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Beware of the Self-Help Genre

September 19, 2017 by  
Filed under Book Club, Vicki Burbach

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Beware of the Self-Help Genre

The Lord (Week 14 of 23)

We can participate in the beginning which is he only by becoming one with his will. When we feel this we draw back, startled, for it means the cross. Then it is better to say honestly: “I can’t, yet,” than to mouth pious phrases. Slow there, with the large words “self-surrender” and “sacrifice”! It is better to admit our weakness and ask him to teach us strength. One day we shall really be able to place ourselves fully at his disposal, and our wills will really be one with his.  — The Lord (Part Four: Chapter XIV Paragraph 13)

Nearly two years ago, I started a blog about sacrifice. Why? Frankly, because I'm not very good at it. And, well, because, of all the topics we’ve addressed at Spiritual Direction, sacrifice is one that commands the most attention. I would imagine the reason for this is obvious – most people find it a challenge to give up their choice comforts, hopes, dreams, desires, and most especially, their lives, for anyone or anything.

Sacrifice is a beautiful flower that we love to view from afar, but who’s scent we suspect has been infected with an invisible but deadly poison. We are attracted to it. We love to see it. But we are repelled by the thought of actually offering ourselves so completely, for fear of the death blow to SELF that is sure to come.

Sacrifice has always been particularly challenging for me because I tend to have a rather “driven” nature.  Driven as in, please don’t get in my way or you may be trampled in my quest to achieve my goal – whether it be completing a project, getting my point across, or something as minor as taking the last piece of chocolate cake.  Not exactly the stuff that rings of sacrifice.

Thanks to my “driven” side, I've always been pretty drawn to self-help books. After all, who can't benefit from a little inspiration and direction now and then?! I love a great motivational story. And I'm the first one to grab a pen and paper and plan out my life after a little “coaching” from a book.

Self-help books promise to help with just about anything – finances, careers, relationships and more. And yes, these books sometimes do promote sacrifice. But not in the way the saints promoted it. For most self-help gurus, sacrifice is all about sacrificing time, relationships or any type of critical self-examination that might distract or detract from worldly success.

As a Catholic, I've learned over time that I really need to beware of the SELF-help genre. First and foremost, while it may be a great tool for finding success in this world, often advice in this genre fails to take into consideration that each of us is a package deal – body and soul. We were not made for this world, and to focus all our attention on achieving success in this world is to miss the point entirely.

True Christian sacrifice – founded in Christ's entire life as well as his death on the cross –  is an art that has been lost to a culture of instant gratification, self-fulfillment and rugged individualism. Christ-centered sacrifice is beautiful to behold and everyone touched by it is benefited in some way. We've all witnessed this kind of sacrifice. Some of us have offered it. All of us appreciate it. But many times, most of us just can’t bring ourselves to take that step. What are we afraid of? Do we fear what will happen if we release our own desires for a greater cause?

The truth is that in our desperate attempts to save ourselves, to fulfill our own desires, achieve our own goals, we often come up empty-handed in the end. Christ, Himself, tells us that if we let go, we will achieve a level of completion incomprehensible to our own egos:

Whoever finds his life will lose it. But whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. — Matthew 10:39

Saint Teresa of Calcutta understood this implicitly. And she knew that it all boiled down to love:

I have found the paradox, that if you love until it hurts, there can be no more hurt, only more love.

Sacrifice is indeed challenging. All the more so when you look around at a culture that has lost its way. In many circles, self-giving sacrifice has become a dirty word. A noose around our necks to prevent us from achieving our earthly desires. The world claims that any talk about this type of sacrifice is a sign of oppression and repression,  of submission and subjugation.

Here are just a few examples from a book I happen to own, The Success Principles – a best-selling book by famed Chicken Soup for the Soul author, Jack Canfield:

Pg. 13  Learn to replace complaining with making requests and taking action that will achieve your desired outcomes.  That is what successful people do.  That is what works. If you find yourself in a situation you don’t like, either work to make it better or leave.  Do something to change it or get the heck out.  Agree to work on a relationship or get a divorce…

Pg. 27 Not being clear about what you want and making other people’s needs and desires more important than your own is simply a habit.  You can break it by practicing the opposite habit.

