If you ever wander into the women’s section of a Christian bookstore, you are sure to find one thing–self-help books.
They may carry spiritual titles and use Scriptural language, but at their core they’re about one thing–helping you. Maybe you don’t like your marriage, or you have a bad relationship with your dad, or someone hurt you in the past and you can’t get over it–whatever the problem, you’re sure to find a book designed just to help you.
Now this isn’t all bad, because wholeness and healing are two very important aspects of the Christian life. Christ healed people, and God tells us to come to Him with our cares and anxieties. That’s Biblical.
However, there is a big difference between the Bible and self-help books. To explain this point, just look at one of the most insecure individuals in the Bible: Saul, the King of Isreal.
Now I don’t know about you, but when I think of Saul I imagine a guy kind of like Biff on Back to the Future. He was arrogant and power-crazed, willing to do anything to protect his position and authority. He was David’s arch-nemesis, the reason behind many of the psalms of lament. So as far as I was concerned, he got what he deserved in the end.
But if you actually read the story, you’ll get a very different picture of Saul. He’s not a man obsessed with power (at least not at first) but instead a man who is painfully insecure. Just check out this exchange between Saul and Samuel:
And Samuel said, “Though you are little in your own eyes, are you not the head of the tribes of Israel? The LORD anointed you king over Israel. And the LORD sent you on a mission…Why then did you not obey the voice of the LORD? (15: 17-19)
Little in his own eyes? That’s not the Saul I imagined. But we get an even clearer taste of Saul’s struggle when he later replies…
“I have sinned, for I have transgressed the commandment of the LORD and your words, because I feared the people and obeyed their voice. (15:24)
That’s right, Saul was wrestling with the exact same struggle as every American, 8th grade girl: insecurity. Maybe he didn’t think he was equipped enough to lead, or that people wouldn’t take him seriously. But whatever his fears, they had a profound enough effect to shape his actions in fundamental ways.
And at this point, the Bible might seem to have a lot in common with the books you find in Christian bookstores. They both grapple with the pain and consequences of a wounded ego.
But you have to read the rest of the story…
Saul immediately apologizes to Samuel and asks God for forgiveness. So what does Samuel do? Does he give Saul a big hug and tell him everything’s going to be ok? Does he tell Saul that God made him to be special and has wonderful plans for his life? Does he give him a pep talk about taking hold of his best life now?
No. Quite the opposite actually:
“Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams. For rebellion is as the sin of divination, and presumption is as iniquity and idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the LORD, he has also rejected you from being king.”(15: 22-23)
No hugging. No coddling. No “You are special.”
This is where the Bible and self-help books depart ways. The two have very different goals in mind. Whereas self-help books are aimed at the self, healing the self, restoring the self, feeling better about the self, Scripture tells us to forget yourself and focus on God.
And that was Saul’s problem–he was too focused on himself. Maybe not in an obvious, power-hungry kind of way, but he was self-focused nonetheless. And that’s why Samuel didn’t treat Saul as a wounded puppy who needed to lick his wounds–he instead called his insecurities by name: idolatry.
At its heart, that’s what insecurity is–it is a preoccupation with the self, putting the self so central that it supplants the rightful place of God. And that’s exactly why Saul disobeyed God–he cared more about the opinions of others than he cared about God.
That is why the solution to insecurity is not more self-help books–the solution is a more robust theology. We need a system of beliefs that pries our focus off of ourselves and places our sights back on Christ. Therein lies true freedom–we will no longer be in bondage to our own shortcomings and fears because we’ll be so blissfully distracted from them by God.
And that is the irony of it all–to focus on yourself will keep you in bondage to the self. To focus on God will set you free from yourself.
So the next time you’re tempted to check out one of those self-help books, spend some time thumbing through the chapters to discern the book’s true goal. That is where you will find the distinction between Scriptural teaching, and idolatry veiled as spiritual pop-psychology.