Ok, I’ll admit it — I tend to be a bit of a self-improvement junkie.
Here’s how it all started: When my wife Kate was pregnant with our first son, I decided it might be fun to gain an extra 20 pounds myself. After Ezra was born, I started regretting that decision and decided to better myself. One night, I was brainstorming what I — a not-so-athletic office worker — could do to lose a few pounds and decided to google “fitness for nerds.” I stumbled onto a site called “Nerd Fitness” and ever since, I’ve been semi-addicted to self-improvement blogs and books. All these resources dangle the promise that if we’ll just buy into their system, we’ll be a better version of ourselves: healthier, more effective managers of our time/money, better leaders at work, more pleasant to be around at home, and maybe even better looking!
Since you’re reading this in February, I know many of you probably made New Year’s resolutions last month and “bought in” to someone’s system/diet/planner in hopes of improving this year. If statistics are accurate, 20% of us have already given up on whatever it was we set out to do in January! If that’s you, please don’t feel ashamed. I can’t tell you how many times I got excited about a new goal only to give up — or never even start.
In fact, lately I’ve been feeling like my obsession with self-improvement, while helpful in some ways, can be pretty exhausting. Worse yet, it’s ultimately unfulfilling. At the end of the day, the problem with obsessing over self-improvement is that it puts me at the center of my world. It puts my wants, my priorities, and my hopes at the center of my life, in a place they were never meant to be. Self-improvement is a me-first, me-focused activity. And none of us are going to find ultimate fulfillment—or paradoxically, be the best version of ourselves—through a selfish, me-first approach to life.
Fortunately, there is a better way to be our best selves. Jesus shared the secret with His followers in Luke 9:24 when He taught them that “whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will save it.” Enduring happiness will never be the byproduct of “saving ourselves” by centering our lives around selfish ambition. We’re only going to be at our best when we get lost in something bigger than ourselves—following Jesus and orienting our lives around His Kingdom.
So, how do we quit our obsession with self? I think there’s no better way than growth in an old-fashioned virtue called humility. Jesus began His Sermon on the Mount letting us know that it was not the proud, but the “poor in spirit” who will inherit the Kingdom. Later, when His disciples wanted to argue about who among them was the greatest, He let them know that the greatest in the Kingdom is the one who voluntarily chooses to be the servant of all.
Most of us know that humility is the antidote to pride and self-obsession. And even though we all deal with pride, none of us find it attractive when we see it in someone else! So, if we’re going to beat our obsession with self, we better grow in humility.
At this point I think a lot people make the mistake of believing that humility means thinking less of yourself or considering yourself unworthy or unimportant. It’s just the opposite! The gospel actually teaches us that we should be humble and servant-hearted because everyone is really important! ALL of us are people of infinite worth and value because every single person—including you—is made in the image of God and a person for whom Jesus chose to die. The gospel actually liberates us from every other metric of comparison. As Pastor Tim Keller says “. . .the essence of gospel-humility is not thinking more of myself or thinking less of myself, it is thinking of myself less.”
Probably all of us struggle with pride to some degree, but most of us struggle with insecurities, too. Chances are there are a few areas in your life where you’re really down on yourself. Maybe you feel like you’ve failed, or you’ve never measured up. The good news of the gospel is that as believers our self-worth should never be found in our successes or failures, and it certainly shouldn’t be found in comparing ourselves to others. It should be found fully and solely in who we are as sons and daughters of the King!
Here’s a few practical things I’m doing to recover from my obsession with self-improvement this year. First, I’m trying to renew my mind by reminding myself often to find my identity and self-worth in my relationship with God. When my mind gets stuck on my selfish priorities, comparison to others, or insecurity, I’m real-time-in-the-moment reminding myself to redirect my focus to who I am in Christ. And in those moments, I’m reaching out to God in prayer and asking for His help because I know I can’t become the humble, servant-leader God has called me to be on my own.
Secondly, I’m trying to focus on forgetting myself by serving others. I think there’s no better weapon for growing in humility than putting others first at home, at work, and at church. Jesus modeled servanthood for us perfectly (Philippians 2:3-10), and when we lose our way, we can always look to His example. That’s what I’m very imperfectly working on this spring. I invite you to join me!