At the end of the day God gets all the glory. But we need to keep striving to become who we should be: those who can take wholesome pride and satisfaction in our work and service, but who also above all else seek the praise of God, and do not worry overly much about what others think of us.
The topics covered here need to be approached carefully and prayerfully, but they do need to be discussed. And perhaps I should preface my remarks by this disclaimer: I am not a counsellor nor a pastor nor a therapist nor a psychologist. I am however a committed Christian who is very much interested in what follows.
The main theme of this piece is that we need the biblical balance when it comes to how we think of ourselves. We were told by Jesus that we are to ‘love our neighbour as our self’ (Mark 12:31). So there is a place for self-love, properly considered.
But so much of the direction in many current Christian circles is an overemphasis on self-esteem, feeling good about yourself, affirming yourself, and having a great self-image. That too needs to be balanced with the many passages that command us to deny our self, to crucify the flesh, to put off the old man, and so on.
And much of this discussion also involves the issue of whether we are first and foremost men-pleasers or God-pleasers. Do we seek above all the praise and attention of others, or of God? We know that ‘the fear of man brings a snare’ (Proverbs 29:25), but how many believers fear man more than they fear God?
As I say, we need to get the right balance here, but in my view much of the Western church today is far too fixated on self and self-worth, and too little concerned about pleasing God in all things. So let me tease this out a bit more.
The American psychologist Abraham Maslow (1908-1970) developed a hierarchy of seven needs. It was a way to assess psychological health. The bottom two have to do with basic needs such as food, shelter, safety, etc. The 3rd and 4th have to do with things like love, belonging, esteem, competency, being recognised, etc.
There is some truth here, and if you have a lousy self-image or zero self-esteem, your life can certainly spiral out of control. So even secular counsellors and psychologists will work with people in these areas, and they can offer some much-needed help to people. But the Christian knows that there must be spiritual and biblical dimensions added to the equation as well.
The idea of simply feeling good about yourself, loving yourself and never criticising yourself is hardly biblical. But believing that I am nothing and my feelings and attitudes and so on do not matter at all can also be unhelpful. So we must get things right here. And as part of this, we must realise that we are all at different places in our journey.
Many Christians need to learn what saying no to self really means. They may well need, for the first time in their lives, to really learn what the denial of self entails, and why it is so important. But other folks are so beaten down, bruised and bummed out, that they will need help in the other direction.
Let me wax autobiographical here for a moment. For pretty much all of my life I have had a poor self-image and low sense of self-worth. Therefore for much of my life I have often sought the approval, attention and recognition of others. (Even as I write this, I am wondering what others will think of me!)
So I need to work on getting the mix right here. I need to know of God’s love for me and why he highly values me. But I also need to move away from being worried about what others think of me. God’s reputation should be my main concern, and it will take God’s grace to help me break free from some of the ruts I might be in.
Learning how to get all this in its proper place is an ongoing task. We too easily swing to extremes here. But as mentioned, for many in the Western church today, learning to say no to self may be the biggest need of the hour. And many great saints can help us out here. Let me mention just three of them.
Kerry, a friend of mine, made this helpful social media post a year or so ago:
William Wilberforce struggled with wanting the approval of man as we all often do. This prayer in his journal from 1811 made me think of the social media world where it is so easy to fall into the trap of depending on the comments of others for building us up. Yes, it is nice to receive encouragement and building up from our friends, but we need to be sure we are not depending on it and seeking it over and above our dependence on and being approved by God through Christ.