The popularity of self-improvement, or self-help, books throughout the history of publishing is rather amazing. The reasons given for the wide acceptance of such books, historically, and especially in our day, are many, but they all boil down to man’s desire to improve his condition or situation, whether financially, socially, educationally, physically, psychologically, spiritually, or “all of the above.” Although the goals are improvement and the bettering of one’s circumstance, the primary method and motivation is by self and for self: how can I improve me?
Since self is the fundamental focus of self-improvement, we need to give some serious thought to what it is. A gathering of definitions from contemporary dictionaries reveals self to be: the entire person; an individual’s typical character or behavior; an individual’s temporary behavior or character; a person in prime condition; the union of elements (as body, emotions, thoughts, and sensations) that constitute the individuality and identity of a person; personal interest or advantage. Simply stated, it’s you and me and all that makes up each of us as individuals. The definition of “self” becomes more confusing, however, when words are added to the front or back of it, such as one’s true self or self-realization. Moreover, the number of hyphenated “self” words are in the hundreds, from self-actualizing to self-worth, and each one adds its own meaning or nuance to “self.”
Two “self”-related adjectives convey the best and the worst condition of self. Selfless: concerned more with the needs and wishes of others than with one’s own: “an act of selfless devotion.” Its synonyms clarify its wonderful qualities: unselfish, altruistic, self-sacrificing, self-denying; considerate, compassionate, kind, noble, generous, magnanimous, ungrudging, charitable, benevolent: “Her love was manifest in selfless service.” Selfish, on the other hand, has no redeeming qualities: (of a person, action, or motive) lacking consideration for others; concerned chiefly with one’s own personal profit or pleasure: “I entertained them for selfish reasons.” Synonyms include: egocentric, egotistic, egotistical, egomaniacal, self-centered, self-absorbed, self-obsessed, self-seeking, self-serving, wrapped up in oneself; inconsiderate, thoughtless, unthinking, uncaring, uncharitable; mean, miserly, grasping, greedy, mercenary, acquisitive, opportunistic; looking after number one: “He is just selfish by nature.”
Scripture uses the term “self” in a very straightforward way, i.e., the entire person, and most often as reflexive pronouns such as “himself” and “themselves.” So the “secret” of the biblical use of the term is not in its definition but in what the Word of God says about self and what it instructs us to do with it, which is in direct opposition to what the so-called wisdom of the world advocates.
According to our world, which has been heavily influenced by humanistic psychology (the contemporary breeding ground of all the selfist teachings), “self”—meaning the entirety of a human being—is innately good. Flaws or dysfunctions within a person’s life stem from sources of influences external to the person himself, e.g., his parents, or his physical, social, and educational environment, and so forth. The belief in inherent goodness is involved in all psychological counseling—and not as an option; it is foundational. The reason is obvious. If a person is not inherently good but has a fundamental defect in his nature that affects to some degree every aspect of his life, there is nothing a psychotherapist can do to alter the defect and its ultimate consequences. It’s like the proverbial attempt to change a leopard’s spots. One could dye the leopard’s skin or cover it in some fashion, but such superficial acts would do nothing to truly change the spots. The leopard’s genetics won’t allow it.
But if self is indeed innately good, then it’s simply a matter of a psychological counselor getting a client to recognize the goodness of his “self” and to psychotherapeutically remove all the things that are preventing the success of that belief. There are more than 500 different psychotherapies that have been conjured up to do just that. But many of them conflict with one another, and none of them proves or even makes a plausible case for man’s inherent goodness. Consequently, all of the methodologies only address a client’s problems as symptomatic issues, because they can do nothing to change the nature of humanity. However, what is impossible for man is possible with God!
The Bible declares unequivocally that the heart of man is not good:
The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?; For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness: All these evil things come from within, and defile the man. (Jeremiah:17:9; Mark:7:21-23)
Scripture tells us that “men loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil” (John:3:19) and that “all have sinned…” (Romans:3:23). These verses, and many more, describe the fallen nature of humanity, and there is nothing that anyone can do to change it or improve it.
Only God can change self and make it better, but He doesn’t do it by man’s way. That’s the “secret” of biblical self-improvement, which is only secret in the sense that Christianity has lost sight of what the Scriptures clearly teach and what the church has practiced since the time of the apostles. That blindness began in earnest in the middle of the last century as psychological counseling made deep inroads to Christendom. By the 1970s some of the most influential names in the evangelical media were Christian psychologists, psychotherapists, and psychiatrists such as James Dobson, Frank Minirth, Paul Meier, Gary Collins, John Trent, and Gary Smalley, to name but a few. Books promoting “self” flooded the Christian marketplace, including Hide or Seek: How to Build Self-esteem in Your Child by psychologist Dr. James Dobson and Self-esteem: the New Reformation by Robert Schuller, whose book was sent out gratis to 250,000 evangelical pastors. Self-love and self-esteem became new doctrines that were taught by most of the popular evangelical pastors of the day.
What too few Christians realize is that the rise of the unbiblical teachings of self-love within the church in our day is a matter of prophecy being fulfilled. In 2 Timothy 3, the Apostle Paul warns Timothy about a “perilous” time when self-love will be foundational to sins that will wreak havoc among believers: “This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come. For men shall be lovers of their own selves…” (vv. 1-2). Some might wonder why that is prophetic, when mankind has had a self-serving bias going clear back to the fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Looking out for “number one,” Adam blamed the woman whom God had given him, and Eve blamed the serpent (i.e., Satan), who seduced her into disobeying God.
