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What Should Christians Think About Self-Help Books?

July 18, 2016


In recent years, there has been a breached interest in self-discovery: a search to uncover the secret to the inner self in hopes of procuring purpose, meaning and abiding happiness. And so many have taken to scouring the self-help sections of bookstores — online and off — to essentially unlock the secret to being. A few years ago I went through my own self-discovery phase. I had just ended a long relationship with a woman and now had the time and freedom to explore myself in ways that I hadn’t before. Here I was, single and in my mid-twenties, wondering what my next step in life should be. I had come back to my faith only a few years prior, and so there was so much I yearned to explore about God, the spiritual life, and myself. 

So I dove in.

To be sure, in many ways it was a rich and necessary experience. Being able to peel back the layers of my unacquainted self was exciting, fascinating and informative. I did this in a host of different ways: Myers-Briggs, Strengthsfinder and charisms tests, endless books and articles on discernment and vocation, conversations with friends and mentors, time spent in prayer, even by taking “What Movie Character Are You?” quizzes featured on my Facebook feed. I didn’t discriminate. If it could lead to greater illumination, I was all for it. And much of it did indeed prove to be illuminating: tools that helped me understanding who I was and what role I might be called to play in the world. But at times it also became limiting and stressful, not to mention spurring an obsessiveness that worked against my efforts for clarity. On my less-than-stellar days, I spent hours analyzing every gift and flaw, affinity and quark I had, with the subconscious expectation of wresting a comprehensive, nicely buttoned up understanding of myself. When this happened, my quest for self-knowledge turned sour, an egotistical exercise in concocting a falsely comforting illusion. 

In short, I was looking for control and security in a world that offers none. In fact, Pope Francis calls this spiritual worldliness:

“In others this spiritual worldliness lurks behind a fascination with social and political gain, or pride in their ability to manage practical affairs, or an obsession with programs of self-help and self-realization.” – Pope Francis, The Joy of the Gospel

Like with every slope regarding the spiritual life, they all tend to be slippery. We must always be on guard and avoid self-obsession. There is also something of Gnosticism that can be seen in certain self-help programs, where — whether implicit or not — self-discovery is said to lead to a type of transcendence brought about by our own inner light. 

We can err on the other side of the spectrum, too. We can pay no attention to the specific ways God is calling us to manifest his love in the world through a disciplined and intentional accounting of ourselves. We are charged with learning who we are: the strengths and gifts we’re called to cultivate and share, the weaknesses we’re called to tamp down through discipline and prayer. Like every avenue of human industry—from business to science to the arts—God gives us that spark of curiosity, and the command to explore all of his creation — ourselves included — to uncover his glorious riches.

In addition to those who can’t be bothered to uncover who they are in God’s eyes, there are also those who eschew any mention of self-discovery because it seems inherently narcissistic, unproductive, or even to some, embarrassingly boorish.

A very well-written and intriguing article in the New York Times, “The Self in Self-Help,” by Kathryn Schulz, brilliantly and humorously articulates such a mindset: 

“I know people who wouldn’t so much as walk through the self-help section of a bookstore without The Paris Review under one arm and a puzzled oh-I-thought-the-bathroom-was-over-here look on their face. I understand where they’re coming from, since some of the genre’s most persistent pitfalls—charlatanism, cheerleading, bad science, silver bullets, New Age hoo-ha—are my own personal peanut allergies: deadly even in tiny ­doses.”

 The article goes on to dissect what we mean by “self-help,” and without cavalierly casting all of it aside as misguided and fraudulent, ventures an interesting take on the mystery of having the power to actually progress (or retrogress) the self. 

Still, what is the proper response to spending time discerning who we are? Well, there are probably an infinite numbers of ways. We can spend time journaling or meditating, examining the relationships, circumstances, blessings and sufferings in our life. We can set aside space on Sunday — you know, the Sabbath day — to actually rest and reflect on our relationship with God, what areas of our lives need improvement, and what we’re called to do  — not necessarily on a grand scale — but maybe just over the next week. I come across many people who don’t have a clear sense of the inimitable character of their existence and life. God yearns to reveal himself through us and to us. He wants us to unearth the beauty of our inner self — his masterwork — and marvel at his glory.

There is the grave mistake that taking care of ourselves and spending time to discern who we are is narcissistic. In some cases, we may believe that something done for our own good (relaxation, exercise, enjoyment, self-discovery, reading, etc.) is permissible, but somehow less valuable to our spiritual life compared to acts of explicit service or love for others. But we can’t love without being filled, and we certainly can’t love in the unique and varied ways that we’re each called to without knowing what love we have to give. How can one have mastery over the self if the self remains a remote mystery? We come to know ourselves — yes, definitely in our service to others and participation in community — but also through prayer, mentors, honest reflection, spiritual and non-spiritual learning, and a host of other ways. If you don’t take care of yourself because you say, “Oh, that would be so selfish of me when so many other people need my love,” or, “Taking care of myself should always be the last priority in my life,” then we do not only ourselves a disservice, but the very ones we intend to love and serve.

I’ll use the example of our emotional health to highlight this fact. If we are exhausted, tired, irritable and rundown — and we haven’t taken the time to discover what is, as best as possible, an optimal level of living to allow for emotional health, then we can damage others. In Christopher Kaczor’ book, The Gospel of Happiness, he discusses this:

“Emotions also matter morally because we have a moral duty to take care of our own health, which can be damaged by chronic negative emotions. Since our emotions greatly influence the emotions of others, we can also negatively or positively influence the health of others in our life. … Sonja Lyubomirsky writes, ‘An avalanche of studies has shown that happy moods lead people to be more productive, more likable, more active, more healthy, more friendly, more helpful, more resilient, and more creative.’”

Kaczor continues, emphasizing that we have a moral obligation to take care of ourselves as much as reasonably possible:

“We have a moral responsibility to avoid, insofar as it is reasonably possible, putting ourselves in occasions of wrongdoing — that is, the near occasions of sin. Since negative emotions are often occasions of doing wrong, our moral responsibilities include a concern for our emotional life.”

The above excerpts relate specifically to minding our emotional health, but this relates to the responsibility we each have to discern who we are in God. Unearthing the things that cause emotional, physical, psychological and spiritual health and sickness play into our journey of discovery. As we dig deeper, we are better able to manage our health, discern God’s voice (as opposed to heeding the voice of our egos or others), unearth and share our gifts, and bear our crosses and sufferings with peace and tranquility of heart.

Nothing happens without the grace and love of God. We are saved by Christ, redeemed by Christ, and made whole my Christ. Therefore, unless we partner with Christ on a journey to better ourselves we will not uncover who God created us to be, but rather, root out a simulacrum of ourselves — a fraudulent composite stitched together from various strands of our ego. With Christ though as our guide and companion, the journey into the self always leads to greater love — for ourselves, others and God.