In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul writes, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15). This is an experience common to us all; we often act in ways that we know will harm us, rather than in ways that improve us. Perhaps we eat unhealthy foods, or we stare at a screen for too long, or we busy ourselves so much we don’t have time for the important things in life. It’s a fact of the human condition too often: we act against our own self-interest.
In previous times, religion was the means by which men and women sought to improve themselves. In Western culture, that religion has primarily been Christianity. However, in today’s post-Christian world, many people see religion in general—and Christianity in particular—as of little practical use.
Yet even having cast off religion we still feel a need to improve ourselves. To fill the gap, self-improvement movements have wildly proliferated, each promising a better life. From Dale Carnegie to Steve Harvey, gurus have been trying to help us overcome our weaknesses in an effort to better ourselves. Some of these movements are passing fads, but others have gained staying power, helping millions of individuals live better lives. The most popular movements address real problems and offer legitimate solutions.
However, the most successful self-improvement movements are often simply tapping into one aspect of the teachings of Christianity. In doing so, they solve only a part of the puzzle, addressing one aspect of our problems without a more comprehensive view of the full needs of the human person. Far from being replacements for Christianity, they are instead truncated versions of it.
Popular Modern Movements
Taking a look at three movements popular right now—mindfulness, minimalism, and essentialism—will highlight how secular self-improvement movements work and how they relate to Christianity.
The mindfulness movement has become tremendously popular with both religious and non-religious people. For many it has even replaced traditional religion. Here at Mind & Spirit we’ve run articles both supporting the compatibility of mindfulness and Christianity and questioning it. But setting aside the potential connection between religion and mindfulness, we can see that mindfulness is an attempt at self-improvement.
At its essence, mindfulness is a method to overcome anxiety. The modern world of technology has promised to improve our lives by making us more efficient and connected, but it’s become a Frankenstein monster. All our technology and connectedness has elevated our anxiety as we rush from activity to activity and constantly feel the need to keep up with the vast amount of new information deluging us. Mindfulness is a brain exercise which leads one to focus on the present moment and the things one can actually control. It has helped many to find greater peace.
A movement that has its modern origins in Henry David Thoreau’s simple living ideal, minimalism says that to have more in life we need to own less. The modern world is inundated with stuff. Our houses, garages, and storage sheds are overflowing due to the great growth in wealth the Western world has experienced over the past two centuries. Many people actually pay a monthly rent, not for themselves, but for their things at local storage units. And we buy more and more, as the ease of consuming increases daily. This is a situation that’s never been encountered by the masses in the history of the world.
Ultimately, the reason we acquire so much stuff is that we believe that stuff will make us happy. Perhaps we know the happiness will only last a short time, but we’ll take that “happiness rush” if we can. Minimalism preaches that the acquisition of stuff to make us happy actually has the opposite effect: it takes us away from the very things that give us lasting happiness, such as our relationships with our family and friends. Many have found that by getting rid of possessions (and not acquiring new ones), they can refocus their lives on the things that matter.
Essentialism is related to minimalism. While minimalism mostly focuses on physical possessions, essentialism focuses on our activities. The essentialist looks at the myriad activities he has in his life and asks, “Which are actually essential?” Any that are not truly essential are discontinued.
Think about how many times you’ve heard (or you’ve said), “I’m so busy right now.” The typical American is going from activity to activity, overextending herself at work and at home. But how many activities do we fall into or agree to simply because we don’t want to offend the person asking? How many actually further the vision we have for our lives? Essentialism urges a person to take a cold, hard look at her many activities, removing those that are non-essential. This allows a person to free up her life so that she can truly experience and enjoy the few activities she embraces.
Fulfilling Each Movement in Christ
Each of these three movements is intended to improve one’s life. They each involve a fundamental change in how a person makes decisions and looks at the world. The practitioners of these movements often find that they are more content and more fulfilled than they were before they embraced the movement. However, these movements all represent but one kernel of truth that can be found more fully in Christianity.
“Do Not Be Anxious About Your Life”
In his famous Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gives the following advice: “Do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?…do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself.” (Matthew 6:25; 34).
This message corresponds to the message of mindfulness: stop being anxious about things you can’t control, such as events of the past, or worries about the future. Instead, focus on the present moment and work in that moment. However, there is another key ingredient that Jesus adds, “Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” (Matthew 6:26). It’s not simply enough to tell yourself not to be anxious and focus on the present; instead, we need to know why we should not be anxious. The reason Jesus gives clearly: because we have a God who is a loving father and who will take care of us, even in the midst of our troubles and anxieties. So while mindfulness gives us the “what” it doesn’t supply the “why”. Christianity, however, fulfills the desires of mindfulness by revealing the underlying reason we don’t need to be anxious.
“Sell What You Possess and Give to the Poor”
When a wealthy young man approached Jesus, he wanted to know what he needed to do to have eternal life (cf. Matthew 19:16-30). After telling the rich man that he needs to keep the commandments, Jesus then gives him a startling directive: “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Matthew 19:21). Unfortunately, the man turned down the offer of a new life and went away sad, “for he had great possessions,” Matthew tells us (Matthew 19:22).
We see here the basic teaching of minimalism: that our possessions often possess us. Jesus makes it clear that to be his disciple this can’t be the case. But note that Jesus doesn’t just tell the young man to sell all he possesses; he also tells him to “come, follow me.” Just giving away your possessions won’t result in happiness and fulfillment; that void must be filled in by something that is more in keeping with the desires of the human heart. And Jesus is the ultimate desire of every human heart. Thus, Christianity fulfills the core truth of minimalism, which is finding contentment outside of our possessions. This contentment can only truly be found in God.
“One Thing is Needful”
The story of Mary and Martha found in Luke 10:38-42 is both enlightening and a bit disquieting. We read,
Now as they went on their way, [Jesus] entered a village; and a woman named Martha received him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving; and she went to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her.”
Those of us who tend to be control-freaks can easily identify with Martha, and in doing so, be perplexed at Jesus’ attitude in this story. After all, isn’t Martha serving Jesus in her work, so why did Jesus admonish her? The answer lies in a truth also found in essentialism.
Yes, Martha wasn’t necessarily doing anything wrong, but she also wasn’t doing what was essential in that moment. But Mary was. Mary understood that nothing was more essential than being at the feet of the Lord and listening to his teaching. It was there that she would find her fulfillment as a human person. But Martha was distracted from the primary need by many mundane tasks. Jesus is telling her that she must not let secondary concerns take away from what is most important, a message every essentialist would say ‘Amen’ to (even if they aren’t religious). But again Jesus goes deeper than the modern self-improvement movement. It’s not just a matter of picking one thing and doing that, it’s also about picking the right thing. And in the case of every human person, the most essential right thing is a relationship with Christ, like Mary was cultivating.
Embracing the Fullness of the Truth
Modern self-improvement movements have helped many people in marvelous ways. Instead of being sucked into the vapid pleasure-first culture of today which cannot fulfill the needs of the human heart, participants in these movements have bettered themselves. However, there is a danger in replacing religion with a self-improvement movement, which many have done. For each such movement takes one aspect of the truth and makes it the complete truth, instead of seeing it as one important part of the full truth. These movements can easily become truncated religions. Christianity, on the other hand, embraces the fullness of the truth and puts all aspects of it in proper perspective.
St. Paul understood that the only way that he would stop doing the very things he hated and not doing what he should do was through Jesus Christ: “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24-25). If we truly want to improve, then we too must follow the way of St. Paul and give ourselves to Christ.