Is self-improvement a foolish shortcut?

Hi friends,

Kelly Kapic writes (as he discusses the theology of John Owen), “Real spirituality, therefore, is not fundamentally about self-improvement, but about an intimacy and communion with the triune God that transforms the believer’s life.”

Candidly, this truth challenges us. Marketing 101, as I understand it, is to explain “what’s in it for me.” The threat is that if you don’t brand your content as solving a problem for a person, it goes unnoticed.

And so churches explain how this sermon series will improve your marriage, this class will make you a great parent, this retreat will help you make friends, and this special worship music event will give you a wonderful experience of God’s love.

Consequently, once the marketing is in place, the motivational speaker must deliver. The talk is pre-written. “Here’s your problem - here’s how God solves it!”

However, what if, in doing so, we’ve sabotaged the work God wants to do in us?

For instance, what if God doesn’t want to give us a better marriage, where we feel happier and more content? What if, instead, he wants to form us into Christlikeness in the context of marriage, and as we embrace that destination, we experience new sufferings and inconveniences as we serve others together? Perhaps our marriage isn’t “improved” at all, but it is qualitatively more reflective of the way of Christ?

In addition, if our goal is self-improvement, then we need God like we need an Uber. Once he gets us to our destination, we say goodbye, leave a review, and move on with our lives.

But if our goal is union with God, then the sweetness of fellowship with him is what we long for whether or not we made new friends, balanced our checkbooks, or shared the gospel seven times in a week.

And perhaps most paradoxically, if all the practical good we want to do in the world can only be done if God has first transformed our hearts, then perhaps the narrow focus on improving ourselves or our world will backfire?

Tolkein wrote, “Short cuts make long delays.” Perhaps the “short-cut” of using spirituality for self-improvement makes for a long delay?

But if instead we would prioritize responding to God’s gracious initiative in our own hearts, and be men and women who live in fellowship with God’s Spirit, we will naturally desire to imitate Christ?


I really appreciate these thoughts, Carson. I am often unaware of how deeply the love of self motivates my choices and actions. The sinful nature so easily disguises the love of self. May God grant us the grace to gaze ever more intently at Christ, that we might indeed be transformed into the image of the One who gave of Himself that we might live!