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Why I’m Critical of “Christian Self-Help” teaching

January 17, 2013

I felt I should do a more level-headed discussion of why I’ve gone off on certain Christian teachings, especially what I call the “abundant life gospel”, for several years. You can see this on my old web space essay http://www.erictb.info/abundant.html, which was a spinoff of my response to those “old-line fundamentalist” type Christians who condemn all psychology in the church altogether.

Just about any Christian book, sermon or TV program that addresses pain and suffering, will apply various scriptures that appear to say that suffering is good, or at least that God is bringing or “allowing” it for some good reason. It is the backbone of the basic teaching on a supposed “victorious Christian life” where we “grow” through these problems. Of course, secular self-help philosophy says many of the same things, but the Christians insist that theirs is a supernatural “grace” that is exclusive to Christians.

I started questioning all of this, because when I first became a Christian and read Christian books and articles on suffering and “victory”, I did take for granted, like every other good “faithful” believer that all of these scriptures on “contentment”, “trials” being “good” for us, and “growth through pain” actually applied as they were being used. With some of what I was going through with my father, which (regarding the faith dispute part of it) was the closest I had come to real biblical “persecution”; it did seem to fit, at first glance.
Just entering my 20’s, and rather disillusioned with “the world” I was having trouble finding my place and meaning in; the much heralded promises of “what Christ, by His mighty power could do for you”, and “the plan He has for your life”, which before, seemed like phony salesmanship, now seemed like something perhaps worth giving a try.

However, once in the faith, it became clear that these “plans” were interpreted as involving much pain, which was basically all the same realities I had already been suffering, but now with God seen as their architect, for that missing “meaning”, which we most likely still cannot even know yet.

But really studying that stuff, and trying to apply it, something just wasn’t clicking. I was willing to derive hope from the “promises”, and really tried to develop a better attitude to my suffering from it, but there was a DISCONNECT, between my experience and what I was reading of in the first century Church.

I was essentially suffering for who I was as a person having trouble fitting in, in society (which we now recognize as being attributable to Asperger’s). I knew good and well that whatever I was going through was nowhere near what we see chronicled in Hebrews 11, and recorded throughout early Church history. People “sawn in half”, “beheaded”, crucified, etc. for the faith. So the “encouragement” I received as suffering biblical “persecution”, (and thus having a big “crown” awaiting after this life) wore thin.
My problems were mostly mundane, in a world where supernatural “special revelation” was [in the current time] simply non-existent; recorded in ancient texts that had been interpreted many different ways (many of them outrageous) by the Church over the centuries, and were now being questioned or discarded by modern science and much of the general population. From the viewpoint of a new believer trying to adopt this faith, and against a constant stream of doubt and dispute (with concrete “reality” often used as the clincher), it in this day and age still looked like just another religion, as I had grown up being taught it was (—and I was constantly having argued at me back in those days), and in contrast to older people in my childhood, for whom it was basically a cultural belief, where “faith” essentially had no “reason”.

To compensate for this, younger generations of Christians have tried to make it more “relevant”, and the general approach is by contextualizing these passages; lifting them and applying the “principles” to us. They often apply a “testimonial” approach using examples in their own lives, or those they’ve counseled.
These are often mundane experiences; some of them pretty difficult, like physical infirmity and death, and other things like poverty, job or home loss, and dysfunctional families and relationships gone bad.

Further raising questions, is that not every Christian went through these things (especially the teachers of this, being they reaped the rewards of their positions and publications in a western democracy, where their church or ministry organization is able to make sure they’re well accommodated, financially and otherwise, in contrast to the average low level work force employee), yet scriptures like 2 Tim.3:12 “all that will live godly shall suffer persecution” were cited, and applied to mundane situations that had nothing to do with persecution for the faith. That way, one size would fit all.

Many teachers will add things that are really more “annoyances” than trials, such as someone cutting you off at the intersection, and one guy even mentioned a horse not moving the way he wanted as something “God was in”. These are nevertheless seen as “tests” for us, since God supposedly uses them to show us the need to control our anger or learn patience, or something like that. At one point, when I still believed that these were tests, it was making daily life unbearable. It made it seem God was standing above me, making every little thing go wrong, just to “teach” me something; and of course, that many good things aren’t being “done” for you like that, which is what we feel we really need! (But that’s the whole point, of course. It’s all about the “discomfort”. And they’ll interpret other things in your life as God in fact being more “active” favorably).

