Self-help and spiritual paralysis

Why personalising Christianity could threaten your salvation.

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Scrolling through my carefully curated, psychologically uplifting Instagram feed, I see hundreds of posts promising that my problems will vanish if I embrace love, lose weight, make sacrifices and embrace my flaws. Or was that reject haters, embrace body positivity, never settle and work on personal weaknesses? Yes, and yes.

The problem with self-help is that there’s so much of it, and everyone’s an “expert”. Sometimes used interchangeably with words like self-love or self-care, self-help describes content that claims to help people achieve a better life with limited external support. Presented in how-to or step-by-step formats, it promises success and wellbeing in a relatively short time period.

While a lot of self-help is feel-good social media chaff, there is also an abundance of good quality, professionally published, peer-reviewed and scientifically validated self-help literature. And as if this cacophony of contradictory information wasn’t confusing enough, for Christians, it’s even more complicated.

Increasingly, Western preachers and Christian teachers are jumping on the self-help bandwagon. Presenting biblical advice on finances, career, relationships or health, these messages captivate audiences. Christian “self-help” style books like Bruce Wilkinson’s The Prayer of Jabez has sold more than 20 million copies worldwide,1 and Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life has sold 50 million—the best-selling Christian hardback of all time.2

As a bit of a self-help fanatic, I’ve devoured these books and dozens like them. After all, they’re Christian books—what could be the harm? Written by well-intending and well-respected Christian authors, they provide practical steps to facilitate God working in your life. I’ve benefited from their teachings: learned to pray better, love better, take care of my body, be more self-aware.

Coupled with correct theology, Christian self-help can be transformational. But below its rosy surface often exists warped religious dogma created by poor human rationality. While many Christians—particularly Adventists—pride themselves on the logical and theological foundations of their faith, we’re all susceptible to irrational thinking that warps God’s character and can create stumbling blocks for ourselves and others.

Individualism versus God: The problem of poor human rationality

It’s often said that today’s society is more individualistic than ever. This is reflected in the abundance and nature of self-help content. Sociologist Rachel Rybaczuk argues that while previous “self-help” movements—like the Enlightenment and even Hitler’s national socialism—were socially orientated toward cultural progress­, today’s permeating individualism is in direct conflict with social cohesion.3

“People’s search for self-fulfilment is in conflict with the level of commitment necessary to sustain a social movement,” she argues. So what about Christianity? Adventism?

At their core, these are social movements. Jesus and Paul both repeatedly urge us to be united as the body of Christ (John 17:11-23; Romans 15:5-7; 1 Corinthians 1:10; 2 Corinthians 12:9). We are called to proclaim the three angels’ messages, to “Go and make disciples” (Matthew 28:19), to be generous to our neighbours (Mark 12:30-31). But some sociologists argue that the self-help movement—which reinforces comparison, competition and self-reliance—hinders these goals significantly.

But self-help literature is not solely to blame for creating this individualistic mindset. Individualism is a product of sin’s deeper effect on the human heart. Self-help merely creates a framework that gives Christian readers permission to ignore the paradox of being an “individualistic Christian”: to read the Bible in a self-focused manner; to pursue consumerism and materialism; and to make self-gratification the end goal of religious behaviour.

Wilkinson’s The Prayer of Jabez extrapolates a book worth of personalised principles for material success from two verses in Scripture.

“Jabez was more honourable than his brothers. His mother had named him Jabez, saying, ‘I gave birth to him in pain.’ Jabez cried out to the God of Israel, ‘Oh, that you would bless me and enlarge my territory! Let your hand be with me and keep me from harm so that I will be free from pain.’ And God granted his request” (1 Chronicles 4:9,10).

