Box Top Parable

At the beginning of your life, you are given a bag full of puzzle pieces.  Some bags are bigger than others, but that’s not ours to decide.  It simply is what it is and no one can do anything about it.  

Our job is to put the puzzle together, one piece at a time.  At first, it’s really hard, because we’re just gazing at a mass of jumbled pieces and we don’t have much experience.  Some people are better than others, but for the most part, we all struggle at the beginning.

But soon enough, we’re able to connect one piece to the next.  Perhaps we start at the border or a corner, because those seem the easiest.  

Day after day goes by and we put the puzzle together.  

Days turn into weeks, weeks turn into months, months turn into years, and years turn into decades.  

The Funeral Scene

By now, a picture begins to emerge, that of a funeral.  The borders of the puzzle show the inside of a funeral home.  Going in from the borders are the flower arrangements, so beautiful and colorful.  As you get toward the middle of the puzzle, you start to piece faces together.  They are the faces of your loved ones.  You see your mom and dad, your brothers and sisters.  Going in toward the center even more, you see your spouse and your children.  You recognize each face as you put the puzzle together, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year.

Now you’re at the very center of the puzzle and it becomes obvious you’re putting together the coffin.  After a while, you work your way to the top half of the coffin and begin to put together the body that has been laid in the coffin.  

The Face in the Coffin

The body is dressed well, that’s for sure.  You work your way to the head and begin to put it together.  Who is it?  The puzzle is almost finished now, just a few more pieces to go.  You put the face together, noticing the shiny, plastic skin, typical for an embalmed person.  Their lips are flat, much like the rest of the face.  Their eyes seem to be forced shut and their earlobes are sagging.  

By now you know who the person in the coffin is: it’s you.

You put in the last piece and then look again at all your family and friends standing around the coffin, looking at you.  You look at your own dead face again.  You get a chill.

Belief in Death and God 

You wonder why you didn’t get the box top with the picture at the very beginning, when you were handed the bag full of pieces.  Then you’d be able to see that every day you were putting together the puzzle of your own death scene.

Most people believe in their own death about as much as they believe in God.  We might claim to believe we will die, just as we might claim we believe in God, but how we live each day doesn’t support either claim.  Most of us live as both atheists and a-mortals, denying both God and our own death every day.

If we can come to actually believe we will die, then maybe we can also come to truly believe in God.

Your Face Is on the Box Top

But let’s return to the box top and replay the scenario.  At the beginning of your life, you were handed a bag full of puzzle pieces.  You were also handed a box top with a picture of what the puzzle would look like once you finished it.  It’s a picture of your own funeral.  

Every day you live, you’re putting in another piece of the puzzle of your funeral.  Every day you know where your life is headed.  Yet every day, you wake up, grab the next piece, and live your life. 

Teach Us Our Days Are Numbered

According to Psalm 90:12, this is how the wise person lives, “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.”  The wise person knows his days are numbered.  She knows that each day she is reaching into the bag of life, choosing a random piece, and then laying down another piece of the puzzle of her death scene.

Help Answering Life’s Questions

Life is very complex and unclear.  The vast majority of us have a hard time putting it together.  We struggle with questions like, ‘What am I to do with my life?’ or ‘Who should I marry?’ or ‘Where should I live?’ or ‘Where should we spend the holidays?’ or ‘Should I take that job?’ or ‘Should I leave that job?’  Our questions go on and on, because life is such a complex puzzle!

So we cry out in frustration, “I wish I had the box top to my life, so I would know what to do next!”

But you do.  

You have the box top.  It’s the picture of your death scene.  When you get every last piece of the puzzle of your life together, that’s what it amounts to, and nothing more. 

The Vision of Ecclesiastes

Can you see why I say that most people don’t really believe in God or their own death?  Because we think there’s more to it.  We magically think that somehow we’re the exception, that somehow it’ll turn out differently for us, that somehow our lives will really make a difference.  