The Scriptural Contexts

The people Peter and Paul (the source of most of the relevant scriptures) wrote to, however, were in the midst of the major upheaval as the Christian Church and its Gospel were splitting off from Judaism, which had been the main vehicle of divine revelation, but had rejected its Messiah, and took out their frustration with this disappointment on his followers. Battles raged on as to who was really loved by God, and how to gain or prove this love, and who the true “sons” of God (or Abraham), and by extension, the rightful rulers of God’s kingdom were.
As much as the Israelites complained about Gentile domination, they did have some amount of status and leverage in the Roman system, which granted them immunity from the double-bind of having to worship the emperor (which would of course conflict with worship of the one God). This was used by them against the Christians by casting them out of the synagogues; leaving them at the mercy of the Romans.

These suffering saints were only a few decades removed from Christ, the object of their faith. Peter had been one of His immediate disciples, and witnessed the whole sequence of His life and death. Paul was converted shortly after, upon experiencing a divine epiphany. The Church maintained some of Christ’s supernatural power (Mark 16:17, Acts 5:12-16, 9:40, 19:11-12, 20:9-12), and the promise of a SOON return, bringing “redemption” was what the sufferers were to find comfort in, as they “ran the race” to this salvation. Hence, no need to worry about mundane affairs and wants.

Back to the mundane world

Forward to my day, we are still waiting for this “soon” return. Yet most of us are immersed in a prosperous American or European culture that raises our expectations of life, well beyond the “basic needs” we are told to be “content” with. (And I’ve been reading that expectations are really the source of nearly all our emotional pain!)

Power, in one form or another (political, economic, talent, etc), is what determines who succeeds. The others without the power may have it better than people in poorer nations (as we are constantly reminded), but still feel stressed by a need to struggle to keep up with the standard of living around them. If [worst-case scenario] I’m going to be a destitute with nothing but basic needs, then where would I be better off? Out in the wilderness, where I just live off of the land? Or in an American city, where every inch of the land is owned by someone, so I end up a homeless beggar living in my own waste, in the way of prosperous people stepping over me on their way to their jobs and homes, and eventually swept up by authorities and going in and out of bad shelters that many would rather be on the street than live in?

The final answer is always that “we do not know what God is doing”, and will only find out when we “leave this limited, imperfect existence”. That’s an awful lot to be commanding the world (as well as even suffering believers) to place “faith” in. The reason why the world mocks Christians, is, because if you really don’t know, then you should admit from the beginning you don’t know; not come claiming to know something, yet add later that you can’t really know this, and that, and the other (See 1 Cor. 8:2).

So in the midst of this, to tell me (to give some of my most painful but not life threatening life moments) that all the problems associated with AS: rejection as weird by peers and needing to be lectured and pushed by adults; having to wait for a girlfriend or wife while watching everyone else “live it up” in relationships, and thus not having a better teenagehood, the strife with my father during those years instead, and then all the problems we have when I did find a wife, and the job and the finance, and the rest of the daily disappointments, and the midlife frustration (including a recent friendship that really meant a lot to me —precisely because of my life of loneliness and not fitting in, being derailed by a lot of misunderstanding, mistakes on my part and IMO, false judgment by others):

all of this is addressed by scriptures written to the early Christians suffering persecution (it HAS to be so “relevant” for today); so to say that if I change my attitude toward life to be positive, and just accept all this suffering, this is what God is willing for my “growth”;
—then it seems this “faith” has been changed into another self-help psychology, like all the non-Christian ones.

Examples over the past 25 years of being a Christian; of what made this begin to wear off as “hope” for me is teachers would tell single people, if they are feeling lonely, just imagine Jesus hugging them. They really believe this is supposed to substitute for a physical relationship!
When suffering pain, they will often say God will “take the pain away”, if they just “give it to Him”, but what they really mean is that God ‘makes the pain not matter’. A person’s desire to physically die to relieve the pain is often turned into the standard pun of changing the meaning of ‘death’ from physical to spiritual (‘the old man’), which actually implies that the degree of wanting to escape from certain pain (i.e. dying in order to be relieved) is a quality of unregenerate nature, which is suddenly ‘cured’ by being born again (‘the new life’).

