How do we grow? This is one of the most important questions we can answer. When we’re young, physical growth is automatic. As we grow older, though, we can begin to coast and stall. Growth in our relationship with God, in our minds, bodies, and relationships, is anything but automatic.
Our attempts to grow, though, often go wrong when we use the wrong approach. Here are two wrong approaches to growth, and then one that makes more sense.
Don’t Use Motivation
When we’re motivated, everything seems easier. We attend worship. We read Scripture. We pray. We memorize and study. Motivation helps us choose actions that lead to growth.
The problem with motivation, though, is that it’s unreliable. There are days that you’ll feel motivated; there are days you won’t. When we rely on motivation, we’re relying on the wrong thing.
Spiritual growth will result in greater motivation and desire. But if we rely on motivation, we won’t get far. It’s an unreliable strategy for growth.
Don’t Use Guilt
Like motivation, guilt is a great short-term motivator. When we feel guilty, we will take action, at least some of the time, and for a short time. Guilt creates anxiety and defensiveness.
Jon Bloom writes:
Guilt is a terrible motivator for any behavior, except repentance. We cannot sustain ongoing spiritual disciplines, such as prayer, from a sense of guilt…
Guilt is something to get rid of, not something to harness as a motivation to develop and persist in a habit. Its intended purpose is to push us toward one primary action: repentance. Repentance is God’s designed means to free us from the burden of guilt.
Guilt can help drive us to Christ, which is good, but it won’t motivate us to grow. Don’t rely on motivation or guilt for growth.
Use This Instead
If motivation or guilt aren’t enough, what is?
David Mathis explains what the Bible teaches about growth:
Growing in grace isn’t something we can calculate and produce. It’s not ultimately in our court. There are actions we take, and must take — habits of mind and heart and life to cultivate — but in the end, we are powerless.
We don’t produce growth. God does. He is willing to help us.
What actions can we take to grow? Mathis continues:
The implications are immense for the Christian life — and for the habits of grace we cultivate in hearing God’s voice (in his word), having his ear (in prayer), and belonging to his body (in the local church). The repeated focus in our spiritual exercises must be on Jesus, and not our effort. He is the greatest grace on these paths, not our improvement.
We grow as we focus on Christ. Developing habits that help us do this are important. The power isn’t in the habits themselves, though. The power is in Christ.
Cultivate habits that draw your heart to Christ. Use what Christians used to call the ordinary means of grace. But don’t rely on the habits or the means; rely on Jesus. As we are continually drawn back to him, we’ll be captivated by him. And, as a byproduct, we’ll be changed.
It’s a much better approach than motivation or guilt.
G4L Discipleship exists to help you develop habits that draw you to Christ. We’re passionate about helping people take steps to pursue Jesus in their lives. You can find out more or sign up for an upcoming cohort here.
Let’s pursue Jesus together.
The self-help market is huge. We spend over $10 billion dollars a year on books, audio recordings, seminars, workshops, retreats, coaching, and other self-improvement products. We hope that they will help us lose weight, gain confidence, improve our business skills, and help us live better lives.
Some of these products are helpful, but not all of them. Publishers are also releasing anti-self-help books. Articles like My Fully Optimized Life Allows Me Ample Time to Optimize Yours poke fun at the self-help movement.
Self-help can be helpful, but it has its limits. The gospel offers something much better than more self-help.
The Problem With Self-Help
If you’ve dabbled in self-help, you’ve probably benefited from some of the tips and techniques you’ve learned. You can learn how to be more effective and productive. You’ve likely regularly benefit from blog posts, books, and videos that teach, entertain, and inspire.
But you’ve also run into some of the problems with self-help. The advice can be exhausting. There’s always something else to optimize or improve. You probably also get tired of the hype, and resent being caught in someone’s marketing funnel.
Ironically, self-help products can sometimes distract us rather than help us. It can be easier to look for a new productivity system than to implement the one we already have. It’s easier to read about lifting weights than to actually go to the gym.
Self-help can overwhelm us, leave us with a sense of failure and shame, and create unrealistic expectations. It puts the pressure on us to change. And it often doesn’t work.
Self-help promises more than it delivers. There’s something much better.
Better Than Self-Help
The gospel offers us something much better than self-help. It’s good news for those who can’t change themselves. It’s more than a set of to-do’s; it’s the good news that God has acted to give us everything we need to change.
“The premise of self-help in Christian circles is that God helps those who help themselves,” writes Bradley Larson. “The gospel of Jesus Christ, though, is that God helps those who cannot help themselves.”
Tim Chester is author of the book You Can Change. It’s an anti-self-help book disguised as self-help. One reviewer does a great job explaining the book, and also explaining why the gospel is better than self-help:
It quickly becomes apparent that the only change Tim Chester is interested in is transformation into the likeness of Christ. The power for change is not inner strength or willpower, but the grace of God through the death of his Son, applied by his Spirit. The method for change is not rules and programs, but faith and repentance. The context for change is not the counsellor’s office of a solitary retreat, but the community of God’s people speaking the truth in love. The goal of change is not to find yourself, but to forget yourself in love and service. The message is not so much that you can change as that God can change you.
The best kind of change doesn’t come from our own efforts. It comes instead from God himself. The gospel not only changes us, but gives us everything we need to continue to grow.
Gospel for Life Discipleship isn’t about giving you more self-help tools and techniques. It’s about helping you experience the power of the gospel in every area of your life.
The gospel is much better than self-help. It’s good news for everyone, including those who are tired of trying to change themselves.