Self-Improvement and Holiness 

Often I have found myself wanting self-improvement more than holiness…

These words I wrote in my journal months ago. As I began to ponder the statement, I began to realize just how different the two really are.

self-im·prove·ment

noun

1. the improvement of one’s knowledge, status, or character by one’s own efforts. (Dictionary.com)

Holiness (starting with God)

“The holiness of God is not to be conceived of as one attribute among others. It is rather a general term representing the conception of God’s consummate perfection and total glory. It is His infinite moral perfection crowning His infinite intelligence and power.” – Charles Hodge 

I cannot recall ever meeting someone who had not longed for self-improvement. 

Whether it is wanting to take on a new hobby, change the oil, buy a new house, find a new job, finish school, or get married, I’ve met all sorts of people with different things they have wanted to change, improve, or accomplish. Each person has some goal they are trying to accomplish, some task they want to finish- something beyond the horizon they are aspiring towards. It is a part of our human nature to want to extend the reach of our skills, attain new talents, and become what we feel is a better version of ourselves.

Bearing fruit and multiplying is part of the human agenda: staying in one place and fixing in on a lifelong routine is not part of our wiring. Extending ourselves is something we desire because we have a desire to explore and not just isolate ourselves. This desire to improve ourselves has spawned many motivational speakers, self-help books, relationship gurus and all sorts of cultural tid-bits that can be found with a basic internet search. We want to improve, we just may not know what that means, or even how to do it. We want to spread our wings, take a chance, make a change, and breakaway, to borrow from Kelly Clarkson. Somehow we think we will know when we get there- we operate by the feeling of improvement but with no clear certainty of what that will be in the end.

In the Bible, we find many situations of people who sought after their own ideas of growth and improvement. We read of David extending the influence of ancient Israel through a trade system, defending the nation against opposing nations and overcoming them, thereby incorporating their economy into his own. There is Abraham, who was called to build a nation out of he and his wife who were not in their prime- out of this nation would come the Messiah. There are countless kings of Israel and Judah who prided themselves in the work of their hands and forgot the God of Scripture. You see Simon the Magician in Acts wanting to extend his trickery and trying to sell the Holy Spirit to people in a dangerous act of heresy. Even all the way back in Genesis, we find Adam and Eve wanting to attain the knowledge of good and evil and thereby be “like God, knowing good and evil.” Whether for good or bad, we want to modify ourselves- we want to improve ourselves. This is part of the human condition. Improvement is not a bad thing, but what it is guided by is the key to determining whether it really is good or not. 

But, why do we want to improve ourselves? Is it because we are discontent with present conditions? Do we not feel as satisfied as we want to be? Perhaps it has to do with us wanting to change ourselves. Perhaps we view ourselves as basically good people who just need a push in the “right” direction. Your reasons could be any, but I would like to narrow in on two major motivations: secular self-improvement and Biblical holiness. 

Secular Self-Improvement

What is secular self-improvement? Well, take a look around. We live in a culture that does not have an anchor for where to find objective, concrete, ultimate truth. We aspire for truth by looking inside, in the world of the emotions and the intellect. We are searching for that feeling- of completion, of comfort, of peace, of accomplishment. Our feelings have become the radar for what is good for us and what is bad for us. We search within our reason- what seems logical, what seems to make sense, what can be verified by scientific research that is based on an agnostic framework. But, we do not have a starting point outside ourselves- the starting point is inside of us. This is what I will call the secular: the religion of self instead of the religion of truth. 

Since we begin with ourselves, it only makes sense that we want to know how to make ourselves better. Even though we live in a sinful world, we still have consciences and are a shadow of who we were before sin entered the world. There is something inside of us that knows that not everything is as it should be. We know that eating too much is a bad idea, and that exercise makes you feel good. We know that love is a beautiful thing and that harmony in relationships is good. We know that working is good because it gives you the freedom to do things you otherwise could not. Since we may not have the time to focus on all the things that we feel need improving, we rely on other people to help us help ourselves. But, what is the problem with this motivation?

For one, you start with yourself and end with yourself. There is no greater purpose than doing these things yourself. There are good consequences for others that can come out of it, but those are secondary to how it makes us feel about ourselves. Our egos need to be eased, comforted, and applauded and that is why the hard work seems so worth it. 

Secondly, it does not focus on moral character or the soul of the person seeking the improvement. It ignores the reality of sin and the actuality of God really existing and having really come to die for that sin. Self-improvement manifests itself more in the external world than in the heart. It does not look for an honest view of yourself so much as a more positive way of looking at yourself. It is part of a humanist psychology that believes that the reason you are in a bad spot is because you have not thought highly enough about yourself and need to align your behavior with your worth. But, it does not state what your worth is or where it comes from. It is about making you feel good.