They will associate our pains with “the Cross” Christ suffered for us. Yet they give us “serenity prayers” about accepting the things we can’t change. So this is what I end up comparing to the Cross. Yet Christ said “No one takes [My life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” (John 10:18). Since I’m only enduring things because I can’t change them, I wonder if that would even count as being like Christ’s voluntary acceptance of suffering.

There will often be an implication that one is not being “intimate enough” with God, because they have some problem, such as loneliness or something else they are unhappy with in life. I recently watched a Christian play where a lonely girl, whose friends were living out more secular sex lives (one totally loose, the other marrying a guy who was totally no good), was told this by the pastoral couple counseling her.

This becomes the ready, magical “one size fits all” answer to struggling Christians.
But what really are they supposed to do? Just pray more and read the Bible more (more “devotion” time)? I’m told it’s not “just” anything (i. e. that I’ve oversimplified or made it too “black and white”), but then it becomes an empty assessment, yet preached with such “black and white”-sounding authority!
It’s not preaching Hell at them, but still a kind of judgment, albeit a softer, subtler one.

The Turning Point

It was several years ago, when learning about temperament theory (from a Christian perspective), and reading Tim LaHaye’s treatment of it, Why You Act the Way You Do, where he goes into the standard “Christian victory/abundant life” approach to pain (with a more fundamentalistic “fear and anger are sins” approach that goes beyond even what most others teach), and I get to the part (p. 223) where he mentions a Christian psychologist telling a person struggling with fear that she was just a “very selfish young woman”; a “turtle hiding under a shell of selfishness. Just throw it away and start thinking more about others and less about yourself”, and she goes away crying, yet apparently gets “better” later on, proving the point.

That did it! That was the last straw! I had HAD it with the whole teaching, (which I at the same time was hearing blasted every day from the TV through people such as Joyce Myers and Juanita Bynum, and this was when “Purpose Driven Life” franchise was still really big), and would force myself to swallow it no more! I began going all out against the teaching, and it is what prompted the creation of the above linked abundant.html. I at first began adding more text, dealing with this, into its parent article “Psychology and the Biblical Counseling Movement” (http://www.erictb.info/psychology.html), but as I kept pumping more and more text into that essay, it became clear that this garnered a whole new page (which I believe now probably dwarfs the first one).

Another big strike was when there was a claim that God healed someone of cancer in the church we were going to. Yet the person still died shortly after, and of course, the answer was “we don’t know what God is doing”. I was “wrong” to question this, but think of the “testimony” this gives, when you attributed something to God that turns out not to be true. (Deut. 18:22, the person has “spoken presumptuously“).

Forward to last year, with midlife crisis (which really began flaring up three years earlier) really coming to a head, and in the midst of despair over the friendship, I’m still having Christian books suggested* (my wife says she’ll stop now, but my counselor suggests them too), and now with this blog to vent on, I create a sort of followup to the old abundant.html: https://erictb.wordpress.com/2012/10/26/some-more-christian-books
*(The lastest being Lovejoy, Knopf Shining a Light on Depression, who use the same basic approach regarding our attitude toward pain, and on p126 suggest food, water, air, shelter, and the love required for a child’s attachment to a caregiver are our only true “needs”; everything else is just a “disappointment” that should never be “catastrophized” by saying things like “it’s too much” or “I can’t take it”. But even when those basic needs are not met, we are still given the same answers by most).

How could I, as an Aspie especially, learn compassion, when all I got, both from the world and the Church, was tough “coaching“?

Law leads right back to judgment

As I point out, the “New-evangelicals”, who are the ones adopting psychology, and turning it into “Christian self-help” with these teachings, yet are criticized by the old-liners arguing for a “Bible-only” approach, are still using many of the same “emotional-health gospel”* premises regarding pain, how we deal with it, and how God fits into it.
So one camp breaks away from tradition, and the other camp criticizes them for it, but they still believe the same essential things. It’s mostly a matter of semantics! (“Biblical language” versus secular psychological terms).
*(A play on “health and wealth gospel”, employed by a Christian leader, Dwight L. Carlson, who called it out as promoting coldness to pain and suffering in the Church).

