In the 2006 Comedy, School for Scoundrels, an egotistical professor named Dr. P (played by Billy Bob Thornton) asks his students how many of them own a self-help book. After nearly the entire class raises their hands he proceeds to say, “That’s your first problem… you can’t help yourself because yourself sucks.” The laughter that this scene evokes is no doubt mostly a result of how shockingly offensive and crude such a statement is. Most of us would never dream of saying something so harsh or blunt. I would like to propose, however, that there is truth to be found in this wildly inappropriate insult that is worth exploring.
Before you get offended, hear me out…. The Prophet Jeremiah records these words from the Lord in Jeremiah 17:9, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick.” The Apostle Paul, in reflecting on his own life, said, “I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out” (Romans 7:18). Paul was saying that even when his motives were good and his desires were pure he would still, at times, end up falling and failing. Why is that? Paul explains elsewhere, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). None of us have within us the ability to live a perfect life. This is humanity’s greatest issue! We cannot overcome all obstacles, we cannot breakdown every wall of opposition, we cannot triumph over evil because in us is our own personal reservoir of wickedness. Yours (and my) bend towards selfishness is unavoidable and constant. And so, as Mr. Thorton’s character not so eloquently said, we really can’t fully help ourselves, because we do not have the adequate strength nor resolve to fix what is broken in us.
We all like to think we can pull ourselves up by our bootstraps; that we can muster up enough boldness and tenacity and courage to fix our problems. We can try as we may to hide our insufficiencies and highlight our greatest qualities. But can I be honest? We’re not fooling anybody. Self-help is in some ways an oxymoron. Granted, there are many things we can and should do to better manage our emotions and take responsibility for our lives. We are the only person who can take responsibility for our thoughts, attitudes and actions, and we can see amazing transformation take place if we work hard, work smart, and live intentionally with healthy, daily disciplines. But at the end of the day, even the most successful, self-controlled and highly refined among us will admit there are limits to our ability to truly and fully help ourselves.
So what is the answer? We need a helper other than us! If you read Jeremiah chapter 17 in its fullness, you’ll find these words just before the often-quoted statement, “The heart is deceitful above all else.” It reads as follows:
“Cursed is the man who trusts in man and makes flesh his strength, whose heart turns away from the LORD. He is like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see any good come. He shall dwell in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land. Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD, whose trust is the LORD. He is like a tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream, and does not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green, and is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit.” (Jeremiah 17:5-8)
The picture that is painted is quite clear: if you trust in yourself, you’re like a shrub in the desert—beautiful for a season, but awaiting certain death; if you trust in the Lord, you’re destined to bloom and remain fruitful continuously—because you are drawing strength from the water in which you are planted.
If you truly want to help yourself, you must first acknowledge your need for help. And then, of much greater significance, you must determine where your help comes from….
“I lift my eyes to the mountains—
where does my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord,
the Maker of heaven and earth”
- Psalm 121:1-2
Put your trust in Jesus. HE is the only true help for all humanity, who truly can’t help themselves.