Our world is inundated with a message of self improvement. Books on self-help or living your best life are everywhere, and there are countless social media accounts dedicated to making yourself “better.” While wanting to change for the better is not a bad thing, it can quickly become an idol and take the place of more important things we should focus on.
Author and speaker Ruth Chou Simons knows the self-improvement narrative well. Growing up, she heard the message that she needed to strive for something else, something more, something better. Now, she’s speaking out against this harmful message in her new book, When Strivings Cease. We spoke with Ruth about how we can seek biblical self improvement instead and how to push back on the harmful messages we hear.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
There’s a difference between worldly self improvement and biblical self improvement. What does biblical self-improvement look like?
Biblical self-improvement is ultimately not self-improvement at all. It’s improvement achieved by God. It’s called sanctification. To be sanctified is simply that when we are in Christ, the Lord puts us in a process where we are formed more into his likeness day by day. Sanctification by grace causes us to be able to day by day be in the process of becoming more like Jesus. Is there improvement? Yes. I sure hope that on my way to the throne of glory, I might look more like Jesus on my last day than I did in my twenties. But that’s not because I’m striving and creating the best version of myself according to formulas and manmade plans.
Ultimately, it’s not that all improvement is wrong. But when striving is our anxious toil to gain something that we don’t trust God for, then that becomes striving in our own strength. When we are fueled by the grace of God, then we stop striving to earn favor and earn love. We operate because we are loved and because we have favor. The kind of change in the new creation that is formed in us and out of us is something that we can’t do on our own at all.
To what extent do you think that things like social media have kind of pushed this narrative?
The hamster wheel of self-improvement starts with us comparing how someone else is further on than we are, or has the dream that we have that we wish was ours, has the home that we wish we could live in. So I think self improvement the self-help model just plays into that basically saying, “you are in control of your own life. So if you want that, go get it.”
What are some practical things that we can do to make sure that we’re not listening to the self improvement narrative?
The apostle Paul is such a hero for me. When I think about Paul being somebody who was pretty smug on his religious efforts and was like, “I’m the best of the best. I have all the credits, I have all the credentials. I’m the best version of a Jew you could possibly ask for.” And God chose to stop him in the middle of the road and save him and humble him, caused him to not see.
If you think about the impact he’s made on the Church. That person wrote the epistles. Every time the apostle Paul writes about how we can improve our lives, — forgive one another, live like this, do that, use self-control, be kind, we could call those things self-improvement, right? — every time he talks about those things, guess what? He doesn’t start his letter there. He always starts with talking about what God has already done, what Jesus has done on our behalf and what that means about our identity in Him.
After all that, after he’s like, remember how you were saved, remember your new identity. Then he can go on to say: And so, because of that, you can now love one another, forgive one another, stop doing these dumb things, start doing these right things.
So when I think about pushing against some of that self-improvement narrative and how to do that on a practical sense, I’d say we’re crazy if we think that we can be Christians that don’t rehearse the truth of the Gospel to ourselves on the regular. I don’t know about you, but I wake up every day and think “Oh my goodness. This all depends on me.” It’s like this crazy soundtrack that plays in my head every single morning.
I have to actually stop myself and remember, “OK, I am not my own. The grace of God has purchased freedom for me. Can I operate out of that?” That really shifts my day.
One of the things that you mentioned earlier that I want to go back to is the self-improvement message in the Church. What are ways that the Church can better address this self-help or self-improvement message that’s been going on?
Two different directions. For one thing, I do think we are doing the Church a disservice when we’re not discipling people to really understand the foundations of their faith. There are a lot of believers walking around who kind of know generally, symptomatically what it is to look like a believer, but they may not know at the core why there’s freedom? What’s the change? What’s the power by which they can change?
I think about what Paul says about the fruit of the spirit. It’s the work of the spirit, right? We don’t just walk around and say, “I’m suddenly going to bear oranges, even though I have nothing to do with oranges, but I’m going to put some oranges on me and I’m going to be an orange tree.” No, you walk by the spirit and then you will produce the fruit of the spirit.
So how does the Church walk in grace? I think the Church walks in grace when the truth of the grace of God runs courses through their veins. When they actually understand and apply the Gospel to their everyday lives. I tend to think that a lot of us walk around thinking that the Gospel is like that thing that we said yes to so that we wouldn’t go to hell, but we don’t recognize that it is the daily fuel by which we are being transformed.
But secondly, I also think that we need to really assess whether we inadvertently get legalistic about what we’re teaching and how we’re leading. Do we give the prescription of how somebody should act or look in the Church before we speak of the why and what’s really the motivator? Sometimes we impose this idea of “join the club, belong in this community by doing these things.” But we fail to recognize that if we do those things apart from knowing that our favor with God doesn’t depend on whether we accomplish or do those things, then we can inadvertently be bringing people along thinking that the way they read their Bibles, the way they give, whether they sign up for children’s ministry or not actually affects how God sees them. And that’s simply not the truth.