What all self help books are missing..

Have you ever written or printed out a list of rules and stuck them up over your desk? In the hope that you’ll read them every day and somehow absorb them? Things like Listen more or It’s OK to relax or simply Stroke the cat. Or KBO which Churchill famously had stuck over his desk – I’ll leave you to work out what that stands for!

At the beginning of a new year we are full of good intentions. Which is no bad thing. And it’s a great time to read self help books that aim to help us stick with our intentions.

I was listening to a man on the radio this morning – a psychologist called Jordan Peterson – talking about a self help book he’s just published. The book sets out 12 ‘rules for life’ - things ranging from Tell the truth and Pursue what is meaningful to Stand up straight with your shoulders back.

I was intrigued and Googled the book to find out more of Peterson’s wisdom. Online, I found that he had started out with about 40 rules that he had condensed into 12. Some of the forty were unusual like Try to make one room in your house as beautiful as possible. Some were common sense like Do not do things you hate. Some seemed universal like Be grateful in spite of your suffering. Some seemed a bit contextual like Do not bother children when they are skateboarding.

As a Vicar, of course, all this reminded me of the Bible – which many see as something of a rule book. The Bible is actually far more than a rule book but it does contain many rules – and these, you could say, are condensed into the 10 Commandments. And, like Peterson’s list, some Bible rules are unusual like Give to everyone who asks of you. Some are common sense like Don’t leave open pits around for animals to fall into. Some are universal like Give thanks at all times – in times of joy and in times of suffering. Some seem a bit contextual like Don’t wear clothes made of both linen and wool.

But the thing with all these lists – whether we take them from Peterson or from the Bible – is which are the ones we should follow? And, more to the point, how are we supposed to remember them all? This is something that all self help books seem to forget to address.

Of course, we can write them out and stick them up over our desks - but how often will we actually read them – especially if there are a lot of them?

A far better way to keep your good intentions and make the changes you want in your life is to find someone or a group of people who either embody the new you that you desire or have similar intentions to your own. And then hang out with them as much as you can.

The truth is you DO become the people you spend time with.

And that’s the wonderful thing about Church. We want to be more forgiving, more generous, more truthful, more courageous, more caring. More like Christ. So we get together once a week (or more!), read a bit of the ‘rule book’ if you like, share our stories, admit where and when we have got it all wrong, encourage each other, remember that we are loved and forgiven and then come away renewed and refreshed and re-aware of who we are and who we are called to be.

When I’m thinking of reading a self help book, I always have a close look at the author first. And ask myself is this a person I want to be like? Is the author living by his or her rules and who has that made them?

What’s so encouraging about the Bible and the Christian faith – is that those who truly devote themselves to its study and application, do become incredibly beautiful people. Think of St Francis of Assissi. Or perhaps, like me, you’ve had the opportunity to spend time with people who walk with Christ every day, deeply spiritual people. And such people radiate an incredible joy and peace that is quite independent of (but not indifferent to) whatever is going on around them.

As a Christian, I would say that there is truly only one person to follow in life. Only one person who can replace all the rules. And that person is Jesus Christ.

No matter how commendable and exemplary a person we admire might be, we are all of course only human. And have our flaws and weaknesses.

Following a good human role model who embodies your intentions is a good way to help you stick to the rules you want to follow. And doing that with others - in community – will help you enormously on that path.

But why not, this year, set the rules aside and find a Church? And then start following Jesus Christ. And see what a difference that makes.


Posted by Martine Oborne