You Are Set Free from Self-Improvement

Christ’s Power in Us

When our goals begin and end with ourselves, frustration and discouragement are sure to set in, and we’re likely to wind up looking for relief in some other way—a new method or program or book or teaching through which the Lord might empower us. And when we’ve reached this point, we’ve made ourselves vulnerable to a lot of unbiblical teaching.

According to Jesus, we are branches:

I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. (John 15:1–2)

Some of us have been led to believe that the fruit Jesus was speaking about here is personal strength or power. But Christ’s power is the nutrient the branches receive. All the power lies in the vine itself. The centrality of Christ for living the Christian life has gotten buried in recent years by a way of thinking about Christianity called “moralistic therapeutic deism.” It’s a cumbersome term, but it’s important to grasp, because it’s everywhere, even within churches.

A Growing Danger

Moralistic therapeutic deism includes the belief that the primary goal of life is personal happiness and a positive self-image. God is viewed as rather distant from our day-to-day lives but available to solve problems and help us feel good about ourselves.1 But that god is not the God of the Bible, nor does this pattern of teaching even come close to the walk of faith set out for us in Scripture.


Lydia Brownback

This book aims to free women from self-focus and replace it with truth from God’s word about the abundant life Jesus promises them in the gospel.

We see its influence on a woman who, feeling overwhelmed by cares and responsibilities on a particularly challenging day, looks to herself and her friends for the strength to persevere:

I might feel like I’m not doing anything well, but it doesn’t make it true. The fact that I have weaknesses doesn’t make everything about me weak. I have plenty of strengths. All I have to do is ask a couple of my friends or my family members to help me see what I do well. I can celebrate those, and then get a plan for bettering things that need improvement. I can start by identifying one thing to improve on this month. And do a little toward making that one thing better.2

Evaluating ourselves by our self ultimately gets us nowhere, and the opinion of friends takes us only so far. But trying to harness the Lord’s power for our self-improvement projects dishonors the Lord, and it’s a recipe for discouragement.

As 2 Corinthians 12:9 teaches, God’s power is made perfect in weakness. When I’m sinking in thoughts of inadequacy . . . I remember that my ability is not based on what I can do. My ability and strength come from the One who can do all things. With the Lord working in me and through my weaknesses, I can feel the transformation from being overpowered to empowered taking place.3

Can you see the problem there? She co-opts the Lord’s power for herself. Yes, the Lord does say that power is made perfect in weakness, but it’s his power that gets perfected. Notice how wrong thinking about Scripture has crept in: “My ability and strength come from the One who can do all things.”

True Christian discipleship is a call to die, not to improve.

The author takes the Bible passage out of context and therefore misses the whole point. Power and strength are always, ever, and only the Lord’s. He works his power through us, but he doesn’t empower us. Do you see the difference? Surely she meant to encourage her readers, but in this article, at least, she misses the mark because she doesn’t consider the context of the passage. The actual takeaway from 2 Corinthians 12:1–10 is that God at times leaves us in difficult situations in order to humble our hearts and show us through the difficulty that he is strong. So the teaching of the verse she cites is actually the opposite of the encouragement she seeks to draw from it. And in so doing, she entrenches her readers in the very frustration they are so desperately seeking to escape.

Owen Strachan has this to say:

Too many people today tragically follow a fairy tale god. The God of Scripture is not our life coach. He is our Lord. We’re used to this word [Lord] as Christians, and so it loses its edge. This divine title signifies that God is our master. He is our sovereign. He is our ruler. He sets the tone for right and wrong. He calls us to account for our sin.4

Wrong teaching on this point is why so many of us believe that Christian discipleship is synonymous with self-improvement. But true Christian discipleship is a call to die, not to improve. It’s what Jesus was getting at when he said, “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (John 12:25).


  1. For a quick summary explanation of moralistic therapeutic deism (and a fun diagram!), see Adam Ford, “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (webcomic),”, accessed July 5, 2018,
  2. Lysa TerKeurst, “From Overpowered to Empowered,” (in)courage website, accessed January 13, 2017, /from-overpowered-to-empowered.html.
  3. TerKeurst, “From Overpowered to Empowered.”
  4. Owen Strachan, introduction to Designed for Joy: How the Gospel Impacts Men and Women, Identity and Practice, ed. Jonathan Parnell and Owen Strachan (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015), 18.

This article is adapted from Flourish: How the Love of Christ Frees Us from Self-Focus by Lydia Brownback.

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