Thirdly, it forgets the reality God who is really there and has really spoken. The actions done for yourself have no tie to the character of God, what His will is, and what He desires out of your life. It ignores that God is the one who should be thought most highly of, and deserves our whole-hearted obedience. Since God is not the reference point to help us anchor ourselves in this world, we live off balance in every area of life.

Fourth, it does not focus on a love for your neighbor and to think of others more highly than yourself. There is no true humility in this because there is no reference to Christ as our example, our love for God which affects our nature and desires, and a love for our neighbor which can often come at the cost of our own comfort and self-confidence. We get so focused on ourselves that we forget others, instead of having what Tim Keller calls the freedom of self-forgetfulness. 
Self-improvement fails because we cannot improve ourselves and are not qualified to be our own rescuers and redeemers. We need help from the outside, a power that changes our hearts, the right teaching to correct our thoughts, and a motivation that is about more than a temporal satisfaction. We are not seeking the highest satisfaction possible; we are aiming too low.

Biblical Holiness

Holiness can all too easily be painted as a stoic, moralistic, dry and cold state of being. The term “holier-than-thou” exudes some of this mindset: it is used as away to describe a perfectionist who thinks he or she is better than everyone else. But, is that what Biblical holiness looks like? If God is truly the only One who is holy, then what does this tell us of the way we see God in His perfection?

Firstly, Biblical holiness is a mandate but also a natural course for the life of the Christian. It says in Scripture that God alone is truly holy (Isaiah 6) and that we are called to be holy as He is (1 Peter 2). God’s holiness is the summation of all that He is: He is not us. He is not a sinner. He is not a creation, He is eternal, sovereign and the Great Other. He is everything we are not. Since we belong to Him, we are supposed to resemble Him, but through sin we deny Him and rebel against Him. But, in Christ we are brought back to Him. This is tied to the reality of our union with Christ: by faith Christ’s death counts as our own, and His resurrection is our resurrection (Rom. 6). We are not the old person (Col. 3), we are the new person remade in Christ, which means we think on things in an entirely new way with a brand new priority (Col. 3:1-4). We are on the trajectory of holiness (Heb. 13), and it’s only natural for us to be on this track. It is lively, it is real, it is greater than anything we can conjure up inside our heads.

Secondly, holiness is focused on God and not on self, and thus you gain a more accurate view of oneself. Ephesians 5 reminds us believers that we are called to be imitators of God- although there are unique qualities in each one of us which can serve the Church (Rom. 12; 1 Cor. 12), we are not the creators of our identity and purpose. Our meaning comes from outside of us. Our purpose is beyond ourselves. Christ came to serve and so likewise we are called to serve by thinking outside ourselves and looking at our Savior and our neighbors in need. As Robert M’Cheyne says, “For every look at self, take ten looks at Christ.” In this process of sanctification we are making progress without even realizing it at times, it’s quite automatic as God shapes us by helping us look at Him (2 Cor. 3:18). This does not mean we should not strive with effort to grow and that this growth is not painful (1 Cor. 9), but what it does mean is that at every moment God is strengthening you to do His work, even in weakness and hardship (2 Cor. 12:8-10). 

Thirdly, holiness sees God’s attributes more clearly and is able to act on exemplifying them to others in love. It’s been said that God’s holiness is the crown of His attributes, and so for us to see God as He really is in Scripture, through the understanding of the Spirit (1 Cor. 2), we glimpse who God is and who we are. Having diagnosed the illness and discovered the cure for ourselves, we can discern more carefully how to love others and show others the same love God has shown us. We are fulfilling the greatest commandment (Deut. 6:1-6), and this commandment sums up the whole Law (Rom. 13:8-10).

Fourth, it squanders pride and encourages true spiritual growth that goes deeper than external self-improvement. Isaiah was humbled before God in the presence of His holiness (Isaiah 6), and Joshua the High Priest was clothed with God’s righteousness in the presence of Satan even though Satan was accusing him often before God (Zech. 3). The gospel puts us flat on our faces as though dead (Rev. 1:19-20), and helps us realize that we were dead and made alive to live a new life for a new reason with a new trajectory and purpose. God goes straight to the heart and changes our very motivations and the way we see ourselves (Ezekiel 36:26). We are capable of obedience and true change through Christ. Although this can manifest in a more well-rounded life like some magazines talk about, and even though they may offer helpful and practical advice at times, we can do them as a means to glorify God instead of changing ourselves. True change happens in the inside by God. 

In the end, I am not against practical wisdom that can be found out on the internet or in magazines. But, do not let the worldview behind them sneak into your motivations. Aspire to holiness, to a further setting apart of your heart to Christ (1 Pet. 3:15), and grow spiritually even more than focusing on your health physically (1 Tim. 4:8). 

Until next time,
Austin

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