At church a couple of weekends ago the pastor brought up the subject of self-help books and it got me thinking. There are thousands upon thousands of them, some religious in content, some secular and some decidedly Christian. Are they really helpful for those of us who are trying to follow Christ?
To begin with, I think much of the Bible might be described as the ultimate self-help resource. Read the book of Proverbs or the Sermon on the Mount in the book of Matthew, chapters 5-7. The advice for right and godly living is overflowing. Just like with the Big Book from Alcoholics Anonymous, however, the Bible is most effective when read and processed in community. I am much more likely to interpret and absorb what I read accurately when I don’t go it alone.
On the positive side, I am all for self-help materials when they point me in the right direction. They may help me to locate any blind spots I have, or further educate me in areas where I have little knowledge. Where I must be careful is not to read these books with the belief that they hold absolute truth. As the old saying goes, you can be sincere, but sincerely wrong. It is helpful, perhaps essential, to know an author’s worldview and basic philosophy. A particular map may be effective in directing you to Atlanta, but it’s not helpful if your destination is Los Angeles.
Some books are very good at describing problems, but have very little to say about solutions. Are they still helpful? Well, maybe. If it motivates you to begin a dialog with others that can lead to some answers, then yes. If they just leave you discouraged or self-righteous, then not so much.
Most secular self-help books promise to free you from pain, or lead you in the direction of happiness or success or wealth. How many direct you toward righteous living even if it results in a certain amount of suffering? Not many I am pretty sure. I don’t think they would sell very well (OK, maybe diet or exercise books).
So here is a brief list of “do’s” and “don’ts” when it comes to self-help materials.
- DON’T believe any one book or recording has “all the answers”
- DO look for usable nuggets that you can put into practice
- DON’T use them as a substitute for getting help or taking action
- DO use them as an adjunct to counseling (especially when recommended by your counselor)
- DON’T use them as a way to “nail your partner” or prove that you are right
- DO use them as a starting point for discussions when appropriate
- DON’T push away truth when you come across it just because it is uncomfortable
- DO be selective in what you read and who you learn from – not all knowledge is wisdom – sometimes it’s just information or an author’s opinion