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By Rev Charles Seet

Preached at / Published Life BPC 10.30am Service, 2002-12-08

Text: Romans 12:1,2

According to our text, we are constrained by God's mercies to live lives that are holy, like a living sacrifice unto Him. V.2 shows us how this should affect us in our daily life - we should not be conformed to the world. The 'world' here refers to the trends, values and practices of the secular world that are contrary to godly Christian living. There are certain pursuits, forms of entertainment, and activities that are immoral, sinful, questionable, unedifying or even dangerous to our commitment to God. As Christians, we are expected to be in the world but not be of the world. And this morning, our purpose for this message is to see how to apply this to one particular thing you may already have encountered: Secular Personal Effectiveness Tools. 

This is something that you have probably encounter quite a lot in the secular world, especially in the place where you work. Business corporations invest quite a bit of money in programmes and courses for their workers that are designed to boost productivity and to troubleshoot personal and interpersonal issues that may affect or slow down productivity, things like frequent absenteeism, negative work attitudes, conflicts and stress. And this usually is the domain of the Human Resource manager, who will arrange for special workshops on personal effectiveness, stress management workshops, personality tests to help workers discover their strengths and weaknesses, effective teamwork, transactional analysis, motivational sessions to boost staff morale, and even counselling sessions for those who have problems. All these are the various Personal Effectiveness Tools that are used in the business world. 

A. There Are Some Useful Principles in Them 

Now firstly let me say that the objectives behind these tools are noble and good. They seek to promote good relationships, and they help people to work together harmoniously and to have a healthy positive attitude toward their work. And many of the principles are very practical and based on good common sense - how to set goals, how to prioritise your activities and organise your time efficiently, and communicate effectively with people. 

For example, in a course on conflict management you may learn how to prevent conflict, how to recognise the signs of conflict in the workplace, and how to resolve them. You may also learn how to do two kinds of listening - active listening and reflective listening. In fact these are things that we can use to become more efficient in our Christian life and service to God just like any other tool - handphones, PDAs, computers and e-mail. 

B. Not All of Them Are Good 

But having said all that, let me also state that not all of these personal effectiveness tools are good. Some of them tend to be very humanistic. They give the impression that man is able to do all that he wants to do, and become everything that he wants to be, on his own. Hence, they tend to elevate self and emphasise a lot on self-sufficiency.

1. Dependence on Self 

In contrast to this, the Bible emphasises that we are sufficient only in Christ. E.g. Philippians 4:13 'I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.' Why is this so important? Because it is only as we depend upon Christ to strengthen us and help us in anything we do, that we can accomplish things effectively for God's glory. Stephen Covey wrote a very popular personal effectiveness tool known as 'The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People'. The seven habits are: Be proactive, Begin with the End in Mind, Put first things first, Think win-win, Seek first to understand, then be understood, Synergise, and finally, Sharpen the saw. And it is claimed that if we develop all these habits, we will become very highly effective people. This may all sound very nice and easy (a formula for success), but we may run soon run into problems when we try to implement them on our own. That problem comes from the flesh. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. As Paul says, 'For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do.' (Romans 7:19). It is an uphill battle! - especially for those who do not have Christ. They have no means to overcome the flesh.

In his book, Stephen Covey states that there are natural laws that govern human effectiveness. But one important law that he never states is this one. Romans 7:21 'I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me.' This law makes it impossible for us to implement all these seven habits fully and consistently. Because of the sinful nature in people, they would find it difficult even to master the first habit: that of being proactive. According to Covey, to be proactive is to accept responsibility for your own behavior, and to make choices that are based on principles rather than on moods or circumstances.

But more often than not, we find people denying responsibility for their own actions and shifting it to something else. And we find that most of the choices that people make are not based on principles, but on moods and circumstances. Why? Because the natural law of the sinful nature is at work! The same thing applies to the other six habits - they only give the ideal. But how many can actually live up to all of them?

And so personal effectiveness tools like these tend to promise a lot, but can they really deliver? Listen to how these tools are usually promoted: 'You will walk out of this workshop with a better understanding of yourself and others and be able to apply the Insights model to be more effective in both your professional and personal relationships; You will be able to communicate persuasively in any situation, Stop the negative thinking and anger that are sabotaging your success, Master criticism, rejection, and conflicts to improve relationships, Harness anxiety in social situations and positively redirect its energy.' All this sounds absolutely grand.

And so they may look outwardly very impressive and have an air of sophistication or of tried and tested success about them. But they may not be able to deliver the goods. One reason for this is that they:

2. Failure to Deal With The Root Of the Problem 

For instance, in a stress management programme you will be taught how to use destressing techniques such as deep breathing and stretching exercises, autogenics, visualization, biofeedback, and progressive muscular relaxation. But stress is often caused by worry and fear about problems that no amount of stress management techniques can manage. They do not deal at all with the root of the problem - the very cause of the worry or fear. For us who belong to Christ, we have something that works far better than all that, and that is prayer.

Philippians 4:6,7 'Be careful for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.'

And in the realm of conflict management, all the communication skills and practical tips you can learn will avail nothing as long as the bitterness in the heart is not dealt with. We all know that in office politics, the root of the problem is often that of an unforgiving spirit, that is unable to forgive and forget all past mistakes. Unless this root of the problem is dealt with, conflict is bound to erupt again later on. Secular personal effectiveness tools have nothing to offer to deal with this root.

But the knowledge of God's Word does. It is found in Ephesians 4:31,32 'Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice: And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ's sake hath forgiven you.' Only when we have experienced God's forgiveness of our sins, that we will be sufficiently motivated and enabled to forgive those who have wronged us, even in the workplace.

