Beyond Self Improvement

Before God could use these [great devotional writers of the past], He had to bring them to the end of themselves. He had to teach them that self-confidence–no matter what it’s form–could only result in defeat. Many of these servants had to spend years of struggling in the “self-life” before they learned to depend on the Risen Lord Jesus to be their All in All. One such man was C.A. Coates. The following account reflects some of the lessons that he learned in his own struggle with the flesh.*


An Illustration

I had to see about some work being done the other day, and was asking the contractor how much it would cost. “It won’t cost very much,” said he, “because we can use all the old material.” Now that is precisely what God could not do. There must be a new start altogether with new material. God rejects the old material altogether and begins entirely anew, and the one who is born again begins to learn the true character of the old material–i.e. all that he is as a child of Adam and a man in the flesh–and to be as dissatisfied with it as God is.

Biblical Examples

You may see this in Job and Saul of Tarsus. One of them said, “I abhor myself,” and the other said, “I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) dwelleth no good thing” [Job 42:6; Rom. 7:18]. Such language as this is the mark of one born again. He identifies himself with that new “inward man” which is of God, and he judges everything of a contrary nature to be sin. In itself this is not a happy experience. It is not very pleasant for one who has been self-sustained and self-satisfied in a moral and religious life to find that there is not one bit of good in him [in his flesh]. Some may discover this by a single flash of divine light, as in the case of Saul of Tarsus, and others may have years of struggling and disappointment before they learn it, but it must, and will, be learned sooner or later by every one that is born again.

A Testimony

You might be very well up in the doctrine of deliverance (Gal. 2:20), and yet all the time be secretly attempting to correct and improve yourself, and suffering a good deal of private vexation and disappointment on account of the failure of your attempts. I know how long I struggled on in this way myself, praying and striving to be more holy and Christ-like, and continually disappointed with the result. I do not think that it ever occurred to me in those days that I was trying to improve the man whom God had set aside. It was at a moment when I was utterly discouraged, and ready to give up the whole thing in complete despair, that God showed me how I was attempting to work upon the old material which He could only condemn, and that my disgust and despair as to myself were only a feeble echo of His. I shall never forget the joy of finding out that in the depth of my disgust with myself I was thoroughly at one with God. God had ceased to look for any good in me and had Christ before Him, the perfect and infinitely acceptable Object of His heart; and I, in my nothingness, had ceased to look for good in myself, and was tasting the deep joy of being in Christ, and free to have Him as my Object; while, as to life, I entered in some degree into the blessedness of knowing that it was “not I, but Christ liveth in me.”


This discovery of the inability of self to please God is what turned men such as Hudson Taylor, Andrew Murray and George Muller into instruments that could be used by God. In order to do any lasting work for the Lord, we too will need to make that same discovery. Only as we learn to abide in the Vine will we be a vessel that is “meet for the Master’s use” (2 Tim. 2:21).

“For this reason we also, since the day we heard it, do not cease to pray for you, and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding; that you may walk worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing Him, being fruitful in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God” (Colossians 1:9, 10).*


* From the Foreword in None But the Hungry Heart. This is a devotional anthology edited my Miles Stanford, arranged in a year of daily readings. “In None But the Hungry Heart, you will be introduced to the heart beat of such men who ‘walked humbly with God’ and ‘placed no confidence in the flesh.'” Introduction and conclusion of this article are by the book’s editor.

C.A. Coates (1862-1945)

Article’s title and subheadings – JBW

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