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Doesn’t God want you to change for the better?

26 August 2016

Personal development, a vital concern, incurs too much Christian suspicion, to the detriment of mission, says Mark Vernon

WHEN I was researching a radio programme recently about the Sunday Assembly, the remarkably successful “atheist church” that since 2013 has grown to more than 70 congregations, I came across a trick that the Church of England is missing, and that it even seems to oppose: personal development.

Alongside the Sunday Assembly’s gatherings and its commitment to social concern, it offers support and mentoring groups. The founders heard a request for self-improve­ment, and responded.

The demand is not surprising. Personal development is common­place in the modern world. There are self-help books, various types of therapy, mindfulness training, pro­fes­sional coaching, and projects such as the Idler Academy and the School of Life (the last of which runs adult courses, with which I am involved). Even the BBC website has a substantial personal-development section.

Of course, the quality of what is on offer varies enormously. At one end, there are bestsellers such as The Secret by Rhonda Byrne (Atria, 2006), which, frankly, I find creepy: the “secret” is that you can attract to yourself anything that you want, from more happiness to a new Porsche.

At the other end are guides such as The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey (Simon & Schuster, 1989), which could have been titled A Practical Introduction to Aristotelian Ethics — except that that would not have sold so briskly.


THE Church of England might be a leader in personal development, too. There are numerous sayings of Jesus that promise his followers a trans­formation so profound that they will become nothing less than friends of God. How else might that happen without putting in the legwork to be changed?

Some of the central doctrines of Christianity invite personal development, such as coming to know, not just to be told, that you are made in the image of God. It is a path that monastic com­munities have long understood. From its earliest days, monast­icism utilised a self-help book of the ancient world: Epictetus the Stoic’s Enchiridion (”handbook”), which laid out a type of basic train­ing for novices.

If, however, you mention per­sonal development in many church circles, you can receive a sniffy response. There is a culture that would dismiss a retreat of 40 days and nights as excessive and self-indulgent. I was once told to stop fixating on myself narcis­sistically, and turn to the light of Christ. (In therapy, that would be called splitting.) Someone else decried all the navel-gazing, before scurrying off to the next church meeting. (In therapy, that would be called a manic defence.)

The irony of this last response is that the phrase “navel-gazing” was first coined to mock the meditations of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. How was that going to save souls, they were asked. How was it going to help others?

It might do so because the most compelling presentation of the gospel is when you sense its trans­formative potential in someone else; when you detect that someone is living out of Christ rather than from the shallow waters of the self.


I AM sure that this is what St Paul meant when he spoke of having died. There is, however, only one way to that new life: through the heart of your own darkness. That is not narcissistic: it is the truth of Good Friday.

Coupled with the concern about narcissism is a related source of aversion to personal development, which is connected with a particular interpretation of the gospel. Taking up your cross has become a burdensome moral command rather than a liberating transformative in­­vitation.

I have heard countless sermons when the gospel message of “You can change” is subtly shifted to “You should do this or that.” The upshot is that Christianity is often viewed as a guilt-inducing and probably suspect ethical framework. I felt this again when visiting the Sunday Assembly. One of things that it gets right is projecting a powerful sense that you are welcome as you are; indeed, you are wanted as you are.

This is very different from how church can feel, particularly for those whose exposure to it is only through news and headlines, as is the case for most people in the UK now. It feels like a workplace that, when you arrive at the office door, implicitly requires you to leave your personal life outside.

It is not that moral behaviour is unimportant. Rather, what we do should arise from how we have changed. The Good Samaritan was not dutiful: he was free — he helped because he was without fear. As William James put it, good works are fruits, not roots; and if you try to force the fruits with no deep roots, you burn out and die.


THERE is another issue that, to my mind, opens up the most important area of modern personal develop­ment: psychotherapy. It is the sense that psychotherapy is an inter­vention that is needed when some­thing has gone wrong, and not a source of know-how that can rout­ine­ly aid spiritual development.­

And yet 20th-century psycho­therapists such as Melanie Klein and Wilfred Bion were not interested only in clinical cases: they also explored the dynamics of everyday human envy and hate, and of the struggle to be grateful and to love.

In a way, they were rediscovering what Christians know as sin, which can be understood as qualities that anyone who pays attention can find within. With that attention comes the realisation that these qualities constrict what is possible in life, personally and spiritually, some­times to a great extent. Psycho­therapy is interested in these qual­ities. It does not judge them, however, but offers a space to think about them, and to understand their inner dynamics, in order to be freer of them.

Evagrius Ponticus was one of the first contemplatives systemat­ically to explore gluttony, anger, despair, and pride, in a way that is comparable to modern psycho­therapy. He believed that they were worth getting to know in yourself because the Kingdom of God was the tranquillity of soul that was found on the other side of them. Through practice and grace, we could come to have first-hand knowledge of such truths, and of God.

This is the goal of Christian per­sonal development. Evagrius de­­scribes this inner journey in his Praktikos, which outlines the life of the ascetic. The word comes from the Greek askesis, which originally meant stepping out of your limited self, or personal development. The fact that “ascetic” has become an anxiety-laden term speaks volumes.

An individual or an organisation can truly assist the spiritual devel­opment of others only by being engaged in a process of askesis, too. Like sunshine on plants, spiritual growth is fostered by direct expos­ure to the practical intelligence that shines out when it is embodied in the life of teachers or guides.

Philosophers such as Plato called it wisdom. Buddhists talk of skilful means. This is why psychotherapists must undergo therapy themselves.

For me, this is the most profound meaning of Jesus’s call to follow. He has walked the path already; so he knows. As a priest put it to me recently, what the Church needs is not more managers, but some gurus.


Dr Mark Vernon is a psychotherapist in private practice and at the Maudsley Hospital in London, and also a writer and teacher. Among his books is The Idler Guide to Ancient Philosophy (Idler Books, 2015).

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