The Christian's Self-Image
How a person envisions himself, or herself is one of the most influential facets of a person's world view. Many Americans are dominated by the national and cultural image that is encouraged by our collective history, the media, and most modern religions. It seems that our culture generally fosters a profoundly strong sense of self-confidence. This high level of confidence enables the modern American to swagger in the face of adversity, meet any challenge undaunted, and focus his full force on any threat, unfettered by the shackles of fear. But, is this always good?
Fear can negatively affect a person's life, paralyzing all activity. God's Word does teach that we should not have a spirit of fear (I John 4:16-18). However, the fearless confidence found in the Bible is generated by a standard not based on self, but on God. Although the ideal of faith and trust in God is simple to state, the subtleties of application are profound and contradictory to the modern American mind. Even after initially securing the appropriate Bible attitude, pride has a way of slowly misdirecting our confidence, substituting a corrupted basis for the appropriate self-image.
"Why Should I Study about Self-image?"
Generally, the topics of self-image, self-confidence, self-esteem, and being self-conscious are considered to be issues that plague teenagers and adolescents. As we mature we usually become somewhat settled in our view of ourselves. However, just because we settle on a certain view of ourselves and become comfortable with it, that does not necessitate its correctness. Throughout our life, difficult temptations, personal trials, and challenging situations will eventually shake us in our heart of hearts and leave us feeling uncertain - like we were thirteen all over again. We never escape the need for a correct self-image, but we may temporarily avoid the issue by becoming content with an inadequate compromise. As we age, we may prefer to ignore the issue, pretending it to be resolved, by simply avoiding changes or challenges that force confrontation with ourselves.
How we look at ourselves, our self-image, is a cornerstone to how we look at everything else. It filters our thoughts on everything, and determines whether we will react bravely or shrink timidly. It determines if we will initiate our own activity or criticize the efforts of others. Proverbs 4:23-27 teaches us that a man's heart is the center of the issues of life; consequently, how we view or esteem ourselves is of profound importance in recognizing and answering the issues of our lives. Therefore, the topic is worthy of sincere pondering (Proverbs 4:26).
Have you had the pleasure of being around a cheerful, optimistic, confident person? A merry heart is partially produced by a proper sense of confidence and self-esteem. It not only manifests itself in our outward attitude and disposition (Proverbs 15:13), but it also affects our physical health (Proverbs 17:22) and influences the attitude of those around us (Proverbs 18:14). It is critical that we have a proper view of ourselves because an improper view leaves us vulnerable to the attacks of the enemy (Proverbs 27:8).
Self-Confidence versus Self-Esteem
If you examine an abridged dictionary, or consult a simplified thesaurus, it may list these words, self-confidence and self-esteem, as being synonyms. Although closely related, a fine difference does exist between these two concepts. In fact, many internal conflicts are generated by confusing and merging these two ideas.
Just look at the words: Self-confidence and Self-esteem. "Self-confidence" would indicate an attribute of security and assurance in oneself. It is an answer to the question, "What can I do?". However, "self-esteem" is not so much concerned with the confidence of one's abilities as it is concerned with answering the question, "What am I worth?" It is an analysis, measurement, and evaluation of one's own personal worth.
Personal and internal conflict arises when we confuse the two. If we value, or esteem ourselves by our abilities or potential, then we will fall subject to great depression when our abilities fail and our potential appears dark. It is when we fail that our self-confidence is tested. Successive failures cause us to question our ability. Eventually, our self-confidence itself fails, and our self-esteem crumbles. "After all, what is a loser worth?" "How can such a worthless person ever hope to succeed?" The low self-confidence depresses our self-esteem. The depressed self-esteem further hammers our self-confidence. A vicious cycle ensues, trapping us in an ever deepening and downward spiraling free fall into a pit of depression and despair.
What causes these paralyzing problems? We all, at some point in our lives, realize that our self-confidence is built on a flawed foundation. Like a house of cards, or the foolish man's house built on the sand (Matthew 7:24-27), our self-confidence comes tumbling down. What was the problem? We probably confused our worth with our abilities, using our self-confidence as the basis of our self-esteem. Additionally, we likely used a combination of false standards to bolster our self-confidence, thereby "hyping up" our own worth on this flawed foundation of unrealistic self-confidence.
Tearing down internal foundations is always painful, especially when it is a cherished principle upon which we have come to trust so deeply. However, it is crucial that we scrutinize this foundation, because it is one of the cornerstones of our heart, and "out of it springs the issues of life" (Proverbs 4:23). Therefore, we now turn our investigation to the many possible false standards upon which many base their self-confidence, and thereby base their own self-worth. Since everybody is different, many people will not relate to one false standard, while being strongly dependent upon another. Also, one may not realize that his confidence is misplaced until he spends some time thinking about it. Consequently, we will spend some time in this chapter examining many of the potential false standards for self-confidence.
