The Christian Self-Help Movement

Do American evangelicals still believe the gospel? Do they still even understand the gospel? More to the exact point, do they still believe in the sufficiency of the gospel? If one turns to the contents of the typical “Christian” book catalog one is compelled to ask the above questions, for such catalogs, and “Christian” publishing in general, are dominated by so-called self-help books. These books, whose genre is also sometimes titled “Christian Living,” deal in the latest methodologies for leading the successful and satisfying Christian life. Now one might ask, “What is wrong with that?” What is wrong is that these books are majoring in novel methodologies. They claim to have the latest insights in how to lead the happy, fulfilling, and successful Christian life. They espouse the latest fads and fancies in “Christian living.”

Now of course, there is nothing essentially wrong with sound Biblical books that instruct the Lord’s people in how we ought to live. Godly men after much prayer and study have over the years written many such books. J.C. Ryle’s Holiness comes to mind. And especially for pastors such books as Robert Lewis Dabney’s Sacred Rhetoric on how to preach, and Palmer’s book Thoughts On Public Prayer on congregational prayer, are excellent examples of books that instruct us from the Scriptures in how to better live for and serve the Lord Jesus Christ. What is wrong with the current trend in “Christian” publishing is that it does not conform to this historic pattern. It does not seek to strengthen and guide the Lord’s people by instructing them in the tried and true doctrines of the faith. It does not encourage and strengthen them by reminding them of the unsearchable riches they have in Jesus Christ and their exceeding great hope through the gospel. Rather it deals with the “latest breakthroughs” and the newly discovered “keys to a successful Christian life.” Innovative interpretations of isolated texts are used to construct novel insights that will separate its disciples from the pack and enable them to achieve extraordinary results in their Christian life. The spiritual work of searching the scriptures, prayer, and diligence in the appointed means of grace is replaced by esoteric secrets to the fuller Christian life. However, since these “gimmicks” are not the appointed means whereby the Lord ministers to his saints by his Spirit, they never really satisfy. So, after the initial enthusiasm and perhaps a “placebo effect,” one is back where one started and ready for the next guru with the latest secret to the higher life. It becomes a self-perpetuating business that makes merchandise of the Lord’s people.

And of course sometimes the issue is not that people are unfulfilled in their Christian life, or lack peace and contentment, but that they are dealing with problems, trials, and adversity in their life. So, what should be the response of the Lord’s people when he sends adversity into their lives? Where should they turn for strength and comfort in times of trial and affliction? First of all, let us reflect on James’ admonition to those undergoing the same. He says, “My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing.” (James 1:2-4, NKJV) The word for temptation is peirasmos which means to put to the test. James says we should rejoice when we are tested and tried. God is working on us, refining us and perfecting us. This is a time for trusting God and rejoicing in his work in our lives, and not a time to run off to the self-help gurus to get our lives back on track. David acknowledged this when he said, “Before I was afflicted I went astray: but now have I kept thy word.” (Psalm 119:67) David went on to say, “It is good for me that I have been afflicted; that I might learn thy statutes.” (Psalm 119:71) David rejoiced in his afflictions. God was using these physical and temporal afflictions to strengthen him spiritually. David was one with Paul who stated, “For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.” (2 Corinthians 4:17) Let us look at some Scriptural examples of how we are to deal with trials and tribulations.

When Job was struggling with a wave of afflictions that threatened to overwhelm, him did he repair to the local bookshop to seek deliverance in the self-help section? Was he relying in the latest methodologies of Christian self-help gurus to aid him in putting his life back together? No! Not in the least. He declared, “For I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: And though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God: Whom I shall see for myself, and mine eyes shall behold, and not another; though my reins be consumed within me.” (Job 19:25-27) Job went on to say, “But he knoweth the way that I take: when he hath tried me, I shall come forth as gold. My foot hath held his steps, his way have I kept, and not declined. Neither have I gone back from the commandment of his lips; I have esteemed the words of his mouth more than my necessary food.” (Job 23:10-12) Job had confidence in God. He had absolute trust in him whose ways are higher than our ways and whose thoughts are higher than our thoughts. Job declared, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him.” (Job 13:15) That is an inspiring and Biblical example of how we should respond to the adversity in our lives.

Then take the life of the Apostle Paul. His was a difficult one as he himself stated when he recounted his trials, saying, “From the Jews five times I received forty stripes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness…” (2 Corinthians 11:24-27) In spite of all that, Paul goes on to say, “If I must needs glory, I will glory of the things which concern mine infirmities.” (2 Corinthians 11:30) Paul acknowledged, “Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10) because God had told him, “My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness.” To which Paul added, in his submission to the will of God, “Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” (2 Corinthians 12:9) For Paul his trials and tribulations were all ordered by God for his spiritual good, and he gloried in that and rejoiced in God’s sovereign working in his life. For Paul this was neither a concern nor a problem to deal with, much less a reason to reorder his life according to the latest “Christian living” methodology to see if he couldn’t broker a better deal with God.

