This question seems to be everywhere lately, thanks to organizing maven Marie Kondo’s book and Netflix series. We could perhaps rephrase it, “Does it help me flourish?”
Flourish—The OED defines it this way:
(of a living organism) grow or develop in a healthy or vigorous way, especially as the result of a particularly congenial environment
Lydia Brownback’s new book Flourish: How the Love of Christ Frees Us from Self-Focus seeks to help readers grow in Christ in a healthy or vigorous way. She does not look to the state of our junk drawers and closets for this, however. She asserts that the biggest obstacle to our flourishing is self.
We want to see how wrong teaching about God can give us wrong ideas about God and how these wrong ideas keep us from flourishing (12).
Any teaching that sets self-love as the highest good is false teaching, and we are susceptible to it because it appeals to that deep yearning for affirmation we feel at our very core. That’s why it hooks us. It just feels so right. And there is an inescapable link between self-love and self-focus. Self-love and self-focus are really just flipsides of the same coin. They always go together. That’s why self-love, the sort that the apostle was writing about, directs our energies, thoughts, plans, choices—and even our theology—inward, making ourselves the center of all things (13).
This challenging book considers six manifestations of self-focus, and I expect that readers will find that at least one of them resonates (more than one for readers like me). The chapters discuss the traps of self-consciousness, self-improvement, self-analysis, self-indulgence, self-condemnation, and self-victimization. Some of those labels are fairly self-explanatory (see what I did there?), whereas a couple may seem less obvious. A substantial discussion guide appended to the end of the text provides guidance through relevant Bible texts for each subject and invites the reader’s personal application of the ideas.
On self-consciousness, Brownback writes:
Whatever the issue—our appearance, our family, our home, our kids—we quench the joy of our faith and mar our witness of Christ if we live self-conscious lives. It seems counterintuitive, but happiness comes not from being thought well of but by thinking less of ourselves altogether(20).
It is trust in the Lord that frees us from the snare of self-consciousness. If we shift our gaze away from ourselves and up to the Lord, we find that he is trustworthy and faithful to be all he has promised to be and to do all he has promised to do.
Something amazing happens as our trust grows: our thoughts are a lot less self-oriented, and there’s new joy in living. We taste the freedom that comes from living under the gaze of One. He loves us, and we have nothing to prove because Christ proved everything for us (25).
She contrasts the bondage of self-improvement with the freedom of true Christian transformation:
The way out of the bondage of self-improvement is to recognize that in Christ, there is none of that old self left to improve. We can simply let go of all that. This is what it means to “die to self.” It’s not about fixing our bad habits; it’s letting go of everything about ourselves—the good, the beautiful, the bad, and the ugly—and cooperating with God’s Spirit as he begins the lifelong process of making us resemble Christ himself.
How about those bad habits we want to change? Frustration will be replaced with peace and joy when we begin to live out of our changed status. We went with Christ into his death, but then we were raised with him from the dead, which gives us a whole new reality from which to frame our goals (39).
Regarding self-analysis, she addresses the compulsion to “take our emotional temperature all the time” and the restlessness of constantly adjusting our circumstances to manipulate our feelings into something like happiness. She writes, “Self-analysis is good and right when we do it under the light of Scripture. It’s destructive and sinful when the aim of all that internal rooting around is merely personal happiness” (51). Again, “A life curved inward, analyzing and evaluating every mood change and desire, is a stunted, joyless life” (55).
The chapter on self-indulgence may be the most counter-cultural for American readers. She tries to trace the fine line between necessary and restorative self-care and pleasant but potentially selfish self-indulgence. She challenges readers to observe their attitudes when a particular treat is denied them, whether that be chocolate or a favorite beverage or “me time” or a vacation. She does not pull punches in tackling the idea that a vacation is a fundamental right or need. (She does not oppose embracing travel opportunities or making family memories through time away from home. The point is whether that truly falls into the need category.) Further, she asserts that love of comfort, expressed through whatever one’s pet indulgence is, can be an idol. Like all idols, in looking to it for life we find captivity or worse, but for the grace of God. She writes, “Our comforts become a prison of our own making…. We need to keep in mind that our particular indulgence isn’t the idol; comfort is. Indulging is merely the way we worship the comfort god” (68-69).
