What’s Wrong with Self-Help?

The Gospel Coalition recently published a video entitled, “Why Christians Should be Cautious about Self-Help Resources.”

In the video, Kyle Strobel and Jamin Goggin critically discuss self-help philosophies from a Christian perspective. Kyle Strobel says that self-help is different from Christian sanctification. He says, “And even more disconcerting, and this is true of serious academic books, where at the end of the day what we find is something just like Aristotle. We can habituate practices. We develop habits. Suddenly, we are transforming ourselves. 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. 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.”

James Goggin says, “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 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.”

There was a time when I would have eaten something like this up, but I’ve come to think that there are some glaring problems with this critical attitude towards “self-help philosophies.”

Certainly the self-help phenomena of the secular variety is a thriving industry and has crept its way into evangelical churches and in Christian bookstores, taking hold pretty strongly over the past few decades. Often this kind of self-help is theologically shallow (if not heretical), scientifically groundless, occasionally tied to the prosperity gospel, and fosters an obsession with the self. Maybe a Bible verse taken out of context is thrown in here or there. It is essentially a completely humanistic, secular, pop-psychology with some Christian coating. Any form of self-help that begins with the greatness of the human individual: “I am awesome. I am beautiful. I am a winner. I am sufficient” is inherently anti-Christian. So we can reasonably dismiss this sort of self-help.

But what about self-help that begins with our need and our state of dependence?  What about self-help practices that begin with our brokenness and seeks to heal our brokenness?

The problem is that Kyle Strobel and James Goggin do not make the careful and necessary distinctions between different kinds of “self-help.” What counts as self-help? Is it any practice in which the self acts to bring about certain goods for himself/herself? When I wake up in the morning, and feel pain in the form of physical hunger, and then make myself breakfast, am I engaging in self-help? I am helping myself by eating food, thereby relieving my pain, and increasing my happiness. Is this self-help? If so, it seems self-help is inevitable in the course of natural life.

To make matters worse, if self-help is that which is predicated on the belief that I should do something in order to improve the quality of my well-being, then Kyle Strobel and  James Goggin promote the self-help they want to renounce as they say, “If you want to be on the right track in life don’t do this and do this instead.”Again, this sort of self-help seems unavoidable.

More to it, this is why Scripture is rich full with language of human action in God’s design. To begin with anything otherwise, is to impose a reading onto the text. One of my first thoughts after watching the TGC video was, “Have you read the book of Proverbs?” This ancient text offers wisdom to those who read it. The authors frequently say things in the form, “If you want a good life, do this, don’t do this…If you want to avoid trouble, do this, and don’t do this.”

Here are some other passages that speak to the active spiritual life:

“Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me.” – Matthew 11:29

“Continue to work out your salvation in fear and trembling.”- Philippians 2:12

“What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things.” – Philippians 4:9

“Practice these things, immerse yourselves in them so that all may see your progress.” 1 Timothy 4:15

“An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules. It is the hard-working farmer who to ought to have the first share of crops.” – 2 Timothy 2:5-6

“Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.” Hebrews 12:1

Yes, Scripture also uses the language of human receptivity, but not at the cost of human activity. And if Scripture is concerned with our actions, and how our actions bring about certain lives, then there is no need to be shut off to the wisdom of various disciplines and traditions and thinkers (like Aristotle) as to how we might better live our lives.

The Nicomachean Ethics strikes me as a work of great brilliance. Aristotle was not a Christian, but Aristotle understood many important things about human nature. Abiding in Christ is good, but try telling that to someone who is struggling with alcohol addiction. “Just abide in Christ.” This sort of disconnected theologically abstract language is what puts people off Christianity. God created us as a holistic beings-embodied souls/ensouled bodies. If you’re angry and confused, maybe asking for prayer isn’t the solution, maybe you just need to eat something. This attitude is exactly what James was critical of, ” If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?” This kind of bifurcation between the bodily and the spiritual that underlies Strobel’s and Goggin’s critique is unnecessary . We are spiritual beings, but we are also made up of physical brains and bodies. And if there are ways of governing our physical bodies to bring them into service to Christ via psychological or biological means, I fail to see any problem with that.

Finally, consider what Strobel and Goggin are proposing. They are suggesting doing away with entire swaths of Christian practices throughout the history of the church. St. Ignatius of Loyola and St. Thomas Aquinas saw no necessary incompatibility between receiving the grace of Christ and habituating certain practices. Are there practices which de-center ourselves, and orient us around Christ, thereby properly orienting ourselves as well? (See Matthew 10:39 and Galatians 2:20.) The  church down through the ages thought so.  And if it’s good enough for St. Thomas Aquinas, it’s good enough for me.

Aristotelian Christian, Gospel Coalition, Christian Aristotelian, Self Help, Reformed Theology, Theology, Protestant Theology, Protestantism, Christian Ethics, Christian Virtue Ethics, Protestant Thomism, Thomistic Protestant Philosophical Theology Podcast, Christian Philosophy Podcast, Christian Theology Podcast, Evangelical Theology Podcast, Evangelical Philosophy Podcast, Christian sanctification, Gospel Coalition

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