They are the current gurus, widely quoted by everyone from church leaders to your best buddies on Instagram. They write books to help you make sense or take control of your life. But are the ideas pushed by pop psychologists like Brené Brown, Adam Grant and James Clear really new or did they take a leaf (or 50) from the Bible? City News takes a closer look.
Who doesn’t want to live a better life? One of the greatest frustrations mankind faces is to go through life without meaning and significance. Jokes like “eat sleep work repeat” make light of this scenario, while millions turn to motivational sources to “spark joy” in their daily existence.
Does this sound familiar? If you have read your Bible, King Solomon captured this existential ennui well in Ecclesiastes. He called it “meaningless, a chasing after the wind”.
Given the proliferation of social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok, Christians and non-Christians alike now have daily (or throughout-the-daily) access to content related to motivation, self-help, self-care, positive thinking and personal learning. Unfortunately, Solomon is not alive today to post his proverbs on social media—it’s likely he would have gained a huge audience and several book deals. Instead, we have pop psychologists and motivational speakers who feed us feel-good epithets on our Instagram feed, or send us a boost of motivation with a 60-second TikTok video.
This is not a bad thing: many church leaders and Christian personalities have also taken to social media to bring God’s wisdom or a word of encouragement to their followers. However, social media does not distinguish between Biblical and secular wisdom. In addition, if one knows Scripture, many “new” ideas spouted have their roots in the Bible. As Solomon said, “There is nothing new under the sun.”
What is pop (or popular) psychology? It comprises psychological ideology, therapy or techniques that gain popularity through media—books, TV shows or social media. Professional psychologists often disregard pop psychology as its recommendations may not arise from rigorous scientific research.
But that hasn’t stopped pop psychology from becoming popular. Hence, it’s important that one uses discernment and wisdom when consuming such media. That is also the case for all online content that by “passing along” that information, we may be advocating for it, whether intentionally or not.
So how should a Christian consume such content and stay in keeping with Biblical values? Let’s take a look at some of the most widely-shared motivational personalities today, and their content that mirrors what the Bible says.
It’s likely that on any given day, you will see at least one friend share a Brené Brown quote on their Instagram feed. She is an American research professor, lecturer, author, and podcast host who became famous after her TED talk in 2010, titled “The Power of Vulnerability”; it is one of the five most viewed TED talks of all time. Her books, such as like Daring Greatly and Atlas Of The Heart have spent many months on the best-seller lists. Dr Brown is a Christian and a member of the Episcopal church. Though not a pastor, she started a 15-minute church service on IG Live in March 2020 when the pandemic started.
Brené Brown on shame: “Shame is the most powerful, master emotion. It’s the fear that we are not good enough.”
She draws from her personal experience of the effects of shame in her life, postulating that shame correlates with many mental health issues such as depression, anxiety and eating disorders. She differentiates it from guilt: shame focuses on identity and self, while guilt focuses on behaviour.
Her suggested antidote to shame is empathy, which she sums up as answering “me too” to another person’s struggle. Shame grows in secrecy and in isolation; but when we find true connection through empathy, we find our way back to each other and become whole.
What the Bible says about shame: It is a key theme in the Bible. Christians believe that because of Adam and Eve’s fall, we inherit a sense of unworthiness, that we can never match up or are good enough. No matter how hard we try, we cannot succeed by ourselves. This concurs with Brené Brown’s findings on the devastating effects of shame.
However, Christians understand that the main culprit is sin—shame is a result of that sin. The Bible’s antidote to sin and the subsequent shame is the blood of Jesus. Knowing that our new and true identity is in Him, we are brought back into intimate loving connection with God when we repent. Only with Jesus can we live a victorious life, not by our own merit but because of His goodness and grace.
“Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death.” (Romans 8:1-2)
Brown’s solution to shame is found in community with others, which ties in with the idea of being in the body of Christ. While this is good advice, believers must remember that only Jesus can take away sin and shame. However, Brown’s writing reminds one of how Jesus identified with sinners even though He Himself is completely perfect and sinless. Similarly, we should reach out to others and offer them that solidarity.
@motivationstop Shame accountability and guilt. #shame #accountability #guilt #brenebrown #atlasoftheheart @Brené Brown ♬ original sound – Motivation Stop
Brené Brown on making mistakes: “The most powerful teaching moments are those where you screw up.”
Mistakes, although uncomfortable, are where we learn and change, often for the better. The Bible contains many powerful stories of figures who make many mistakes and yet are exemplary figures, such as King David, who was a murderer and an adulterer. Yet, we see that God was present throughout his life—the good and the terrible parts. David consistently repented and found redemption, growing through his experiences.
