Monday, October 07, 2019

Anonymous Asks (61)

“Is low self-esteem better than pride?”

Pride is very, very bad. God hates it, and has documented his hatred of it repeatedly. It leads to destruction; in fact, it was one of the sins for which God judged the city of Sodom. James says God opposes the proud, and the prophet Isaiah reminds us that “the Lord of hosts has a day against all that is proud and lofty ... it shall be brought low.”

So pride is definitely something to avoid. The question is whether low self-esteem is really a whole lot better.

A Feature in Common

Today, we send people with low self-esteem for therapy in order to teach them to think better things about themselves. We speak of a “healthy ego” as the key to “personal development”, as if the best thing we can do with our energies is expend them on ourselves.

But why is it that low self-esteem is so dangerous to one’s mental and physical health? Why is it that it is often accompanied by anxiety, depression and stress? It is difficult to miss the fact that pride and low self-esteem have a feature in common, and that is that both involve thinking a great deal about ourselves. Whether we think too highly of ourselves or too lowly of ourselves, the fact is that either way we are entirely focused on self. We are occupied with the contents of our own heads, with our own value (great or small) and our own place in the world.

Pride’s Real Opposite

So while low self-esteem is better than pride in the sense that it is not condemned in the Bible in so many words, it is definitely not pride’s opposite. For that, we need to turn to the scriptures and the example of the Lord Jesus, who used what might seem to us to be similar language, but was saying something else entirely.

He said this:
“Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”
Lowly in heart. What does he mean by that?

Lowly in Heart

Well, Jesus certainly didn’t mean to tell us that he suffered from low self-esteem. After all, in the same sentence he actually presumes to place a yoke on his followers and teach them. He is offering to give them obligations and tell them what to do. That doesn’t sound like a person who lacks confidence, or who feels that he has nothing to offer. It doesn’t sound like a person who is occupied with himself at all; rather, he is occupied with the needs of others. He tells them, “you will find rest for your souls.”

Again, when we look at New Testament passages that speak to us about Christ’s humility, none of them imply an attitude that is in any way inwardly focused. When Paul speaks in Philippians of the Lord Jesus humbling himself, our takeaway is that we are “in humility [to] count others more significant than ourselves.” The focus is always outward, on service to others, not inward like a solipsist.

An Outward Focus

We find the same emphasis on an outward focus in the New Testament passages that instruct Christians to be humble. Ephesians says, “with all humility ... bearing with one another in love.” Colossians says, “Put on ... humility ... bearing with one another.” Peter says, “Clothe yourselves with humility toward one another.”

Humility that is outwardly focused is the true polar opposite of pride. A biblically humble man does not spend his time worrying about how awful he is. A genuinely humble woman does not spend her time fretting about how useless her service is compared to others. Both are too busy focusing on others to think much about how they themselves are doing, either for good or ill. They are characterized by an absence of attention to self.

They have forgotten self altogether.

Me Me Me ...

Now, there is a sort of false humility that the writers of scripture advise us to avoid. Paul speaks in Colossians of asceticism and “severity to the body” that appears wise but actually has no value in stopping self-indulgence. This is because it is all about me. It is about improving the self rather than serving the Lord and others. It is inwardly rather than outwardly focused.

Humility is not merely about giving things up. That is only half the battle. The point of taking the low place or doing without is not to impress others or to make yourself a better person. The point of giving something up is to help the other guy and to make his situation better. That is the ultimate goal.

Lose sight of that, and what you’re doing is not actually humbling yourself at all. You’re really just trying to exalt yourself in a backhanded way.

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