I don’t consider myself to be a contrary person, as contrary goes. However, from time to time I realize that I do look at things very differently from other folks. I have been spending some time this week with a person who believes, with a lot of agreement from those around them, that they suffer from low self-esteem. Everyone’s focus is aimed at raising this persons sense of self to a higher level. They need to see how beautiful, how valuable, and how important they are. I disagree. I think this is absolutely the wrong treatment plan and will result in even deeper problems. This person doesn’t need to think more of himself – he needs to think more of Christ.
You know, one doesn’t think too much about certain organs in his body, until they stop working properly. A man who two weeks ago didn’t think too much about his gallbladder can quickly become an expert on the gallbladder; when his stops working. Suddenly, he knows all about them; what they are supposed to do, and what happens when they stop working. He can also learn that when the gallbladder stops working, the most common solution is surgery, where gallbladder experts cut them out. It is in fact, amazing how little we actually think about our bodies until something stops working. While we should never take our health for granted, the freedom from concern is often a sign of good health.
In his book The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness: The Path to True Christian Joy, Tim Keller also notices how physical ailments can grab a person’s attention. But, Keller takes it a step further by applying the whole thought to “self-image.” He explains, “the parts of our body only draw attention to themselves if something is wrong with them.” This is true of our physical body, but can it also be true of our spiritual self?”
While the world suggests that the remedy to low self-esteem is to gain a healthier or more positive self-image; Keller argues that high and low self-esteem are really the same thing; different sides of the same coin. Both are symptoms of a wounded self. Both are preoccupied with the self in a way that is spiritually sick. Both attempt to ground one’s identity on a foundation of sand. And, both supplant God as the center of one’s life, thereby, robbing Christians of meaningful purpose and life giving joy.
When John the Baptist was asked about whether men should follow him or Christ, his answer was clear, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” In plainer terms, John was telling his followers, “Forget about me (my self), and focus on Him.” John understood that the highest attainment of the human being is not high self-esteem or a great self-image. Instead, the goal of our lives is what Keller calls, “self-forgetfulness.”
Self-forgetfulness springs from a healthy soul.
In the same way we forget about our gallbladder, or pancreas while they are healthy, we can experience the same amazing liberty when our selves are healthy and whole. The less wounded we are, the less self-focused we are. If Keller is correct, the gal who suffers from low self-esteem and the guy who thinks way too much of himself – are suffering from the same thing – a wounded soul. This, by the way, is why the goal of the enemy is to keep you wounded.
We should take care of ourselves, body and spirit. We are the houses in which the Holy Spirit lives and we should strive to be healthy in every way; but not as an end in itself. Our goals are not toned, fit bodies. Ultimately, our goal is the pursuit of the Lord Himself and by losing ourselves in that pursuit, we truly find ourselves.
The solution to low self-esteem is not self-affirmation. We cannot praise ourselves or our children into a spiritually whole self-image. In the same way, we cannot will ourselves to “forget” about self. A healthy self-image is not a discipline; it is a fruit. It is not a spiritual exercise, it is a spiritual fruit. My son recently did some great teaching from the Song of Songs, a love poem that captures the intimacy and passion between a man and a woman. It celebrates the beauty of love and marriage while pointing to the greater, more perfect union between Christ and the church.
What is obvious in the poem is the total absence of self-consciousness. The two lovers suffer from neither a low self-image nor an overblown self-image, but each remains totally absorbed in the other, endlessly marking one another’s lovely traits.
This beautiful love story reminds us that self-forgetfulness is a fruit of loving another. As you fall in love with another person, your attention is focused upon them. You are so engrossed in the one you love, you are set free from any captivity to self-consciousness.
The answer to low self-esteem is not greater focus on the self, but to fall hopelessly in love with Christ.
In one of his letters, C.S. Lewis wrote, “Put first things first and we get second things thrown in; put second things first and we lose both first and second things.” To have a healthy self-image is a fine thing, but in order of importance it is a “second thing.” For those who follow Christ, the starting point is the glory of God as manifested in Christ. Only in pursuing the first thing do we have any hope in finding the second thing. Our “image” does not lie in ourselves, but in Him.