False Standards: Success
The false standard of material success is possibly the easiest faulty basis to realize in someone else. Few things are more obnoxious than the boastful ramblings of someone bragging about their luxurious car, huge house, extravagant jewelry, large income, shining career, or other signs of material success. But, someone may ask, "Other than being odious, what is so wrong with someone bragging overconfidently because of their success?"
When a rich young ruler approached Jesus with the question, "Good Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life?", Jesus ultimately answered him as follows:
Jesus said to him, "If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me."
But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.
Then Jesus said to His disciples, "Assuredly, I say to you that it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. And again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." Matthew 19:16-26
Material success brings a feeling of security. Even the Bible teaches of riches serving as a defense (Ecclesiastes 7:12). It makes us feel safe and prepared; however, there is a flaw in such confidence: Riches are uncertain (I Timothy 6:17). While we have them today, they do offer some defense, but there is no defense against their sudden disappearance. They make wings for themselves and fly away (Proverbs 23:1-9; 27:23-24). This leads to incredible amounts of stress and many sleepless nights, fearing not so much the loss of our goods as the loss of our security.
Not only is material success an empty false standard for confidence, but it is also a deceptive and dangerous basis. Recall that the rich young ruler sorrowfully rejected Jesus' invitation to follow Him, because the ruler had many possessions (Matthew 19:16-26). Not only was he miserable, but his trusting in riches prevented him from responding to Jesus' message. Trusting in riches, and the accompanying love for it, masks the urgent, desperate, and true need for salvation. It hides our sins by offering a false sense of security (Proverbs 18:10-12; 28:11; 11:28). The rich fool decided that his station in life was secure, and that he had nothing left but to "take it easy, eat, drink, and be merry" (Luke 12:13-21). That very night, his life was taken and his soul lost. If a man is successful and comes to trust and value himself based on his success, but at some point loses his job, his nice car, his large house, and other his material goods, what will he be worth then?
False Standards: Intelligence and Wisdom
Probably the most tragic and dramatic example of one's confidence misplaced in his own intelligence is that of Ahithophel. During the reign of King David, Ahithophel served as one of David's most wise and trusted counselors. In fact, even the Bible speaks of his advice being powerful, as if it came directly from God (II Samuel 16:23). However, Ahithophel's loyalty was not with the king. He conspired with King David's son, Absalom, to ruin, overthrow, and kill the king (II Samuel 15:30-37; 16:20-17:4). Eventually, according to David's prayer (II Samuel 15:31), Absalom ignored the advice of Ahithophel, even though it would have destroyed David, and secured the victory that Absalom sought (II Samuel 17:14). How did Ahithophel react? How did the man react who was known as the man with wisdom comparable to the oracle of God?
"Now when Ahithophel saw that his advice was not followed, he saddled a donkey, and arose and went home to his house, to his city. Then he put his household in order, and hanged himself, and died; and he was buried in his father's tomb." II Samuel 17:23
How could one so wise, despair and fall so tragically? Did he not think he could endure the shame and humiliation? Could his pride not bear up under the rejection and failure? What is the application and lesson for us? The same can befall us, if we place our confidence in our own intelligence. We become accustomed to the praise and glory it brings. Our pride swells to a perilous height, from which the fall can only bring calamity. But, for the man, whose feet never leave the ground, there is no height from which to fall.
Not only is this false standard deceptive and actively destructive, but it also makes us unable to receive the very medicine that will save us (Proverbs 3:5-7). In the book of Proverbs, no greater title of condemnation is given than that of "fool". It is the label of warning, which depicts the destruction that awaits those who reject God's wisdom. Yet, after all the warnings that Proverbs offers about the fool, it provides one final warning of an even greater danger:
"Do you see a man wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him." Proverbs 26:12
Overconfidence in our own wisdom is one of the most dangerous false standards of self-confidence and self-esteem. The apostle Paul noted that there is a suspicious lack of "noble" and "wise" people among the Lord's saints (I Corinthians 1:18-31). Why is this, except that they must renounce their dependence upon their own intelligence, riches, and power? They have grown accustomed to faith and confidence in their own intelligence, abilities, and wisdom. They become unwilling to humble themselves before God and recognize their dependence upon Him. We must be sure to tear down any such "house of cards" built up in our heart. Otherwise, we will build an empty life upon it, and it will one day tumble down, just like the life of Ahithophel.
False Standards: Health
What about our health? "If you have your health, you have everything, right?" However, our health is not dependable. Just because we are strong, vibrant, and healthy does not necessitate that this will always bring success and security. Life is not always fair:
"I returned and saw under the sun that -- The race is not to the swift, Nor the battle to the strong, Nor bread to the wise, Nor riches to men of understanding, Nor favor to men of skill; But time and chance happen to them all.
For man also does not know his time: Like fish taken in a cruel net, Like birds caught in a snare, So the sons of men are snared in an evil time, When it falls suddenly upon them." Ecclesiastes 9:11-12
Not only is life not fair, but even though our health offers some confidence today, it offers no assurance for tomorrow. When we are young, we may feel that we are invincible, special, and indestructible; but as we age, our health quickly fades. Be wise, and consider your end.
