Cross Words: The problem with self-help

By Isaiah Pauley

I’m surprised by the size of self-help sections in bookstores. Maybe I shouldn’t be. According to an article from The New Yorker called “Improving ourselves to death,” there’s a self-improvement industry that “takes in ten billion dollars a year.” Why? Because people everywhere—of all ethnicities, cultures, and religions—recognize a need for help.

It’s not a new concept. Consider the words of the psalmist who writes, “I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth” (Ps. 121:1-2 ESV).

What amazes me about this passage is that “self-help” doesn’t appear to be a viable option in the mind of the psalmist. Instead of looking inside of himself, he lifts his eyes to something bigger—the hills. But even the hills, as gigantic and beautiful as they are, can’t help him. But contrary to people in today’s world, the psalmist looks to something bigger than himself for help.

The problem with self-help is that the power necessary for change ultimately falls on you. The ability to overcome guilt and shame depends on you. The strength needed to become confident, courageous, and successful falls on your ability to pull those good qualities out of yourself. As if humans inherently have any “good” within themselves at all and instinctively know how to define “good” in the first place.

Now, to make myself clear, I’m not entirely against self-help books. It’s true that people who make better decisions often lead healthier lives. For example, if I exercise and eat well, then I’m essentially helping myself. If I do drugs, then I’m hurting myself. That should be obvious. But the self-help industry looks beyond practical health tips. A great deal of self-help gurus focus on topics such as shame, grace, forgiveness, empowerment, and bravery. And mastering such things by my own power is way beyond my pay grade.

That’s why humans must look for help elsewhere. Like the psalmist, we must look to God as the source of our help.

Let’s read the rest of Psalm 121: “He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber. Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. The LORD is your keeper; the LORD is your shade on your right hand. The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night. The LORD will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore” (v. 3-8 ESV).

This psalm is the second of fifteen Songs of Ascents found in chapters 120-134. Eugene H. Peterson explains, “These fifteen psalms were likely sung, possibly in sequence, by Hebrew pilgrims as they went up to Jerusalem to the great worship festivals. Topographically Jerusalem was the highest city in Palestine, and so all who traveled there spent much of their time ascending.”

Therefore, it’s likely that while the Hebrews sing these songs, hills can be spotted. While they journey, God keeps them on track (v. 3). He stays awake (v. 4). He protects them from the heat of the sun (v. 6). In other words, God sustains His people to the end. And the same is true today.

As another psalmist writes, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (Ps. 46:1 ESV). Just as God accompanied the Hebrews in their journey to Jerusalem, so He accompanies us in our journeys today. At the end of His Great Commission, Jesus says, “‘… I am with you always, to the end of the age’” (Matt. 28:20 ESV). Our power to endure in this life cannot be found within ourselves, nor is it found in the tallest of hills. Instead, our help comes from Jesus Christ. He alone can protect us, keep us, and sustain us. He alone can change the dark condition of our souls. He alone can forgive us of our sin. And He alone can empower us to walk in newness of life.

After all, Christ himself looked to the Father for help. Troubled about His approaching death, Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane. He asked God if there was any other way (see Matt. 26:36-46). But He glorified the Father by allowing men to kill Him on a cross for the salvation of sinful people like you and me.

Do you need help? Me too. Let’s look to Jesus. As the Bible says, “Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted” (Heb. 12:3 ESV).

God’s help is more productive than the best self-help book available.

By Isaiah Pauley

Isaiah Pauley is passionate about sharing Jesus in a simple way. Follow the journey of this young pastor at, on Facebook at Isaiah Pauley Page, or on Instagram @isaiahpauley.

Isaiah Pauley is passionate about sharing Jesus in a simple way. Follow the journey of this young pastor at, on Facebook at Isaiah Pauley Page, or on Instagram @isaiahpauley.