Ultimately, this self-help genre is an exercise in attempting to manipulate God into blessing us. Constantly the deluded adherents of these self-help gurus are told that if they follow their prescriptions God will be sure to bless them with peace, prosperity, and success. But God cannot be manipulated. He is not our puppet and we are not his puppet-masters. Of him the Scriptures state, “…and I blessed the most High, and I praised and honoured him that liveth for ever, whose dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom is from generation to generation: And all the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing: and he doeth according to his will in the army of heaven, and among the inhabitants of the earth: and none can stay his hand, or say unto him, What doest thou?” (Daniel 4:34-35) It is folly to think that there are magical Biblical prescriptions that will ensure us a happy, peaceful, prosperous and successful Christian life, at least in the sense that this movement defines those terms.

And speaking of magical, the truth is some of this “Christian self-help” material is plainly just that, an exercise in pagan magic. What is magic? How is that term defined? Magic is the attempt to control the supernatural by means of the natural. We all see this in children’s fairy tales. The magician, witch, or wizard, through some natural means produces a supernatural effect. This could be by some potion of secret ingredients including bat’s wings, toad warts, etc., to some magic incantation that produces extraordinary effects. “Abra-cadabra” and “Open Sesame” are familiar to us all. But how does this differ from some self-help prescriptions? Not very much, if at all, as we shall note.

Take for example the prayer of Jabez. It is recorded for us in Scripture, “And Jabez called on the God of Israel, saying, Oh that thou wouldest bless me indeed, and enlarge my coast, and that thine hand might be with me, and that thou wouldest keep me from evil, that it may not grieve me! And God granted him that which he requested.” (1 Chronicles 4:10) This prayer, simple as it was, produced an absolute mania in the Christian self-help community. A best selling book, complete with CD’s and self-help workbooks were dispensed to the gullible by the thousands, if not by the millions. The thrust of all this was that this prayer was some kind of magic elixir, and if one would pray this prayer several times a day great things would happen in one’s life. Gone from their memory was Christ’s admonition, “But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking. Be not ye therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him.” (Matthew 6:7-8) Ignored was the pernicious example of the Romanists with their rosaries and their mindless repetitions of Ave Marias and pater nosters. Instead, like the Buddhist prayer wheels turning endlessly in the winds of Tibet, Christians were told that zealous daily repetitions of this prayer would bring the hoped-for blessings into their life. What folly!

How does one lead a successful and satisfying Christian life? What is the answer to the needs and aspirations of Christians? The Biblical answer is the gospel. The Biblical answer is Christ. If these no longer satisfy us and give us contentment, fulfillment, and peace, then something is radically wrong. Where is the conviction that they have found him of whom Moses and the prophets spoke? Where is the joy that they have found the pearl of great price for which one is willing to give up everything else? Where is the contentment that Christ is sufficient and in him we have all our needs met for this life and that which is to come? If the person and work of Jesus Christ no longer satisfies our souls and the gospel no longer fills us with the joy of our salvation, then truly we have a serious situation before us.

The success of “Christian self-help” publishing indicates that there must be millions of evangelical “Christians” whose lives are empty and unfulfilled and seeking for something to make their lives more fulfilling and satisfying. It indicates the presence of legions of professed “Christians” who feel their lives lack meaning and success. What are we to make of this? It is certainly troubling. For both Scripture and church history indicate that the lives of the Lord’s people have been characterized by peace, contentment, and joy in a way that the children of this world never experience. Even in times of trial, persecution, and martyrdom, the Lord’s people never seem bereft of these blessings, but remain strong and steadfast, with great peace and contentment in the Lord. American Christians are materially very prosperous, but the Scriptures warn, “For the kingdom of God is not meat and drink; but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost.” (Romans 14:17) To this Paul adds, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith…” (Galatians 5:22-23) In fact, Paul makes it a command, saying, “Rejoice in the Lord alway: and again I say, Rejoice.” (Philippians 4:4) We could proceed to say similar things with respect to the peace and the contentment that should be evidenced in the lives of those who have been redeemed from sin and death and hell by our Lord Jesus Christ, and have an eternal inheritance in a kingdom that will never end, in the new earth wherein dwells righteousness. Something is radically wrong when professing Christians, instead of rejoicing in Christ, feel unfulfilled and empty. Something is even more wrong when this is a state that churches and pastors are not seemingly dealing with, so that these people are driven to resort to the self-help section of the Christian publishing industry.

What is the source of the peace, contentment, and joy that should characterize the lives of the redeemed? It is the gospel. It is the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. As the Apostle Peter put it, “Grace and peace be multiplied unto you through the knowledge of God, and of Jesus our Lord.” (2 Peter 1:2) It is also our assurance in the finished work of Jesus Christ whereby we are delivered from our sins and from the wrath of God to come, and can say with the Apostle Paul that “…nothing can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” and that we “know whom (we) have believed and (are) persuaded that he is able to keep that which (we) have committed unto him against that day.”