"Remember now your Creator in the days of your youth, Before the difficult days come, And the years draw near when you say, "I have no pleasure in them":
"While the sun and the light, The moon and the stars, Are not darkened, And the clouds do not return after the rain;
"In the day when the keepers of the house tremble, And the strong men bow down; When the grinders cease because they are few, And those that look through the windows grow dim;
"When the doors are shut in the streets, And the sound of grinding is low; When one rises up at the sound of a bird, And all the daughters of music are brought low;
"Also they are afraid of height, And of terrors in the way; When the almond tree blossoms, The grasshopper is a burden, And desire fails. For man goes to his eternal home, And the mourners go about the streets.
"Remember your Creator before the silver cord is loosed, Or the golden bowl is broken, Or the pitcher shattered at the fountain, Or the wheel broken at the well.
"Then the dust will return to the earth as it was, And the spirit will return to God who gave it." Ecclesiastes 12:1-7
False Standards: Experience and Age
Old age, and the experience gained by it, should be a blessing to those who are honored to see it. God did speak of a certain "glory" that is associated with age (Proverbs 20:29). However, no one may advance in age, or gain experience such that they have no need of instruction. Those who become confident in their age may find themselves like those who are self-confident in their intellect:
"Better a poor and wise youth than an old and foolish king who will be admonished no more." Ecclesiastes 4:13-16
Many elderly Christians, able and eager to bestow their wisdom, are unable to receive the thing they are so willing to give. Destroying their own credibility, they teach by example that instruction is valueless, thereby discouraging the youth from pausing and considering their advice. If the aged have not learned how to accept wisdom, why should the young? Conversely, the youthful often refuse to receive instruction because of their confidence in their own age, denying the gifts of their elders. Humility and tearing down the false confidence in age is required for both parties.
False Standards: Gender
We often do not begin by placing confidence in our gender. Often, our pride and prejudice grows out of our pain. We may frequently perceive injury from our spouse, dating partners, or peers until we begin to assume and assign the worst to the opposite gender. Bitterness sets our minds against the opposite gender. Of course, one may similarly grow to resent his own gender by the observance of their repeated shortcomings, or the seemingly continual successes of the opposite gender. Whatever may have been the original cause, a prejudice may eventually develop that provides the crutch of a false sense of self-confidence, or self-worthlessness.
Differences do truly exist between the sexes. Male and female were not created identical. In fact the female was created because of the male's need and incompleteness (Genesis 2:18-20). However, neither have cause to boast, because both are interdependent:
"For man is not from woman, but woman from man. Nor was man created for the woman, but woman for the man." ...
"Nevertheless, neither is man independent of woman, nor woman independent of man, in the Lord. For as woman came from man, even so man also comes through woman; but all things are from God." I Corinthians 11:8-12
Although Peter speaks of women being like a weaker vessel (I Peter 3:7), his emphasis was not so much on the average physical prowess of men over women. But, his inspired lesson was that men should treat women like they were a weaker vessel. How does a husband do this? If you have a very expensive, precious, but fragile vase in your house, you take special care such that it is not bumped or injured. You give it extra attention because of its value, and you are sensitive to the extra care that it requires. Similarly, men are to provide their wives with extra care and attention, seeking to understand them, so that they may provide what their wives need.
Conversely, God clearly speaks of man's need and dependency upon woman. It is evident from creation (Genesis 2:18-20), and it is evident from analyzing the qualifications of elders and deacons. These roles of service provide greater opportunities for men to serve their local congregations, they are to be respected for the responsibilities they bear. However, God saw fit to require that these men be married (I Timothy 3:1-13). Apparently, the woman offers something that man could not have otherwise learned independently.
This interdependency denies the crown of superiority to either gender, disallowing any person to place confidence in himself, or herself by virtue of his, or her gender. Before you call the attention of your spouse to these truths, first consider yourself: "Is there not something that I can learn from these Bible truths to help bring me closer to God and help me better fulfill my responsibilities?"
False Standards: Sincerity
As we examine ourselves, we may find that it is difficult to find clear recollections of thinking ourselves superior, or secure by virtue of our intellect, wealth, health, age or gender. Closer study is required for these things to become apparent. Many will find these ideas to be subtly ingrained, while for others it is obvious. Some false standards we know to be wrong, but often we find ourselves lapsing into a deceptive sense of false assurance.
It is in this subtle way that we may find ourselves feeling overly-confident because we imagine ourselves as sincere and earnest in our motives. We may acknowledge the possibility of our error, but we deny its significance because of our sincerity.
Sincerity, or a clean conscience cannot be a source of confidence (Proverbs 28:26). The apostle Paul, before his conversion, persecuted and killed many Christians, all done ignorantly and with a clean conscience (Acts 23:1; I Timothy 1:12-16). Have we mistakenly placed confidence in the genuineness of our sincerity?
"Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven.
"Many will say to Me in that day, 'Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?'
