The Self-Sufficiency of Self-Improvement

I was just looking for a recipe. That's all. A small request to ask of Pinterest, really. But a simple quest for a good enchilada recipe evolved into researching how to be better at life. Two hours and much discouragement later, I'm wondering what happened.

If you've been on social media lately, you may know what I'm talking about. The abundance of self-improvement articles is growing rapidly.

"5 Things You Should Never Tell Your Child"
"15 Steps to a More Stress-Free Home"
"30 Date Ideas to Impress Your Guy"
"25 Ways to Declutter Your Life"
"12 Filthiest Places You Should be Cleaning"

I can't help but be drawn in like a moth to the flame by claims such as these. I am bent toward self-reliance and enjoy feeling like I have the power to change life. The promise of seven easy steps entices me to click through. When I hesitate, the thought of not reading makes me wonder, How will I know if I've said any of the five things I should never tell my kids? Self-sufficiency and fear dually coerce me to keep reading as I strive for a better marriage, kids, house, and life.

Apart from Him

Though not every article, post, or book with a list of steps appeals to self-sufficiency, it can easily awaken the drive to handle our sin and issues on our own.

But Jesus has something else to say about it: "Apart from me you can do nothing."

John 15:5 is a major blow to my self-sufficient, hard-working, I-can-do-it attitude. Limping, my heart begs the question, "Really Jesus? Nothing??"

And again He says, "Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing" (John 15:4–5).

War breaks out every time I read this passage. My flesh cries out, "I must be able to contribute something! To do something of value on my own!" Yet the Spirit within me testifies that every striving from the flesh is only diminishing Jesus as my Savior.

We don't need a five-step plan; we need a Redeemer. And His name is Jesus.

My own theology confirms my inability. I am a Christian, not because I am able to live righteously but precisely because I can't! I need a Savior, not just once but every day. Yet somehow, I often return to the lie that I am saved by faith yet live by works. Though it seems right to try to "be better" in different areas of my life, if not done in dependence on the Savior, all my efforts are in vain.

There is only one way to do anything of true lasting value—dependence on Jesus, a.k.a. faith. Faith is an active resting on Jesus' goodness and not my own. A resting in the perfect work of Jesus on my behalf. Faith is recognizing any true progress we make as Christians is entirely due to His work in us. Faith makes us recipients, not contributors. The gospel is not just an entrance exam to the Christian faith, it is the power through which any and all lasting change happens.

Stop doing the work of self-improvement and start doing "the work of God" which is "that you believe in [Jesus] whom he has sent" (John 6:29). Any efforts toward holiness that don't start with helpless dependence on Jesus will at best bring temporary behavior modifications and at worst beget pride and cheapen the cross.

Where's Your Confidence?

Maybe this sounds a little extreme to you. Is there really no place for self-improvement in the life of a Christian?

Can "23 Ways to Spend Less Money" remove the grip of trusting money? Or can frugality lead to greater concern with how many zeros are in the bank account? Can "15 Ways to Eat Healthier" remove the stronghold of gluttony, insecurity? Or can healthy living still enslave you to beauty-worship? "These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh" (Col. 2:23).

Please understand me: It is good to exercise effort toward holiness, and not every endeavor toward frugality and health is birthed from self-sufficiency. But we must ask the question, are our efforts arising from confidence in self or confidence in God? If "self-made religion" is the source, we'll find our actions are not only unable to free us from sin, they will deceptively convince us that by cleaning up our outward actions, we have gotten rid of the sin. You might be able to chop the heads off of the weeds, but only God can pull it up from the root.

The judgment Jesus gave to the Pharisees is a needed caution to our self-improvement tendencies:

"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean. . . . So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness" (Matt. 23:25–26, 28, emphasis mine).

If you are content to have the mere outward appearance of righteousness, then by all means, follow all the self-help guidance that is out there. But if lasting freedom from sin is your hope, then you only have one pathway, and it starts on your knees. We don't need a five-step plan; we need a Redeemer. And His name is Jesus. Trust in Him. Believe in Him. Get off your feet and onto your knees, begging God to redeem the brokenness in your heart and wait with joyful expectation.

There is only one way to do it all-complete dependence on a dependable Savior.

Let our declaration today be that we don't have "a righteousness of [our] own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith" (Phil. 3:9).
  • Where in your life are you depending on your own strength for change?
  • Are your efforts toward holiness manifested in to-do lists or in prayerfulness?
  • What is one step you can take today toward dependence on your great Savior?

About the Author

Kelly Needham

Kelly Needham

Kelly Needham teaches the Bible at her home church where she co-leads a Women’s Teaching Program, training women to accurately handle the word of truth. She is the author of Friendish: Reclaiming Real Friendship in a Culture of Confusion and … read more …

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