In the new covenant, Christians can be assured that they cannot be separated from God’s love, even when they make mistakes.
“For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)
Adam Grant is a Wharton University professor and an organisational psychologist who focuses on motivation, meaning and creativity. He has authored five books, the most popular being Think Again, which has been widely quoted, even by Christian leaders.
Through his content he hopes to inspire people to live more creative, generous and curious lives by thinking differently. He proposes four thinking modes people use to solve problems: preacher (“I’m always right”), prosecutor (“I’ll prove you wrong”), politician (“I’ll win you over”), scientist (“Where might I be wrong?”). If a certain way of thinking does not bear a good result, he encourages his readers to change and shift to a more productive, fruitful way of thinking.
That, essentially, is what King Solomon says in Proverbs 23:7, “For as he thinks in his heart, so is he.”
Adam Grant on thinking: “Thinking like a scientist involves more than just reacting with an open mind. It means being actively open-minded. It requires searching for reasons why we might be wrong—not for reasons why we must be right—and revising our views based on what we learn.”
Grant teaches that there is great value in thinking like a scientist, that is, to be challenged in one’s thinking. “We learn more from people who challenge our thought process than those who affirm our conclusions. Strong leaders engage their critics and make themselves stronger. Weak leaders silence their critics and make themselves weaker,” he writes in Think Again.
This is not limited to people in power, he says. Often, the ordinary person might agree with this principle of being challenged to see how he may be wrong, but in practice, it is not done much, as human nature is to prefer to hear agreement and feel good. That is precisely what makes social media so addictive, seeing your posts Liked by many.
What the Bible says about thinking: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Romans 12:2)
Christians should, by nature, think differently from the world. The Bible reminds us not to be swept away by the culture—social, work, politics—around us but to allow the Holy Spirit to direct our thoughts and actions. Intentionally taking time to be introspective and to be aware of our own behaviour and intentions can help us finding greater meaning—doing what God wills—in our everyday life.
1 Cor 2:16 says that “we have the mind of Christ.” This means we have an awareness of His will and plan for us, and we adjust and make changes to our thoughts and lifestyle with that knowledge. For Christians, true meaning is found in living a life for God according to His will, and we trust that other success will follow.
Adam Grant on being a Giver: “The most meaningful way to succeed is to help others succeed.”
Grant notes that while we spend a majority of our life at work, many people struggle to find meaning in their work. They tolerate the mundane routine of their life, either scrambling for the next promotion or waiting for the weekend. He suggests that meaning is not found in material success but in connection with others, in collaboration and serving.
He argues that there is more to achieving success than personal performance. While passion, hard work and talent are important keys to success, it is increasingly important how well we interact and collaborate with others.
According to Grant, there are three types of people: the Takers, those who want to get all they can from others; the Matchers who want to get and give equally; and then there are the Givers, a special group of people who contribute to others without expecting anything in return.
Using his own research, Grant shares that while many expect that Givers will be taken advantage of—and this does happen—giving as a way of life actually causes many to achieve great success both personally and professionally.
What the Bible says about generosity: “The generous soul will be made rich, And he who waters will also be watered himself.” (Proverbs 11:25)
God Himself is generous and gives freely, even when we have nothing to give Him in return. The greatest gift is salvation, given to us through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ without the guarantee that man would even accept this precious gift. That is the ultimate selfless act of giving.
Philippians 2:4 (MSG) says, “Don’t push your way to the front; don’t sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.”
The Bible consistently reminds us to esteem others better than ourselves, and to help others succeed. It also advocates for generosity, being a Giver as Grant suggests.
A great example in the Bible of helping others succeed with no concern of loss to self is the early church. Acts 2:44-45 describes the reality: “All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.” Given their selfless spirit, it is easy to understand how the Holy Spirit could move in and through them, and how thousands were added to the church daily.
Another good example of generosity in the Bible is Abraham, who time and again put his nephew Lot before his own interest. In Genesis 13, both men had prospered so much that the land they were on could no longer support both their tribes. So Abraham let Lot have first dibs of what piece of land, and “Lot looked around and saw that the whole plain of the Jordan toward Zoar was well watered, like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt… So Lot chose for himself the whole plain of the Jordan and set out toward the east.” Where Lot was a classic Taker, Abraham was a Giver. And we know how differently each of their lives ended.
