Maybe it was the name: Doctor Phil. Or perhaps it was the way his face kept showing up on the sides of buses and on national television. Suddenly Doctor Phil was everywhere—chatting with Oprah, analyzing Larry King, and making a cameo on “Good Morning, America.” It could have been his no-nonsense style, the aggressive way that he told total strangers to get their act together. Or maybe it was the title of his latest book, the #1 bestseller Self Matters. But for whatever reason, I decided it was time to do a Window on the World on America’s most famous psychologist, Dr. Phillip C. McGraw.
Dr. Phil’s latest book begins with a sort of conversion story. He tells how unhappy he was during his early years in counseling: “I knew I wasn’t living the life I was meant to live. I knew there was something wrong with my life, but for those ten years, I avoided dealing with it.” What was the problem? Basically, Doctor Phil wasn’t being true to himself. Instead, he was always trying to meet other people’s expectations. “I ignored my self,” he writes, “and lived for people, purposes, and goals that weren’t my own. I betrayed who I was and instead accepted a fictional substitute that was defined from the outside in” [Phillip C. McGraw, Self Matters, New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001, p. 7].
The way Doctor Phil solved his problems was by working from the inside out, and that’s what he tells his readers to do, too. The way to become the person you were always meant to be is to listen to your inward voice, to connect with your “authentic self”—the real you. It’s about self-acceptance. It’s about self-awareness: “you have to get intimately in touch with you” [p. 38]. It’s also about self-affirmation, or believing “your personal truth,” which is what “you have come to believe about you” [p. 22]. “The ‘fix’ I’m talking about,” writes Doctor Phil, “always deals with you being true to yourself from the inside out” [p. 9].
The reason this approach to life works—according to Dr. McGraw—is because you have within yourself all the resources you need for every situation in life. He writes: “Every one of us, you included, has within us everything we will ever need to be, do, and have anything and everything we will ever want and need” [p. 41]. That is a staggering claim, one that deifies the self, placing you at the center of your universe.
It’s not hard to understand why Dr. McGraw is so popular. For starters, Americans have always believed in the self. Our real motto is not “In God We Trust,” but “Trust Thyself” [from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s famous essay “Self-Reliance”]. We also like to be in charge, and Doctor Phil promises that if we follow his advice, we will “control virtually every aspect of [our] experience in this world” [p. 11].
The book says nothing about Christianity, and almost nothing about religion in general. On those rare occasions when Doctor Phil does mention God, it is usually to take his name in vain. However, he is still taking a theological position. By saying that the self is what matters, he is pulling God off his throne.
The most surprising thing about Dr. McGraw’s book is how familiar it all sounds. There’s a new face and a new attitude, but it’s the same old conventional psychology, with the same old talk about self-help and self-image. What is so tragic is that Doctor Phil is moving people in exactly the wrong direction. The more self-absorbed we become, the less able we are to worship God or to serve others. To put this another way, the more we love our selves, the more difficult it is for us to keep the two great commandments: love your God and love your neighbor (Matt. 22:37-39). It is true that Jesus said, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:39). However, by saying this he was not encouraging us to become self-absorbed. Rather, he was telling us to love others with the same instinctive concern that we have for our own needs.
The Bible says, “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought” (Rom. 12:3). It also says, “Consider others better than yourselves,” not looking after your own interests, but after theirs (Phil. 2:3-4). This is the pattern Jesus set for us when he came to suffer and to die for our sins. It is only when we follow his example—living for others rather than for ourselves—that we discover our true purpose in life. So rather than helping people find their true identity, Doctor Phil actually is keeping them from it.
There are also serious problems with his idea that we need to stop accepting the roles that other people have for us. It’s true that it can be unhealthy to try and live up to other people’s expectations. However, it is right and good for us to be defined by our positions in life. I am a husband, a father, a pastor, and a friend. These are God-given callings that require me to live for others instead of myself. Rather than preventing me from finding my true self, they help me become the self that God wants me to become.
The last thing to say about Self Matters is that it’s not our responsibility to create our lives from the inside out. And it’s a good thing, too! Our lives, with all our talents and abilities, with all our obstacles and opportunities, are given to us by God. So if anyone is going to help us from the inside out, it is going to be God’s Spirit. The way you find your true identity is not by turning inward, but by being baptized into Jesus Christ. Once you are in Christ, the Holy Spirit works in your life, enabling you to look outside yourself to others. It is by serving them that you will fulfill your true purpose, becoming the child of God that you are called to become.
© 2020 Tenth Presbyterian Church.
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in its entirety or in unaltered excerpts, as long as you do not charge a fee. For Internet posting, please use only unaltered excerpts (not the content in its entirety) and provide a hyperlink to this page. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Tenth Presbyterian Church.
Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By Phil Ryken. © 2020 Tenth Presbyterian Church. Website: tenth.org