Self-Help and the Spiritual Life

Is there anything more demonstrative of the true American spirit than the self-help industry?  From How to Win Friends and Influence People to Tools of the Titans, America has always been a ripe market for self-help.  It has grown into a $10 billion industry.  Part of the appeal is that they appear to fit a primal need—each of us is haunted by an awareness that we are not what we are supposed to be and need some outside help. Always pragmatic, Americans assume that there must be a technique to fix the problem and buy the latest “life-changing” self-help book.  Even after reading the best ones, we are still plagued by a nagging sense that all is not quite right inside.  Off we go to the next book.  But one has to wonder, with over 630,000+ self-help books  on Amazon offering different techniques, is the problem really a technical one at all?  What if the problem is in our constitution such that no amount of self-help will completely fix it?

Within the Christian tradition we have a name for this fundamental flaw and we call it Original Sin.  We used to all know this, but many of us have forgotten it.  As Chesterton said, Original Sin is “the only part of Christian theology that can be proved.”  In an age where we abhor theory and demand practicality, all men agree on the doctrine of the Fall regardless of whether they profess it or not.  What they deny it in theory, they find in practice—each of us “do not do the good they want to do” (Romans 7:19).

Most of us are familiar with the term Original Sin but struggle to articulate exactly what it is.  Adam and Eve were created by God with supernatural gifts including the very life of God which we call sanctifying grace.  Adam and Eve had perfect integration of their faculties.  They could see the Good clearly in their intellect, they were able to will it and carry it out with a bodily intensity in the passions.  The passions followed the will which followed the intellect which followed God, the Supreme Good.

Falling from such a height, not only removed the supernatural gifts, but left the human nature they would hand on to their progeny damaged.  Their souls were no longer integrated.  The intellect was darkened, the will weakened and the passions ran amok, no longer obeying intellect and will.  In other words, Adam and Eve’s offspring were not just worse off because they lost sanctifying grace, but also because human nature itself was damaged.  Naturally, this leads to the question why God allowed man to Fall from grace, leaving him worse off than if He had never graced him to begin with?

The Self-Help Trap

God left man worse off to protect him from a bigger fall, that is, plunging into the self-help trap.  Without this inner brokenness we could actually help ourselves.  The only problem is that we would help ourselves to become something less than we were meant to be, namely “partakers of the Divine nature” (2 Pt 1:4), “God’s children now” (1 Jn 3:2).  With the stain of Original Sin, we are always aware of a lack that cries out ultimately for God.

The self-help trap denies not only Original Sin, but the height from which we fell.  It is meant to help us “improve,” but what does this mean?  Progress is only progress if we know where we are going.  We must know our purpose or destination before we can say whether something has improved our chances of reaching it.  Each self-help program promises “success” but success is highly dependent upon the author’s definition.

One of the other post-Fall pitfalls is that we are prone to self-deception.  We begin to look at what is normal (what everyone else is like) and the norm (what we were made for) and think “I am mostly OK, just need to work on few things.” Self-help only feeds this.  We will always choose to improve in areas that either require the least amount of work or based on some idol we have set up.

In the minds of many well-meaning Christians, Christianity is the self-help program that actually works.  Pope Benedict XVI pointed out this trap Christians can fall into in his first encyclical Deus Caritas Est  when he said “[B]eing Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” (DCE, 1).  There are a number of evangelists that present the Gospel as a self-help program that actually works.  The danger in doing this however is that it doesn’t work when it is lived as an ethical system.  Christianity morality is hard and all but impossible without first having an encounter with the living Christ.  To the world, Christian morality makes no sense. It only makes sense once we trust Christ completely.  With trust comes the willingness to do whatever He tells us.

Christianity and Self-Help

The opposite of Christianity is not atheism but radical self-help.  They both start at the same place—a willingness to change.  But it is there that they part ways.  Self-help says “you can do this, all you need to do is approach the problem differently,” Christ says “pick up your Cross and follow me.”  If I take it from the wounded hands of Christ, it will make me whole.  Every virtue I am lacking is found in the crosses God sends me.  All I need to do is allow them to do their work on me.  It has a proven track record winning friends and influencing people—the Saints always make more Saints.

All that being said, this does not mean that self-help books and techniques do not have value in the spiritual life.  Grace perfects and elevates nature so that the books which acknowledge the good of virtue over selfishness can be the raw material for change in our lives.  But their proper place is always after the invasion of grace has occurred in our lives.  A recent book written by Jeff Goins called The Art of Work is one worth commending to you.

The subtitle of the book reveals just how compatible it is—A Proven Path for Discovering What You Were Meant to Do.  Although he does not specifically mention Christianity, it assumes that God’s Providence is an active force in our lives.  He offers practical advice on how we are to respond to our call (without reference to Who it is that is calling), how service fulfills us, suffering is a friend dressed like an enemy because all things work for good for those who have a calling and nothing we do is wasted.  He also recognizes God’s law of gradualism in which we do not so much leap from one cliff to another but build a bridge gradually across the chasm.  Throughout the book he gives tells stories to demonstrate his point (even at one point referring to St. Theresa of Calcutta.  All in all it reads like an instruction manual for fulfilling all aspects of your Christian vocation, especially when he talks about living what he calls a “portfolio life.”

Facebook Comments