Jesus-ing as a (Poor) Substitute for Self-Improvement

Jesus-ing as a (Poor) Substitute for Self-Improvement April 14, 2021

Hi and welcome back! Yesterday, I showed you why Jesus-ing doesn’t ever fix anything in Christianity: its central mechanisms and processes just don’t work in reality. But that doesn’t stop Christians from Jesus-ing their little hearts out when they feel convicted about their flaws. Their Dear Leaders long ago taught them that Jesus-ing represented the only valid path to personal growth and self-improvement. Alas, Jesus-ing functions only as a poor substitute for real self-improvement. Today, I’ll show you how Christians try to use it for that function anyway, and why it never works.

half dome summit reached
(Denys Nevozhai.) The summit of Half Dome. I have wandered this whole area so often in VR form. So beautiful. If you follow the right photostreams, you can see some really amazing stuff up there.

(Convicted is Christianese for Jesus-flavored guilt. Christians using this term imply that Jesus himself made them feel that guilt. Usually, Christians express this feeling around hypocritical behavior.)

The Christians Who Don’t Need No Steenkin’ Self-Improvement.

Of course, a lot of toxic Christians deny that anybody needs to grow as a person. Over at Desiring God, Marshall Segal sneers at the very idea. You see, New Year’s resolutions (often aimed at personal growth for the coming year) just aren’t Jesus-y enough:

Many of our New Year’s resolutions fall flat simply because we do not make them in Jesus’s name. We make them in our own name — in our own strength, on our terms, for our personal gain and benefit. They fail by February because they’re so focused on us — on self.

Thus, King Marshall regards anyone who tackles any self-improvement project as being suspiciously un-Jesus-y. He thinks self-improvement keeps people from Jesus-ing their little hearts out. His entire post is hilariously over-controlling and judgmental, just utterly overwrought in its condemnation of any pursuit that is not 100% Jesus-flavored.

Literally, the only self-improvement King Marshall allows in his fiefdom is that which “say[s] anything positive about Jesus.” He never clearly explains what this quality means or how one can identify it in the wild.

(Vague commands are a big red flag.)

But I expect nothing better from his site. I mention it here only to say that many Christians don’t allow any kind of self-improvement for its own sake. The leaders of these groups get very antsy at the idea of their followers improving themselves; after all, that might lead them straight out of Christianity’s broken system.

And the Christians Who Graciously Allow the Right Kind of Self-Improvement.

That said, even those Christians recognize at least one kind of street-legal self-improvement: the kind that makes a Christian more devoted and faithful (and obedient). That kind of self-improvement is always okay. It’s being done for a reason the entire tribe can consider virtuous.

Unfortunately, they try to achieve that self-improvement through Jesus-ing harder. Since the entire mechanism of Jesus-ing just doesn’t work, they’ll be doomed to failure every time.

Years ago, a Christian named Richard Beck called this process “the bait and switch of contemporary Christianity.” He regarded the processes of Christianity — the devotions and rituals involved with it — as something too many Christians use as an excuse not to work on being better human beings. (Can’t you just hear Marshall Segal screeching in outrage over this idea?) So he tried to counsel his students to do real stuff to cultivate self-improvement, rather than indulging in Christianity’s substitutes.

And I really liked this thing Beck wrote:

The trouble with contemporary Christianity is that a massive bait and switch is going on. “Christianity” has essentially become a mechanism for allowing millions of people to replace being a decent human being with something else, an endorsed “spiritual” substitute.

Absolutely true, and it’s only gotten worse since he wrote that post in 2009. When way too many Christians think about self-improvement, they think about how they can Jesus harder — and they call that good.

Busy-Work for Busy Christians.

A while back, I reviewed the awful Christian marriage-advice book The Love DareAt the time, I was just struck by how little real advice the book contained. Instead of teaching better communication techniques or educating evangelical husbands in how to treat their wives like people instead of subhuman servants, the book had its dare-takers complete various busy-work tasks. Many of their tasks didn’t even call for the spouse’s participation. Worse, most of the tasks centered around Jesus-ing very hard.

