Blog author: jsunde
by on Thursday, January 10, 2013

I recently discussed the importance of aligning ourselves to God before getting too carried away with our own plans for economic restoration. We should instead seek to supplant the personal for the divine, embracing a transcendent framework through which we can pursue what we already recognize to be transcendent ends.

This is particularly difficult in a society that persistently glorifies a misguided conception of the self, and it’s not much better in broader Christian culture, where an increasing number of pastors promote a brand of self-help largely indistinguishable from that of the gurus gracing Oprah’s sofa.

In a fascinating article on the various philosophies driving today’s “self-help” movement(s), Kathryn Schulz helps outline the competition. Schulz, whose book, Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, is a fun romp of a read, would likely reject my proposed orientation for Christians, yet she does point to it —albeit a bit inaccurately—even giving slight credence to its results:

In self-help programs that draw on religious or spiritual practices, the locus of control is largely externalized; the real power belongs to God (or a supreme being, a universal consciousness—whatever you care to call it). But these programs also posit a part of the self that is receptive to or one with that external force: an internal fragment of the divine that can triumph over human weakness.

This is pretty much the oldest kind of dualism in the book: your sacred soul against your mortal flesh. You can see it at work in 12-step programs, where addicts begin by admitting they are powerless to control their addiction and then make “a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God.” But think about that for a moment: How do recovering addicts simultaneously exercise and abdicate their right to make decisions? How do they choose to let a higher power do the choosing—not just once but every time temptation comes along? Twelve-step programs are reputed to be one of the more effective ways to treat addiction, yet how their followers pull off this sleight-of-self remains a mystery.

As is also evident throughout her book, Schulz has an unfortunate tendency to replace opportunities for mystery and wonder with hasty doubt and an anything-goes fatalism. Here, for example, after noting the mysterious effectiveness of self-denial paired with (and/or followed by) self-empowerment, she proceeds to casually shrug it off, using scientific non-consensus as her excuse for favoring “promiscuity” in our approach-taking and hypothesis-testing:

Try something. Better still, try everything—throw all the options at the occluding wall of the self and see what sticks. Meditation, marathon training, fasting, freewriting, hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, speed dating, volunteering, moving to Auckland, redecorating the living room: As long as you steer clear of self-harm and felony, you might as well do anything you can to your inner and outer ecosystems that might induce a beneficial mutation.

Christians mustn’t give way to a life of random, impulsive decision-making, whether it’s geared toward curing a personal addiction or ramping up something as innocent and well-meaning as helping those around us. Submitting to a smorgasbord of humanistic experimentation in our identity-seeking may yield “beneficial mutation” for some, but “beneficial” according to whom and at the cost of what? In the end, Schulz’s proposed path of self-realization involves diminishing the mysteries of God-empowered transformation to an exotic menu option amid a buffet of Eat-Pray-Love self-indulgence.

Regardless of whether we’re able to fully rationalize God’s transformative effects over our deepest desires, attitudes, and decisions, in humbling ourselves before the Lord of Lords and asking what he would have us do in all of our endeavors, economic or otherwise, we can have confidence that he will follow through according to his will.

This doesn’t mean the process is easy. Seasons of introspection and self-evaluation are not typically resolved with the single thump of a Bible or the first implant of that seed of self-denial. But that’s certainly where we should begin. Living a life of whole-life discipleship requires earnest dedication and preparation, and a particular path for preparation exists—namely, submitting oneself to a real God with real purposes for real people with real needs. The marketplace of humanity gets much more interesting when the market information gets that good.

“Commit your way to the Lord. Trust in him, and he will act,” writes the Psalmist. “Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him…The steps of a man are established by the Lord, when he delights in his way.”

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