It was an ordinary Sunday. There I was, sitting at church with my family, when the pastor went on a rant, blurting out a favorite string of four letter words: SELF HELP BOOK, intentionally pronouncing each word as if he were swearing. He’d done this before, as have many preachers I have heard. He’d just made a theological point that sounded convincing, paused, and then reached for the application, thinking it was a left-hook from out of nowhere, when, in fact, I could see it coming a mile away. With finger pointed toward the heavens for emphasis, he prophesied, “…and that’s why the self-help section of the bookstore cannot help you!” (Dramatic pause), “…because it teaches you to build your self-esteem, pat yourself on the back, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.”
I had heard it all before many times. As I sat there with my kids, I wondered what they thought. How was the pastor’s rant about self-help books received by my boys? Or what about the struggling alcoholic in the congregation? The porn addict? The couple struggling to get a hold of their finances? The anorexic woman? It seemed to me that such a blanket statement about the self-help section of a bookstore was not only damaging, but fundamentally wrong. Here are ten reasons why.
1. It’s Lazy
First, it’s lazy. Imagine you’re watching a marathon race. Although you’ve never run more than two consecutive miles your whole life, you notice the running technique or gear of one of the marathon competitors, and you say, “Look at that idiot! He shouldn’t be running! That’s no way to run!” But, the fact is, he’s actually running a marathon and will soon finish, while you aren’t. So who are you to critique him? I’ve got news for you, running a marathon is easier than writing and publishing a book. So, pastor, until your name is on the spine of a book in the bookstore (and I don’t mean self-published!), then be careful when you criticize those whose names are. It doesn’t make you look very good.
2. It’s Sends the Wrong Message to Our Kids
Second, it sends the wrong message to our kids, especially boys. Boys struggle to ask for help, as it is. Now you’re telling them that it’s wrong to try to help yourself? Boys rarely read in the first place, and this just gives them another excuse not to read. What if they struggle with porn, do you want them to keep away from a book like Gary Wilson’s Your Brain on Porn? It’s in the self-help section, by the way. Or maybe your daughter is struggling with being an introvert, should she shy away from Susan Cain’s groundbreaking book Quiet? Also in the self-help section. By degrading self-help books, we are discouraging our kids from admitting they need help and seeking it in a healthy way. (Or perhaps they should just seek the advice of their peers on social media?—sarcasm intended.) Instead, they feel ashamed to ask for help and even more ashamed to rely on some of the wonderful, professional resources that are available to them. Picture a teenage boy sneaking around in the bookstore, only he’s not trying to look at dirty magazines, but he’s trying to find a book on understanding his emotions from the self-help section(!).
3. Taking Responsibility for Yourself Is Not a Bad Thing
Third, what’s so wrong with self-help, anyway? What’s so wrong with trying to help yourself? Since when is taking responsibility for yourself a bad thing? The Bible constantly tells us to take responsibility for ourselves and put good habits into practice. In fact, the entire book of Proverbs reads like a self-help book, arguably the best self-help book ever. Are you suggesting we be irresponsible? Don’t help ourselves, but wait for others to take care of us? Just sit back and relax? Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life has an entire chapter titled “Tell the Truth.” Is that so misguided? Another chapter is called, “Assume that the person you’re listening to might know something you don’t.” That would be an appropriate chapter for some pastors to read.
4. We Need to Humble Ourselves
Fourth, we need to humble ourselves before the counsel of others. Self-help books have the ability to catch our blindspots. Typically, the authors are experts in their areas and have something worthwhile to say. Are we too proud to listen? Remember, if God can talk through an ass (Numbers 22), then surely he can talk through a self-help book! I’ve found that God speaks to me through the most unlikely people and sources; God can even speak to us through our pain. Don’t be too proud to listen to the counsel of others, no matter who they are.