These two examples are sufficient to demonstrate that secular personal effectiveness tools do not deal at all with the root of the problem. They can only treat the symptoms, not the disease itself. As long as the root of the problem is not dealt with, there can be no real permanent solution to the problem. It will just erupt again and again.

3. Self-Fulfilment As The Goal 

We have already seen two unfavourable points about secular personal effectiveness tools - They tend to depend entirely upon self, and they fail to deal with the root of the problem. A third unfavourable point about them is the incentive or 'carrot' that is used in them which is usually self-fulfilment and greater self-esteem. Anything that is deemed to be contrary to these must be removed, like negative thoughts of self, fear or feeling of one's sinfulness or unworthiness. It is believed that all these negative things must be removed in order to gain personal effectiveness. This is diametrically opposed to the Bible's view of self - to realise and admit that we are but unworthy sinners in the God's sight, and saved by His grace alone. Our motivation for everything we do is to please Christ. 

Colossians 3:22-24 'Servants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh; not with eyeservice, as menpleasers; but in singleness of heart, fearing God: And whatsoever ye do, do it heartily, as to the Lord, and not unto men; Knowing that of the Lord ye shall receive the reward of the inheritance: for ye serve the Lord Christ.' 

This desire of self-fulfilment can also be seen in Stephen Covey's 7th Habit, which he calls, 'Sharpen the Saw'. He says that this means that you must constantly renew yourself in the four basic areas of life: Physical; Social/Emotional; Mental; Spiritual. Can you see the goal of self-fulfilment here, if carried out by those who do not know God? Now, of course, there is a place in our life for self-development in the Christian life. The Bible says that our Lord Jesus Himself 'increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man.' (Luke 2:52) But Covey's book is more than that. Those who have read the book say that it is a step-by-step pathway for living with principles that give us the security to adapt to change and the wisdom and power to take advantage of the opportunities that change creates. It is a highly motivational and inspirational book for self-fulfilment, self-esteem and self-advancement. And this is quite typical of the many secular personal effectiveness tools that are found on the market today. They are attractive to people, because they all pander to the same desire: the desire for self-fulfilment. 

This by the way, is the same desire that drives the New Age Movement, which is really old eastern mysticism in a western garb. One of the main tenets of the New Age movement is that man has infinite potential. Man can be anything at all that he wants to be. He is viewed as divine, as co-creator, as the hope for future peace and harmony. This is based on an evolutionary concept of man - that he is getting better and better all the time. 

Because of this same desire for self-fulfillment that personal effectiveness tools shares with the New Age Movement, there is sometimes some crossover of New Age teachings and practices into these tools. They are introduced with the impressive name, 'psycho-technologies' so that people will not detect their spiritual or religious overtones. One well-known example is Transcendental Meditation (TM). 

This is sometimes incorporated into workshops or programmes for personal effectiveness, as a means to relief office stress, or to increase potential and production. In order for the technique to be of value, the individual is told to adopt the new way of thinking which underlies the change being sought. This is often called a paradigm-shift (same term used in Covey's 7 habits), which means to complet4ely forsake and forget the traditional way of thinking, and leave all behind. But the meditation techniques also open the minds of people to all kinds of suggestions - brain-washing becomes easy. This is dangerous. And there is a danger that as people begin to practise TM, and experience some benefit from it, this may lead them gradually into more and more occult practices, such as consulting 'ascended spirits'. 

As Christians, we ought to be careful with what we allow to enter our minds. We must realise that there is a spiritual battle going on for the hearts and minds of men. All of us are involved in this battle. Whatever we allow our minds to dwell upon will have a deep influence on our lives. We should therefore not get involved in dangerous techniques that can open our minds to all kinds of suggestions. Now there is another way in which personal effectiveness tools can affect the mind. And that is through the: 

4. Use of Psychology 

Many Personal effectiveness programmes offer Psychological Services and Psychometric testing. Employees are given a personality test that has been designed by psychologists to determine what their strengths and weaknesses are, and what kind of roles they are best suited for. These tests are believed to be accurate, since they are designed by experts. But the truth of the matter is that psychology is not an exact science. It is rather subjective.

Psychologists often do not agree with one another on the reliability of methods of evaluating a person's personality, nor on the treatment of mental problems. And so the psychometric testing which is used as an effectiveness tool is not reliable. Now if you have taken such a test or are required to take such a psychometric test, there is no real harm in doing so, provided that you do not take the results seriously or believe in it. Take the results with a grain of salt.

The problem starts when many people take the test very seriously and believe that they are whatever the test results say they are. So, if the test reveals that they have a certain weakness, they believe it and are bound by it. It becomes a self-fulfiling prophecy. And this can be detrimental to a person if he believes that that is really what he is and that he can never change no matter what he does. If he does something wrong, he may attribute this to an inborn personality trait, and make no effort to put things right.

C. Use Discernment and God's Word

Now that we have seen both the good as well as the bad aspects of personal effectiveness tools, we come to the bottom line - what should our response be to them? And the answer is to approach them with discernment. While we recognise that there are humanistic, spiritual and psychological elements in them, there is no need to keep yourself completely away from them. Take whatever is good and edifying, and reject whatever is not (e.g. TM).

And if your colleagues or HR manager were to question you on your stand regarding participation in these tools, use it as an opportunity to share your Christian faith with them. E.g. tell them that you have access to better personal effectiveness tools than them. We have already seen how prayer works better than anything else to remove stress and worry. The other tool for personal effectiveness that you have is the Bible. This is in fact the best tool we should be equipped with. How do we know that the Bible is the best tool for personal effectiveness? Because it says so itself in 2 Timothy 3:16,17 'All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.'

Vision & Mission


To build a united church family that is committed to making disciples through Salvation, Sanctification and Service, to the glory of God.

Verse for the Week

February 18 & 25 - Fruit of Obedience

If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father’s commandments, and abide in his love. John 15:10