Christianity’s Hamster Wheel of “Spiritual Advancement”

The heading for this piece takes its cue from an article Casey Chalk wrote, which was posted on January 9, 2020, at The American Conservative website.[1] The main title is, “America’s Hamster Wheel Of ‘Career Advancement’”, followed by the subtitle: “We’re told that getting ahead at work and reorienting our lives around our jobs will make us happy. So why hasn’t it?”

Regretfully, the same sort of attitude can be found in various forms of Christianity. It’s characterized by a hamster wheel of “spiritual advancement.” Supposedly, if Jesus’ followers do A, B, and C, as well as avoid X, Y, and Z, they can expect to make steady, measurable progress in their walk with Christ.

It is common for advocates of the preceding view to admonish believers to reorient their lives around the practice of any number of highly touted spiritual disciplines. According to this way of thinking, compulsively adhering to a cherished list of practices is guaranteed to make them happier Christians.

Admittedly, on the one hand, Scripture and church tradition commend the practice of prayer, fasting, Bible reading, regular corporate worship, and so on. Yet, on the other hand, the presence or absence of these neither make believers more nor less acceptable to God. Expressed differently, the Creator does not either like or dislike us based on the level of piety we imagine to be ours.

I wonder, then, whether any version of Christianity that is dominated by seeking individual merit and striving after personal goals (no matter how laudable they might seem) takes more of its cues from the corporate world of contemporary pagan culture than from Scripture. Consider, for example, the following observations Chalk makes in the opening paragraph of his article:

“Many of those who work in the corporate world are constantly peppered with questions about their “career progression.” The Internet is saturated with articles providing tips and tricks on how to develop a never-fail game plan for professional development. Millions of Americans are engaged in a never-ending cycle of résumé-padding that mimics the accumulation of Boy Scout merit badges or A’s on report cards…except we never seem to get our Eagle Scout certificates or academic diplomas. We’re told to just keep going until we run out of gas or reach retirement, at which point we fade into the peripheral oblivion of retirement communities, morning tee-times, and long midweek lunches at beach restaurants.”

A parallel set of observations could be made about a hamster wheel of “spiritual advancement” prevalent within certain faith communities. For instance, there is the compulsion to make visible, measurable progress in one’s Christian life.

Indeed, the shelves of Christian retail outlets are filled with self-help books that offer believers lists of “tips and tricks” for how to achieve their “best life now.”[2] Conscientious believers obsessively adopt a daily routine that is akin to accumulating heavenly “merit badges” or superlative grades on a cosmic “report card.”

Despite setbacks and disappointments, these well-meaning Christians soldier on, convinced that if they just do their best, then surely God will pick up the slack and do the rest. A similar, popular falsehood is that God helps those who help themselves.

In the process, many of God’s children become trapped in a “never-ending cycle” of “doing more” and “trying harder.” Yet, they never feel as if they’re getting anywhere.

It doesn’t take long for such sincere believers to discover that the summit leading to the coveted prize of “spiritual advancement” always appears to be frustratingly out of reach. It’s not surprising, then, when they become exhausted and burned out because they fall short of achieving their “fullest potential.”

Clearly, despite all our ardent, dogged efforts, we utterly fail at obtaining the sort of happiness paraded endlessly in Christian self-help books. Not even a lifetime of chasing after the chimera of personal renewal can meet our deepest spiritual needs. Instead, it leaves us overwhelmed with guilt and shame at not measuring up to a human-centered, performance-oriented, ego-centric, and legalistic religious standard.

What, then, is the antidote for the hamster wheel of “spiritual advancement”? The believers’ inward gaze must be directed outward to the Savior. In this grace-oriented approach, we recognize that the Redeemer alone can satisfy our eternal longings.

Consider Jesus’ statement that is recorded in Matthew 11:28–30 …

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened from carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke of obedience upon you and learn from me, because I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to carry and my burden is light to bear.”

Jesus made three comparable declarations that are found in the Fourth Gospel:

“Whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:14).

“I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:35).

“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).

Considering the above passages, what are we waiting for? Right now, we have an ever-present opportunity to get off the hamster wheel of “spiritual advancement” and “find rest” (Matt 11:28) for our “souls” in the compassionate, caring arms of Jesus.


[1] Website:

[2] This phrase is epitomized by Joel Osteen’s book titled, Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential (Hachette Book Group; 2014).

Professor Dan Lioy (PhD, North-West University) holds several faculty appointments. He is the Senior Research Manager at South African Theological Seminary (in South Africa). Also, he is a professor of biblical theology at the Institute of Lutheran Theology (in South Dakota). Moreover, he is a dissertation advisor in the Leadership and Global Perspectives DMIN program at Portland Seminary (part of George Fox University in Oregon). Finally, he is a professor in the School of Continuing Theological Studies at North-West University (in South Africa). Professor Lioy is active in local church ministry, being dual rostered with the Evangelical Church Alliance and the North American Lutheran Church. He is widely published, including a number of academic monographs, peer-reviewed journal articles, and church resource products.

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