Pg. 27 How do you reconnect with your real passion?  You start on the smallest level by honoring your preferences in every situation – no matter how large or small.  Don’t think of them as petty.  They might be inconsequential to someone else, but they are not to you.

Or, from another self-help book from self-esteem and motivational expert Cherie Carter-Scott, author of If Life is a Game, These are the Rules:

You deserve to have everything in your life exactly the way you want it.

You will not find yourself in the world. Because the world has no desire for you to release your SELF. The world places SELF in the pre-eminent position.

How to avoid this temptation? First, be very wary of self-help books offered by the world. If you want to get to Los Angeles, you don’t ask for directions to New York. If you want to become a saint – and you do, because that is the only reason you are here – don’t ask a self-help book for directions on how to achieve earthly successes. Because while sainthood will lead you to everlasting happiness, earthly pleasure might lead you to a place you never planned to go.

If you want to become a saint, to find everlasting peace and joy, ask a saint. Ask someone who has guided the saints. Only through true spiritual reading can you find the answers to life’s greatest questions. Only there can you find joy in this world and in the next.

In a Lenten reflection on “suffering love,” Bishop Barron wrote,

When a prisoner escaped from Auschwitz in the summer of 1942, the Nazi soldiers imposed their penalty. They took all of the prisoners from the escapee's barracks and lined them up, and then at random chose a man to be put to death in retaliation. When the man broke down in tears, protesting that he was the father of young children, a quiet bespectacled man stepped forward and said, “I am a Catholic priest; I have no family. I would like to die in this man's place.” 

Pope John Paul II later canonized that priest, Saint Maximilian Kolbe. With brutal clarity, Kolbe allows us to see the relationship between suffering willingly accepted and salvation. He was consciously participating in the act of his Master, making up, in Paul's language, what is still lacking in the suffering of Christ. 

We see a similar example in Saint Francis. Among the many stories told about the joyful saint, one of the most affecting is that concerning his encounter with a leprous man. Young Francis had a particular revulsion for leprosy. Whenever he saw someone suffering from that disease, he would run in the opposite direction. One day, Francis saw a leper approaching, and he sensed the familiar apprehension and disgust. But then he decided, under the inspiration of the Gospel, to embrace the man, to kiss him, and to give him alms. Filled with joy, he made his way up the road. But when he turned around he discovered the man had disappeared. Once again, suffering was the concrete expression of love. 

These are examples of true Christian sacrifice. Sacrifice that was not self-motivated, but motivated by love.

We might be hesitant. We may want to turn away. But our ultimate goal is union with God. And that union calls for surrender. It calls for suffering. It calls for sacrifice.

Love sacrifice; it is a fountain of interior life.  Love the Cross, which is an altar of sacrifice.  Love pain, until you drink, as Christ did, the very dregs of the chalice. – (J. Escrivá, The Way of the Cross – 12th Station)

While self-help books tend to be much more attuned to the a “health and wealth gospel,” the saints aligned their advice with that of Sacred Scripture. Stick with spiritual reading classics. Stick with the saints. only in this way will you learn to sacrifice your will in favor of God's Most Holy Will. Only then will you become  saint.

Reading Assignment:

Part 5: Ch. III-VI

Discussion Questions:

  1. Do you tend to read self-help books or spiritual reading books? Either way, how do you gird yourself against the material messages of the culture? Pray today that you can discern God's Will for your life and choose to live according to His plan.
  2. Feel free to comment on anything from our assignment this past week!


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About Vicki Burbach

Vicki Burbach is a wife and homeschooling mother of six children ages four to sixteen years who relishes the calm inspiration of spiritual reading amidst the roller coaster of life. A passionate convert to the Faith, Vicki is an avid reader who started the book club so she could embark with like-minded bibliophiles on a spiritual journey through some of the greatest Catholic books ever written. She is author of the new book How to Read Your Way to Heaven - A Spiritual Reading Program for the Worst of Sinners, the Greatest of Saints, and Everyone in Between. You can also find her at

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