5. Don’t Overgeneralize
Fifth, before you make a blanket statement about self-help books, get a clue about them first! What if I were to say, “All men are pigs” or “All pastors are swindlers?” Obviously, it’s not true! Think about your sweeping statements concerning self-help books. Think about 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey, would the world be a better place without it? Obviously not, for it’s a wonderful and insightful book! Another helpful book is The Life-Changing Habit of Tidying up by Marie Kondo. One of my favorites is Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, whose masterpiece self-help book was birthed from his time in a Jewish concentration camp. Is this book bad, too? Are you saying there’s no value in reading White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism, by Robin DiAngelo? What kind of a message are we sending by denouncing this book in the self-help section? Another wonderful book is When Breath Becomes Air by the late Dr. Paul Kalanithi, who wrote down his thoughts on what makes life worth living, just before he died as a young man. This book is gold, not fools gold. Other books to glean wisdom from are Whatcha Gonna Do with That Duck by Seth Godin, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr, Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life by James Hollis, or 12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You by Tony Reinke. Here are two other life changing books, Healing the Shame that Binds You by John Bradshaw and Life of the Beloved by Henri Nouwen. Dispense with these books at your own risk!
6. Discern Good and Bad Self-help Books
Sixth, just as there are useful and dreadful theology books, so there are good and bad self-help books, so don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater (if you’re tempted to, then get a copy of On Becoming Babywise by Robert Bucknam; you’ll find it in the self-help section). I’ve heard about or read many terrible theology books, but I don’t, therefore, write off all theology books. I don’t say to my friends, “Don’t go in the religion section at Barnes and Noble!” Imagine telling an alcoholic to stay away from the classic Alcoholics Anonymous, just because it’s in the self-help department.
7. Teach Us to Read Responsibly
Seventh, rather than criticizing all self-help books, teach us to read responsibly instead. If you have an issue with a certain self-help book, then tell your people about it specifically. Tell us why. Know the book you’re referring to, because you’ve read it, and provide an informed critique. Don’t just blast all self-help books, as if you’ve read them all, for that would be disingenuous, not to mention arrogant. Then go read David Brooks’s The Road to Character, which is in the self-help section.
8. Beware of Presenting a False Dichotomy
Eighth, beware of presenting a false dichotomy between self-help reading and Bible reading. Just because you read self-help books, doesn’t mean you can’t read the Bible, too! In fact, the best practice is to read the Bible along with every other kind of book you read. Compare your self-help book with the Bible. How are they the same? Where do they differ? What light can a self-help book shed on the Bible and what light can the Bible shed on the self-help book? Trust me, the Bible can hold its ground next to any self-help book. The Bible is not threatened one bit, so stop acting like it is. Don’t worry, pastor, long after all self-help books go out of print, the Bible will remain the number one bestseller of all time. (To learn what a false dichotomy is, read Nathaniel Bluedorn’s The Fallacy Detective, a bestseller in the self-help section.)
9. Expose Yourself to Different Genres
Ninth, don’t underestimate the value of exposing yourself to different genres of books, such as self-help books. Here’s a helpful analogy. It greatly benefits a heavy metal drummer, for instance, to listen to jazz, gospel, or classical music! To expose yourself to different genres doesn’t hinder your playing, but helps your playing. The same is true with the various genres of books. This is one of the reasons why the Bible contains so many different genres of writing, such as poetry, law, lament, wisdom, gospel, narrative, history, prophecy, personal letter, etc. This is also why we should read fiction, history, poetry, essay, memoir, theology, technical, and even self-help books!
10. The Goal Is Wholeness
Tenth, the goal of life is wholeness or integrity, rather than compartmentalization. By restricting yourself to one department in the bookstore, you run the danger of “departmentalizing” your life. Instead of allowing all the parts of yourself to work together, you’re shaming some parts and neglecting other parts. This is a recipe for disaster. We are commanded to love God with our whole heart, soul, mind, and strength, not just one department of us. Whenever we say something is “off limits,” we keep it outside our consciousness, rejected. Just like Jonah couldn’t run away from his calling, but it came to the surface and swallowed him whole, so will the neglected parts of ourselves come back to devour us. Blatantly to reject a whole area of life, in this case, self-help, rather than integrating it into your whole person, you run away from an opportunity for self-knowledge, self-examination, self-critique, and self-discovery. In fact, the sixteenth century reformer John Calvin wrote in Institutes that unless we know ourselves, then we cannot know God. You see, there is a truth to the cliche, “That person is so heavenly minded that he’s no earthly good.” And to think there’s not proves the point.
To conclude, I’m not suggesting a church should preach self-help, for the church must preach the biblical gospel. However, there’s no reason why a pastor cannot use self-help books to point to the gospel, help people understand themselves, and give additional resources to deal with the complexities of life.