Other times, we look into the mirror and rightly conclude that the lacking is not external, but internal. These are often the seasons in which our lives have begun to crumble to the fault of our own hands. We recognize we lack the necessary tools for the good life and thus determine that we must better ourselves. How incredibly humble the ambition of self-improvement seems!
Even a cynic would agree that pleasure, fame, and elaborate wealth amount to only emptiness. “Surely, it is inward which we might discover that secret quality of life! As a diamond within the rough, it is our joy, our duty, to unearth the hidden beauty that a human being can be.” These are the words of the serpent: improve yourself, take knowledge, work hard, and you will become like God Himself!
Humanity has a Record
Within the first few pages of the Bible, we see this very dilemma. Adam and Eve desire to be more than they are, to experience a life greater than that found in Eden. Genesis 3 establishes a theme that can be traced throughout the entire course of the Scriptures: human pride and the desire to improve oneself.
Far too often, this very story is presented as the first example of the devil’s influence on the world, deceiving the naïve humans into participating in evil. Left here, the story is easy to digest and faults the red-horned monster, not us humans. “It was the woman!” “The devil made me do it!”
This interpretation falls prey to the very narrative it claims to interpret. But this chapter tells of a different story. It beckons us to look into ourselves—to see how selfish and corrupt we are without God.
The first humans were given all they could desire, a beautiful garden yielding the source of life, the Tree of Life in the midst of the garden. Yet these first humans also knew of another tree in the midst of the garden, the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.
Likewise, this tree promised to give those who eat of it the ability to decide good and evil for themselves. Rather than Life, Adam and Eve chose to improve their own knowledge, to choose for themselves what they deem to be good and what they deem to be bad.
Knowing all, God then warned the humans of the dreadful future for a humanity that relies on its own wisdom: “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19). This marks the human condition in which we all find ourselves. When we reject God’s wisdom, we leave His rest. The human pursuit of self improvement will always enslave us to toil and hard labor.
Abandon All Hope in Yourself
“Thus says the Lord: ‘Cursed is the man who trusts in man and makes flesh his strength, whose heart turns away from the Lord. He is like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see any good come’.” – Jeremiah 17:5-6
Time after time, story after story, examples are made evident of humanity’s striving for betterment and self-improvement, only to the detriment of themselves. We were created to be images of God, not images of ourselves. Any hope for a resurrected life outside of Christ is a failure to read the Manufacturer’s manual.
It is in our very blueprints to trust in God, not in ourselves. Again I say: there is no hope for humanity outside of Christ. We can never improve ourselves, but we can recognize our need for something greater. Our yearning for more, for eternity, is meant to draw us to Him, not further toward ourselves.
Hope in Christ: The Only Tree of Life
Should the Christian desire more, they should look not outward, nor inward, but upward. The Scriptures are clear: there is only one Way, one Truth, and one Life, and it is certainly not humanity. As Jeremiah continues to relate, “Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord” (Jeremiah 17:7).
The blessed life comes from trusting God. When we know God, our lives become blessed, regardless of our circumstances. It is Him in us that leads us beside waters of rest and has us lie down in green pastures; we do not lead ourselves there.
Therefore, let us put our hope in Christ and not in ourselves. Let us seek to die to ourselves and not improve ourselves. Let us desire to serve the Spirit and not to simply serve ourselves. And let us produce the fruit of the Spirit and not the works of our ‘self.’
The will of the self can only produce the works of the self. As Paul reminds the Galatians, the will of the self will never produce to the fruit of the Spirit. Only the will of the Spirit produces the fruit of the Spirit. Following His will is what produces the fruit of the Spirit; this is true life improvement. His Spirit in us enables us to produce good fruit when our flesh wants to tear the forbidden fruit off of the tree.
It is God’s design that we desire more, but it is what we do with this desire that is of utmost importance. The flesh is weak and will always be opposed to anything of God. It floods the mind with self-centeredness the moment we arise and does not yield, even until the moment we lie down. But those who have the Spirit also see within them a surprising desire to serve God. This tension we find within ourselves: to improve yourself or to deny yourself?
Self Improvement vs. Spirit-Filled Life Improvement
If you are a Christian seeking to pursue self-improvement, you are not alone. You are in fact quite human. You may have come to a place where you recognize how much evil you partake in and you have had enough. It is good to be in a place of humility. But there is caution toward your next steps. Two trees have been set before you.
Remember that God has not designed us to bear our burdens alone. Seek wise counsel with a Christian mental health counselor. Though any mental health counselor can provide the tools with which you can apply to your relationship with God, a Christian mental health counselor can help to bridge the gap between the tools and their application with your faith.
Be wary of those who use the faith as a means to an end rather than an end in itself. The existence of God is a truth of life, not a tool for life. Counseling, with its relevant psychological theories, is a tool for life. Tools are used to change things, but truth is not a tool. Truth is a state of being, a reality to be accepted or rejected.
God will not ‘work’ for those who treat Him as a tool for self-improvement. This is the way of the Pharisees, both the ancients and our contemporaries. To them, God becomes a religion, a tool created to help us endure hardship through myth, fiction, and metaphor.
If God is a metaphor, then the Spirit working within you is simply just your own ability to change, and there is no hope for you outside of your own ability. If God is a reality, then the Spirit at work within you is not based on your ability to change, and thus there is hope beyond your own ability.
In order to experience self-improvement, we must first allow the Spirit to work in us. In order for the Spirit to work in us, we must first spend time with God. In order for us to spend time with God, we must first believe He is worth our time. In order for us to believe He is worth our time, we must first believe that He is a reality and not a tool for a better life. Seek first the Kingdom of God!
“Power”, Courtesy of Oladimeji Odunsi, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Open Bible”, Courtesy of John-Mark Smith, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Help”, Courtesy of Ian, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Light of the Cross”, Courtesy of AaDil, Pexels.com, CC0 License
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