by Jonny Atkinson
Ok, the self-help part was click-bait, but let me explain. I’ve recently benefited from reading Pete Drucker’s The Effective Executive, Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life, Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism, The Minimalist’s (Joshua Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus) Love People, Use Things and from listening to Dave Ramsey’s podcast on money, The Ramsey Show. (I had never listened to The Ramsey Show until recently and previously thought it was a bit cultish!) Many of the authors above, to my knowledge, are not Christians and even Dave Ramsey is likely of a different theological camp than myself. And yet, while not accepting everything they say, I’ve gleaned a lot and benefited a lot as I incorporate elements of their teaching into my theological worldview.
Living with Purpose
Pete Drucker’s book is on getting things done.He has a great section on time management. Christians should care about this since Paul teaches us to “redeem the time” (Eph 5:16).
Similarly, Cal Newport’s book is on eliminating the distraction of digital media and tools. Rather than being controlled by the tools, Newport teaches self-discipline to use the tools only when they serve a purpose that aligns with your goals. Sounds like Paul teaching “all things are lawful but not all things are helpful.” (1 Corinthians 10:23) and while all things are lawful “I will not be dominated by anything” (1 Corinthians 6:12). How many of us, if we are honest to admit it, are controlled by the dopamine-fueled, billion-dollar enterprise that gets you to check your phone like a nervous twitch?
Jordan Peterson has some helpful insights on parenting that confirmed the Biblical worldview under the rule “do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them.” His subsequent chapter, chapter 6 titled “set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world,” sounds pretty close to “first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye” (Matt 7:5). He also has a chapter on pursuing what is meaningful, not what is expedient, or what is often known as the concept of delayed gratification which relates to the Christian concept of losing your life to gain it.
The Minimalists have rules for living with less, such as the 20/20 rule: If an item you own but do not use can be purchased for less than 20 dollars in less than 20 minutes, get rid of it today. Or the 90/90 rule, if you did not use it in the last 90 days and will not use it in the next 90 days, you obviously do not need it, get rid of it. Principles about possessions abound in the gospels, such as “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Lk 12:15) and “Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys” (Lk 12:33) which obviously can’t mean what it literally means, right? Sell my possessions? (insert raised eyebrow emoji)
Dave Ramsey provides wisdom on how to manage money in the 21st century. Obviously the rules of today and the rules of yester-year are different, but the principles are the same. Parents ought to save up for their children (1 Corinthians 12:14), set things aside for the future (Prov 21:20), not be in debt (Rom 13:8), etc. Of Ramsey’s seven steps, his seventh is to be a generous giver. Again, Scripture teaches us to work so we can give (Eph 4:28).
What all these individuals have in common is that they speak of living with a purpose, stewarding our time and money wisely and in line with our purpose, living a meaningful life based upon our values, and not being controlled by anything, whether the love of possessions, debt, or our smart-phones, that does not support our values.
Purpose Driven Life
Of all people, however, Christians ought to be the most purpose-driven as we have eternal values that are grounded in God himself. We are not relativists, but believe in objective revealed truth by which we order our lives. Saved, we know our inheritance is kept sure for us in heaven (1 Peter 1:4) and so we can live freely, holding things, even our lives, loosely. Living as though not alive in this world (Col 2:20) we work to please our master (2 Corinthians 5:9). We strive to work hard and bear fruit (1 Corinthians 15:58, Phil 1:22), as soldiers not getting involved in civilian affairs (2 Timothy 2:4) we live with focused purpose.
A Spirit-Empowered Life
Anything truly self-help is obviously theologically in error. We confess that we are dead in sin until the Spirit makes us new creations and it is the Spirit who continues to sanctify us and give life to our mortal bodies. Thus, Christians do not, can not, engage in self-help, but rather we live by “Holy Spirit-help” through our union with Jesus.
And yet, while God works in us, we are also told to work ourselves (Phil 2:12). But I’ve often found that as soon as you start to discuss phone use, how money is spent, how much time is spent watching Netflix, how time is wasted, etc. you frequently get branded a legalist. The retort is usually “we’re free in Christ” or “it’s not sin.”
Wisdom Articulates Specific Actions
All Christians agree we ought not to sin. But when you get into the realm of wisdom, the “free-in-Christ” card abounds. Wisdom means living out principles not laws, so true wisdom ought not to result in a bunch of rules that bind everyone’s conscience. Not everyone will use their time, money, energy, gifts and resources the same way, nor should they as such is the beauty of the diverse body of Christ. But every Christian ought to live by the same biblical principles, specifically, utilizing their resources purposefully for Christ.
Taking things a step further, however, wisdom fleshes out principles into daily lives. Once fleshed out, the principle can be articulated in a specific way: I only watch X hours of TV a week so that I have more time for Y. I turn my phone off between the hours of X and Y so that I can be focused on Z. Regardless of what I earn, I will not spend X on Y so that I can give Z. Our freedom, which we truly have in Christ (Gal 5:1), is given to us that we might become servants of God (1 Peter 2:16) as we willingly enslave our members to righteousness (Rom 6:18).
I’ve been helped by books written by non-Christians that flesh out principles for how to live according to meaning and purpose and utilize resources and tools to support biblical values in a way that provides specific actions. I don’t need help with the principles, I’ve got those from the Bible. But I haven’t found the specific actions which these books provide to be legalistic, rather I’ve found them to be wise and fruitful. In many ways, their teaching is much in line with what the book of Proverbs teaches. True wisdom starts with the fear of the Lord, but if you’ve got that, you can learn from non-Christian authors just as you can learn from the ant (Prov 6:6). And I wish more Christians would write, blog, speak, and dialogue in small groups on how to live wisely for Christ, providing specific actions (“do this not this”), without the fear of being labeled a “self-help” guru or “legalist”–which sometimes is just a cover-up to continue living an unfruitful life filled with works that will be burnt up on the last day (1 Corinthians 3:12–15).