But if you read the book of Ecclesiastes, you’ll see that all our labor and toil lead to the same place: the grave.  Ecclesiastes says this not just to be depressing, but to get us not to place the meaning of our lives in what we do.  Rather, once we truly see our own death, then we can truly see God and enjoy Him in the little things of life.

Don’t you want to enjoy life?  

A Task for the New Year

Here’s something you can do in the New Year.  Get a single puzzle piece and write on the back of it, ‘Psalm 90:12.’  Just write down the verse reference, as a reminder of what it says.  Then each day, as you grab your wallet or phone or keys, put the puzzle piece in your pocket.  Let it remind you that today you’re putting down the next piece of your life.  

And, be honest with yourself, for you don’t know if today’s piece is the final piece of the puzzle or not.  You could be placing down your face, who knows?  Nobody knows how big their bag of pieces is.  We only know that each day we have one piece to put down, and in the end, it will be the scene of our death.  

If you struggle to believe in God, then start by believing in your own death.  And if you struggle with the complex questions of life, then start by grabbing the next puzzle piece of your funeral scene and putting it in place.

“So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.” 

Merry Christmas from Holy Ghost Notes!

Christmas, 2020

Martin Luther, the 16th Century monk who protested against the wrongs of the Church, knew his share of trials, including a pandemic.  His precious thirteen year old daughter, Lenchen, died during the plague, almost paralyzing Luther and his wife, Katie, with grief.  This was the second daughter they had lost. 

Luther literally had a death sentence put on his head, so he lived much of his life under constant threat.  At one point, he had to hide out in a castle, disguise himself, and go by the name ‘Junker George.’

He battled with depression, too, which he called ‘anfecthungen,’ afflicted on him by the devil. His struggles with these ‘dark nights of the soul’ are well documented today.

He was condemned by the church as a heretic.  His teachings resulted in many bloody revolts, in which hundreds of peasants violently died, and for which he blamed himself. 

He was mocked and his name was publicly slandered by many of the elites of his day. In some circles, he became a laughingstock.

His own supporters were much divided and hostile at times. 

Luther greatly suffered physically from a severe bowel disease that eventually took his life. 

Martin Luther was very close to suffering and death during his lifetime, perhaps more than we ever will be today.  Nonetheless, on Christmas in 1534, at the dinner table, he shared this devotional thought with his family and friends from Luke 1:26-38:

We sustained a hurt through Adam’s fall.  Through it all of us are tainted with sins and subject to death.  But greater than this hurt is the blessing we receive through Christ.  He became man Himself in order to redeem us from sin and death.  The devil came close to us; but he did not come so close as to assume our nature.  For although he fell through pride and thereupon persuaded man also to fall away from God, he nevertheless did not become man and did not come so close to us as did God’s Son, who became our flesh and blood.  

Meditating on what it meant for God to become a real person, Luther realized that God comes closer to us than our pain.  

Suffering comes near to us, but God actually became one of us.  He put on our flesh and blood and shared our humanity.  He became a man and became born of a woman. 

Martin Luther realized God came closer to us than pandemics, death, bowel disease, controversy, slander, riots, death threats, fear, failure, division, depression, and the devil. 

Much closer. 

God came closer to save us than did the devil to ruin us.  Life might have done its best to try to ruin us this year, it might have come frighteningly close, but not as close as God came to save us.  How close did God come?  He was born into our world in the Person of Jesus Christ.  He became our flesh and blood, and you can’t get any closer than that!  

Jesus is able to save us more than the devil is able to ruin us.  Take it from me, we humans can do a pretty good job of ruining our lives!  But my capacity to ruin doesn’t outdo God’s ability to redeem, for God has come much closer to me than the devil.

Often when I suffer, I instinctively begin to sing a song to myself.  Music has the ability to get closer to my heart than even my trials.  When his daughter died, Luther and his wife sang many songs to themselves to get through the pain.  One song he sang the day after she died contained the words from Psalm 78:9, “Do not remember against us our former iniquities; let your compassion come speedily to meet us, for we are brought very low.”

