“The essence of gospel-humility is not thinking more of myself or thinking less of myself, it is thinking of myself less.” --Tim Keller
It’s very common today to hear self-affirming messages. This is perhaps especially true for women, who often struggle with self-esteem in a more obvious way than men. We are told by cosmetic companies, clothing companies, self-help books, and celebrities that we are strong, beautiful, and talented.
This is a positive message, and I’m glad we are encouraging women (especially young women) to value themselves. After all, we are each made in the image of God, and that is reason enough for valuing our unique humanness.
However, as you may have realized yourself, many times it seems these kind of positive messages fall short. They don’t help like we think they should.
Sharon Hodde Miller discovered this as she battled self-doubt and self-esteem demons. She writes about what she discovered in the Gospel Coalition article “Women, Insecurity, and the Self-Help Gospel.”
We even see these kind of self-affirming messages in the Church, Miller notes. Women struggling with insecurity are encouraged to remind themselves of their true identity as daughters of a King, who are valued and counted of great worth by their Savior.
There is full truth to this message, but, as Miller discovered, it is often not the message that will free us from insecurity and low self-esteem.
“I knew God loved me. I knew I was made in his image. I knew I was created with a purpose. I believed all these things. Yet none of it touched the depth of insecurity inside me. It wasn’t until I read Tim Keller’s tiny, power-packed book The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness that I understood why these messages weren’t working,” she writes.
She goes on to differentiate between two forms of insecurity. One is the more obvious low self-esteem that our culture (and often the Church) attempts to remedy by reaffirming and positive words. There is another form of insecurity which is the root cause for self-doubt and low confidence, however, and this one cannot be remedied by reaffirming words.
“For many of us, the source of our insecurity isn’t low self-esteem, but self-preoccupation. What we need isn’t to think more highly of ourselves, but to think of ourselves less,” writes Miller.
Often, we act as though everything centers around ourselves. This is exhausting and ultimately discouraging. When we are self-preoccupied we take everything personally--every comment, every glance, every success or failure reflects on us and says something about our worth.
For those who struggle with this second, but less-addressed form of insecurity, the solution is not to continuously reaffirm yourself because this only adds to what becomes a vicious cycle of trying to prop up your constantly needy measure of self-worth.
Miller sums it up perfectly: “The only path out of self-focus is self-forgetfulness, which is why Christian messages to “believe in myself” weren’t helping. Rather than solving the problem, they were reinforcing it. Rather than prying my gaze off of myself, they simply handed me a mirror with a Jesus tint. What I needed was freedom from thinking about myself, even when the thoughts were positive.”
Instead, what we need in this case is to be delivered from ourselves. When we truly understand that, as Christians, we don’t need to keep striving to preserve our perfect reputations, we are freed to truly live, to love others with abandon and to not be wracked by self-doubt and constant, draining introspection and self-critique.
As Galatians 2:20 says, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
Although American culture particularly is so focused on individuality and identity, God’s Kingdom is much more concerned with community and unity.
God made us each unique and, as I Corinthians 12 says, we each have different spiritual gifts and talents that we are called to use for God’s glory, but when we make these things about ourselves, we only get caught up in a gospel that puts the pressure on us, rather than the burden on Jesus, who is the only one capable of carrying it.
“That’s why God calls us into a bigger story: to live for him, instead of ourselves. When we shift our focus off ourselves—our fears, our appearance, our success, our self-doubt—and fix our gaze on Christ alone, we encounter the freedom we were created to have,” writes Miller.
“We finally learn to be free of me.”
Sharon Hodde Miller's article appearing in The Gospel Coalition is based off of her new book Free of Me: Why Life Is Better When It's Not about You.
Photo courtesy: Unsplash/Martin-Kníže
Publication date: October 5, 2017
Veronica Neffinger is the editor of ChristianHeadlines.com