James Clear famously says “All big things come from small beginnings”, which directly borrows from Zechariah 4:10, “Do not despise these small beginnings, for the Lord rejoices to see the work begin, to see the plumb line in Zerubbabel’s hand.” Small beginnings may be humble but over time, a good habit will become a great work.
Habits, decision-making and continuous improvement are the simple yet powerful topics that Clear focuses on. His book Atomic Habits has sold over 8 million copies worldwide and is described as a simple step-by-step guide for forming good habits that stick and for breaking bad ones. He also regularly speaks at Fortune 500 companies.
Clear’s habit-building formula arose from a horrifying accident he had as a teenager, when a schoolmate accidentally smashed his face in with a baseball bat. Against all odds, by working on the same, small physical tasks every day, Clear not only recovered but went on join his college baseball team and become the top athlete at Denison University. He was accepted onto the ESPN Academic All-America Team. The content of his books and talks are based on the practice he had mastered of exercising consistent habits. Like Brown and Grant, Clear also has his fans among the Christian elite, such as preacher Craig Groeschel.
James Clear on building habits: “Getting 1 percent better every day counts for a lot in the long run.”
Clear’s theory is that the success we achieve in life is because of our “atomic habits”. An atomic habit is a regular practice that is small and easy to do, but it has a great impact on our life because of the compounding effect of repetition. If we can stick to it, over time, it will lead to great success, he explains. By equal measure, we have bad habits which we find ourselves repeating.
Clear explains that this pattern is caused by having the wrong system. Hence if we want our lives to change, instead of focusing on the goal, we should focus on adjusting our system, which is the steps we take. For example, if your goal is to play a new song on your guitar for cell group, your system would be how much you practice, how you break down and tackle difficult parts of the song, and how you take feedback from your cell group leader when you practise for cell group meeting.
He writes: “Your outcomes are a lagging measure of your habits. Your net worth is a lagging measure of your financial habits. Your weight is a lagging measure of your eating habits. Your knowledge is a lagging measure of your learning habits. Your clutter is a lagging measure of your cleaning habits. You get what you repeat.” A lagging measure is a result you see when the action that caused it has already passed.
While it’s hard to kill a bad habit, Clear teaches that you can invert habit-building laws. For example, if you want to cut sugar from your diet, make it invisible (remove all sweets, cakes, sugar from your home), make it unattractive (instead of saying “I want to eat less sugar”, say “I want to be healthy and fit”), make it difficult (cut off access to your favourite sweets), make it unsatisfying (each time you eat a sweet, you have to pay your sibling $10).
What the Bible says about habits: while it doesn’t explicitly call them “habits”, there are many regular practices that are encouraged. The most obvious example is Jesus Himself, who regularly withdrew to a mountain to pray by Himself—that is a habit of prayer.
In fact, to be a Christian is to be like Christ, to take on His habits of prayer, fasting, reading and memorising Scripture, practicing silence and solitude, to name a few. After all, “Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did.” (1 John 2:6)
In his epistles, Paul exhorted believers to continually do the right things. He commanded the Thessalonians,“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing. He reminded the Ephesians to be “always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Eph 5:20), and to “pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests.” (Eph 6:18)
To the Galatians he said, “And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.” (Gal 6:9)
Paul encourages believers to stay on path and commit to living according to God’s ways; even when the results are not immediate, they will bear fruit in the end.
Clear’s quotable quote “You get what you repeat” is a take on Galatians 6:7-8 which says, “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.”
The actions we sow will reap success or failure—it is entirely up to the individual. Therefore, sow good seeds of holiness, and reap a character like Christ’s.
TO READ OR NOT TO READ?
There is much that can be gleaned from the writings of Brené Brown, Adam Grant and James Clear, among many other motivational authors. As we have explored here, much of the wisdom echoes what we have already read in the Bible, sometimes going a step further by contextualising the tips for our modern culture, workplace, home and even church.
We can enjoy the wit and wisdom of such authors—it feels great when some quotes capture with such precision what we are feeling. When these quotes align with our understanding of God’s word, even better! We can be encouraged that all wisdom comes from God, and that He speaks through anything He wants, even bestselling authors.
That said, as believers, we must always continue look to the Bible as our main source of wisdom and strength. If you find you are quoting pop psychology more often and with greater accuracy than Scripture, you might want to take a step back and examine what habit you are building. Who are you following more earnestly—Jesus or a human? There is no replacement for Holy Scripture, which is God-breathed.
“It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” (Matthew 4:4)
Edited by Theresa Tan