What Self-Help Books Get Wrong but the Beatitudes Get Right

At work, they’re everywhere – in the corridors between sets of cubicles, on the door of the break room, even in some of the restrooms. You know what I’m talking about: those motivational posters that depict a snowy mountain top or a soaring eagle, paired with an inspirational quote to lift morale and boost performance.

But do any of those “you-can-do-whatever-you-put-your-mind-to-it” mantras actually work? The demand for self-help is evident by the countless number of articles, books, workshops, and life coaches that make up an $11+ billion self-help industry. Yet, do they help us find the sense of peace and contentment we so desperately long for? Once again, the numbers would lead us to conclude: evidently not. The most recent Harris poll indicates that only 33 percent of us report being happy, and one in every six American adults is on some form of antidepressant, anti-anxiety drug, or other related medications.

It makes me wonder if we got everything backwards. The motivational speakers got it wrong. Jesus got it right: instead of giving us a framed poster for the office or an exclusive deal on the latest workshop, he gave us the Beatitudes.

Traditional self-help literature points to three areas in which we long for guidance:  understanding who we are, getting what we want, and dealing with life’s challenges. In a similar way, the Beatitudes have something to say about all three and provide deceptively profound “good news.”

Understanding who we are

Many self-improvement gurus will tell you that, in order to succeed, you first need to “be yourself” and “claim your genius,” but “don’t ever limit yourself.” I want to tell them that I’d be myself if I were sure who that person is, that I’d claim my inner genius if I had any idea what that meant, and that I’d love a life of no limits, but the bank that issues me a line of credit, the public library that lets me check out books, and electric company with an annoying need for me to pay them on time would all beg to differ.

Lucky for me, Jesus had a different message. The people who are most blessed are not those who can claim their limitless genius. Instead, they are the “poor in spirit” and the “meek.” They are the people who seek to contribute, not to be praised. They find meaning in service to others, not self-promotion. They live simply out of gratitude rather than extravagantly out of greed. While it may seem like a real downer after the exalted motivational language of you-can-do-anything, it really is incredible news. To me, it means that I don’t have to be anything more than I am to be worthy of gifts from God. The unsure, not-always-brilliant, somewhat limited person I am is all I need to be. What a relief!

LISTEN: Radical Beatitudes

Getting what we want

If I had a dollar for every book, article, TED Talk, and podcast about the importance of setting goals for a successful life, I could retire tomorrow in obscene wealth. But while “SMART goals” and “accountability partners” are valuable tools in the workplace, they leave me feeling unfulfilled when I try to apply these practices to other aspects of my life. I don’t want to push myself incessantly to improve my relationships, prayer life, and community outreach to the point that they each become tests I must work hard to pass rather than the life-giving pieces of who I am as a whole.  

In contrast, Jesus tells us in the Beatitudes that the truly blessed among us are those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness.” They are “merciful,” “clean of heart,” and “peacemakers.” To me, that means I don’t need to strive endlessly, always seeking the next accomplishment for the sake of looking spiritually evolved. Instead of being focused on “doing,” I can instead focus on what I know to be important, with some prayer and discernment, and work on that. Then it doesn’t feel like “doing” at all. It’s just “being.” When my work as a high school campus minister becomes a competition against myself to make this prayer service better than the last one, my job starts to feel like trying to push a boulder up a very steep hill. But when I put the focus back on the real purpose of creating the prayer service and let that goal take the lead, my work becomes a vocation that gives me energy and brings me joy. I breathe a little easier every time I remind myself of this.

RELATED: Learning to Live in the Moment

Dealing with life’s challenges

The self-help literature seems to address the issue of suffering in life by advocating a strength-based, take-no-prisoners approach: fight against the difficulties, be strong and brave, conquer your fears. But what if I don’t feel very strong? 

Fortunately, Jesus lays out a different approach in the Beatitudes when he says, “Blessed are they who mourn” and “are persecuted.” Instead of saying that the fortunate ones are those with super-human strength and stamina, they are the ones who accept what is before them and allow themselves to feel the pain. However, that’s not to say they aren’t also people of action. They still write their legislators and work on their marriages and make it to every one of their chemo treatments. The difference is that they do these things out of an acceptance of pain as part of life, not a denial of its existence.   

Don’t get me wrong — I love a good pep talk from time to time. And I know many people have benefited from books, seminars, and even framed posters all designed to support growth. But when it comes to our spiritual lives, their focus on a striving for more, staking one’s claim, and refusing to accept anything less than fantastic comes up short. Jesus, on the other hand, got it right. He knew that a life of fulfillment comes from the depth of our hearts, not the length of our grasp. The Beatitudes provide a blueprint for a life of peace, acceptance, and dare I say … happiness. And that is definitely “good news.”

Mary Ann Steutermann is currently the director of campus ministry at Assumption High School, an all-girls Catholic high school in Louisville, Kentucky. A career educator, she has more than 20 years experience as an English teacher, assistant principal, and principal and does freelance writing on the side. She holds a bachelor's degree in English and two master's degrees in education. Mary Ann lives in Louisville with her husband and son.