It made for a sensational viral video. Jordan Peterson, the bestselling psychology professor and life guru, sat on a panel during convocation at Liberty University. Suddenly, someone in the large audience, apparently a student, rushed the stage. In the seconds before the security team closed in around him, the student cried out through tears, “I need help! I just wanted to meet you. I need help.”
Though the event would continue after an impromptu prayer and escorting of the student off stage, the words “I need help” seemed to linger like a specter in the building.
The truth is that every year millions of Americans admit they need help, and many do so by running to self-help gurus. The self-help genre is one of the most reliable, most lucrative genres in publishing. Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life is merely one of the latest phenomena: over three million copies have sold since 2018. Meanwhile, self-help literature colonizes the bestseller lists year after year, decade after decade, from newer authors such as Jen Sincero, Rachel Hollis, and Eckhart Tolle, to old standbys Dale Carenegie, Tony Robbins, and Norman Vincent Peale.
Though these authors are diverse in their language, method, and perspective, one thing unites them all: they want to fix your problems, and they’ve each discovered the best way to do it.
The Craving for Wisdom
It’s easy for evangelicals to sneer at the self-help genre. That’s been the dominant attitude I’ve encountered in gospel-centered Christian circles toward the books. In many ways, the cynicism is warranted. There’s something deeply deceptive in the majority of self-help lit: a middle-class prosperity gospel of expressive individualism.
Yet we err if we only go so far as to critique. It’s better to ask whether we as Christians can learn anything about ourselves or our world from the success of the self-help genre.
Self-help lit flourishes because human beings crave wisdom. Without a conscious recognition that life is hard and confusing and we need more help than is within ourselves, self-help and motivational lit would sell nothing. For believers, the question is not whether we should be trying to gain wisdom for life. The question is what kind of wisdom we need.
The majority of self-help lit answers that question with overtly middle-class appeals to new methods, inspirational mantras, and (most importantly) buying as much of the guru’s product as possible. It also tends to pit the complex realities of life against one another, as if doggedly holding on to one’s sense of self-esteem in the face of hardship or criticism can make the facts of failure and brokenness disappear.
While some self-help writing really does offer helpful habits or bring us back to common sense, it almost always does so with a blind eye toward the many areas of life where the guru’s wisdom cannot go.
Inspired Wisdom Literature
There is an alternative. Rather than, on one hand, mocking readers eager for self-improvement or, on the other, conceding the arena of truth to secular soothsayers, we can turn elsewhere for an inexhaustible fountain of real-life insight, whole-person help, and ever-present grace: biblical wisdom literature.
Unfortunately, many evangelicals would likely struggle to even identify which books of the Bible classify as “wisdom.” The scope and significance of biblical wisdom is often lost on us. We may mine Proverbs for Tweetable nuggets. We mutter at Job’s sufferings something about God’s being absolutely sovereign. We avoid Ecclesiastes altogether! No wonder secular gurus flood the cavity left by our missing the richness of the Creator’s wisdom.
Biblical wisdom literature is more than punchy insights into trusting God or poetic flourishes on the meaning (or lack thereof) in life. It’s also more than a hurdle for preachers to leap over in their beeline to the gospel. Rather, biblical wisdom is a coherent and illuminated rule of life that reveals the true nature of everything: God, humans, the universe itself.
The Soft Glow of Self-Help
The best self-help books are the ones that, perhaps despite themselves, really do help us see reality as it is. Amid the wreckage of misguided inspirationalism, effective self-help lit brings to mind something obvious that we tend to miss: attitude matters; people respond to kindness far better than harshness; clean your room.
But even the best, most natural-law-cognizant self-help lit is like a glowstick in a dark room. It can cast a light, but not far and not for long. Biblical wisdom, on the other hand, is like a brilliant chandelier, majestically illuminating everything from high above.
Because secular self-help lit starts with me — my felt needs, my sense of self — it is fatally limited. Biblical wisdom, on the other hand, starts with God. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 9:10). Biblical wisdom has a cosmic perspective, not merely an individual one.
The Fresh Air of Revelation
The book of Job, a masterpiece of literature even by secular standards, is an astonishing illustration of this. Like much self-help lit, Job is focused on suffering. But unlike all self-help lit, Job gives a heavenly perspective, a point of view that sees the spiritual warfare and divine providence over earthly existence.
We learn from Job that suffering tends to exceed our understanding; we cannot fully “get” cancer, or the death of children, or a fiery helicopter crash. There’s no amount of therapeutic work that can help us make sense of a universe that is “red in tooth and claw.” Instead, there is the reality of God — his presence, his right to reign, and his care over his creation. This awareness enables far more than mere positivity. It enables the worship that will both unleash the peace that passes all understanding, and ultimately result in our resurrection and redemption from all death.
Biblical wisdom also illuminates the world as it really is. Every generation tends to have a skewed vision of reality. We turn our attention to cultural gurus who either affirm the spirit of the age (self-actualization at all costs) or make waves for standing against it (make sacrifices; lose yourself in commitment to something). The wisdom in Scripture corrects both of our errors.
True wisdom reveals that hard work is often rewarded, but not every time (Proverbs 13:23). It pushes us toward making the most of life, while making sure we never forget about our imminent death (Ecclesiastes 3:19). Biblical wisdom reminds us that it is good to earn, but also that earning will never satisfy (Ecclesiastes 2:11).
If you’re looking for myopic perspectives or simplistic clichés, pass on by. If you’re looking for divine realism that enables you to receive and live in the world as it truly is, come and see.
We Need More Than Motivation
But the highest point at which biblical wisdom differs from self-help is its offer of grace. Neither the most rah-rah motivational alpha male nor the most spirited “you go girl” cheerleader can compete with the grace that God’s wisdom offers.
Why? Because this wisdom calls out to the simple. Biblical wisdom is utterly unique: It is for the foolish, not the wise. It is for the needy, not the clever. Hear the call of wisdom:
Wisdom cries aloud in the street, in the markets she raises her voice; at the head of the noisy streets she cries out; at the entrance of the city gates she speaks: “How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple? How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge? If you turn at my reproof, behold, I will pour out my spirit to you; I will make my words known to you.” (Proverbs 1:20–23)
Biblical wisdom can make the foolish wise. That is good news for weak-willed people like me who need more than motivation. We need forgiveness. It’s not enough to be assured that I can do it. I have to know that I’m safe and secure even at the end of the days where I didn’t do it. That’s the promise of Wisdom incarnate: Jesus, “who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Corinthians 1:30).
It’s not too late for us to commit to putting ourselves in the way of God’s wisdom, meditating on it day and night as we grow strong and nourished like a tree in a riverbank (Psalm 1:1–3). Find the help you need to see clearly in a dark world, and the grace you need to get back up when you stumble, in the pages of God’s perfect, gracious, all-sufficient wisdom.