"And then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!'" Matthew 7:21-23
Some might think that this is a blow to justification by faith, but please notice the subtle difference. True Bible faith does not stop at earnest conviction, but it strives earnestly for a better understanding of God's will and complete obedience unto it (James 2:14-26). A misguided confidence in one's sincerity will unconsciously, slowly, and subtly dissipates one's desire, zeal, or urgency to learn more about and obey God. Over time, it becomes apparent that such a faith is not in Jesus Christ but in one's own sincerity before God.
"How can we tell the difference?" "How can I determine if this has happened to me?" We must ask ourselves what is our attitude toward learning about God and obeying Him. "Does it really matter?" "His mercy will take care of everything, right?" "Just as long as I am sincere?" We must never forget the examples of Nadab and Abihu (Leviticus 10:1-3), King Saul (I Samuel 15:22-23), especially Uzzah (II Samuel 6:3-9; I Chronicles 15:2, 13, 15), and the lessons they teach us today (I Corinthians 10:11-12). No one is truly sincere who is either willfully ignorant or disobedient.
False Standards: Talent and Ability
What about our talents, abilities, and skills that we have developed? Whether it is preaching or engineering, parenting or doctoring, driving or piloting, developing skills tend to provide us with some level of confidence. However, we must realize that all talent are gifts from God.
For the first 40 years of Moses' life, he was raised as a prince in Egypt (Exodus 2:1-10). He acquired tremendous intellect, skill, and ability. At the peak of his abilities, he set out to help his people, the Israelites, but he was rejected by them (Exodus 2:11-14). After failing, he fled into the wilderness and became a simple shepherd (Exodus 2:15-22). It was only after 40 years of humiliating labor that this broken man was now ready to serve as God's chosen leader (Exodus 4:10).
I Peter 4:11 encourages Christians to serve, or minister according to the "the ability which God supplies, that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ". Paul thanked "Christ Jesus our Lord who has enabled me, because He counted me faithful, putting me into the ministry," (I Timothy 1:12). Whether one serves as an apostle or a simple Christian, all talents and abilities to do good are a blessing and gift from God. How can one boast, or be self-confident in something that he did not earn, but received as a gift (I Corinthians 4:7)?
False Standards: Righteousness
One might reason, "I would never fall into those traps. I have set my heart on following after God." "It is my desire to serve as a leader among God's people." "In fact, I will excel above them all." "I will be the most righteous Christian." "All who see me will praise me and be thankful for my presence." Righteousness is possibly the most dangerous form of self-confidence. It seems that once we learn to overcome sin, some of the most difficult temptations to follow are smug complacency and self-righteousness.
Please recall that the condemnation of the Jews, who lived during Paul's day, was their self-righteousness.
"What shall we say then? That Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have attained to righteousness, even the righteousness of faith; but Israel, pursuing the law of righteousness, has not attained to the law of righteousness. Why? Because they did not seek it by faith, but as it were, by the works of the law. For they stumbled at that stumbling stone.
"As it is written: "Behold, I lay in Zion a stumbling stone and rock of offense, And whoever believes on Him will not be put to shame."
"Brethren, my heart's desire and prayer to God for Israel is that they may be saved. For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For they being ignorant of God's righteousness, and seeking to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted to the righteousness of God." Romans 9:30-10:3
Few people actually consider themselves to have perfectly kept God's laws and thereby justify themselves. Most people realize that no one keeps God's law perfectly, meriting salvation (Ecclesiastes 7:20). It seems the subtle and more dangerous trap is that of a confidence in one's relative righteousness. We must always beware the confidence that arises from noticing, "Well, at least I am not like so-and-so." Or, "That brother is the worst gossip." "That sister is so immoral." It is one thing to confront a brother about their sins, but mass "observations" of another's faults among a group of friends is nothing short of gossip and exalting oneself at the expense of humiliating another. Any confidence gained by savoring our relative moral superiority, not only prohibits us from helping others, but it prevents us from receiving help, lest we lose our spiritual "status".
Jesus' illustration of the Pharisee and publican provides the best illustration of this danger:
Also He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others:
"Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, 'God, I thank You that I am not like other men -- extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.' And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me a sinner!'
"I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted." Luke 18:9-14
Participation in the relative competition can ensnare and destroy us. As long as we view people, not as fellow laborers, but as stepping stones, we will be unable to love them for who they are. The competitive drive will cause us to fear those who may overtake us, robbing us of our status and confidence, while also preventing us from helping others, because they are either unworthy of our help, or because we fear that one day they may help us, proving they have advanced beyond us.
False Standards: Esteem of Others
If self-righteousness is the most dangerous basis of self-confidence, then the desire for the respect and esteem of others must be the most powerful. No matter how much we mature in the wisdom of Christ, or in the wisdom of this world, it seems as though we cannot escape the overpowering pressure of the opinion of our fellow men.