As one might expect, reviewers who tried to do this stuff didn’t find much success. More than a few reviewers I found at the time even said they’d realized, through doing the Love Dares, that their marriages were completely dead. I found almost no reviews that said the book’s ideas had actually worked to revive a failing marriage. The fictional supposed atheists from the book’s accompanying movie, Fireproof, might well be the only couple it helped.

That’s really how Christian self-improvement books go, though. They offer a big course of busy-work and promise readers that this course will change their lives. Christians buy this dreck, do as it says, and it doesn’t actually help them. But they rarely complain about this shortcoming. They’re likely to blame themselves instead for not Jesus-ing as hard as the books recommend.

As bad as these books are, as bad as their advice always is, Christians would rather take them and do their busy-work than pursue real self-improvement.

Self-Improvement, Christian Style.

Before we begin with the next “in the wild” segment, I want to make clear I’m not looking at instruction guides for being a better Christian. Those are obviously gonna be chock-full of exhortations to Jesus harder. They’re supposed to help Christians “get more consistent” and “help strengthen [Christians’] relationship with Jesus,” as one instruction guide tells us. Thus, they barely even acknowledge the existence of any other sort of self-improvement.

Hilariously, often these earnest instruction-givers will admit right in their very own instruction guides that despite knowing exactly how to Jesus correctly, they still fail constantly to be consistent with their devotions. It’s like a never-ending carousel ride: use ineffective methods and fail, blame oneself, get up, try again using the same or other ineffective methods and fail… This is the song that never ends, it just goes on and on my friends…

(See also: Why Christianity is Soooooo Harrrrrd for Christians to Practice.)

No, here we’re talking about Christians offering suggestions on becoming a better person in general. And as it turns out, there’s a lot of these advice-givers out there.

Self-Improvement: In the Wild.

Gospel Way offers an extensive instruction guide for self-improvement. Mostly, their writer (David Pratte) frets about changing Christians’ bad habits (and they assume that it’s new converts who’ll have these bad habits):

Ephesians 4:22-24 shows that major changes must occur when we are converted to serve God. Old practices and attitudes must be replaced by new ones. Christians must learn good habits like Bible study, prayer, love, faith, patience, attending church meetings, giving, teaching others, etc. We must also eliminate bad habits like foul language, uncontrolled temper, gambling, drugs, smoking, drinking, gossip, lying, pornography, sexual promiscuity, etc.

Whew! That’s a lot of habits to change, break, and pick up! And how does Pratte propose for people to accomplish this 180 change? Well, he throws tons of Bible verses and aphorisms at his audience and hopes something sticks. It’s all performative devotional stuff, and none of it will actually successfully change a long-entrenched habit.

We see similar listicles in a lot of other places. PureFlix Insider offers a surefire guide to “ultimate self-improvement.” It begins with “confess your sins” and moves on to “rely on God to overcome temptation.” Their writer especially wants Christians to know that “the world has it wrong” about self-improvement, since only change done in the name of his imaginary friend counts.

And here’s a whole pack of fundagelicals on RZIM fretting about doing self-improvement the Jesus-approved way. They are deeply, deeply concerned about secular self-improvement.

I can see why, too. After all, it works a lot better than casting magic Jesus spells ever could.

Self-Improvement in Reality-Land.

Since all the processes involved in Christianity are subjective, they don’t have a bat’s chance on an asteroid of working to do anything real. If someone does do all that blahblah and insists they changed a habit for life, chances are something else was happening to bring about that change. Remember the old joke about hunting bears with an umbrella? Christians do that a lot — they mistake any successes they have as the result of their Jesus-ing, when it wasn’t the Jesus-ing at all.

In Reality-Land, we know a lot about changing habits, and we’re learning more all the time. Here’s a good writeup of the many approaches being developed in this field. Interestingly, not one of those approaches involves Jesus-ing at all. Instead, it talks about framing messages, setting expectations, helping clients improve their own self-regulation (a seeeeeeerious problem among toxic Christians in particular, I’ve noticed), and even increasing clients’ awareness of their behaviors and choices minute-to-minute.