Writer and pastor David Schrock argues that rather than providing a framework for asking God for material blessings, the biblical story is actually about God comforting Jabez’s pain. Schrock says, “Marketed to upwardly-mobile Christians, The Prayer of Jabez told this Israelite’s story as if he was one of us. But that’s the problem: Jabez isn’t like us. He doesn’t live amid our modern materialism. And his prayer can’t be directly applied to us without seeing how it relates to his own situation first and then to Jesus Christ.”4

This is also often seen in the way Christians interpret verses like Jeremiah 29:11. Although popularly interpreted as a promise that God will prosper each person’s individual future, God is actually speaking to “you” in a plural sense; to the nation of Israel in Babylonian captivity. And it’s not an instantaneous promise either. Verse 10 specifies that God will redeem His people only after 70 years in exile, a far cry from our expectations of prospering in Christ.

This act of forgetting biblical context demonstrates confirmation bias—the tendency to look for evidence that confirms existing beliefs, and ignore evidence that contradicts existing beliefs.3 If you are led to believe that God wants to bless you materially, then you will naturally look for evidence to support your desires, while ignoring contextual differences and countless other stories of people who aren’t materially blessed by God.

Having clung tight to out-of-context Bible promises myself, my knee-jerk reaction is to defend the individual application of Bible texts. After all, the Word of God is living and active (Hebrews 4:12); all Scripture is God-breathed and useful for teaching, rebuking and training in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16, italics added). Even when taken out of context, Bible verses offer value to the individual, right?

When interpreted correctly, yes. However there is a big difference between personalising Bible verses/stories by saying, “Because God did that for this Bible character, He will also do it for me,” and asking, “If God did this for this person, what principle can I draw about His character, or apply to my life?”

Just because God did it for someone else (in a different context or opposite circumstances), does not mean He will do the same for you.

So, when reading and consuming self-help content, it’s important to ask, “Am I subconsciously looking for evidence that confirms my existing beliefs?” And in today’s day and age of social media algorithms and recommended content, it’s never been more important to be aware of how confirmation bias can warp biblical narratives and principles.

Behaviour versus God: A troubling relationship dynamic

The fact that self-help appeals to our biased, selfish tendencies is just scratching the surface. More problematically, Christian self-help can misrepresent God’s character by convincing readers that if they “work hard for God”, He will provide material, worldly blessings in response. This creates a dangerous relationship dynamic, an expectation: “Work hard for God and He will work hard for you.”

“Prosperity gospel!” you may cry, “Burn the books!” And you wouldn’t be alone. Many Christians have made similar accusations against countless authors and pastors, who have responded by rejecting the oh-so-hated prosperity gospel and highlighting that their teaching is far more nuanced. I can imagine them saying, It’s not working hard for God . . . It’s praying hard, hoping hard, loving hard, wanting hard, and it’s God’s faithfulness—His loving character expressed—in return.

And they’re right, their teachings are more nuanced, and God does desire to bless us. But you only need to look at suffering on a global scale to be sceptical. Often, these nuances are merely due to people masking the prosperity gospel­—consciously or unconsciously­­—under the guise of self-help or handy step-by-step guides. This has been coloquially labelled the “soft prosperity gospel”.

" . . . salvation is an escalator. We don't have to worry about getting there; Christ has freed us from the huffing and puffing."

In contrast to the “hard prosperity gospel”, which offers miraculous health and wealth to Christians who “do the right thing”, soft prosperity more subtly states that God’s commandments and guidance will help Christians to prosper through wise choices. I’ve heard many Adventists make this assertion, comparing obedient churchgoers to backslidden drug-addicts, suggesting that obedience to God’s commandments has made all the difference.

While the Commandments may keep you out of some trouble, to extrapolate a behaviour-reward exchange ignores countless stories of people who have obeyed God but had a cyclone tear through their house, or died in persecution. It ignores forces outside of our control and assumes we have control over God’s will or blessings for us.

Invisible to the naked eye, this soft prosperity message is thick with pagan undertones. Much like the Caananites who worshipped and made offerings to Baal so that he would send rain,4 believing that doing the right thing will bring blessings is only one step removed from salvation by works. But rather than earning salvation through correct behaviour, we earn material blessings instead.

Mammon versus God: Complacency and an impossible contradiction

In Matthew 6:24 and Luke 16:13, Jesus states, “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon” (NKJV). “Mammon”, replaced with “money” in other translations, isn’t limited to just financial flourishing. It’s a wider term for wealth, the name of the god of riches and is associated with the greedy pursuit of personal gain—exactly what self-help promotes.