Peter's denial of Christ is an incredible testimony to the power of this temptation (Luke 22:54-62). Although it was a tragic sin, Peter repented and spent many following years serving faithfully and courageously as an apostle. Yet several years after Christ's resurrection, he once again was pressured to deny the truth, simply because of the perceived pressure of other Christians (Galatians 2:11-14). We must never say that we would never succumb to such temptations. Please recall that Peter originally claimed he would never deny Christ (Matthew 26:31-35). It was this boasting that made his denial all the more bitter (Luke 22:54-62). We should not forget about Peter whenever we say "never".
Simply put, "The fear of man brings a snare, but whoever trusts in the LORD shall be safe," (Proverbs 29:25). When we react to the opinions, views, and esteem of others, we bind ourselves to a snare. Sooner or later, such fear of other's disapproval will drive us to deny Jesus, potentially resulting in our own damnation (Matthew 10:28, 32-33). It was this fear that prevented many from confessing their faith during the ministry of Jesus, even though they did actually believe in Him (John 12:42-43).
We must recognize that the evaluation of men is inconsequential, but why and how are we to consider it as inconsequential?
"For we dare not class ourselves or compare ourselves with those who commend themselves. But they, measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise." ...
"For not he who commends himself is approved, but whom the Lord commends." II Corinthians 10:12, 18
The true approval comes not from men, but from God. Not only does other's evaluation of us not matter, but even our own evaluation is also of no significance. Our own self-judgment simply cannot be trusted. It offers no eternal assurance or hope.
"But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by a human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. For I know nothing against myself, yet I am not justified by this; but He who judges me is the Lord.Therefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord comes, who will both bring to light the hidden things of darkness and reveal the counsels of the hearts. Then each one's praise will come from God. Now these things, brethren, I have figuratively transferred to myself and Apollos for your sakes, that you may learn in us not to think beyond what is written, that none of you may be puffed up on behalf of one against the other." I Corinthians 4:3-6
Beside destroying our eternal hope, what else will subjecting ourselves to the fear of men and their esteem do to us? It will make us miserable!
"Also do not take to heart everything people say, Lest you hear your servant cursing you. For many times, also, your own heart has known That even you have cursed others." Ecclesiastes 7:21-22
If we listen closely enough, we will eventually find someone speaking bad of us. Being fearful of this will produce paranoia, which will bring misery. The worry over others' poor opinion of us only brings deeper rejection and loneliness. We cannot pay attention to such comments for two reasons: One, many times the comments are figments of our own paranoid imagination. The more we worry about others' opinions, the more we will find basis for our worry, although rarely substantial. Secondly, even when a real basis for our suspicion is found and substantiated, we must not dwell on it. Everyone occasionally makes the mistake of speaking disparagingly of their fellow man - sometimes even to their own friends. What if someone really did speak poorly of us? It is usually exaggerated and later regretted. We should not worry over the esteem of others, lest fear and paranoia consume us. In the final analysis, what does it matter? If Jesus was so well esteemed that He was ultimately crucified, how can we put any confidence in the accuracy and value of the opinions of men?
False Standards: Self-Will
One might think, "Well, I may not place my confidence in strength, intelligence, experience, age, the esteem of others, or my own righteousness, but my will cannot be broken!" Regrettably, we can and do create problems for ourselves that we cannot fix. Consequences follow almost every mistake, and sin is no exception.
"But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God." John 1:12-13
Our iron will can not save us. No matter how hard we try, once we have sinned, we are separated from God. After that point, we are dependent upon His mercy. We can no longer earn our salvation. We cannot "will" ourselves into heaven. The longer we rebel against God, the harder we kick against the goads, and the weaker we will become (Acts 9:5; (II Corinthians 12:10).
False Standards: Good Luck and Fortune
Perhaps this is the most foolish basis for confidence, but yet possibly the most prevalent. No matter in what we place our confidence, if we do not prepare for life, then on what are we relying? "It will all work out somehow." "Things have always turned out good for me in the end. So mehow everything will work out fine on Judgment Day too."
God is no respector of persons (Acts 10:34-35). He has no favorites who are exempt from His laws. Just because nothing bad has ever happened to us, does not imply that nothing ever will.
"When I applied my heart to know wisdom and to see the business that is done on earth, even though one sees no sleep day or night, then I saw all the work of God, that a man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun. For though a man labors to discover it, yet he will not find it; moreover, though a wise man attempts to know it, he will not be able to find it. For I considered all this in my heart, so that I could declare it all: that the righteous and the wise and their works are in the hand of God. People know neither love nor hatred by anything they see before them." Ecclesiastes 8:16-9:1
From the events in our lives, we cannot distinguish God's favor from His disapproval, His blessing from His cursing, His love from His hatred for our works. In fact, good things often happen to the wicked, while the righteous are persecuted (Ecclesiastes 7:15; 8:14). Good fortune today offers no promise of good fortune tomorrow, and it offers no insight into God's eternal judgment. We must establish our confidence on the right foundation, before our luck runs out!
