only half the battle—a change in appearance. Through her support group, she faced the truth about her diet and exercise habits. After 20 weeks in group meetings, Ashley lost 20 pounds and obtained the tools to effect permanent transformation.
I’m not discrediting the power of the written word to help people make positive life changes. But contrary to self-help’s assertion, change isn’t easy. Read Ecclesiastes 4:12,
>”Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.” >
The connection of relationships—to God, to others, and, yes, even to myself—facilitates the tough, disciplined work of seeing truth, learning lessons, and living them out in everyday life.
4. You are wholly good.
The inspirational book Simple Abundance calls readers to find beauty, simplicity, and their “authentic self”, a term in many self-help tomes.
In the book’s January 30 meditation, author Sarah Ban Breathnach invites readers to visualize the reflection of their authentic self in a golden mirror. She describes this self: “She is the highest reflection of your soul, the embodiment of the perfect woman who resides within, and she sends you love to light your path.”
In other words, if your life’s a mess, it’s not because of any inherent flaw. Rather, through life circumstances or bad influences, you’ve lost touch with your true, excellent nature. All you need for bliss to return are directions back to yourself.
I can’t believe the basic story line of self-help—that I’m deeply, independently, solely wonderful. Once again, Scripture tells the truth—the whole truth. Not only am I an eternal being made in God’s image, I’m also a fallen creature, broken beyond my ability to understand or repair. Jeremiah 17:9 says,
>”The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” >
The next verse gives the answer,
>”I the Lord search the heart.” >
In the end, self-help can’t fix me, because self-help doesn’t know me. God alone searches my heart and sees my full potential for good and evil. In my search for healing, this truth gives me a new frame of reference: Jesus. He, not my “authentic self”, knows the way and the truth, and only He can guide me to the life I desire.
I still have to deal with life’s complications. And while I believe secular self-help books can have some place in helping a Christian, they shouldn’t compose your primary support network. That should be made up of God, and people and books that point you in wise, godly directions.
Don’t make any self-help book your Bible, or any self-help guru your God; you’ve already got both.
Right now, self-help doesn’t have much place in my life. For a long time I believed the world’s wisdom that I was on a small journey with a big hero, me.
Now I see I’m on a big journey with a truly spectacular hero, Jesus Christ. I never want to forget that.
(c) 2007-2009 April Lorier