Much Christian self-help literature tries to rationalise this contradiction by suggesting that God will bless you so long as you extend those blessings to others—the “build a longer table, not a higher fence” idea. While it’s good to share blessings with others, this rationalisation is often just a cheap cure for cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance happens where a person’s conflicting beliefs and behaviours cause them to alter behaviour or belief to reduce or resolve internal conflict.

A person who seeks material wealth (behaviour) while knowing that “mammon” separates us from God (belief) experiences cognitive dissonance. We can “cure” this by telling ourselves that God wants us to have material blessings (let’s call this the “Jabez cure”), that wealth is good if we share it (the “longer table” cure), or by believing—contrary to Jesus’ teaching—that we can serve both God and mammon. I am personally guilty of having believed all three.

A tell-tale sign of being lulled into cognitively-dissonant thinking is to play the blame game and attribute fault to anything but ourselves for our internal conflict and spiritual complacency: busyness, distractions, technology, the Bible being boring, unanswered prayers. But these aren’t to blame; they are merely symptoms of our own lack of desire for God, stemming from self-sufficient lifestyles.

I’m not suggesting that the pursuit of success, money, better health or relationships cannot be part of a healthy Christian worldview. However, trouble comes when we prioritise these things over the gospel message. Our natural, sinful tendency is to reduce God to a genie-in-a-bottle who can give us our best life now. Too distracted by our craving for stuff, we stop seeking God first. Without even realising it, Christianity becomes a mere tool for success and material blessings this side of heaven.

Storing up treasures: Walking the line between heaven and earth

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Perhaps this article has made you feel compelled to stop accumulating worldly possessions, to become a minimalist, to donate money to charity, to make space to focus on your relationship with God. While these are good things, I must make one critical qualification: if you start doing them to secure your own salvation, you’ve missed the point.

When we are reminded of our spiritual emptiness, self-sufficiency and love for money, it’s very easy to react out of fear. We may start “behaving”—reading our Bible and praying more—to try to rebuild a relationship with God. We become afraid of “losing our spot in heaven”, remembering Jesus’ comment about camels going through needles (Mark 10:25) and strive to tie down our salvation. But, ironically, this behaviour can be just as dangerous as seeking prosperity. Salvation can also be the prosperity that we seek.

By simply replacing the goal of material wealth with the goal of salvation, we remain trapped in the never-ending quest of trying to be good enough. We think salvation, like self-help, is a gruelling staircase that we must climb. But salvation is an escalator. We don’t have to worry about getting there; Christ has freed us from the huffing and puffing.

In our self-help centred society, it’s easy to forget that salvation is not a reward to be earned; not a self-help goal we must reach. Rather, it is a gift, an inheritance we receive thanks to our identity as sons and daughters of God, not our works (Ephesians 2:8,9). This should free us to share that message with others.

Rather than hoarding the gospel message for ourselves and “behaving” to earn eternal life, Christ has freed us to reach out and bring the kingdom of heaven to others. Check yourself: are you doing “good works” to earn salvation, or to bring others into the eternal kingdom?

Remember, we can’t take our treasures with us. Life is short and fragile (Psalm 103:15,16), so rather than worrying about food and clothing and accumulating worldly treasures (Matthew 6:25), let us “throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith” (Hebrews 12:1,2).

  1. Rightnow Media, “Bruce Wilkinson” (2020), rightnowmedia.org/Content/Speaker/1145/1.
  2. Simon & Schuster, “Rick Warren” (2020), simonandschuster.com/authors/Rick-Warren/39904606.
  3. Rachel Rybaczuk, “The Search for Self-Fulfilment: How Individualism Undermines Community Organizing”, University of Massachusetts Amherst, Master’s thesis 1911 (February, 2014), 278.
  4. David Schrock, “Jabez and the Soft Prosperity Gospel”, The Gospel Coalition (2015), thegospelcoalition.org/article/jabez-and-the-soft-prosperity-gospel1/.