The Duality and Inversion of Pride and Envy
All of these bases for self-confidence are relative. For example, who is really intellectual when compared to God? We do not compare ourselves to people like Einstein, much less God. No, we compare ourselves to those around us. Probably by coincidence, we single out the most deficient specimen of the virtue under judgment. For example, if we like to think of ourselves as intellectual, and we sense that we are more intellectual than those around us, then we begin to develop a self-confidence based on our intelligence. This confidence is based on a superiority over others, which develops into pride more often than not.
Since self-confidence is most frequently based on a relative comparison between ourselves and others, an element of competition is invariably introduced. We like feeling self-confident. We like for others to esteem us highly, according to our own high esteem of ourselves. As long as we succeed, then we fill superior and confident, but whenever someone excels beyond us, then the balance is shifted, our confidence is dashed, and our public esteem becomes jeopardized. Our pride is transformed from a sense of superiority into a sense of inferiority, and envy replaces the pride that once filled our heart.
A duality exists between pride and envy. As one preacher once said, "Envy is nothing more than pride looking for an opportunity." Both are built upon the same flawed foundation: esteem and confidence based on one's rank among the competition. "How do we rank?" If we are smarter, richer, more successful, more righteous, more fortunate, more healthy, more anything, then we have excelled beyond the competition and can feel safe and secure, confident in our position. If however, we rank poorly, then a sense of low self-esteem, inferiority, worthlessness, bitterness, resentment, and envy sets up residence in our heart. This is the duality that exists, sourced by a common mistake. The attitude between the two is identical. Only the environment determines which attitude will be manifested. As quickly as the environment changes, so can one's pride invert and transform into envy and envy change back into pride.
This principle is most easily seen in the examples of King Saul, King Solomon, King Jereboam, King Uzziah. Each of these kings began their reigns as humble men. King Saul may be the best documented example.
At first, he could not believe that he had been chosen by God to be king of Israel (I Samuel 9:21). When it became time to announce Saul as the new king, he could not be found. He was later located hiding among the equipment (I Samuel 10:17-24). After being anointed as king and gaining a few successes in battle, he became more confident. His self-confidence swelled to the point that he eventually presumed upon God and violated His instructions (I Samuel 11-15). His attitude was more fully revealed after the people began to praise young David, over King Saul, for slaying Goliath (I Samuel 18:1-16). This enraged Saul, and jealousy overcame him. Saul sinned more and more. Most of his life was consumed with hunting down and trying to kill David, until finally Saul lost his life in battle (I Samuel 18-31). How could humble Saul rise to such a height, only to fall to such depths? Clearly he valued and esteemed himself based on his abilities and the praise of men. When he was poor and unknown, he suffered from a self-consciousness of his inferiority, but once he began to succeed, pride consumed him and prepared his fall. Once someone superior arose, his envy would not allow him to accept second place, so he destroyed himself by trying to destroy the one who, in Saul's mind, was first place.
Other kings, such as Solomon, Jereboam, Asa, and Uzziah, all accomplished great things in their youth but turned from the Lord in their later years, because they were driven by their pride and the praises of men. Solomon may be the most tragic example, simply because he was the wisest man that ever lived. Yet, all his wisdom did not protect him from his pride, which suffered him to make tragic mistakes.
In fact, not only are the proud and envy closely related, but they are dependent. The prideful person needs someone to be envious of him. Without someone who is inferior, to whom would he compare himself, making himself feel superior? If for some reason, he loses his standing, then he has a goal that drives him, the hope of gaining the title of superiority. The inferior person also need the superior because it gives them an excuse. It also gives them something to hate, a cause for their own failings and an excuse to blame. A certain, strange comfort can be found for the one who does not excel, but manages to find reasons why he deserves it more and was unfairly robbed. Truly, "envy is pride looking for an opportunity".
For purposes of illustration, please recall this old preacher's story:
Imagine two fictitious couples who are related. One couple, Hubert and Marsha, is the parents of an upper-middle class American family, who enjoy traveling all over the country, and dining in fine restaurants. Their oldest daughter attends a private university, funded by several scholarships, and currently enjoys the the academic limelight with a 4.0 GPA. Their younger son is a track star, setting several state records in the 200 m and 400 m sprints. They routinely visit their relatives, John and Mary, who are not fortunate to enjoy the finer things in life. Their only child is far from being a track star. In fact, he is so uncoordinated, it seems that it is barely able to wobble across the room.
Whenever they visit, Hubert and Marsha are always quick to speak of their daughter's scholastic achievements and their son's athletic accomplishments. John and Mary dread their visits because of Hubert's and Marsha's endless dribble concerning their fine dining, travel, or glorious children. Even the children seem to have picked up on this order. At school, Hubert's track star son stands aloof from his cousin, as he wobbles down the high school halls, not hesitating to poke a little fun and gain acceptance from his peers at the expense of his cousin.
