The self-help industry is flourishing. Isn’t that ironic? The industry is built on the premise that all you need for happiness, success, and contentment is within you, yet it peddles self-improvement programs as the key to becoming a better you. The endless supply and demand for the latest life changing-book betrays the fact they never actually deliver the transformation we long for.
The question is have we taken on a self-help approach to reading the Bible? The Bible is brimming with words of hope and encouragement, wisdom and guidance. So it’s easy to place ourselves at the centre of our reading, importing our desires and dilemmas and listening intently for ‘God’s word to me today, in my particular situation.’ But the words of scripture are not written primarily to encourage, inspire or direct us in this life. These words are written that we might lift our gaze from our own navels and focus instead on the glory of God in the cross of Christ.
The bible is about God and has Christ at the centre.
Yes, it is also about us, our creation and fall, our redemption and restoration. But first and foremost this unfolding narrative reveals the character of God. If we place ourselves at the centre, we read selectively, creating a skewed picture of who God is. We distinguish his love from his wrath, his patience from his judgement and his faithfulness from his jealousy, we embrace what we consider to be the ‘nice’ traits and ignore the less appealing ones. But the character of God is indivisible, he is all things at all times. He loves us fiercely and uncompromisingly, despising the sin which keeps us from him. He is patient, wanting to spare people from his righteous judgment. And he is faithful, stopping at nothing to jealously guard his beloved children, even sending his Son to the cross to endure the punishment we deserve.
This is the gospel of grace and it is the antithesis of the gospel of self-help.
The gospel of self-help says: ‘You are in control!’. The gospel of grace says: ‘You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.’ (Rom 5:8)
The gospel of self-help says: ‘Because you deserve it!’ the gospel of grace says ‘He saved us, not because of the righteous things we had done but because of his mercy.’ (Tit 3:5)
The gospel of self-help says: ‘Be the best you can be!’ The gospel of grace says: ‘And we all … are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory.’ (2 Cor 3:18)
But Jesus had this to say about self: ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves, take up their cross daily and follow me.’ (Luke 9:23-24)
As we deny ourselves and hunger after him instead, we are liberated from the treadmill of self-improvement and find ourselves being transformed by the sanctifying work of his Spirit. As we shoulder the weight of our own cross and follow in the footsteps of Christ, we are less burdened by our current circumstances as we understand that Jesus’ death and resurrection has won us an imperishable inheritance.
And here is the real irony, as we read the Bible in this way, to know God better and to seek his glory, we find that the very benefits that the self-help philosophies promise (but don’t deliver) are ours for the taking. So we read, bringing ourselves before the throne of God, not bringing him into our own little kingdoms. Instead of grasping at future blessings and drawing them into the present, we read with joyful anticipation for the day when Jesus returns, saying ‘Behold I am making all things new!’ (Rev 21:5)
Ruth ministers at St Andrew’s Cathedral, Sydney, Australia, where she has a particular focus on training and discipling women. This blog first appeared in the Australian Church Record.