I am a nerd when it comes to productivity hacks and strategies. I consume lots of literature that you will find on the self-help or personal development aisles at Dymocks. Want to be a highly effective person? Yes please. Want to be a (metaphorically) barefoot investor? That’s me. Want to learn how to do deep work, optimise your energy levels, and stack your habits? Heart-eyes emoji. Part of it is how I am wired: I love efficiency, productivity, and a science-backed strategy to maximising my output. My favourite days are the ‘busy but good’ ones, when my head hits the pillow and I am satisfied with the to-dos I have checked off. Part of it is so that I can be effective for God’s kingdom—I want to manage my time, energy and money well so I can be reliable for service at church, sustainably generous and sacrificial. I owe a lot of my competence to the skills and strategies I have learnt from the authors of these books, and I thank God for that.

I love efficiency, productivity, and a science-backed strategy to maximising my output. My favourite days are the ‘busy but good’ ones.

Yet, sometimes I feel uncomfortable with the promises of these books. They often assure me that there is a better me out there—one who is financially free, smashing goals, thriving at work and flourishing in my relationships. All I must do is employ this framework or that strategy. Is this true? If so, should the implementation of these strategies be the pursuit of my Christian life? If not, is there wisdom I can glean from them, or am I wasting my time? Does God’s word provide any guidance on what I read?

Self-Help’s Helpfulness

Self-help is a broad church, and I cannot speak on behalf of every nook and sub-genre available. However, generally, I have found many books helpful in three ways. Firstly, much of the content I digest has provided rich insights into how the world and humans work. It teaches me how the brain causes habits to stick, how emotions affect relationships, and how to distinguish between urgent and important tasks. In God’s grace, he has given many self-help authors a genuine desire to educate people on how to live a meaningful life and— despite their ignorance of him—lots of competence in producing such material.

Secondly, reading thoughtful reflections by these authors has helped me to appreciate the nuance and complexities of this world. There are many ways for us to spend our time, and the Bible does not tell us exactly how we ought to do so. Of course, as Christians we have broad principles: godly living, loving Christ, meditating on his Word, serving God’s church, but in what proportion and when? Some books I have read have informed my thinking on how to live a life that best glorifies the Lord Jesus, especially when the Bible is silent on its expression.[1]

Thirdly—and to my mind, just as persuasive—I find these books interesting and fun to read. As Christians, we know that the Lord has redeemed us for good works (Ephesians 2:10). Yet, outside of our eternal home with God, we are also severely finite and limited. How do we best configure our days, skills and competence for his service, whilst we wait for his return? As creations of an imaginative God, there is so much to learn about the world and our lives; so much to enjoy in God’s creation, and thus (from point 1), much that these books can offer us.

However, for all its merits, there are two ways that this literature departs from what is taught in the Scriptures, and in my mind, creates a chasm wide enough that warrants us to tread with caution.

Self-Help’s Limitations

Firstly, self-help is inherently humanistic; it propagates a worldview that our spiritual and emotional needs can be satisfied without God. The premise of the self-help genre—evident in its name—is the idea that humans are the real agents of change, masters of our own destinies. We can and should help ourselves.

The Bible’s emphasis is completely opposite. Its most fundamental perspective is that we are completely dependent on God (Acts 17:28) and always ever only acting within his sovereign hand. Not only that, Scripture describes humans as utterly corrupt (c.f. Romans 3:10). In front of a holy God, we are morally and spiritually bankrupt. That’s a huge distinction.

This is not to deny that humans can enact real and positive change, both to our selves and environments. One does not need to be a Christian to stick to a weight-loss goal, care for the environment or budget well. However, we believe that these acts are reflective of a good and gracious God, who works to achieve good outcomes despite our utter corruption (Genesis 50:20), and who gives good gifts both to those who do and don’t know Him (Matthew 5:45).

Living for Now

Secondly, self-help books assume life on Earth is the only life there is, and the values espoused by them fit with that assumption. They proclaim happiness as the highest goal, self-actualisation and individualism.[2] Reading too many of these books (paradoxically) makes me worry that I won’t be able to live up to my potential, tempting me to scramble for the ‘next best thing’, whatever that is.

My 80-90 years (if that) on Earth are just a blip … there is an infinitely better, longer and more productive life to come for those who follow God.

When that happens, I have to remind myself that my 80-90 years (if that) on Earth are just a blip, and that there is an infinitely better, longer and more productive life to come for those who follow God.

Furthermore, this ultimate life is only possible with God’s help, not my own: It is God who took the initiative in sparing us the punishment through the substitutionary death of Jesus as our substitute; it is He who sends us his Spirit to change our hearts to recognise our dire need for a Saviour in Christ. To those who trust in Jesus, we will get to spend an eternity with this good God who created us. What wonderful, freeing news.

This liberates me to recalibrate my goal for this life: to pursue holiness first, rather than happiness; to find myself in costly service rather than self-expression. The gospel assures me that giving up my life now for the service of the Lord is not foolish, not a waste of life, or pointless, but the wisest and most strategic choice in light of the judgement and glory that the Lord will bring.

Practically Speaking

To summarise, the premise that troubles me about the self-help genre is this: I must be the solution, or my world falls apart. But, what if, like the Bible says, I am actually the problem? There is no real help in self-help if the problem is with the self. As long as we remain chained to death in rebellion against God, no amount of practical tips and strategies can rescue us. Only Christ can provide the true freedom we need.

So when I peruse the shelves at Dymocks, I steer away from the books that try to offer me a Christ-less spirituality or some humanistic philosophy. Practical books can teach me many important things, including how to live strategically and wisely in light of Jesus’ coming again. But none of them are equipped to deal with the issue of my sin. For this, I need to turn to God’s offer of help in Christ.

Because of God’s grace to me in Christ, I am free from living my best life now. I do not need to escape unenjoyable, unfulfilling tasks or relationships; I do not need to find, express, or define myself. I can trust what God says about me. I can serve his Son Jesus with confidence that, in the new life, God will replenish every good thing that I was not able to pursue in this earthly one (Matthew 19:29).

My days on this Earth are numbered in God’s hand (Psalm 139:16). God is good, even when I am not. God is in control, even when I am not. My helplessness is deeper than my productivity systems or budgeting style. But, thanks be to God, my solution is also greater than these things.

[1] On this point, I do have a recommendation from a biblical perspective, and that is Mikey Lynch’s The Good Life in the Last Days: Making Choices When the Time is Short.

[2] I am careful to say ‘much’, not all. I have been pleasantly surprised at the increasing acknowledgement of the value of service, community and sacrifice in some of the literature I read.