Martin Luther was a professing Christian. He was a Roman Catholic priest and doctor of theology. However, he had neither peace, not contentment, nor joy in his religion. He repaired to the self-help section of the Roman Church. He tried everything from entering a monastery with a severe discipline, to self-flagellation, to pilgrimages, etc. Nothing he did gave him peace with God. What changed all that was when he received the gospel in his heart. When the great truth of justification by faith alone burst upon his soul, he literally got off his knees on that superstitious and idolatrous staircase in Rome and never looked back. He had the joy of his salvation and the peace with God that passes all understanding. The gospel and the knowledge of Jesus Christ supplied all the needs of his soul. It would have been absurd to think of Luther after that moment as ever having been empty and unfulfilled. He had his life’s work, to proclaim the unsearchable riches of Jesus Christ to those who were still bound in the empty follies he had forsaken.

William Farel had similar experiences. He too tried everything that the Church of Rome had to offer. He read the lives of the saints and tried to emulate them. He joined the strictest monastery that he could find. He went on pilgrimages. He did everything to be a devout Catholic, a super-Catholic, but he had no peace. Then his heart was opened to understand the true gospel of Jesus Christ and he was forever changed, becoming the Reformer of the French speaking cantons of Switzerland. It is the gospel that transforms people from a state of religious discontent to fulfillment, peace, and joy in Jesus Christ.

This was the Apostle Paul’s experience also. As he himself stated it, he had whereof to boast according to the flesh. He relished in his genealogy as a Hebrew of the Hebrews. He relished in his zeal for the law as a Pharisee of the Pharisees. He relished in his zeal for his faith in his persecution of the rival faith of Christianity. Then he found Christ on that Damascus road and was forever changed. Then all those things in which he had sought religious fulfillment were to him just so much rubbish to be cast out that he might gain Christ and the knowledge of his resurrection.

The question before us is why is this no longer the experience of contemporary evangelicals? Why is the gospel no longer producing the fruit of joy, peace, and contentment that it did in former times? Why are many professing Christians seemingly discontent, empty, and unfulfilled? Why are the pastors not ministering to these people the comforts of Biblical Christianity, using the Scriptural means of grace to restore them to the joy of their salvation? Why are they seeking for spiritual fulfillment in all the wrong places? I do not know, but the potential answers are extremely disturbing.

The first possible answer is that in many evangelical churches the gospel is no longer being preached with power and authority. The curse of half a century of Billy Graham type, ecumenical, lowest common denominator “gospel preaching” has so gutted the true gospel that what is being preached has lost its power to transform and renew and is leaving its victims empty and unfulfilled. Many churches never progress past this simple “gospel” type preaching. Expository preaching to build up the saints is rare in evangelical circles. Stories, anecdotes, pulpit humor, and entertainment are added to the simple “gospel” message to round out the service. Instead of singing the Biblical Psalms that strengthen the saints in their daily walk, the churches sing shallow, sentimental hymns that appeal to the emotions, but do not minister to the spirit. The people are never built up with the meat of the word and are anemic and weak on a diet of diluted milk, leaving spiritual hungers unsatisfied.

A second possible answer is that the gospel is no longer understood by many, even in evangelical circles. The power of God unto salvation has been emasculated by decades of “decisional regeneration.” Men think that God is unable to really save them. They think that it is all up to them to make a “decision for Christ.” It is almost a form of salvation by works. Men are exposed to some version of “the gospel” and make a decision, that they are told ensures their salvation. They are never overwhelmed in their minds and spirits, by the knowledge of God’s absolute power to save, by the conviction that salvation is of the Lord, that he has plucked them as brands from the burning, and delivered them from sin and death and hell, by his power alone, all to the praise of his grace. They lack the assurance that that same almighty power to save will preserve them unto the coming and kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is all very spiritually unsatisfying as they are caught up in presenting to others the same shallow gospel to elicit the same “decision.” They do not really understand the gospel.

The third, and most troubling possible answer, is that these people are not really converted. People running from one self-help guru to the next, people perpetually in search of the latest breakthrough in Christian living or the secret key to the successful Christian life, are simply acting way too much like the Luthers and the Farels before their conversion. They are like those described by the Apostle Paul when he speaks of those who are “ever learning but never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.”

Ultimately, any and all of the above answers can fit any particular individual situation. And the answer to all of them is one and the same, the faithful preaching of the true gospel of Jesus Christ. Unless we have a revival of that kind of preaching and the fruit that sound Bible preaching and exposition, and faithful pastoral counseling produces, we will continue to witness the spiritual wasteland of contemporary Christian self-help publishing.