‘How to win friends and influence people’ is one of the Rev’s favourite books. He loves it so much because it shows just how absurd the self-help industry is. Yes, it has been beneficially for many. Yes, it’s easy to read, very positive and makes you feel good about yourself. Yes, it has lots of examples that the reader can ‘Put into practice and change your life today’. Yet it’s based on being a “nice” person. This is a highly subjective topic and the author’s description of nice is driven by self-interested incentives, usually for business success.
As we know, the Rev doesn’t like self-help preaching or examples or biblical do-its and he definitely can’t trust himself to do anything in his own strength, unless the example is to give in to temptation. Thinking on this theme, the Rev noted certain similarities between some preaching in the modern day and the self-help industry. As a replacement for the gospel, ‘nice’ ministers stand in front of ‘nice’ people, reminding them that God is ‘nice’ so they should be a little bit ‘nicer’, but not too much because they’re already ‘nice’. None of it is life changing however.
It seems that there are really just two ways to preach: one is the gospel, the other is get-better messages. The first is based on God’s goodness; the second on self-improvement. Gospel preaching presupposes that, even though we deserve punishment for our sins, Jesus Christ suffered the punishment in our place on the cross. Get-better sermons, on the other hand, is moralistic advice in which a preacher mounts a pulpit to scold the people for not doing more or getting better (F Allison).
Cringe worthy get-better messages pound home the idea that we just need to be better, try harder, pray and give more, read the Bible every day, attend church every week, and be nicer. It was plain ole Phariseeism, works-righteousness under the guise of preaching – “an easy-listening version of salvation by self-help”. Those who attend are vaguely entertained (depending on how entertaining the minister is), but they leave mostly feeling beat up and like they don’t measure up. Instead of relieving guilt, get-better sermons reinforce guilt and our inadequacies. They didn’t touch people where they need most. “Whenever you feel comforted or elated or absolved as ‘fresh as a foal in new mowed hay,’ then you know you are hearing the gospel” (P Zahl).
The reality is that people don’t getting better with sermons on discipline and how to improve your marriage. These moralistic sermons dole out plenty of advice about what to do, but it totally misses what God has done for us in his Son. Christ came, not to help religious people get better, but to help sinners realize that forgiveness and salvation is outside themselves: in Jesus Christ.
Paul explains the gospel as God’s power and God’s righteousness becoming our own (Romans 1:16, 17). This is the exact opposite of repairing your nature by a determined will. It is what God has done for us when we couldn’t do it ourselves. He fulfilled the law. He took upon himself our sins. He burst the bonds of death to give us new life. When this message of one-way love – God’s love without strings attached – love when we are not lovely – reaches our hearts, it causes our spirits to come alive to God and it fills us with meaning and purpose. The gospel speaks to our heart’s deepest need.
On a visit to a different church recently, (he got tired of never hearing about Jesus), he got a good taste of spiritualised self-help. The verse the minister had chosen was Proverbs 17:22, “A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.” You can see where this is going, can’t you?
When you get to church to find out that the preacher is in the third of a 10-sermon series on “10 steps to cure depression” get up and run out of there as fast as your depressed legs can take you. It’s self-help, not the gospel. Chalk it up to a well-meaning preacher who hasn’t yet realized that our real hope is in God, in the sufficiency of his work on the cross and in the salvation that is not found in get-better sermons.