One of the pitfalls of self-help is that we can often use it to avoid deep change. We like it because the self that needs help and the self that gives help are one and the same. In this loop, we are in control of defining the need, and we are in control of providing the help we think our need needs. Unfortunately, too often we fail to see the depth of our needs and the shallowness of the help we offer ourselves. Self-help aspires to making you a butterfly, but instead it only leaves you a slightly better caterpillar.
One of the basic truths of the Christian Gospel is that self-help, in relation to God, is virtually no help at all. Try as we might, our efforts to storm heaven by our moral or spiritual effort leave us as earth-bound caterpillars. Some might fool other caterpillars into thinking they’ve somehow arrived in heavenly places, but when you pierce the appearances, you only find Pharisees huffing and puffing to keep up those appearances— they’re caterpillars pretending to fly!
The Bible, if it is about nothing else, is about who God is and who we are, and when you look at who God is and who we are, we find that there is a huge gulf between us that no amount of huffing and puffing self-help can bridge. To come into God’s presence is to have every thought, every motive, and every action exposed for what it is. No wonder no one can see God’s face and live! (Exodus 33:20). In other words, there are no flying caterpillars (Romans 3:23, 6:23).
This gap between holiness and helplessness is unbridgeable, at least on our side of the chasm. However, with God, it’s a different matter. The good news that is at the heart and soul of the Good News is that God is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin. . .” (Exodus 34:6-7, ESV—the Old Testament, if you please!) Because God’s love is not co-dependent love—it “will by no means clear the guilty (Exodus 36:7)—it accepts and embraces us, while changing us completely—from our depths.
The Gospel tells us that God’s love comes to us in Jesus Christ, and supremely in his death and resurrection. God’s notion of self-help requires the self to die. The only way the caterpillar can become a butterfly is to die. As God pokes and probes our desires and motives, we find ever darker shadows. Like an old, decaying house that must be torn down before it can be rebuilt, we are selves that can only be healed by dying. That may sound odd, but it is at the heart of what Jesus tells Nicodemus, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’” (John 3:6-7, ESV) In other words, butterflies fly, and caterpillars can’t. If you’re going to fly, the caterpillar must die first.
There can be no resurrection apart from dying, just as there can be no such thing as a flying caterpillar. The issue is, how badly do you want to fly? How badly do you want the resurrection life God offers us? Christ’s death is for us; his resurrection is for us. To receive Christ into one’s life is to be baptized into his death. In the words of the Bible, “We were buried . . . with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” (Romans 6:4, ESV)
As one writer put it, “When Christ died for our sins and rose again, He took away the only thing that separates us from God—unforgiven sin. His resurrection proves that He is life, and it proves the genuineness of the eternal life He offers us if we come to Him for salvation. . . the power that raised Christ from the dead is the exact same power we experience as we walk in Christ, the giver of eternal life.” (Henry & Melvin Blackaby, “Experiencing the Resurrection”).