Not just the compassion of God comes to us at Christmas, but God himself comes to us.  In fact, he comes just as low as we are, entering our world through the depths of a manger. 

As 2020 ends and 2021 begins, we pray you would find God in the depths with you, no matter how low or long you’ve been there.  Remember, and say to yourself, whatever you’re going through, “Jesus is closer to me than this.” 

Merry Christmas from Holy Ghost Notes.

Job Remix

The book of Job in the Bible is one of the most outstanding works in all literature.  But what if Job lived in the United States today?  And what if Satan’s greatest strategy for attacking our faith were to make us rich, rather than poor?  To give wealth, not take away.  Before you wish you had more money, consider this remix of Job.

Chapter 1

There was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job, and that man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.  There was born to him no children, but he adopted two sons and one daughter.  He had a flip phone and had never Tweeted.  He possessed a small apartment and a Geo Tracker and he used food stamps, so that this man was among the poorest of all his people of the West. 

Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan also came among them.  The LORD said to Satan, “From where have you come?”  Satan answered the LORD and said, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.”  And the LORD said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil?”  Then Satan answered the LORD and said, “Does Job fear God for no reason?  Have you not made his life hard for him and his whole house?  You have cursed the work of his hands, and he has barely been able to eke out an existence, so that he lives in desperation, depending on you for even his daily bread.  You shout to him through his pain. But stretch out your hand and touch all that he has, multiplying the work of his hands, getting him to forget that he is an undeserving sinner, and he will curse you to your face.”  And the LORD said to Satan, “Behold, all that he has is in your hand.  Only don’t stretch out your hand to increase his health or abilities.”  So Satan went out from the presence of the LORD.

Now there was a day when his sons and daughters were starving together, praying for help in their oldest brother’s house, and there came a messenger to Job and said, “The old John Deere tractor was plowing and people from Caterpillar suddenly showed up with new combines and plows and millions of dollars of other farm equipment.  They started giving gifts to anyone they laid eyes on, including all your children, and I alone have escaped without a gift to tell you.” While he was yet speaking, there came another and said, “Your sons and daughters were fasting and praying in their oldest brother’s house, and behold, the people from Extreme Makeover: Home Edition showed up and began to build them a mansion.  They were just finishing up the home theater, when I alone managed to escape the blessing to tell you.

Then Job arose and tore his t-shirt and shaved his beard and fell on the ground and worshipped.  And he said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall return.  The LORD took away, and the LORD has given; blessed be the name of the LORD.”

In all this Job did not sin or forget about God.

Chapter 2

Again there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan also came among them to present himself before the LORD.  And the LORD said to Satan, “From where have you come?”  Satan answered the LORD and said, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.”  And the LORD said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil?  He still holds fast his integrity, although you incited me against him to bless him without reason.”  Then Satan answered the LORD and said, “Grace for grace!  All that makes a man miserable he will take for his faith!  But stretch out your hand and touch his bone and his flesh with kindness, and he will practically forget you altogether.  Give him education, entertainment, equality, and fast food, and he will forget your grace. Show him how good and naturally talented he is, and he will not depend on you anymore, but take the credit for himself.”  And the LORD said to Satan, “Behold, he is in your hand; only don’t make him a billionaire.”  

So Satan went out from the presence of the LORD and struck Job with health, wealth, and prosperity, from the sole of his foot to the crown on his head (and he did indeed give Job a dazzling crown).  And he took a bottle of oil and shampoo with which to groom himself while he sat in his jacuzzi.  

Then his wife said to him, “Do you still hold fast your integrity and belief in God?  Forget the Almighty!  It’s obvious you don’t need him anymore!  Lose God and live it up!”  But he said to her, “You speak as one of the foolish women would speak.  Shall we receive evil from God, and shall we not receive good?”  In all this Job did not sin with his lips.  

Chapters 3-37

Job’s three friends show up, take one look at him in all his blessedness, and say he must have done something right to deserve all this grace.  One says it was Job’s talent that provoked the grace; another says it was his godliness; and another says it was his poverty that untethered the Almighty’s mercy. All conclude that he has a ton of talent and that God wants to use him to change the world.

