The dangers of Christian self-improvement
Christian self-improvement is highly pervasive. This is evidenced by the plethora of “how to” over “die to” teachings. We are taught how we can grow confident in our identities, discover our potential, and live more meaningful lives in the name of Jesus Christ. These are all very positive-sounding aspirations. Yet there is a real danger that they lead us to chase after our own ideals rather than God’s. Should God fulfill our desires – or should He BE our desire? The former is about a transaction. The latter is about a relationship.
No matter where we are born, most of us would have been told to keep learning and improving. Yet God does not call us into self-improvement when we enter into a relationship with Him. He calls us into self-abandonment – so we are able to love Him and people perfectly.
1 John 4:7-8,17 NLT Dear friends, let us continue to love one another, for love comes from God. Anyone who loves is a child of God and knows God. But anyone who does not love does not know God, for God is love. And as we live in God, our love grows more perfect. So we will not be afraid on the day of judgment, but we can face him with confidence because we live like Jesus here in this world.
He does not call us to fit in with the demands of this world. On the contrary, God calls us to be set apart, even at the risk of being rejected by our own earthly families. He does not encourage us to build up our lives on earth. Rather, we are to store up treasures in heaven.
Luke 9:23-25 NLT Then he said to the crowd, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross daily, and follow me. If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it. And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but are yourself lost or destroyed?
Luke 14:26 NLT “If you want to be my disciple, you must, by comparison, hate everyone else—your father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even your own life. Otherwise, you cannot be my disciple.
Matthew 6:19-21 ESV “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
The appeal of Christian self-improvement
Christian self-improvement appeals to our fleshly nature because it gives us a (false) sense that we are in control and doing something good. Self-abandonment, however, can feel terrifying.
1. Social pressures: What if I fall behind my peers?
The more competitive the society we live in, the more we feel driven to keep advancing. Social pressures and media do not help. They keep reminding us what worldly assets we lack, rather than what eternal gifts God has given us.
The Bible warns us not to fall into the trap of worldly anxiety, covetousness, and greed.
Philippians 4:5-7 ESV … The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Luke 12:15 ESV And he said to them, “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”
1 Timothy 6:10 ESV For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.
2. High personal ideals: What if I don’t achieve greatness?
Alternatively, we may have grown up in households that reinforced the idea that we are only successful if we reach certain standards or achieve some greatness. We may have come to the conclusion that our purpose is to do something meaningful and that we can’t rest until we do.
The Bible reminds us that in God’s eyes, greatness comes in the form of putting ourselves down to serve others, even in the humblest of circumstances. He doesn’t need us to do a great number of things, just the ones He has prepared for us to do.
Matthew 23:11-12 ESV The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.
Ephesians 2:10 ESV For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
3. Feeling unworthy: What if God doesn’t like or accept me as I am?
Other times, we may subconsciously feel unworthy of God’s great love. There is an undercurrent of anxiety that drives us to improve ourselves in order to feel good enough for His acceptance. Yet as flawed human beings, we never reach a standard that feels perfect or holy enough for God. This leaves us in a state of constant anxiety and striving.
The Bible reminds us that no one can ever become good enough for God’s salvation. Salvation is a free gift. God accepts us in all our inadequacies and wickedness and extends His gift of redemption to us precisely because we are unable to save ourselves. This is cause for great celebration, not more anxiety.
Ephesians 2:4-5,9 NLT But God is so rich in mercy, and he loved us so much, that even though we were dead because of our sins, he gave us life when he raised Christ from the dead. (It is only by God’s grace that you have been saved!) Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it.
John 3:17 ESV For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
4. Limited exposure: What does self-abandonment look like?
We may practise Christian self-improvement simply because this is what we have been taught. Perhaps we have not seen many godly role models who have demonstrated true self-abandonment. Or we may have only been exposed to sermons that:
- Look and sound like TEDTalks, with a high “feel good” educational factor but without the power to expose our innermost ungodly thoughts and desires, and convict us of our sinful nature. | Hebrews 4:12 ESV For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
- Focus mostly on how God helps us live more empowered lives, rather than teach us how to repent, confess, and submit to God so we do not quench the Holy Spirit who helps us overcome our sinful desires. | Ephesians 4:20-24 ESV But that is not the way you learned Christ!— assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.
- Show us how to ask for God’s blessing, and neglect to teach us how to embrace trials and the testing of our faith. | 1 Peter 1:6-7 ESV … you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.
- Leave us with a list of self-help tips, rather than with a reminder to always go humbly before God to seek His will. | Romans 12:I-2 ESV I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
5. Fear: What if I am disappointed with what God has in store for me?
Many of us decide to become self-sufficient after a few disappointments or hard knocks in life. This makes it hard for us to trust anyone else, even God. What if God takes away the things we enjoy? What if He gives us things we don’t like? Satan will overwhelm us with unfounded fears and tempt us to think that God will sabotage us. We end up blaspheming God and accusing Him of being imperfect and cruel. A loving Father will never harm His own children. He will only lovingly guide us to safety and victory, even in the most difficult of circumstances.
Matthew 7:9-11 NLT “You parents—if your children ask for a loaf of bread, do you give them a stone instead? Or if they ask for a fish, do you give them a snake? Of course not! So if you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good gifts to those who ask him.
Testing for Christian self-improvement
Have we unknowingly been chasing Christian self-improvement, rather than God’s will? Perhaps we can ask ourselves if we:
- Are ready to follow Jesus’ example of perfect love and sacrifice our most precious possessions at the altar – just like God Himself has done for us by sacrificing His beloved Son. | 1 John 4:9-10,20-21 NIV This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.
- Have renounced everything to make Jesus Christ of foremost importance, over and above our relationships, finances, careers, and personal goals. | Luke 14:33 ESV So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.
- Have died to everything we think we know in order to embrace everything in the unknown that God has prepared for us – based fully on His terms and not our own. | John 12:25 NLT Those who love their life in this world will lose it. Those who care nothing for their life in this world will keep it for eternity.
- Will follow Jesus’s example to embrace suffering and persecution as much as we embrace positive life change. | 1 Peter 2:20-21 ESV … But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.
The irony about self-improvement is that the results will always disappoint because we never feel “improved” enough. We find ourselves caught up in cycles of anxiety and sin, and wonder where is the abundant life that Jesus promised us.
John 10:10 ESV The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.
Most detrimentally, self-improvement keeps us spinning our wheels and nowhere closer to an authentic relationship with God.
When we surrender control to God, however, He gives us a new heart and a new spirit. He makes His immeasurable love, wisdom, and power available to us when we abandon ourselves and submit to Him.
Luke 17:33 ESV Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will keep it.
Will we lose our lives to God in order to experience true greatness in Christ? God gives us the dignity to make our own choices. For those who submit to Him as His obedient children, He often goes beyond our expectations by transforming us without us striving and fulfilling the desires of our hearts – even the ones we never knew to ask.
Ezekiel 11:19-20 ESV And I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, that they may walk in my statutes and keep my rules and obey them. And they shall be my people, and I will be their God.
Psalm 37:4-7 ESV Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him, and he will act. He will bring forth your righteousness as the light, and your justice as the noonday.
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