How Christian Is Self-Improvement?
Many of our New Year’s resolutions fall flat simply because we do not make them in Jesus’s name. We make them in our own name — in our own strength, on our terms, for our personal gain and benefit. They fail by February because they’re so focused on us — on self.
Resolutions are so popular because they tap into something fundamental to humanity: We are by nature lovers of self (2 Timothy 3:2). Without a new heart, we spend our whole life falling in and out of love with ourselves — hating ourselves for every insecurity and failure, yet looking for every reason to excuse, promote, and praise ourselves. Resolutions make for great annual rituals and sacrifices at the altar of Me.
Self-improvement feels so exhilarating, so hopeful, so liberating — at least in theory (or in Nike ads). But resolutions can become Band-Aids we slap on to avoid really deepening our relationship with Jesus. We feel like better Christians, even though we’re no closer to Christ, and therefore no closer to addressing the heart behind our restlessness, insecurity, and guilt.
So, what role, if any, does self-improvement play in the Christian life? Is there anything distinctly Christian about self-improvement?
Flash in the Pantheism
Don Carson raises the same question when he explains (and refutes) pantheism — the belief that “god” and the universe are not separate entities but one. Pantheism deals with the problems of sin and evil not through sacrifice and forgiveness, but through introspection and personal change, slowly eradicating what’s wrong through self-improvement. Carson responds, “Self-improvement must not be confused with the pursuit of kingdom righteousness” (How Long, O Lord? 31).
While he was condemning the self-focus in pantheism, I heard him preaching to New-Year’s Christians. “New-Year’s Christians” make all kinds of resolutions on January 1 — diet, exercise, sleep, even spiritual disciplines — assuming that the Christian mission is accomplished one resolution at a time. But how many of our resolutions are not truly kingdom-righteousness, but instead some form of self-improvement?
The resolutions that will last and bear fruit will look like cross-bearing, not resumé-building. The rest will be a flash in the pan — this year, and in eternity.
You might respond, “Of course eating better pleases God. I’m stewarding the body he gave me.” Or, “Of course going to the gym three times a week pleases God. I feel healthier and have more energy when I exercise regularly.” Or even, “Of course reading my Bible for ten minutes every day pleases God. After all, I am reading the Bible.”
What landed on me with weight and clarity while reading Carson is how self-focused our spiritual growth can become, especially in a society obsessed with self-care. It can feel so Christian to take better care of ourselves, to improve ourselves in all the same ways the world coaches people to improve themselves — diet, exercise, sleep, even meditation, and probably prayer.
What makes Christian “self-improvement” any different than every other kind of health and wellness regimen? The “self” being improved suddenly becomes a servant of others — a humble, intentional, joyful worker for others’ joy in Jesus. The apostle Paul could have said, “[Make no personal growth resolutions] from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3–4).
Christian resolutions and disciplines are not about self-fulfillment or self-preservation, but about increasing our capacity to die to self in the name of love.
Resolved to Abandon Self
You might go running to your Bible looking for “self-improvement” verses. You will be hard pressed to find any command (or even license) to pursue your own growth and maturity in a way that does not directly and immediately affect other people.
Instead of self-care, you will find self-control and self-denial. The Christianity we find in Scripture is not about self-improvement; it’s self-abandonment. Jesus says, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). That smells awfully different from modern self-care.
Similarly, Paul says, “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to sharewith anyone in need” (Ephesians 4:28). Not so that he’s not tempted to steal anymore, but so that he has something to share. It applies to work and budgeting, but it also applies to working out, eating better, sleeping more (or less), and reading the Bible. Work out to build strength and stamina to love. Watch what you eat to maintain health and energy to love. Read the Bible to fill the storehouse of your soul so that you have something to share in love.
Discipline in Jesus’s name is always servant-hearted, not self-serving.
Fruits of the Self
But what about the fruit of the Spirit? “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Galatians 5:22–23). If you read that list, and hear “me, me, me, me, me, me, me, me, me,” you have totally missed Paul’s point. We don’t hide this kind of fruit in our prayer closet to enjoy by ourselves. Every single one is an expression of true Christian faith and joy toward someone else.
We know this because Paul sets these nine against another list: “The works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these” (Galatians 5:19–21). These are not secret sins. These are home-wrecking, church-razing, relationship-devastating sins.
The fruit of the Spirit (next verse) is the opposite: the evidence of home-fortifying, church-building, relationship-strengthening grace — no hint of isolated self-improvement. This is the supernatural work of a massive God through us to a husband or wife, parents or children, co-workers, neighbors, and church family. The Spirit is making us into a farmers market, not a secret garden.
Do Your Resolutions Overflow?
If we feel greater personal satisfaction and self-esteem because of our new disciplines, but it’s not positively impacting the people around us (but perhaps even coming at their expense), then our resolutions are not saying anything positive about Jesus. Joy that isn’t overflowing isn’t loving. And joy that is not loving is not Christian — and isn’t worth what we think it is (1 Corinthians 13:3). Pursue contagious joy, sacrificial joy, overflowing joy.
The admonition is not to abandon resolutions or personal discipline or healthy habits of dieting, exercising, and sleeping. Not at all. By all means, pursue personal health, growth, and maturity — just not for your own sake. Make and keep resolutions that produce love and not just self-improvement.