Self-love has created problems for humanity throughout the centuries, but it wasn’t until the last 100 years or so that the selfisms were promoted as the basic solutions to nearly all of mankind’s ills, especially our mental, emotional, and behavioral problems. Much of that began with the “looking within” and the self-analysis practiced by Freud and Jung, but ironically—and more specifically—it involved a chiding by anti-Christian Friedrich Nietzsche that Christians didn’t love themselves enough. That was picked up and promoted by psychologist and humanistic philosopher Eric Fromm, as Dave Hunt noted:
Fromm, an atheist, popularized the idea of self-love. He got it from Nietzsche. One of Fromm’s books was Ye Shall Be as Gods. He took the lie of the Serpent for its title. In his book, Man for Himself, he justified the idea that we all hate ourselves and need to learn to love ourselves by saying that Jesus taught it when He said, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” (TBC, Q&A, 9/1986)
That distortion of the Scriptures was then accepted by increasing numbers of evangelical preachers and teachers who should have known better. First of all, it’s a simple error in math. The proponents of self-love have made loving one’s neighbor as oneself into a third commandment, whereas Matthew:22:37-40 declares:
Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.
It’s two commandments, not three. Furthermore, as Dave points out, “…if we were deficient in self-love, Jesus wouldn’t have said to love your neighbor as you love yourself, because he said it to everybody and not to a certain class or category of people. So it’s a given—we must already love ourselves. And he couldn’t say ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ (Matthew:7:12) if we all innately hated ourselves and wanted to do ourselves harm.” That error is further contradicted by Ephesians:5:29: “For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the church.”
Loving self before loving God and others is mankind’s natural bias, whether he or she is a committed Christian or not, and the consequence of that is associated with nearly all of the difficulties we experience in life. Paul’s words to Timothy give a litany of the after effects of loving self:
…covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, Without natural affection, trucebreakers, false accusers, incontinent, fierce, despisers of those that are good, Traitors, heady, highminded, lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God; Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away. For of this sort are they which creep into houses, and lead captive silly women laden with sins, led away with divers lusts, Ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth. (2 Timothy:3:2-7)
So that’s the bad news. What, then, of the good news of how God can change our nature and improve self? It can happen only by turning to Him for the salvation that He alone has provided for all of mankind. That involves being reconciled to Him by admitting our sinfulness and accepting Christ’s full payment for our sins by faith alone. Nothing more is required to receive the gift of eternal life, other than trusting in Jesus for saving us from the infinite penalty that our sin deserves. That’s the gospel, and it’s the only way that humanity can be saved.
Once a person puts his trust in Jesus for salvation, he becomes a new creature: “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new” (2 Corinthians:5:17). He has been purged from his old sins and is no longer under the bondage of sin (2 Peter:1:9; John:8:31-32). As a believer in Christ, he has been born again spiritually, is in communion with God, and is fully able to love and obey Him. This was impossible prior to becoming a new creature in Christ. He is a “new man,” a new self (Ephesians:4:24), someone who can now live his life according to God’s instructions in His Word.
The first instruction for a blessed and fruitful life is, however, that just as he could not save himself, neither can he do the things that will improve his life by himself. Biblical self-improvement is nothing like the world’s “self-improvement”; in fact, it’s the opposite. Although a believer’s new life in Christ has set him free from the bondage of sin, he still retains his old nature with its self-serving bias. That is a major battleground for every believer in Christ. Yet for all who have committed their lives to the Lord, He has provided through His Word and the enablement of the Holy Spirit all that they need to win the battle over their flesh and to do the things that please God. Contrary to the world’s loving, esteeming, glorifying, even deifying self, Scripture tells us to deny self—to submit oneself completely to God and the instructions of His Word:
And he [Jesus] said to them all, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me. (Luke:9:23)
Denying self is not the same as denying one’s existence. For the believer, it’s the recognition that although “self,” which was formerly in rebellion against God, continues to have autonomy (the capacity to make moral decisions for good or evil), it has now been enabled to choose and to live in righteousness in one’s desire to please the Lord.
Scripture abounds with verses exhorting us to put the Lord and others before ourselves. “Be kindly affectioned one to another with brotherly love; in honour preferring one another” (Romans:12:10); “Let no man seek his own, but every man another’s [well-being]” (1 Corinthians:10:24); “Let every one of us please his neighbour for his good to edification. For even Christ pleased not himself” (Romans:15:2-3). Furthermore, the Word of God gives us instructions on how we can do those very things, in essence “biblically improving self.” Ironically, it involves a dying process.
We are to die to self—that is, to our autonomous will (also known as self-will)—not only by turning it over to the Lord and submitting to Him, but also by allowing Him to live His life through us:
I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me. (Galatians:2:20)
The issue of self is one of the most confused and distorted doctrines among Christians today, including those who profess that the Bible is their authority in all matters of faith and practice. That’s the primary reason why the troubles of non-Christians differ little statistically from those who profess to be Christians. The hope for this series is that we might clarify what the Bible says about self and how we can biblically improve it. There is no doubt that such an understanding and a carrying out of what the Scriptures teach will transform us and improve every aspect of our lives in Christ. TBC