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The Prison of Self Betterment

What has Christ set you free from? Does the way you live testify to the freedom Jesus purchased for you? Or did you even realize that you have been freed? Are you still discovering all the freedom you have in Christ?

If you’ve accepted Christ as your Savior, you know that Jesus has saved you from eternal death and that you now have eternal life. Some people have amazing conversion experiences where they are miraculously freed from weights, sins or addictions that they’ve carried. And as Christians, we can all find ways that our prayers have been answered, and God has set us free from a worry or a concern that we carried.

Sanctification

But becoming sanctified is a continually freeing process. Being sanctified opens more and more prison doors for us to walk out of. If you’re unfamiliar with this word, most definitions of sanctification explain it as being “set apart as holy”. I love Google’s online dictionary definition, “the action or process of being freed from sin or purified.” Sanctification is distinct from justification which is the right standing with God that is immediately imputed to us when we become Christians. Rather, sanctification is a process of becoming more like Jesus in character, in other words, becoming holy.

One of the greatest things that Jesus is freeing me from is the prison of self-betterment. Particularly the kind of self-betterment that sets itself up as an imitation holiness. Let me show you how I was recently tempted to let myself be locked back up in this prison.

A Run In with Shame

Recently at my grandma’s funeral, I was enjoying reconnecting with friends and family until it was time for pictures. After volunteering my phone as a camera and posing with relatives, I was horrified by the images of myself. Shame washed over me as I realized how the outfit that I had so carefully chosen made me look like a plump grape next to all of my tall and/or thin family members. Was it my outfit? Was it me? Why did I look so fat?

Although I felt like crawling into a hole, I decided to shake off the disappointment and embarrassment and enjoy the time with loved ones I hardly ever see. But there was that nagging shame that colored my day with a different sort of sadness than funeral grief.

The images surprised me since just the day before, I had been feeling stronger and slimmer. But my inner self-image at that one moment had crashed into my photograph image and sucked out all my joy. 

I saved fully processing this until I was waking up the next morning. These were my first AM thoughts. “I need to get rid of that shirt and skirt. I definitely need to get rid of all pants and skirts from my closet that are patterned. And I need to eat less. And exercise more.” My mind quickly developed a joy-sucking regiment designed to propel me back to liking myself. Because that’s what motivates all my bad choices, the search for a way to like myself through the prison of self-betterment. What can I DO to like myself better?

Circling Through the Hamster Wheel

Woman sitting on the ground holding Bible with one hand, other hand is next to her face and as she looks to the side. 2 Corinthians 10:5b "Take every thought captive to make it obedient to Christ." A key to living free from the prison of self betterment.

But my ability to capture my thoughts, to step outside myself and examine them, stopped me in my tracks. This wasn’t the right way! I’ve been down this path and it’s no good! The devil had almost tricked me into jumping back into a hamster wheel that I’ve been freed from! I knew that the prison of self-betterment would have me running and running and going nowhere but in circles. I could see the rails like bars ever in front of me as I sent them spinning and spinning without ever escaping them.

mouse face peering at camera

But here’s the thing – although you can run and run and get nowhere on a hamster wheel, one step to the side and you’re completely free. The prison of self-betterment can’t hold you if you step away from it.

And no, I’m not talking about just giving up on trying. I’m talking about ceasing to look at my weaknesses and focusing on them instead on Jesus’ strengths. I don’t have to be all the things I wish I was. I don’t have to be the greatest and the best because the one who is the greatest and best loves me completely. 

The Other Side of Shame

I’ve been reminded lately of the saying that “pride and shame are two sides of the same coin”. The very hidden, very tightly lodged, sin that was exposed that next morning was related to pride, probably the sin most common to all of us. 

Do you know how I would always try to dig myself out of shame? By finding some way to be better, to self-improve, so that I could be proud. And if I succeeded, I’ve achieved pride. If I failed, I achieved shame. These two repeated themselves over and over, just like that hamster wheel. And I the little hamster, wore myself out.

hamster looking out of the hamster wheel it is running

Replacing Self Betterment

Thankfully, I am currently reading one of the most freeing books! One of my friends and I completed the bible study “Where Strivings Cease: Replacing the Gospel of Self-Improvement with the Gospel of Life-Transforming Grace” by Ruth Chou Simons, and felt completely liberated as we fell in love with Jesus all over again! Now I’m reading through the book by the same title. Having this resource right at hand made turning back to real life and off the hamster wheel a quicker recovery. Ruth speaks right to me so often with her words, explaining so well how futile and unnecessary our striving is when Jesus has paid it all and done it all! “God desires to prove his faithfulness through our surrender in our weaknesses, but so often we choose to resist his help, clinging to our own determination to prove ourselves strong.” So me. So true.

Where is the Worship?

You know another sneaky sin hiding in the prison of self-betterment is idolatry. Oh yes, idolatry.

Because my goal in self-betterment is to worship myself. To fix my attention on myself and adore what I’ve achieved. That’s a big setup. Because God resists the proud and gives grace to the humble (James 4:6, 1 Peter 5:5).

Two Sons

One chapter in “Where Strivings Cease” looks at the parable of the Prodigal Son. If you read through it again in Luke 15:11-32, you may notice that there are actually two sons. And there’s a lot in the story about pride and shame. When I was previously a captive in the prison of self-betterment, I completely empathized with the older son. Striving to improve myself, striving for my own goodness and imitation holiness, left me feeling as mistreated and entitled as the first son.

But here’s the thing, neither one of the sons knew their Father’s heart toward them. All the striving of the older son was to purchase what was already his – value, purpose and the Father’s favor.

And although the older son thought he had achieved all that was needed for the coveted prize (being more worthy of praise, celebration and affection) he was as far from finding the Father’s heart as the second son had been.

Because even though we think we’re good compared to other people, all our goodness looks as presumptuous and foolish as the actions of the second son. We’re all sinners. We can’t do enough to be good enough to get us “in” with God.

It’s only when we realize that we are in fact, the second son, sinners who don’t deserve the Lord’s mercy and favor, only then will we see the Father’s love that was waiting for us all the time. All we need to do is “come to our senses” and discern our proper relationship to holiness. That none of it can be manufactured by humanness. Self-improvement never results in godliness. Or freedom. Or the fruits of the Holy Spirit (love, joy, peace, etc.)

Loving Much

Girl in crowd praying with her eyes closed. "Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven- for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little." We all have been forgiven much by Christ who sets us free from the prison of self betterment

The blessing comes in finding forgiveness. The blessing comes from experiencing mercy. The freedom comes by recognizing that we have been set free and someone else has paid our entire debt.

Imagine how ecstatic you would be if someone paid off your mortgage? Wouldn’t you be celebrating that and sharing that good news with others? It would be hard to get on my bad side on a day like that. Generosity sparks generosity.

And that’s how it is with all God’s goodness and holiness! It sparks something in us that makes us want to tell it and share it.

My prayer is that you and I will remember how much we are forgiven. That’s where we experience the love and mercy of God. Those who are forgiven much, love much, and it is here at the cross that we begin to live grateful lives of joy! We’ve all been forgiven much, we just need eyes to see it.

So again my friend, what has Jesus set you free from?

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