Like most human beings, I’ve spent a decent chunk of my life trying to figure out how I could be SOMEBODY. We sometimes tend to categorize teens as trying to “find themselves.” But let’s be honest, the mother who first encounters the empty nest and the businessman who realizes he’s not going to rise beyond mid-level management, and everyone else in between, also have the struggle. We’re constantly trying to prove our worth. 19th century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard suggested that our sick and fallen hearts are constantly trying to build our identity upon something other than God, trying to “make a name for ourselves” (Gen. 11:4). It’s an all-consuming, self-absorbed, misery-inducing approach to life. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Not for the Christian. Here’s why….
A while back I read a brilliant little book by Dr. Tim Keller called The Freedom of Self Forgetfulness. I’m going to try to summarize his thoughts here in about 1000 words or so. If you get the point, you will recognize a newfound freedom that this world, and your sinful heart, have previously been stealing from you.
In 1 Corinthians 3-4, the Apostle Paul is speaking to a group of boastful people. Specifically, the Christians in the Corinthian church had been boasting about which Christian leader they were baptized by, instructed by, mentored by, etc. This was leading to divisions in the church as you might imagine. Anytime someone claims, or even insinuates, that they’re better than someone else, it generally leads to hard feelings. That’s probably even more so the case in issues of religion, spirituality, or morality.
The Apostle Paul tells the Corinthians, though, to stay away from the destructive “better than you” game. Rather, they should humble themselves (1 Cor. 4:6).
True pride is not merely feeling good in your accomplishments, but feeling better than others in your accomplishments. This is why if you have some great performance, but someone else comes along with a better performance, all your pride disappears. You weren’t finding joy in how well you’d done. You were finding joy in how much better you had done, by comparison, to everyone else. Finding joy by comparison will always lead to feelings of superiority or inferiority, neither of which are gospel-compatible, since the gospel says that we are all equally sinners saved only by God’s grace.
While the Bible discourages pride, our culture does not. Our specific culture in America has a pretty unique way of looking at esteem issues. Most modern psychologists will tell you that bad behavior or “acting out” is generally a result of low self-esteem. So the reason that one child picks on another or the reason a husband mistreats his wife or the reason teens rebel under authority and so on are the result of low self-esteem. Our public education system, our correctional facilities, our legislation, and our psychology largely reflects this accepted societal belief. What’s unique about this though is that most traditional cultures throughout history have not cited low self-esteem as the cause of bad behavior, but rather, overly high self-esteem, often termed “hubris”. Similarly, most modern research seems to support the idea that those with a very high opinion of themselves are actually a greater threat to those around them than those with a low opinion of themselves. (see “The Trouble With Self-Esteem”)
The Bible teaches us something different from both the traditional conservative OR modern western approaches to esteem though.
In 1 Cor. 3-4, Paul teaches an approach to esteem that is off the map of most common thought. Paul has an unprecedented, non-circumstantial peace, contentment, and joy in his life? How did he get that way? Look at what he says: “I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me.” (1 Cor. 4:3-4) The secret to Paul’s happiness lies in whose judgment he cares about the most.
Notice that in modern culture, if someone is struggling with low self-esteem, how is it often treated? ANSWER: with high self-esteem. We tell people to look at all their talents and to look at what a good person they are. We tell people that it doesn’t matter what others think of you, all that matters is what YOU think of you. But you see the problem with that, right? Who of us ever lives up to even our own standards? YES, we might feel terrible if we don’t live up to our parents’ standards. YES, we might feel terrible if we don’t live up to society’s standards. BUT, we’ll also feel terrible if we don’t live up to our own standards! That won’t work either. So, is the solution to just lower our standards? Not at all! The problem is not the standards; the problem is that the verdict is still coming from the wrong place.
Think about what Paul is suggesting here. He says that he has a very low opinion of other people’s opinions of him. However, he says that he ALSO has a very low opinion of his own opinion of himself! He understands that self-perception, even if it’s good, is often deceptive. He says, “My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent.” He’s well aware of the danger of relative perception, coming from the outside or the inside.
No. No. Paul’s approach is “Who cares what other people think of me?” AND “Who cares what I think of me?” The determining factor between me and eternal salvation or damnation is not what anyone on this planet thinks of me. All that matters in the end is what God thinks of me. And according to the gospel, I’m judged to be eternally righteous by God through the payment of Jesus.
Do you see what this does for you? It allows you to step out of the courtroom of life, constantly building a defense for yourself (either to yourself or to others). You can now love people and serve people just for the beauty of it, not to pad your résumé of righteousness and personal value. God’s gavel came down on Jesus in the form of a cross and now his declaration of you as “not guilty” of sin gives you freedom from ever fearing judgment, because the only opinion that really matters is the one that values you more than all the wealth of the world (Rom. 8:1). You don’t have to prove yourself in any way to anyone.
Doesn’t that sound nice? If you believe the gospel, this is available to you.