When the Self-Help Gospel Isn’t Helping You Anymore

I could talk to this woman for hours — our hearts beat hard for the same things. Sharon Hodde Miller loves digging into God’s Word and getting dirt under the nails of her faith. But a few years ago she realized something was off—in her teaching, her faith, and her life. Something was siphoning off the joy of her calling, a realization that embarked her on a years long journey of identifying a hole in popular Christian teaching. Once she discovered it, she hasn’t been able to stop talking about it since. Welcoming her blazing wisdom to the farm’s front porch today… 

guest post by Sharon Hodde Miller

For all of my life, as long as I can remember, I have been a nice Christian girl.

Whether a tadpole of a first grader, a teeth-and-elbows middle schooler, or a success-driven high schooler, I was always a rule-follower, a church-goer, an academic achiever, and of course, a consummate people-pleaser.

I ran my life on the straight and narrow, and I was delighted to do it. My teachers praised me, my parents trusted me, my pastors affirmed me, and I loved every bit of it. The world was a friendly place to a kid like me.

But here is the thing about “nice Christian girls”—there is a special temptation that faces us.

Being a nice Christian girl earned me acceptance and praise, but somewhere along the way, that praise got tangled up with my identity.

It wasn’t very long before I needed the praise, and the line between doing good for goodness’ sake, and doing good for appearance’s sake, became increasingly blurry.

I wasn’t sure if I was nice because of Jesus’s call, or because I so desperately needed the approval.

Over time, my self-image had soured and decayed into a shallow habit of pleasing, but this story is not actually about that.

This is not a story about needing to be praised, and this is not a story about my fragile self-esteem.

This is the story of what I discovered underneath my need to be liked, how people-pleasing is a symptom of a deeper sickness.

The thing about people-pleasing is that it seems so “others-focused,” but really, it’s just about you.

You want people to think well of you.

You want people to say nice things about you.

You help and you do favors and you struggle to say no, because you don’t want people to be mad at you.

Yes, your self-confidence hinges on the well-being of others, but at the end of the day, people-pleasing is in service to yourself.

People-pleasing—even the Christian kind—is ultimately about you. And soon “you” becomes your focus. Your reason. Your basic motivation.

That is my story. The seemingly benign desire to be a nice Christian girl had planted seeds, and put down roots, which grew into a pernicious self-focus. What appeared to be Christ-centered was, at its core, self-centered.

My problem wasn’t people-pleasing. My problem was self-focus.

What I needed more than high self-esteem, or the freedom from what people thought of me, was to focus on myself less.

For far too long, I had failed to recognize the epidemic of self-focus which was quietly infecting our culture and our souls. It touches and motivates nearly every aspect of our lives—how we dress, how we parent, how we strive and achieve, all in service to our reputations.

Self-focus is so subtle as to even distort our faith. A gospel meant to beckon us out of our comfort, has been twisted and co-opted into service of it. And self-esteem has ascended to the center of our message, as if Jesus died and rose simply to help us like ourselves.

I had done this to the Bible. I had done this to the gospel. I had done this to God Himself.

I had domesticated it and placed it all in service to my image, my reputation, and my self-esteem, which is why I kept bumping up against a ceiling of freedom. I was a nice Christian girl who was never truly free, because a self-centered gospel cannot save.

That is the hard truth we must name in our self-help culture, a culture which has taken Christian form.

God loves us and adores us and desires to restore us, but we are not the center of His story.

And this is good news. It means the pressure is off. The stakes are lower. The burden is lighter.

This life we are living—our calling, our career, our marriage, our parenting, our stuff—none of it is ultimately about us. They cannot, and will not, prop up our self-worth, because they were never meant to be about us in the first place.

This is the gospel for the nice Christian girl, who has forgotten just whom she is serving. This is the gospel for the stressed out mom, whose identity is tied to her kids. This is the gospel for the career-driven businessman, who spends more time working than living. The “good news” for each of them—for us!—is this:

Your life is not about you. Your family, your calling, your appearance, your faith, is not, at bottom, about you.

It’s about Him.

Everything we have, everything we are, everything we are called to, is about Christ.

It’s for Him, His glory, and His renown.

It’s all about clapping as many eyeballs as possible on the one and only Savior of our souls, and that alone is how we measure a life.

That is the gospel that frees. When it’s not about you, it’s freedom.

This message runs counter to our culture.

It even runs counter to some in the church.

But in the Kingdom of God there is no shortcut to freedom.

There is no resurrection without the cross.

There is no life without dying to self.

But this is true life we’re talking about, true freedom we are after, and the self-help gospel cannot provide it.

The only one who can grant it is the one who actually possesses it, so we must wrench our focus off of self, and fix our eyes, unflinchingly, on Him.

 

 

Sharon Hodde Miller lives in the Raleigh/Durham area, where she is an author, speaker, pastor’s wife, and mom, with a PhD on women and calling. She is a regular contributor to Propel and She Reads Truth, in addition to her own blog, SheWorships.com.

Her new book Free of Me: Why Life Is Better When It’s Not about You, Sharon goes to battle against the pervasive self-focus which is distorting our faith, poisoning our relationships, robbing our joy, fueling our insecurities, and keeping us from true, enduring freedom.

If you are craving a message that calls you out of yourself and into a bigger, Christ-centered vision, this book is for you. Free of Me may be one of the most important truths for our times. 

[ Our thanks thanks to Baker Publishing for their partnership in today’s devotion ]

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