Improvement Requires Maturity

“Some like to keep these truths out of public discussion, particularly those who want to believe they can be the surrogate saviours of society. They create alarmism and then pretend to rescue the hurting from the pain of their making.”

We seem to live in a world that encourages us to regularly improve. On any given day, we can hear about any number of aspects of life that we, as individuals and as communities, could do and should do better.

Take health for example. We are told what to eat, how much of each category of food is best for us at different stages of life, and then how much exercise of different kinds complement our intake. It is enough to make us tired just thinking about such demanding protocol!

Money management is another area where advice flows freely. Of course, banks and building societies want us to know about their ‘best deals’. Saving for a home is an increasingly demanding area of money management. And of course, managing tax and superannuation has again become contentious.

Then there is family and child management. Have you ever seen one of those books that reads something like, “Do this and you will have a Christian teenager in three months!” I have. But this field of improvement is not only the interest of the Christian church – all faiths have directions for their families. As does the Government, who currently insists that not going to daycare and prep before even starting school is always a recipe for educational disaster. They conveniently leave off the profound impact of having a loving, just and worshipful family…

Which brings me to the main point. Of course, there can be some practical wisdom found in these incessant self-help ideas. But cleverness is not wisdom. Cleverness means you know lots more techniques than others and can sometimes use those different strategies to ‘get things done’ when others cannot.

 But wisdom – wisdom is knowing how we are made to live and finding a clearer path towards it.  Wisdom, however, costs. Cleverness is self-congratulatory. Wisdom means surrender, while cleverness means taking more to oneself.

Note that I am not equating ‘cleverness’ with ‘competency’. Knowing how to do something well is a gift. But if that gift is focused on me, my improvement, and my demonstration of prowess to the world, then it feeds the lie that I can be self-sufficient.

There are many difficulties in this approach, not the least being that it is destructive to all kinds of relationships and can blind people to what is good and true. However, one key aspect of self-focussed aspirational and actual cleverness is that it is tiring, because it is impossible to sustain.

Alan Noble[1] explained that such effort is predicated on a lie. The lie is that we do not understand the nature of who we are in the world. We believe we are our own. But we are not – we are the Creator’s. As Noble describes, when we pretend we are our own, all these self-help strategies assist us “cope with modern life, but not at undoing the disorder of modern life.” He notes that too many in the Christian church are also caught up in this myth. He describes such effort as a tyranny that moves from self-improvement Band-Aids to self-tranquilising states of ‘intoxication’.

The apostle Paul also understood this dilemma. He also saw the Good News that can rescue us from such self-defeating, dreary and sometimes suicidal patterns of life. After embodying our cries of desperation when the things we do not want to do are the things we find ourselves doing, Paul asks, “Who will rescue me from this?” [2] His answer is straightforward – it is Jesus Christ.


It is because Jesus, fully man and God, knows deeply the temptation to take our cleverness to ourselves. He lived through that temptation in dramatic ways. Satan challenged Him upfront, and then on the way to the Cross. “Surely, surely”, must have thought Satan, “Surely Jesus knows what powerful cleverness He has. Surely He will use it for Himself!” This temptation was placed before Jesus in a number of different ways.

Yet Jesus, even though He struggled, stuck with doing what His Father desired for Him. He embodied self-sacrificial love so that others (you and me) do not have to be caught up in the pretensions and clever-sounding arguments of this world. We can be free to live as our Creator intended.

Such a stance is not a simple ‘And now I won’t rot in hell’ kind of event. No, it is an invitation to live more fully as a human being right now. This flies in the face of the so-called freedom that says, ‘Now you can do whatever you feel like’ (including taking your own life). It is a call to growth into maturity. Paul’s letter to those in Ephesus says it so well. He writes that if we want to avoid being “infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming”[3], then we are to grow up. 

This is not some generic ‘build a bridge and get over it’ invitation to change. No, it is growing up “into Jesus”. This is a strange phrase for our modern and post-modern ears, but it essentially is recognising that we are embodied souls who need a spiritual home, and that home is Jesus. The alternatives are cheap facsimiles.

Some like to keep these truths out of public discussion, particularly those who want to believe they can be the surrogate saviours of society. They create alarmism and then pretend to rescue the hurting from the pain of their making.

Noble puts the contrast well near the end of his book. It is perhaps a fitting description of the maturity we all need to improve if we want to reject the self-focussed self-efforts of self-sustainability:

Modern life is weary, and we are all heavy-laden. When we accept and embrace our belonging to Christ, that inhuman burden is no longer ours to bear. Our sins are forgiven and the inhuman demands of our society are exposed in all their hollowness. (p.202)

And that, dear reader, is growing up the real way.  

[1] Noble, A. (2021) You are not your own: Belonging to God in an inhuman world. IVP.

[2] Romans 7:24

[3] Ephesians 4:14-16, NIV

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