But Job argues with them; he can’t believe that God would actually bless him because he is such a sinner.

So Job challenges God’s graciousness, demanding God to justify himself for giving all this stuff to him.  After all, Job knows he is a poor, miserable sinner who does not deserve grace or any good thing from God. 

Chapters 38-41

Then God shows up and basically says, “You ain’t seen nothing yet!”  God first displays his unmerited graciousness to Job in all his creation, before taking Job to the cross of Jesus Christ, where the full fury and majesty of his love for poor, miserable sinners was poured out.  Job is left speechless.   

Chapter 42

Job finally answers the LORD, the LORD rebukes the friends, and the LORD restores Job’s former miseries.

THE END

10 Powerful Ways to Handle Rejection

I want to take a moment really to sink our teeth into Mark 6:1-6, the text we covered in our last devotional, which was affectionately titled, “God Pooped.”  If you haven’t read that one, then be sure to check it out!  Let’s cover the same text, but this time, let’s pull from its lessons on rejection.  I don’t know about you, but I’ve been rejected plenty in my life.  So let’s see how Jesus dealt with rejection.  Learning from Jesus, here are ten powerful ways to handle rejection.

  1. Don’t avoid rejection or live a paranoid life

We’re told right away that Jesus, “…went away from there and came to his hometown” (Mark 6:1).  Jesus wasn’t naive, he knew what he was headed for when he decided to go to his hometown.  Rather than spending his whole life avoiding the inevitable challenges of life, he faced them head on, for he knew if you’re truly living the way you’re supposed to live, then it’s not possible to live a life free of rejection.  Jesus had realistic expectations about being rejected, so it didn’t rile him when it happened, nor did it keep him from taking risks in life. 

  1. Do what you were made to do.

It says that Jesus, “…began to teach in the synagogue” (2).  Jesus was born to teach and challenge the status quo, so this is what he did, even if people rejected him for it.  If you have a gift and passion, then you have to do it, or else you’ll go crazy.  

  1. Expect people to question you.

Those who heard Jesus said, “Where did this man get these things?  What is the wisdom given to him?  How are such mighty works done by his hands?” (2).  While none of us will do the kind of astonishing works Jesus did, we will still do things that others question.  This is a mark of an authentic life.  If people do not question what you are doing, then you’re probably just living a life of the crowd.  You’re playing it safe, not doing what you were made to do.

  1. Embrace your humanity.

Even though Jesus was truly God, he did not take advantage of his divinity, but instead, he embraced his humanity.  The people of his hometown accused, “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon?  And are not his sisters here with us?” (3).  Jesus was never vexed by their accusations or embarrassed by his humanity.  He never said, “No, really, I’m no son of Mary, no brother of James, Joses, Judas, and Simon…I’m much better than they.”  Instead, Jesus embraces his humanity in full, never denying his heritage, skin, weaknesses, and warts.  Unfortunately, these days, this is where Chrisitanity tends to flop, but, if you take Jesus seriously, Christianity can really shine.  God wants you to embrace your humanity, not be ashamed of it.  Are you weak?  Embrace your weakness.  Struggle with your sexuality?  Embrace your homosexuality.  Wrestle with conditions, phobias, fears, uncertainties, anxieties, failures, shortcomings, or histories?  Embrace them all!  We’re not repeating the tired cultural cliche “you do you,” but, instead, we’re trying to get you not to rely on someone else’s version of what it means to be a child of God and help you understand God’s grace, which proclaims to you that God loves you just as you are.  God’s grace teaches us to say fuck self-righteousness, I’m going in for Christ’s righteousness.  Others may reject you, but you better not, because Jesus doesn’t.  Embrace yourself and then take yourself to Jesus to see what to do next. 