The self-condemnation chapter also resonated with (i.e., convicted), this oldest-child perfectionist. Counterintuitively, perhaps, Brownbeck writes, “Scripture is where we learn that failing to reach personal goals isn’t necessarily sinful, but having a perfectionist spirit that demands it is” (76). Stop a moment and reread that. I’ll wait.
She shines the light of the gospel of Christ on the tendency to obsess over faults and failures, real and imagined:
Whether our struggle concerns real sin or the personal failures we define as sin, self-condemnation inhibits us from finding comfort in the gospel. Instead we berate ourselves and become critical and judgmental, not only toward ourselves but toward others too. Such misery is caused not primarily by anything we are doing or failing to do but by our inward curve.
Past sins can dominate our thoughts as we rehearse over and over what we did or said and the hurt we caused. Allowing such thoughts to dominate inhibits us from comprehending how thoroughly the gospel deals with sin and guilt. If we’d only look away from that—away from ourselves altogether—and direct our gaze to Christ in his Word, we’d see that Christ’s sacrifice trumps our sin in every respect. Jesus didn’t die on the cross for any sin of his. He took on himself our sin—yours and mine—and bore the guilt of it so we don’t have to. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). Quite frankly, if God has forgiven us, who are we to condemn ourselves? Christ died for all the sin—past, present, and future—of those who are united to him by faith(75-76).
That chapter also spends some paragraphs on discernment of whether a choice on a debatable matter is sin, looking less at the action than at the motive, and on the popular notion of self-forgiveness.
The final chapter considers ways in which self-victimization can curve a life inward and subtly deny the gospel. Gently, Brownbeck cautions against finding one’s core identity as a victim of past abuse to the neglect of the present/future riches of identity in Christ; using “victim” in place of “sin;” and believing that wounded (traumatized) people can’t live effectively now until dealing exhaustively with their past.
She does not deny the real trauma and profound wounds that too many have experienced in this broken world. She does, however, lift the reader’s eyes toward Jesus as the ultimate victim and our example in how to respond to being victimized ourselves:
Grasping the magnitude of sin—both ours and others’—is vital to getting unstuck from past trauma and flourishing as disciples. One way to strengthen our understanding of sin is to realize that Jesus himself was a victim of sin, and we are the ones who victimized him. All sin deserves death, and Christ experienced this in full on the cross, but the horrendous death he suffered was for our sin, not his own.
If we miss this, we’re likely to become bitter, angry, depressed, discouraged, or downright hopeless. We can flourish instead when we understand that Jesus “did” victimhood for us. When he was scorned, mocked, and rejected by loved ones, he didn’t grow bitter. When he faced the anguish of the cross, he didn’t sink down in despair. When he grew weary from the endless demands on his time and energy, he didn’t insist on personal space. When he saw people he loved suffer from the sins of others he loved, he didn’t lash out. Instead he prayed. He sought his heavenly Father. He forgave. He healed. He loved. And he grieved (97).
Letting go of a victim identity isn’t to deny what’s happened to us. Victimization is very real, and the scars remain. But they can be just that—scars. Scar tissue is present, but it’s no longer a wound that needs constant attention. We learn to live with it, and often we find that it becomes a testimony to God’s faithfulness. The same can be true of our sin scars. And no matter what we’ve suffered, the best is still to come (98).
In summary, Lydia Brownback’s latest book provides a helpful, biblical mirror to show us where we have the spinach of self-focus in our spiritual teeth. As with Ms. Kondo’s work, this is not a book for those who want to walk away unchanged and unchallenged, but it would make a good guide for those who want to get their eyes off themselves and turn them more fully toward Christ. The discussion guide/homework makes it well-suited to use in a small group setting, especially for a group that has been together long enough to share areas of struggle with honesty and trust.
N.B.: My copy of this book is a complimentary PDF provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest and timely(ish) review. Page numbers are from that edition. Also, the product link is an Amazon affiliate link. Purchases made through that will drop a few virtual coins in my tip jar.