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 Pinterest lately, you may know what I’m talking about. The abundance of articles out there on self-improvement is growing rapidly.
“10 Ways to Have a Christ-Centered Marriage”
“5 Things You Should Never Tell Your Child”
“15 Ways to a More Peaceful Home”
“30 Questions to Ask Before You Date Him”
“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. Nothing is more attractive to me than feeling like I have the power to change my life and the promise of 7 easy steps entices me to click through and keep reading . I like feeling in control, like I have the power to change myself. Simultaneously, the thought of not reading makes me wonder, “How will I know if I’ve said any of the 5 things I should never tell my kids?” Self-sufficiency and fear dually coerce me to trust in myself and strive for a better marriage, kids, house, and life.
And then Jesus said, “Apart from Me, you can do nothing.”
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: “As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing.” (John 15:4-5)
I feel the war within myself every time I reread this passage. My flesh within my cries out “I must be able to contribute something, to do something of value on my own?!” I identify with my 3 year old in her cries of “No, my do it!” Yet the Spirit within me testifies that every striving from the flesh is diminishing Jesus as my savior. I am a Christian not because I have the ability to live righteously. I am Christian because I need a Savior! My theology itself confirms my inability to do anything. What is it that repeatedly convinces me that I am saved by faith and yet live by works?
How deflating to my self-confidence and yet peace-bringing to my soul are Paul’s words to the Galatians: “A man is not justified by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus. The life I live I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me. For if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly.” (2:16-21) Though I desperately want to do this life on my own, I am even more desperate for these regular reminders that I have no hope of lasting change in myself apart from faith in Jesus.
In these past months, as I have taken a hiatus from writing and social media, God has continued to impress the same message on my heart: “Stop trying to do something for Me. Just let me be your Redeemer.”
Oh how I long to live my life well for the glory of God! How I desperately want to please Him and honor Him and do all I can for His Kingdom! Yet one thing continually trips me up in my pursuit of a holy life: trust in myself. Though it doesn’t seem wrong in the moment to try to “be better” in different areas of my life, it fundamentally speaks that I believe myself to be a better savior than Jesus.
There is only 1 way to do anything of true lasting value: FAITH. Faith is an active resting in Jesus’ goodness and not my own. A resting in the work Jesus on my behalf. Faith in His payment for sins and His perfectly righteous life, lived in my place. The Gospel is not just an entrance exam to the Christian faith, it is the power though which any and all lasting change happens. We must stop the work of self-improvement and start doing “the work of God” which is “that you believe in Jesus whom He sent.” (John 6:29) Any efforts toward holiness that do not start with helpless dependence on Jesus and His work will at best bring merely temporary behavior modifications and at worst cultivate pride and a cheapening of the cross.
But can anything really be wrong with “23 Ways to Spend Less Money”? Who wouldn’t agree less spending is a good thing? But can efforts toward good financial stewardship deal with greed and love of money in your heart? Can “15 Ways to Eat Healthier” remove the stronghold of gluttony, insecurity and beauty-worship? Can “10 Ways to Selflessly Serve Your Family” free you from gripping self-entitlement? Not only are these self-improvement efforts unable to free us from sin, they often deceive by convincing us we have dealt with the sin by cleaning up the outward actions.
The judgment Jesus gave to the Pharisees should be enough to caution our self-improvement tendencies: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of robbery and self-indulgence. For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. So you, too outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” (Matt 23:25-28)
If you are content to have the mere appearance of righteousness on the outside, then by all means, follow all the self-help guidance that is out there. But if lasting freedom from sin and all it’s bad habits is your hope, then you only have one pathway and it starts on your knees. We don’t need a 5-step plan, we need a Redeemer. And His name is Jesus. Trust in Him. Believe in Him. Do the work today not of fixing your bad habits, but of meditating on what He has already given you through His life, death, and resurrection. Then get on your knees and beg Him to redeem the brokenness in your heart and wait with joyful expectation.
Let our declaration today be that we don’t have “a righteousness of our own derived from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith.” (Phil 3:9)