  1. Sit back at the table with brother Jesus and enjoy the family resemblance. 

People rejected Jesus and if you’re in his family, then you’ll bear this same family resemblance.  People will reject you, too.  So grab a beer, sit back at the table, and enjoy true fellowship with your brother, Jesus Christ, who was rejected first.  “A prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown and among his relatives and in his own household” (4).

  1. Don’t waste your time on those who don’t want what you have.

Because the people rejected the kind of God that Jesus was, he didn’t do that many miracles for them.  He didn’t heal as many as he could or teach as much as he was able.  Jesus knew not to waste his time and energy on those who rejected him.  Likewise, let’s learn from Jesus.  Instead of breaking your head trying to win people over, let it go.  As Jesus says elsewhere, shake the dust from your feet and move on.  Don’t humiliate yourself or let people walk all over you.  

  1. Spend time with and care for those who actually need you.

There were a few in the town who actually needed him and believed in him, so Jesus chose to spend his time and energy with them.  “And he could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and healed them” (5).  Let’s learn from this!  Many might reject you, and I mean many, but not all.  Some people still believe in you and need you.  In this case, don’t miss the trees for the forest.  The masses might reject you and not need you, but that’s no big deal!  There are some hurting people around you who need you.  It might be a family member, lonely friend, or a pet.  If Jesus himself didn’t think too much of himself to care for just a few, then neither should you think you’re too important to care for just a single lonely dog or orphan or senior citizen or neighbor or friend.  

  1. Marvel at how they really reject Jesus, not you. 

“And he marveled because of their unbelief” (6).  Jesus was amazed at their unbelief.  Notice how Jesus did not react.  He did not indulge in self-pity, he did not lash back, he did not sulk, he did not get angry, he did not criticize, he did not curse, he did not mock, he did not escape in denial, he did not project this problem elsewhere, he did not get embarrassed, he did not let it ruin his day, he did not cry, he did not minimize their reaction, he did not condescend, and he did not escape to an addiction.  Instead, he marveled at their unbelief, which is incredibly instructive to us on how to handle rejection!  Now, if you’re being a dick, then that’s one thing, so stop being a dick as soon as possible.  But if people are rejecting you when you’re being your authentic self, trying to love them truly from the heart, and they reject you, then all that’s left to do is marvel at their rejection of Jesus.  Remember, they are not rejecting you, but Jesus in you, so let your reaction be to marvel at them and don’t take it so personally.  Don’t let it destroy your day.  

  1. Realize God’s crucifying grace.

When his hometown rejected him, this was just a foretaste of what was to come, for Jesus was on his way to the cross, to hang between heaven and earth and be rejected by both.  In other words, all rejections we experience in life are pointing to the reality of God’s crucifying grace.  By letting us experience rejection, God is crucifying our old nature, nailing it to a cross, helping us to shed its power.  Therefore, we must learn to embrace rejection, because God is dealing with something in our lives he wishes to kill off.  

  1. Know that you’ll meet Jesus in a special way in rejection.  

Finally, when you are rejected, you’ll meet Jesus in deeper and more profound ways.  You’ll enter into the fraternity of the rejected.  In your rejection, you’ll learn more about Jesus than you could ever learn when the world is all sunshine and rainbows and things are going your way.  Rejection is synonymous with Jesus and grace.

Perfectly Good Sinner

Moses gave God many excuses the day he spoke with him in the burning bush.  Even though the dry bush was on fire in the desert, it was not consumed, which indicates to us that God was about to be encountered outside the normal laws of nature and reason.  We were just told Moses killed a man at the end of Exodus 2, so the reader reasonably assumes Moses will give this excuse when he meets God a chapter later at the burning bush.  

Out of the burning bush, God told Moses, “Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt” (Exodus 3:10).  For the rest of chapter 3 and into chapter 4, Moses gave God a string of excuses as to why he could not do what God commanded.  Moses first used the excuse of pedigree, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?” (3:11).  So God assured Moses he would be with him to back him up.  Then Moses used the people of Israel as an excuse, saying they wouldn’t recognize God unless God gave his own sacred name, so God complied with Moses’s request.  Third, Moses said the people would not believe him or listen to his voice, Exodus 4:1, so God told Moses what to do in response.  Finally, Moses gave the excuse of his own lack of eloquence in speech (4:10), but God provided yet another solution.

