I am a book nut. Our previous house had bookshelves floor to ceiling on every lounge wall. My very patient wife joked that we had a library instead of a lounge. These books come from an insatiable appetite for information, back in the day when Google and Wikipedia weren’t the source of all information.
On my shelves is a rather large collection of “self help” literature, from my personal development phase. You know the John Maxwell/Joyce Mires/Robert Schuller type of book. These books likely started as reaction to the Southern United States Baptist culture. This culture centred on “you are a worm, a useless sinful fool, a no good person.” As much as this is truth, it was a soul-destroying attitude. So the champions of self help arose and produced the gospel of personal success.
These champions were right to bring back the truth that we are made in God’s image. We are wonderfully made, unique, and God loves us.
The self help revolution has not only permeated Christian culture but the world as a whole. The Secret and Katy Perry’s song “Firework” are classic examples of this permeating Western culture. However there are a number of traps in the self help revolution.
One we can fall into is that we should be “successful” in whatever we are focusing on. Success might be the number of people you have “led to the Lord.” Or it could be making it as a pastor, going on a mission, traveling to Bible college. It could be “serving” a group or people.
We as fallen humans equate success in the Christian space to success in life. However this can be success on our own steam, not a godly success. “Self help” isn’t worth anything in God’s eyes. We, in our own striving, cannot achieve significance. Our significance comes through resting in Christ.
Another important concept is that Jesus has called us to suffer with him. We are called to death and suffering on many levels. Firstly we need the “old man” or the “soul man” to die. We need our sinful nature to be put to the sword. This is incredibly painful as our sin nature is deeply ingrained. This is death to self, death to what you want. I am struck by how much we don’t embrace self denial, or denial of the flesh as a Christian sub-culture.
The other major concern with this success focus is that we are fed that to be a “real” Christian or an “overcomer” you must do something great for the Lord. How many years did Mother Teresa serve in India before she became a celebrity? What would have happened if she had died before she became a celebrity? She would have been a “nobody,” just another person dying in a backwater – except for God’s recognition, and that is all that matters.
All the self help books talk about being an external success. Yet we should seek God’s success, which might involve decades of being a “nobody” and never being recognised for doing anything significant. I would point out that many of the people in the Bible died without achieving “success” – for example Abraham, Jeremiah and John.
Most people’s lives are full of the mundane, boring and seasons that are particularly unfulfilling. Yes it is an adventure in Christ. But this adventure might be working with three people for the rest of your life. Or it could be working 40-plus labouring to support your family. Or washing dishes, hanging out laundry and sweeping floors for a few decades while your children grow up. These aren’t world changing, yet they are a life well lived.
We shouldn’t look down on those who appear like nobodies in the body or Christ and be prepared to work thanklessly for decades and die a “nobody,” knowing our reward is in heaven. It would be better to be a nobody in the eyes of the Church, or world, than to miss the humble life of a Christ follower.
• David Whyte's perspectives from no-man's land