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The Lure—and Lie—of Self-Help

You need much more than easy tips for a better life.
The Lure—and Lie—of Self-Help

There’s no denying we are a nation of people looking for help. Although we may try to seem put together on the outside, our book purchases alone point to a different reality: we are struggling, and we’re looking for help anywhere we can find it. “Self-help” is an entire industry in this nation that generates roughly $10 billion per year—and the industry shows no signs of slowing down. Whether you want to read about fixing broken relationships, living more healthily, making more money, or finding contentment, there’s a self-help book—or 50—out there for you. And if you are willing to spend the time and the money, there are myriad options for self-help conferences, webcasts, and personal coaching, along with the thousands of books you can read.

If we try to “help ourselves,” as the old adage says, we are actually moving away from the truest source of help—Christ himself.

It’s common for self-help books to tout that they offer the key to “win in life and business” and “unlock the way to life’s riches.” And why not? Who doesn’t want to have a better life, make more money, and experience more happiness? Who doesn’t want life to be easier, simpler, faster?

Chasing an Illusion

But perhaps what we want is something we were never promised—and so we’re chasing an illusion.

We live complex, challenging lives, and many of the promises offered by self-help gurus seem wonderful and easy. Too easy. We want a quick way out of our difficult marriage without having to work through the pain. We want to make money easily and without having to work diligently. We want to feel happy without having to face our own brokenness.

Jesus is clear—unapologetically so—in telling his followers that “in this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33, NIV). This life is not meant to be perfect. In fact, Scripture tells us this earth isn’t our real home—we are “foreigners” on this earth (Hebrews 11:13) and our real home is in heaven (Philippians 3:20). If we’re longing for perfection and pure happiness on this earth, we will always be disappointed.

The "Self Problem" with Self-Help

There’s a second problem with the self-help industry: the self-help industry depends—unsurprisingly—on self. In the solar system of self-help, the sun in the center of it all is you—and, apparently, you can make everything better on your own if you can just read the right books and access the right resources. Ultimately, the focus of self-help books comes down to a reliance on self as the one who can make things right.

This reliance on self, though, is in directly opposition to Christianity. As believers in Christ, we have already declared—through our very faith in Jesus as our Savior—that we are not reliant upon ourselves. We are reliant upon Jesus. In fact, when we believed in Christ as our Lord and Savior, we acknowledged that we cannot save ourselves at all. We cannot get “better,” in any way, on our own. We need a Savior to rescue us from our sin and from ourselves, and the danger of the self-help industry is that it lures us to look for help outside of Jesus.

This doesn’t mean self-help books and media are all bad. Some offer helpful insights on how to relate to others and set healthy boundaries on our time and with our money. But if we find ourselves looking to self-help materials rather than turning to Jesus, we are looking for ultimate help where it can’t be found.

The Cost of True Help

Jesus is acutely committed to helping us—so much so that he has already paid the highest cost to make sure we have access to the real help we need. His torture and death on the cross were the payment for all of the sin we have in our lives—sins we have committed (or sins done to us) that lead us into places of helplessness and pain. And his resurrection and ascension paved the way for the Holy Spirit to live within us. Jesus speaks of the Holy Spirit as the “Advocate” who “will teach you everything” (John 14:26). God knows we need help every single day of our lives, so Jesus has given us the greatest help we need through dying for our sins and then sending the Holy Spirit to live within us as our continual helper every moment.

Instead of looking to quick fixes and self-reliance, our best choice is to turn to God for help whenever we need it.

To turn to self, then, for help, is to turn away from seeking help from the one who can actually provide us with what we need. If we try to “help ourselves,” as the old adage says, we are actually moving away from the truest source of help: Christ himself. Instead of looking to quick fixes and self-reliance, our best choice is to turn to God for help whenever we need it.

But there is a cost to this for us too. Seeking help from God may be simple, but it is not necessarily going to be easy. If we want true help—help in our broken marriage, help with our wayward child, help with our constant anxiety—it is going to cost us in time and attention. It is going to take longer than reading a book, and it is going to be more difficult than buying a conference pass.

Seeking True Help

So if we know we need help from God, how do we go about seeking his help? While there’s no five-step process for getting what we want, God has given us resources we can use when there is brokenness in our lives that needs healing.

First of all, we have the best book on the market, one that has sold more copies than any self-help book ever has: the Bible. Rather than being a self-help book, this is the God-help book. As we read the words of Jesus and chapters about living life in Christ, we will experience truth and light every time. “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right” (2 Timothy 3:16). When we immerse our minds in the truth of God, we will find his help for us.

Turning to Christ to receive the help we need won’t be the quickest fix to our problems, but it is the best and only way to become truly whole and healed people.

Another wonderful resource God has provided for us is the community of Christians. Join a small group at church and open up to others about the places in your life that are broken and in need of healing. Ask for the help you need—others want to help, but they can’t read our minds. When we tell them where we are struggling and what we need from them (prayer, time to verbally process, a meal delivered, a babysitter), we allow others into our lives and give them the opportunity to help us when we most need it.

In my own life, Christian counseling has provided a place for me to work through places of pain with a trained professional whose advice and wisdom is based in the truth of the Bible. We have friends who have pursued counseling together as they sought to work through their hurting marriage. The time spent in counseling wasn’t fast or easy, but the fruit it has borne in our lives has been Christlike and long-lasting.

Turning to Christ to receive the help we need won’t be the quickest fix to our problems, but it is the best and only way to become truly whole and healed people. Although Jesus told us that we would have trouble in this world, he also said, “Take heart, because I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Because of his death and resurrection and because of the Holy Spirit who lives within us, nothing is hopeless or helpless in Christ. We can and should rely on him, not on ourselves, to give us the help we need—no book purchase required.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

Ann Swindell

Ann Swindell is a TCW regular contributor who is passionate about seeing women set free by the love of Christ. Connect with her at AnnSwindell.com, on Facebook, or on Twitter at @annswindell.

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