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The Believe-in-Yourself Gospel

Big Macs vs. Filet Mignon

Recent medical research shows that fast food is often addictive. Researchers and doctors now claim that ingredients in fast food alter the chemicals in our brains so that we want more.1 Many of us can testify to getting stuck in a cycle of eating poorly and irrationally craving more of the junk.

But in our right minds—when we’re rational and reasonable and take the time needed to make a measured decision rather than a rash one ruled by hunger pangs—who would choose a Big Mac if a juicy, tender, lean filet mignon was also available for the same price and at the same place? We’d probably all pick the steak. Why would we feast on junk food when healthy, whole, nourishing food is also on the table?

We’re a generation that has been raised on spiritual fast food, and we’re sick. It’s time for us to sit down at the table, linger, and sup on the feast the King has for us. The gospel is the most nourishing food we could ingest for our souls. And it is devoid of self. It’s all about Christ crucified, risen, and coming again.

Enough about Me

Jen Oshman

This book calls women to look away from new self-improvement strategies in order to find the abundant life and joy God offers them in Jesus.

A False Gospel

Me-centered teaching has crept in, set up camp, and been so widely accepted that we don’t even wrestle with it anymore. Believe-in-yourselfism is the junk food I see doing the most damage today, for two reasons. First, it’s attractive. We are naturally drawn to ourselves. Second, it is subtle and sneaky. DIY (Do-It-Yourself) is the rage in all areas: DIY home renovations, DIY online degrees, DIY marriage ceremonies, DIY orthodontics, DIY diagnosis and prescriptions. Why not DIY spirituality too?

The “believe-in-yourself gospel” is wreaking havoc on the church, especially in women’s ministries. This false gospel says God wants you to be happy, you are enough just the way you are, and it’s up to you to reach within to make yourself successful and satisfied.

This false gospel is the drumbeat of today’s young women, professionals, working moms, stay-at-home moms, and mompreneuers. It’s a nice pep talk we give to ourselves and to one another to conquer another day of college, singleness, motherhood, or work life. “Just believe in yourself,” we rehearse. We’ve even got it painted on throw pillows, coffee mugs, and cute T-shirts. It’s written on chalkboards, in blogs, and on Instagram feeds. It’s everywhere.

Believe-in-yourselfism was born out of two other false gospels that have infiltrated the church in recent decades. These two extra value meals have melded together, making a powerful combo meal that’s hard to resist.

The first is Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD), which was first coined in 2005 when sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton interviewed about three thousand teenagers and recorded their findings in their book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers.2

MTD can be summed up like this: there is a god, and he wants us to be happy ourselves and nice to others. He’s needed only when one of those values is threatened. And all good people go to heaven when they die. I must agree with the researchers who conclude that “a significant part of Christianity in the United States is actually [only] tenuously Christian in any sense that is seriously connected to the actual historical Christian tradition, but is rather substantially morphed into Christianity’s misbegotten step-cousin, Christian Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.”3

Not only are individual Christians ingesting a diet of MTD, but institutional Christendom in America is eating it up, as well. Al Mohler comments on the study: “This distortion of Christianity has taken root not only in the minds of individuals, but also ‘within the structures of at least some Christian organizations and institutions.’”4

This means that our churches, as well as our Christian schools, colleges, community Bible studies, and neighborhood ministries are reinforcing the false messages of MTD. In multiple contexts, Christians are hearing that God wants you to be happy and nice, he’ll stay out of the way unless you need to call on him for either of those goals, and as long as you’re a good person, you’ll go to heaven when you die.

Does this sound like a meal you’ve eaten lately? Or one that your church or the book on your nightstand is serving up?

We’re a generation that has been raised on spiritual fast food, and we’re sick. It’s time for us to sit down at the table, linger, and sup on the feast the King has for us.

A second contributor to believe-in-yourselfism is the health and wealth gospel. In its most basic form, this false gospel says that you and I can be healthy and wealthy if only we have enough faith. You might be picturing the over-the-top television preachers who have clearly strayed from biblical teaching. But the health and wealth gospel is actually subtle and sinister.

It surfaces in an unspoken but widely held belief that God wants me to be happy and successful. As his child, I should not expect suffering or difficulties in this life.

But this false teaching is contrary to Scripture. Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?” (Matt. 16:24–26).

In spite of this clear teaching in Scripture, health and wealth teaching “can seem to be a necessary inference from some Christian texts and teachings and it can be absorbed from the attitudes of others in a community.”5 Whether we state it or not, many of us are subsisting on the health and wealth gospel and causing others to do the same in the practical outworking of our fast-food faith.

Breaking Our Addiction to Happy Meals

Believe-in-yourselfism, the outgrowth of MTD and health and wealth, is the meal we’re most likely to order today. It is dangerous because it sounds good and feels good and contains a morsel of truth. It is indeed biblical to say that you and I were created by a good God who made us in his good image and gave us good gifts, skills, and abilities to work hard to accomplish much while we’re here.

But this thinking becomes immediately bankrupt when we rely on ourselves and turn inward for strength. It becomes a false gospel because it’s an inward gospel. In fact, it’s a form of legalism. We expect blessing based on our own self-driven efforts. We expect to earn our salvation by digging deep and trying harder. It says “do this” and you should “get that.” It’s a prescription to behave a certain way in order to attain certain results.

My friend Steph recently put the shrapnel of this false teaching on display. Steph has two young sons and is in the midst of an exhausting season of life that I remember well. It’s the season where a stretch of five hours of sleep feels like a winter’s hibernation and a trip alone to Target feels like a day at the spa. Steph came to Bible study at my house weary and heavy-laden. She couldn’t hold back the tears.

Reacting to text messages from her friends who believed that she needed to do more to make herself happy, Steph said, “It makes me feel terrible. It makes me feel like I have to make it all happen. I can’t live up to what my girlfriends are telling me to do. I haven’t even showered this week.”

You and I and Steph will never be rescued by our good behavior. We’ll never be able to author our own happiness. Lasting joy comes from Jesus, not from within. As author and pastor Jared Wilson says, “The essence of the Christian message is not ‘Behave!’ but ‘Behold!’”6

The heart of spiritual junk food is that it tells us how to behave rather than calling us to behold. Behold who? Jesus. Any deviation from biblical Christianity can be detected
when we are told to turn our practices and habits inward on ourselves, rather than outward on our marvelous Savior.

We are tempted every hour to eat the junk food and not the filet mignon. We are easily tricked, too hungry to wait, willing to sell out for the fast food rather than the slow-cooked goodness.

As we are rooted in Christ, so we must build ourselves up, or nourish ourselves, in Christ.

Notes:

  1. Mae Rice, “A New Study Shows the Scary Similarities between Junk Food and Drugs,” Curiosity.com, August 17, 2018, https://curiosity.com/topics/a-new-study-shows-the-scary-similarities-between-junk-food-and-drugs-curiosity/.
  2. Christian Smith and Melina Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).
  3. Smith and Denton, as quoted in Albert Mohler, “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism—the New American Religion,” April 11, 2005, Albert Mohler website, https://albertmohler.com/2005/04/11/moralistic-therapeutic-deism-the-new -american-religion-2/.
  4. Mohler, “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.”
  5. Timothy Keller, Making Sense of God: Finding God in the Modern World (New York: Penguin, 2016), 51.
  6. Jared C. Wilson (@jaredcwilson), Twitter, November 7, 2013, 12:41 p.m., https://twitter.com/jaredcwilson.

This article is adapted from Enough about Me: Find Lasting Joy in the Age of Self by Jen Oshman.



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