The other night I was talking to a couple (we’ll call them Jack and Jill) that felt stuck in some family frustrations. I began asking them some questions and we uncovered longstanding patterns of relational codependency.
Jack and Jill had convinced themselves that they needed to endure relational dysfunction in order to keep a sense of peace in their family. The beliefs sounded like this:
- I need to absorb other people’s anger to keep the peace.
- I can’t say what hurts me because it will ruin relationships.
- If we got honest, bad things will happen.
In addition to the ongoing stress of constantly bearing the weight of all the family drama, neither Jack nor Jill were sleeping much at night and were wondering how much longer they could continue. They felt totally stuck.
Shoulding on ourselves through self-improvement
Recognizing that there was tons of what we call “bad news” at work (those belief statements above), I tried to shift our focus toward God’s activity in their midst by asking a couple simple questions:
So what does God want you to know about this? How does God want to speak good news over your bad news?
They sat in silence looking at each other for a few moments. And then Jack answered… “We just need to do a better job loving and trust that God has a plan.”
Did you catch that? I asked what good news God wanted to speak, and they responded with a self-improvement plan: “We just need to do a better job…”
This is incredibly common. In my experience, when asked how God might want to speak into their lives, most people respond with some sort of self-improvement plan. These often sound “right,” and even “spiritual,” but in reality, they are the manifestation of people “shoulding” all over themselves.
- I should be more loving.
- I should be more patient.
- I shouldn’t get so angry.
- I should be more content.
These spiritual-sounding “shoulds” are what drive self-improvement plans. Spiritual shoulds are what compel us to make promises to do better. The assumption is that if we could just get our act together and do a better job, things would be better.
What’s so bad about self-improvement?
Maybe you’re wondering: What’s the problem with wanting to do better? The problem is that these kinds of self-improvement plans rooted in shoulds lead to bondage, not freedom.
Responding to challenges in life with self-improvement plans simply does not produce spiritual growth—it leads to frustration and exhaustion. Many people fully embrace salvation by grace through faith, but then go on living a life of sanctification by “doing better.”
The problem is that when we respond to challenges or problems in our lives by identifying our own solutions and then working hard to implement them, we get caught up in a cycle of self-improvement bondage that looks like this:
We take our solution and try really hard to implement it. Eventually, this leads to fatigue. Over time exhaustion sets in and we quit. We give up—that is, until we feel sufficiently guilty about the problem to re-up our efforts and try harder once again.
Over time our guilt compounds as we keep failing. We end up not only exhausted, but spiritually disoriented.
The treadmill of self-improvement
Have you ever noticed that running on a treadmill is a solo activity? You’ll never see two people sharing a treadmill at the gym. Why? Because there’s not enough room! (Plus, that would be a little weird.)
In the same way, the reason the treadmill of self-improvement never works is because there’s no room for God. You are doing all the work:
- You’re diagnosing the problem.
- You’re coming up with the solution.
- You’re implementing the solution.
The treadmill of self-improvement leaves God out. And that’s why it doesn’t work and leaves us miserable.
How to get off the treadmill of self-improvement: hearing and responding
So, how do we get off the treadmill of self-improvement? The key is to pay attention to God by hearing and responding.
In John 10:27 Jesus says, “My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me.”
The first act of discipleship involves hearing the voice of Jesus. We have to spend time actually listening to God and discerning what he is saying to us.
But, know this: listening is impossible without humility. Humility is the precursor to listening. To listen, we must recognize that we don’t have all the answers or all the solutions. There is something that we need to actually hear and the answer lies outside of ourselves.
Listening requires the conviction that…
- I don’t really know what’s best in this situation.
- I may not know what’s really going on here.
- I probably don’t know the solution to this problem.
- I don’t have the resources to apply the solution by myself.
The treadmill of self-improvement runs on self-sufficiency, but living into rhythms of hearing and responding is fueled by Spirit-dependency. It’s only as we reach the end of ourselves that we will begin to experience God’s grace at work in fresh ways.
It’s about hearing and responding, listening and doing, attending and acting…
This is what leads to true transformation because it’s anchored in God’s activity and our partnership in it, rather than our own efforts alone. Moreover, it’s only as we encounter God’s grace that the motivator of guilt can be replaced by the transforming power of love.
God is your advocate, not your accuser
So the solution for Jack and Jill is not to try really hard to love better and trust more. While this sounds spiritual, it’s simply a self-improvement plan disguised in spiritual wording. The truth is when God speaks, he rarely leads out with things like try harder, do better, love more, etc.
When God speaks, he doesn’t pile on the guilt. He leads out with kindness and he proclaims good news.
“Do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance, and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance” (Romans 2:4).
It’s the kindness of the Lord that leads to repentance. Not fear. Not guilt. Not shame. If you are ever being motivated by the levers of fear, guilt, and shame, it’s a good indicator it’s not from God. You can safely set it aside.
Fear, guilt, and shame are the are tools of the accuser. Satan is the one who accuses us before God day and night (Rev. 12:10). God is not your accuser. God is your advocate. God is with you and for you. And if God is for you, who can be against you (Rom. 8:31)?
The truth is you won’t be able to hear what God has to say to you until you believe that he is really as good as he says he is. Often times when people first start learning to hear from Jesus, it simply sounds way too good to actually believe it!
An exercise to get you started
Here’s an exercise for you to get started in getting off the treadmill of self-improvement:
1. Identify a challenge or situation you are facing in your life right now.
Preferably this will be something you’ve already been cycling around for some time (try harder, fatigue, quit, guilt, try harder, fatigue, quit, guilt). It could be a relational tension, a parenting problem, an anger issue, etc.
2. Give the magnetic safety key a solid tug.
Most treadmills come with a magnetic safety key that you can attach to yourself. That way if you fall, the machine will shut off. In this step you want to not only yank the key, but throw it away. Resist the urge to fix yourself!
3. Create space to invite God to speak into your life.
Remember, God is your advocate. He is not against you. He is for you. If you feel fear, guilt, or shame, stop and listen some more. The enemy is ridiculously good at sounding spiritual. Trust that God is as good as he says he is.
4. Do something based on how you heard God speak.
If you are a “fixer,” this should be your favorite part—because now you get to do something. But notice that you are not doing something on your own to solve your problem. Rather, you are doing something in response to God and surrendering the outcome to him!
Tracy Wright says
Loved this article. Just had to laugh at the “Self-Improvement” title to get me to read it!
Great teaching. Helpful. Practical. Appreciate the posture and insight of it.
Well said, Mac! I am as my friend has dubbed me a “self beater upper.” It has taken me some time to get off of that treadmill. Unfortunately, I find the magnetic key once and awhile allowing me to jump back on. Thank you for the reminder to be still, listen, and then do. It is amazing what happens when I do that!
For me the word obedience is standing central in our spiritual life and probably the most important Christian like virtue, and can be join by listening,hearing and all the other fruits of the Spirit to get off the treadmill of self improvement.I also believe that if you are obedient to God, He also gives us a healthy sense to discern what He is saying.
Regards to you and the team Ben.
Don Vanzant says
Great piece! I am constantly trying to discover more about the gospel that Paul preached and protected and I am becoming more aware of the twisted message I have listened to — and many times repeated to others I was teaching. I am going to share this and revisit it.
Sally Howe says
Although I am tempted to try REALLY hard to DO self-improvement differently (ha ha!), in fact God has it worked out, not me. Your urging us to rather listen to and hear God’s voice is life-giving. thanks.
Ben Sternke says
Glad to hear it was helpful for you!