I love bookstores, and the bigger the better. Throw in a few couches, some background chimes and an in-house coffee shop and I’ll never leave. Screening the best-sellers near the tills (in case my favourite novelist has a latest release), I usually head into the non-fiction section, to either dream amongst the travel guides or be challenged by books on Biblical living or study tools to understand and explain the Bible better. Always to my surprise, shelves of self-help books nestle up against the biblical content, as if similar in theme or substance. Often entitled MIND BODY SPIRIT, the titles are as new and changing as a restaurant Specials Board.
We really have entered the age of self-help volumes, and not only in traditional bookstores. You can hardly pay for your groceries without options to ‘conquer the habit’ or ‘tame the dragon’. No longer are we limited to the ‘3 habits’, the ‘7 ways’ or the ‘10 steps’ – but more creative titles such as ‘awakening your purpose’, ‘best for confidence’ and ‘de-clutter your mind’. Visit a month later, and there are new awakenings to embrace, a new way to unlock confidence and revised tools for the clutter. For those who are regular patrons of these books, what happened to the truth from last month? Has the world changed that much? More importantly, what is the source of power and enlightenment being presented in this new book?
The question of source is important. ‘There is nothing new under the sun’ (Eccl 1:9) so where does this new idea come from? And why is there a new idea? Danish psychologist Svend Brinkmann reasons that we are caught on a hamster wheel striving towards the target of self-actualisation, the place we can never get to. In his book ‘Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze’, he encourages people to abandon self-help books and rather focus on changing the world around them. I believe he has identified the problem, but missed the mark on the answer.
Introducing the Bible, the only authoritative revelation of God, and revealed fully in Jesus Christ. The Bible is that revelation penned by the hands of men under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, making the scriptures inerrant, unchanging, complete (2Tim 3:16) and infinitely more than what we need or want. With the Holy Spirit being the consistent author throughout, the Bible has always been and continues to be the #1 Best Seller. The author never changes, the content never changes and there is true freedom and real joy in Jesus Christ, found on every page.
As all truth starts and ends with the revelation of God, much self-help content flaunts elements of the scriptures – oil that is useful for your lamps (Ps 119:105). The problem is not the oil, it is the water added to that oil. Jesus came to testify to the truth (Jn 18:37) – we can add nothing to it. Liken the Biblical scriptures to the ocean – cool and cleansing, uncompromisingly salty (Matt 5:13), deeper than our best expeditions, horizons we can never exceed, yet powerful at its beached edges (Jer 31:35). Look for truth elsewhere and you enter the silted estuaries, the muddy dams and the post-storm puddles.
For example, you may read that you need to surround yourself with positive, aligned people; and for those who cause you pain, you should cut them out of your life – only engaging with the friends that feed you. Not an uncommon theme! (Read 1Tim:4). I sympathise with those who read and follow these ideas, as they are likely in pain, having been hurt, and the suggestions seem like a quick and easy painkiller. But where does this end? You eventually run out of friends! More importantly, you have ignored the wisdom of God as revealed in His Word. God teaches us to renew our strength in Him (Isa 40:31), to love one another always (Jn 13:34), to forgive (Matt 6:12) and to actively aim to reconcile with our friends and family (Matt 5:24). We are to live Holy lives in harmony with one another (Heb 12:14).
So where does the Bible differ? Svend Brinkmann was wrong – you can achieve the place of sustained joy and peace, but not by yourself. Phil. 4:13 says that in Jesus, we can achieve ALL things. As modelled by Jesus, we can only do so with the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives. To live a life worthy of your calling (Eph 4:1) is a full and powerful existence, lacking in nothing, celebrating everything (Rom 8).
Do self-help tips really work? Elements will, and we can cross-reference them. They are the elements aligned with Biblical truth as already revealed by God. Repackaging truth and adding something new only serves to distract, reduce or destroy the truth itself. If self-help is what you are seeking, take a moment of reflection. Are you splashing in the storm-waters of life, knowing this too will drain away? Or perhaps you are frolicking in an estuary – you can taste elements of a cool salty water but its inconsistent and you know you’re compromising. I encourage you to stare down the beaches of your life and walk right into the ocean of where the Bible will lead you. It always cleanses, never changes and delivers truth to last not only this lifetime but an eternity with God Himself.