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Self-help and the Holy Spirit

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I noticed it first in the bookstore. A brightly colored table full of self-help books interspersed with flip flops and beach blankets promised readers that this would be the summer they’d finally become the best version of themselves. If only they’d crack open the books and do the right things and change the wrong thoughts, all would be well. Later that day, as if to beat me over the head with the message, I saw it as a meme on social media.

"Your self-image is the force that changes your life."

Our relativistic culture encourages us to decide for ourselves what our best self is. The quote above is a lie. It shuts out the Holy Spirit. It glorifies and magnifies the absolute power of self. It boldly asserts that you have to stop measuring yourself by external standards in order to heal, tempting us to make ourselves the measure of what is good. It tells us to rewrite the script in our heads so that we give ourselves unconditional positive praise and positive self-talk. If only we do that, the hype promises, we will be healed of those things that keep us from being the best version of ourselves. But that’s not true. It’s a lie that’s often cloaked in "church talk."

What we need to be the best version of ourselves is to see ourselves the way our Creator sees us and then become — through the power of the Holy Spirit — what God intended us to be all along.

In Acts 2, St. Peter clearly delineates what we need. He tells the early church in Jerusalem, "Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit."

The sacrament of baptism instituted by Christ and conferred here by his apostles forgives our sins and brings us into the shared life of Christ by infusing us with sanctifying grace. Further, we receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit. That’s what we need.

Yet, certain temporal consequences of sin remain in the baptized, such as suffering, illness, death and such frailties inherent in life as weaknesses of character, and so on, as well as an inclination to sin that tradition calls concupiscence, or metaphorically, "the tinder for sin" ("fomes peccati"). Since concupiscence "is left for us to wrestle with, it cannot harm those who do not consent but manfully resist it by the grace of Jesus Christ." Indeed, "an athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1264).

So, there we have it — precisely why we aren’t the best versions of ourselves. What to do to become our best selves? Well, simple positive self-talk isn’t really going to get it done.

There is a root wound that makes us easily susceptible to the psychobabble that tells us that we are the force to change our lives. That wound is likely different for each of us. Hunker down in prayer; bring your Bible.  And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. (Eph 6:17). Armed with the knowledge of Scripture and the understanding of what God has been trying to convey for generations, ask the Holy Spirit to use the word of God to slice you open to see your root wound. No matter what the wound, Peter’s wisdom is for all of us.

If we buy into the culture’s notion, we miss the beauty of the glory of God's grace in forgiveness. Take care not to confuse relativism with graciousness. It sounds magnanimous to say that God simply wants to affirm our best visions of ourselves without commandments or expectations for holiness on his terms. But if that were so, there’d be no need for forgiveness.

And we need forgiveness. We need the law and the standard of holiness that God clearly set forth in Scripture, and then we need that Scripture to slice us open and show us where to repent, to root out what festers in the wound and keeps us from being healthy. Then we need the healing power of grace poured over all those wounds. That is the force that changes our lives.

We have crucified Christ. We are out of step with his character. We are living according to our own constructs of reality. And thank God, St. Peter didn’t simply affirm us for doing our best and loving ourselves well. We have offended God and we need to cry out for forgiveness, not talk hype to ourselves. Now, it’s not all up to us. What a relief.

Foss, whose website is takeupandread.org, writes from Connecticut.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021

@elizabethfoss