As I go through all of this, in the back of my mind is more blaming rhetoric burned into the conscience by almost universal teaching in the Church. Common Christian teaching assessing someone’s breakdown or failure (whether moral, marital or even psychological) will take it as validation of the “laws” or “principles” they believe are apart of the path to “victory”. It is always cast in this purely mechanistic “cause and effect” framework. It goes like “because he/they did not _________, (could be “trust God”, “seek God”, “be intimate enough with Him” “read the Bible enough”, “pray enough”, “die to self”, etc.) he allowed {sin, lust, bitterness, etc} to take hold, and it finally brought him down”.

This is generalistic and often ignores other factors, and assumes a legalistic premise that “laws” (presumably God’s) are primarily for man’s “happiness”. As author Michael Horton, Beyond Culture Wars says (p.114): “We would know better than to say ‘We are saved by our obedience to the Law’, but we find it more difficult to detect that ‘We will achieve victory by following these principles or steps’ is a new way of saying just that.”

Also, regarding the “spiritual armor” in Eph.6, (p.233, emphasis added):
“Each piece of the armor has something to do with the objective Gospel. Not one piece of this armor is something we have fashioned. Nowhere in the list, for instance, is ‘the pistol of piety’, or ‘the boots of a good heart and cheerful attitude.’ Not because piety is unimportant, or because our inner experience is insignificant, but because when the enemy comes, he is not coming to ‘bind’ our house or give us generational curses; he is coming to strip us of our faith in the Gospel. He is coming to try to persuade us that we are too sinful; too unholy…We have not advanced enough in the Christian life; we have quenched the Spirit… [any of this sound familiar?]
It is faith that unites us to Christ and all His benefits, so if the devil can take away our confidence in His atoning work, he couldn’t care less about wreaking temporal havoc on our family line.”

Continued:
https://erictb.wordpress.com/2013/01/31/why-im-critical-of-christian-self-help-teaching-part-2

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5 Comments
  1. Thank you for another magnificent article. Where else may just anyone
    get that type of info in such a perfect manner of writing?
    I have a presentation next week, and I am on the look for such information.

    • Thanks.
      It’s just from experience. From being a Christian for over 25 years, and studying, researching the doctrines, trying to apply them, and finiding some of them wanting. I’m by nature a skeptic, and while I did (out of frustration in “the world”) gave this whole thing a shot, I was always on the lookout for tools of control (such as pacifying), which the Church was infamous for, so I tried it, and found it fit neither actual experience, nor scripture, as much as it was read into them.

  2. Had rewritten and expanded a thought already expressed here:

    Christian teaching posits this causative explanation for a lot of pain: the person did/didn’t do this, and then because of that, such and such got worse. It’s all blaming and shaming the person (with the Law) into an onus to reform his behavior and/or attitudes.
    When looking over someone else’s ruin, it often goes “IF ONLY he had just…”, and it’s cast as something “so simple”, such as “just surrendering”. But in practice, when they themselves begin breaking down the “process” (as it ends up becoming), it’s not really so simple. They then begin talking about the “struggle”, of the “daily dying” and everything else. But by now, it should be more understandable why the person didn’t want to “yield”. Everyone knows “the walk” (as they call it) is not easy and simple. So why do they try to sell it as so? It’s to justify the harsh penalty for not converting, and promote the belief system through fear.
    (They’ll say this assessment is too “black and white”, but they’re the ones the whole time speaking in terms of “black and white”).
    The devil is portrayed as luring them into the problem with some “fun” or “pleasure”, and the Law is pictured as what would have saved them from the problem.
    It reality, the devil is the one accusing, with the Law.

    Should also add this thought on “Having a form of godliness; denying the power”.

    The traditional view reads this as making one’s self look morally good in certain areas, but not really “submitting” and receiving the supernatural “help” God gives us to behave better, so their “sin” comes out somewhere else.

    But “power” really means “right” (as in “authorization”). It’s actually describing people who reform their behavior on the surface (they may even credit God for it), but deny God’s Grace, where He “gives the right [‘power’] to become the sons of God”.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Why I’m Critical of “Christian Self-Help” teaching | ChristianBookBarn.com
  2. Why I’m Critical of “Christian Self-Help” teaching part 2 « "ERIPEDIA"

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