Although they may in some measure appear obnoxious, Hubert and Marsha would generally be considered to be moral and spiritual people. Marsha spends a great amount of time studying how to enrich her marriage. In fact, she does not hesitate to occasionally drop hints of how Mary and John could improve their own relationship. Concerned about John's charity, Hubert often comments on John's need to increase his generosity in contributing to worthwhile works.
Each visit leaves John and Mary feeling helpless, insignificant, inferior, violated, and unable to offer anything comparable to their relatives' experiences or success. After the visits are concluded, John and Mary can often be found in the privacy of their bedroom complaining of Hubert's and Marsha's oppressive arrogance, looking forward to the day when the playing field is leveled.
Generally, most people are greatly irritated by the prideful arrogance exerted by successful people, such as Hubert and Marsha. Nobody likes a "know-it-all", someone who knows something about everything. Possibly even worse is a "know-it-all" who feels obligated to correct everything we know. We all get tired of hearing the endless jabbering of someone who is impressed with their own accomplishments, accumulation of possessions, or intellectual prowess - "a genius in their own mind". But, our illustration has not ended.
Hubert and Marsha's darling daughter falls tragically in love with another student in school. Eventually, she receives a slight that she had not previously experienced. She gets dumped! Unable to cope with the rejection, she grows despondent and her grades plummet. Eventually, she receives probation, and finally flunks out of the prestigious university.
John and Mary's son, who was so uncoordinated, turns out to be an engineering genius. After a little time in the work force, he develops some new products and gains patents for these products. He advances in the company, and eventually starts his own company, which takes off like a rocket.
Now at their visits, the roles have been reversed. John and Mary are quick to express their remorse over their niece's failing in school. They also enjoy sharing the details of their son's success. He has built a $500,000 house for himself, is building a new house for them, and is thinking about building a summer home in Europe. Now Hubert and Marsha secretly whisper, "You know our daughter has just had a temporary setback. She'll be back on top of her game soon. She's certainly smarter than that nephew of ours. Anybody can succeed if they are just lucky to be in the right place at the right time!"
How quickly the roles are reversed?! It may be that few people are able to pride themselves based upon these false standards of self-confidence, which we have studied. Probably, far more people suffer from a sense of feeling inferior rather than a sense of being superior. Yet, this is just as bad, possibly worse. This sense of inferiority paralyzes a person, rendering them useless in the kingdom of God. Their envious desire to obtain whatever they value as critical for superiority, blindly drives them. If they ever do good, then it is for the wrong reasons, and if they succeed, then they will arrogantly exalt themselves far beyond those they had originally envied. Few people are more prideful and destructive in their arrogance than the ones who have been biding their time, waiting for the day when they get their share. "Then everyone will know..."
God's Standard: Zero Self-confidence
Although our self-image has great impact upon our own behavior, ultimately it may not necessarily reflect the truth. It is only God's image of us that is true and important. We must learn to accept God's image of us and reconcile our self-image to His. Therefore, what is God's image of us?
One might ask, "If all of these standards for self-confidence are flawed, then what is the Biblical basis for self-confidence?" "Is not a healthy self-confidence vital to one's emotional well-being?" The truth is that there is no Biblical basis for self-confidence. In fact the Christian is to have none, zero, and zilch self-confidence.
"A wise man fears and departs from evil, but a fool rages and is self-confident." Proverbs 14:16
"It is not good to eat much honey; so to seek one's own glory is not glory." Proverbs 25:27
The very root of the word is anti-Christian - "self". A Christian acts and reacts with little to no thought for himself. His life is to be lived selflessly (I Corinthians 13:1-8). Those who seek their own self-profit will find that they have lost the most valuable possession of all, their own soul (Luke 9:23-26). Confidence in self is the very antithesis of "faith". Faith answers the question, "What can I do?" with "I cannot do this alone; I need God"; while self-confidence answers, "I can handle this; I need nothing". Regardless of the basis, any confidence in self is flawed because of its faulty foundation.
"So, are we to have no sense of confidence at all?", someone might ask. On the contrary, we are to have the deepest and most profound sense of confidence, but the foundation for our confidence is not ourselves, it must be God. It is God who enables (I Peter 4:11; I Timothy 1:12; Matthew 25:14-15; Proverbs 16:1-3; Exodus 4:10-12). It is God who strengthens (Ezekiel 3:7-9). It is God who watches over us (Matthew 6:25-34).
"But, I cannot study the Bible - I am not good at studying." "I am not good at talking to others." "I can't understand my spouse." "I just can't stop from saying evil things." It is God who enables us to accomplish these otherwise impossible tasks. God blesses those who serve Him. If we are faithful in the small things, then it may be that He will enable us to perform the "large things" (Luke 16:10-12; 19:17). We have to begin with what we can do. Pray without ceasing, depending on God (I Thessalonians 5:23). Say not, "But, I cannot...", but rather say, "Here am I Lord. Send me." (Isaiah 6:8). Do not forget the example of timid Moses, and what the Lord said to him:
"Come now, therefore, and I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring My people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt. But Moses said to God, "Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and that I should bring the children of Israel out of Egypt? So He said, "I will certainly be with you. And this shall be a sign to you that I have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God on this mountain." Then Moses said to God, "Indeed, when I come to the children of Israel and say to them, 'The God of your fathers has sent me to you,' and they say to me, 'What is His name?' what shall I say to them?" And God said to Moses, "I AM WHO I AM." And He said, "Thus you shall say to the children of Israel, 'I AM has sent me to you.' " ...