Did you notice the excuse Moses did not give?  We’d expect Moses to say right away, “But, God, I’m a terrible sinner, for I have killed a man, and someone who takes a human life should not be allowed to be used by you for a great mission.”  This kind of excuse seems reasonable to us, because we feel most comfortable operating under the law, rather than grace.  To operate under the law means, “If I do this, then I can’t do this.”  If I am immoral and kill a man, then I should not be allowed to be used by God for his great purpose of bringing his people out of slavery in Egypt.

However, if you haven’t figured it out by now, God does not operate under the law, but by grace.  The burning bush tipped us off, for just as the bush operated outside the law of fire, so does God’s selection of people operate outside the law of morality.  Many people think God’s hands are tied just because they have messed up, but that’s thinking like the law, rather than thinking like God.  God thinks according to grace, not law.  Ever since we digested the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, we have been looking at the world through the lense of the law, again, thinking, “Because I did this, then I can’t do this.”  Our eyes were opened and we have been trying to discern good from evil, which is the function of the law, ever since. 

Many people believe God is done with them, just because they sinned and broke the law, but God hasn’t even begun to use them yet.  Look squarely at your sin; now look squarely at grace.  Don’t use your sin as an excuse.  Instead, say to yourself, “God isn’t finished with me yet, but God is only just beginning with me.”

The law is always there to accuse you, it never lets up.  And it doesn’t need to be written on tablets of stone to do the job, for it’s ingrained on our souls.  Whether we know the Ten Commandments or not, we are conditioned to bring the law into every part of our lives and measure our experiences according to it.  Our minds accuse us day and night.  Satan, whose name means, ‘the adversary,’ often accuses us moment by moment.  We are accused of not being good enough to be used by God, to be accepted by God, or to be loved by God.  But just because the dry bush is on fire, doesn’t mean it will be consumed by it.

In the same way, just because the fire of guilt is blazing on you, doesn’t mean it will consume you.  The God of grace uses guilty sinners to do his great work.  God used Moses, a murderer, to lead his people out of slavery and then to deliever God’s perfect law to the people—how ironic!  And so, God can use you, sinner, to lead his people out of bondage and then to teach them the right way to live.

Don’t let your conscience replace your God.  All idolatry begins with the law, with some devious observation of human logic, which goes, “This can’t be, because of this.”  Ever since Adam and Eve, we have been trusting how we see things more than how God sees things.  

This is the same line that took out Adam and Eve in the very beginning, and has been taking out perfectly good sinners ever since.  Imagine finding a bagel on a tray at work.  One of your coworkers takes the tray and is about to throw out this last bagel.  But you say to her, “Don’t throw that away, it’s a perfectly good bagel!”   Now imagine going to an animal shelter and finding a dog someone had dropped off because of some ‘defects.’  Sure, the dog isn’t perfect, but you see something loveable in him.  While another owner got rid of him, you look at this animal and say to yourself, “This is a perfectly good dog!” so you take him home.  Despite living in a culture of waste, we know when something is still perfectly good, whether bagels or beagles. 

If you have a sin, confess it to God and to others and then repent from it.  That’s about all you can do, besides try to make amends with the one(s) you offended.  But after that, it’s just you and the burning bush.  You are free to walk in grace, which is outside of the law, and do what God has called you to do.  He does not plan to consume you, but use you.

You are a perfectly good sinner.  Don’t let the law keep you on the sideline or toss you in the can, because grace has other plans for your life.  Your mission is not about your moral track record, but it’s about the glory of God, which happens to burn the brightest in the driest, darkest, and most common bushes.  

God always chooses the least, lowest, and lost.  Go ahead and read the Bible from cover to cover and see this dizzying pattern for yourself.  He knows that sinners shine the brightest—always have, always will.

Pastor, Please Stop Dissing Self-Help Books

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.