Over and over again, we see concrete advice offered by more legitimate sources.

  • The Learning Center: talks about the feedback loop of cue->routine->reward, and how to disrupt it.
  • This paper from the British Journal of General Practice: concrete suggestions for habit formation.
  • NPR: more stuff about that feedback loop.

None of these reputable sources even list the performance of religious devotions as a way to achieve real self-improvement.

Case Study: The Most Racist Pentecostal I Ever Met.

I know I’ve mentioned this before, but it’s such a good illustration of today’s topic that I can’t resist. Many years ago, when I was a true-blue Pentecostal, my second pastor, Gene, wanted to visit his elderly mother for Mother’s Day. He and his wife invited me and Biff to go with them, and we thought it’d be a fun lark.

Little did we know that Gene had invited us in hopes that his mother might temper her worst behavior around strangers.

This little old lady had been Pentecostal for her entire life. She was a strict church-attender and tither. She never missed a service, volunteered as she could, the whole nine yards. Y’all, she had probably forgotten more about Pentecostalism than most preachers ever learn.

And yet she was the most miserable and racist human being I’ve ever met. Not once during the entire outing did she say a single positive or kind word to anybody. I tried to cheer her by mentioning the nice weather. No, it was hot and muggy and probably going to rain. I said it must feel good to see her son on Mother’s Day. She complained that he didn’t visit more often (and I soon fully understood why he didn’t). Her droning complaints filled my ears and made me feel beaten up within minutes, which was, of course, the point.

Once we reached the restaurant, she loudly muttered about having to sit next to Black people. I think the entire restaurant heard her. Gene was shocked and reprimanded her. Meanwhile, I wanted to throw myself in the bayou out back!

Her fields were barren, though.

She got exactly what she wanted out of that Mother’s Day visit.

And the Inevitable Discovery About Jesus-ing Harder.

That old lady sparked a very, very hard lesson for me. But I’m glad it happened. I needed it.

At the time, I was still at that stage of belief where I was just in awe of people who’d been strong believers for decades on end. Once I met Gene’s mom, though, I began looking around with a more critical eye.

I soon discovered that all these lifelong “saints” were just tin-gods with feet of clay. Despite an entire lifetime of Jesus-ing their hearts out, most of them still weren’t decent human beings. They were no closer to that goal than the day they’d converted.

Heck, many were arguably much further from Point Human Decency as a result of their substitutions for self-improvement.

Now I understand why.

The Seductive Ease of Substitutes for Self-Improvement.

Substitutes are much easier to pursue than real methods of self-improvement. These substitutes give Christians a rush from feeling like they have extra Jesus coating on both sides. And they gain this rush without having to do all that hard work of introspection and habit-changing.

As we see in Divided by Faith, a book written about racism in evangelicalism,

If [Christians] can go to either the Church of Meaning and Belonging, or the Church of Sacrifice for Meaning and Belonging, most people choose the former.

Jesus-flavored self-improvement works along strikingly similar lines. It cannot get Christians to Point Self-Improvement. But it makes them feel like they’re making progress toward that point. And that’s just as good.

To too many Christians, this endless carousel ride of magical thinking sure looks a lot better than doing work. But you won’t make it up to the mountain’s peak on a carousel horse.

NEXT UP: I bet ex-Christians had no idea that we only deconverted cuz it was trendy. Don’t worry! This Christian guy will splain it all tomorrow. See you then!


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Last thoughts: I wish, I really wish that after realizing what I did about those long-term Pentecostals, I’d realized exactly why they were like that. Instead, I chalked it up to them not Jesus-ing correctly and began to spiral into more and more extreme beliefs and practices as I searched for TRUE CHRISTIANITY™. Ah well. We do the best we can with what we have.

About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. She lives with an adored and adoring husband named Mr. Captain and a sweet, squawky orange tabby cat named Princess Bother Pretty Toes. At any given time, she's running out of bookcase space. You can read more about the author here.
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