The Right Way to Read "Self-Help" Books

Right next to young adult and romance novels, self-help and productivity books have always been staples on the best-seller list. Instead of offering an escape from reality, self-help material offers ways to change your reality: ‘12 Rules for Life,’ ‘Be You, Only Better,’ ‘A Shame-Free Plan for Embracing and Achieving Your Goals.’ These are just a few of the subtitles in this multi-million dollar market. ​

No matter the corny subtitles, there is still a powerful message in the genre’s material that keeps it on the best-seller list. Aside from the empty platitudes about achieving a “perfect” life, we still want what they are selling. We know that we do not accidentally become successful, fit, or wealthy, and without intentional management, at least to some degree, none of those adjectives will likely describe our life. So, we need help. This is why titles like ‘10 Steps to Achieve X’ are so appealing. Before we let our favorite productivity blogs and podcasts give us the keys to “the good life,” an excellent question to ask is if their definition of “the good life” is the one we need?

What ‘Self-Help’ Gets Right

It is helpful to note that we live in a cultural and economic climate that forces us to think critically about productivity. It is quite possible that now more than ever we need tips and tricks on how to work more productively while not burning out; millennials are having to work multiple jobs to have the same level of income as the generation before them, and college tuition is at a rate where many students have to work fulltime jobs while taking 18 units a semester. For these reasons, self-help plans regarding productive work and health habits may be responsible for us to take part in. As Christians, we are called to work in an excellent manner, and we have to provide for our families (1 Thes. 4:11-12; 1 Tim. 5:8). In this sense, the self-help industry might contain pertinent wisdom we need to work diligently. 

Curating Discontentment 

A key component of self-help and productivity materials is to eliminate anything in the way of optimal performance. Again, Christians should be mindful of how to work more efficiently, but the question we need to ask is, to what end is our work? Paul answers that “whatever we do,” it should not be from selfish ambition, but, “whether you eat or drink...do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31).

We can glorify God in our productivity, yes, but sometimes glorifying God is not always productive. This is where our plans for productivity and self-help often fall short. If we live simply by the rules to make our lives more efficient and streamlined, then we will see anything in the way as an obstacle between us and the proverbial “good life.” 

Whereas the mantras found in self-help manuals view frustrations of our work merely as lessons to make it a better and more productive next time, scripture allows us to view the thorns of life differently. The Apostle Paul says this concerning his ministry: ​

So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Cor. 12:7-10).

Certainly, Paul is not soothing the conscience of those who do not study enough for their exams or those who act negligently in their work. His words are pertinent, however, if we aspire to a well-curated life over one that glorifies God in our weakness. 

The Vanity of Productivity

While self-help materials can help us do good work, a question Christians need to ask is, what exactly can our work do? As stated, we can glorify God in our work, and Jesus says that we can love our neighbors through our good works (Lk. 10:25-37); however, contrary to many of the statements of productivity gurus, our work is not a means to secure happiness and fulfillment. 

After describing the “great works” of the houses, vineyards, and pools that he has built, the writer of Ecclesiastes adds, “Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun” (Ecc. 2:11).

No matter how efficient we are in our work, we cannot prevent ourselves from experiencing the insecurites that come with having a fallen nature and living in a fallen world: 

There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? For to the one who pleases him God has given wisdom and knowledge and joy, but to the sinner he has given the business of gathering and collecting, only to give to one who pleases God. This also is vanity and a striving after wind (Ecc. 2:24-26).

The Optimal Life Is Not Always The Most Productive Life

Tantamount to our work failing to secure our contentment and happiness, it should be noted that the optimal life is not always “the good life.”  The good life is the one which belongs to the God who is working all things together for our good (Rom. 8:28). Yes, all things. “All things” in v. 28 includes inconvenient things, things that interrupt our life, even the most painful of things. Paul does not end here, however. He adds that God is graciously giving us all things so that when we encounter tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, and any danger, we will know that none of life’s calamities “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:39).

No amount of productivity and self-care can guarantee such a promise as this; in fact, the only thing that can is Christ’s resurrection (Rom. 8:32). Frustration will plague our work, this is sure; suffering will come, this is also sure, but none of this stands in the way of God’s elect. If we want to use the wisdom found in the self-help genre, we must first understand that Christ himself is the surety of our salvation, of our “good life.” From here, and here only, can we roll up our sleeves and seek to glorify God and love our neighbors in and through our work.

Photo of Caleb Wait

Caleb Wait

Caleb Wait is a Theological Studies student at Westminster Seminary California and a contributor to Core Christianity. He and his wife Kristin have 2 children. When he's not studying theology, Caleb enjoys time with his family and discussions surrounding all things Star Wars. His hope and prayer is to help people understand the Christian faith and to see the church continue to be edified and equipped through the preaching and teaching of the gospel. Connect with Caleb on Twitter: @calebwait 

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