Then Moses answered and said, "But suppose they will not believe me or listen to my voice; suppose they say, 'The LORD has not appeared to you.' " ...
Then Moses said to the LORD, "O my Lord, I am not eloquent, neither before nor since You have spoken to Your servant; but I am slow of speech and slow of tongue." So the LORD said to him, "Who has made man's mouth? Or who makes the mute, the deaf, the seeing, or the blind? Have not I, the LORD? Now therefore, go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall say." But he said, "O my Lord, please send by the hand of whomever else You may send." So the anger of the LORD was kindled against Moses. (Exodus 3:10-4:14)
Although we may not have the benefit of direct inspiration today, the principle taught here still holds true. Too quickly we forget that God made us. He made our minds, our hearts, our souls, and our mouths. He also made the Bible, the world in which we live, and our fellow humans who surround us. Why then does it seem foreign that God could have provided means for the instruction, growth, and development of His people?
Everyone knows that we are not born with the ability to talk. No one is born able to walk. We all have to learn these things, and much more. As children, we have no pride to sacrifice during the process of learning. If we fall down, we are not ashamed, but we instead get up and try again. We keep getting up as many times as is necessary, so that we may learn what we so eagerly seek to do. Why should it be any different with spiritual things? We may fall countless times, but we must rise to try again (Proverbs 24:16). Remember, God made the Bible, our minds, and our souls. His way will succeed in His time.
Maybe we have ceased to learn because we are too prideful to go through the struggle of learning. We may easily admit our weaknesses, but are we too proud to work to overcome them? Eventually, our hearts are revealed, even as was Moses' heart: "O my Lord, please send by the hand of whomever else You may send." Let us not become guilty of faithlessness, resulting in our failure to serve God, which will result in His wrath looming over us.
God's Standard: Infinite Esteem
At this point, the differences between self-confidence and self-esteem are evident and illuminated. They should not be coupled at all. One should not esteem himself based on what he is able to do, nor should he judge what he is able to do simply by his own worth. For the Christian, each of these attitudes are polarized at two extremes. While he is to have zero self-confidence, he is to have infinite self-esteem. Each person's worth is evidenced and evaluated by the weight of this one statement:
"For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life." John 3:16
Would you give your life for your car? Would you sacrifice your life for your house, or any of your possessions? Why not? Is it not because they are simply not worth the cost? We do not exchange that which is precious for that which is valueless. Now, would you give your life for your friends' lives? Maybe so, but what would it take for you to exchange the life of your only child? Nothing? That is what God offered for us! What does that say of the value God must have placed on us?
"For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us." Romans 5:6-8
"In this the love of God was manifested toward us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins." I John 4:9-11
If God valued us such that He was willing to offer the life of His Son, then what must be our value according to God, except the value of His Son's life? Therefore, may we not truly say that our self-esteem should be infinite? Each human being is profoundly valuable and worthwhile, no matter how filthy the sinner. Please recall that Jesus died for us while we were all still sinners (Romans 5:6-8). In fact, He gave His life for the whole world, so there is no one in this world not worth this high price. Each and every person is infinitely valuable regardless of his or her actions. Jesus Himself said that God was like a shepherd who had 99 sheep safe in the fold but went searching on the mountains for the one that was lost (Matthew 18:11-14). No matter how little you may value yourself, God valued you and loved you so much that He gave His only Son's life for you. He went looking on the mountain for you, and me.
What is the basis of the Christian's confidence? It is surely not self. Only faith in God provides the confidence upon which a life may be ultimately built and based. What is the basis of all men's worth? It was God who valued us to the extent that He sacrificed His own Son's life for us on the cross (Romans 5:6-8). It is by realizing this unintuitive and initially uncomfortable truth that Paul's paradox is clarified: "For when I am weak, then I am strong" (II Corinthians 12:10). It is only once we recognize our weakness, abandon the bolstering of our own defenses, and run to God that we become strong.
"With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible." Matthew 19:26
As long as we participate in the great competition among the sons of men, we will squander our time, hopes, energy, and assets on defeating those we should be helping. Only division and internal destruction will result where peace and edification should have existed. The signs are clear: Paranoia, worry, division, gossip, fear, strife, envy, and pride all exist where people see themselves engaged as in a great competition with their own worth hanging in the balance. Peace, security, optimism, harmony, unity, cooperation, growth, encouragement, fellowship, love, selflessness, and mercy all exist, where each Christian sees himself as God sees him (James 3:13-18).
Corresponding Audio Lessons:
- Pride and Envy, The Demonic Duo - Paul Earnhart
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