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Self-Esteem and Self-Confidence: Shedding “Worm” Theology

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Before I became a born-again Christian at 16 years old, my problem at that time was that I didn’t have enough “self-esteem” and “self-confidence.” I didn’t believe in myself enough, and I didn’t try hard enough to believe in myself (which to be honest, I didn’t because I was an angsty, grungy teenager who thought it was cool to revel in my depression and suicidal bent).

Enter in born-again fundamentalist Christianity.

Fundamentalist Christianity says that one must not believe in self and only in Jesus Christ. Fundamentalist Christianity has no room for self-esteem, requiring a believer to place his or her trust solely in Jesus Christ.

Then I entered Protestantism and encountered a softer version of the same thing: Solo Christo! (This really refers to a theological belief of salvation, but this is the prescription of many orthodox Christians when it comes to problems with self-esteem.)

For a long time then, I believed self-esteem and self-confidence were wrong. I eschewed these things because my sole worth should be found in God and not in myself. I engaged in “worm” theology: Oh, I’m such an awful, terrible sinner. There is no righteousness in me. All righteousness is found in God, and I’m poor, pathetic, pitiful soul. I suck at life and I’m so lucky God saved me because I’m totally worthless otherwise.

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Beginning last week, I started reading Jillian Michaels’s book, Unlimited: How to Live an Exceptional Life, and started seriously thinking, Maybe it’s time for me to walk away from Christianity because I like what Jillian’s saying about reclaiming and recapturing my life. I want to have self-esteem. I want to have self-confidence. I want to stop obsessing and feeling like a poor, pathetic little shit all the time.

But as I got further and further into Jillian’s book, I realized that a lot (not all) of what she says actually lines up with scripture. (Her chapter on Forgiveness and Accepting Responsibility was so solid, it blew me away.) And I realized that self-esteem and self-confidence do NOT need to contradict Christianity and God’s word. How?

In Mark 12, a scribe comes up to Jesus to test him. The scribe asks, “What is the greatest commandment?”

Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” —Mark 12:29-31

So Jesus lays it down: we are to love God with everything we have first. Then we are to love our neighbor as ourselves.

The assumption is we already love and esteem ourselves. If we do not, how are we able to love and esteem others better than ourselves (Philippians 2:3)? So one must tackle the challenge of learning to love and esteem oneself first before being able to truly love and esteem others better. Consistently treating others better than you treat yourself leads to an erosion of self-love and a path to possible codependency and people-pleasing (needing the approval of others).

An example: think of the mom who sacrifices herself on the altar of her children. This mother is constantly shuttling her kids to soccer practice, gymnastics, ballet class, and Boy Scouts but never takes any time for herself, investing her life in her children at great detriment to her health. She will likely be one stressed out and unhappy mommy. She may have high blood pressure,  feel dizzy, and tired all the time. Yet think of the other mom who shuttles her three kids to the exact same activities (still investing immensely in her kids) but once a month, goes to a spa to relax and get pampered. Three times a week, she jogs outdoors for 20 minutes simply to clear her head. Maybe she’ll even join a bi-monthly knitting group so she can engage in her own hobbies so she is invested in herself enough so that she can take care of her children. The latter mom is likely to be in an overall healthier position (mentally and physically) than the former.

A person who invests in herself first is better able to love and serve those around her. I do a better job helping people on 7 hours of sleep than I do 4 hours.

All this talk of self-love is probably making some Christians twitchy. It sounds odd and new age-y. But remember, Jesus assumed that we would already love ourselves and from that, commands us to love our neighbor. As Christians, if we don’t love ourselves, we are sinning.

Yes, that’s right; I called self-loathing and self-hate sin. There is nothing good in it; it is high time for Christians to shed “worm” theology, put the facts of unrighteousness and sin in its place, and learn to love themselves.

1. Christians do not have self-esteem, self-love, or self-confidence at the expense of esteeming, loving, and being confident in God.

Scripture is CLEAR that God comes first in everything. We are to love God and devote ourselves to His service  in all areas: mentally (mind), physically (body), and spiritually (soul).

Mentally: Meditating on scripture and praying. Discussing things of God with others.
Physically: Being involved in some kind of ministry for God’s glory.
Spiritually: The spiritual component (our soul led by the Holy Spirit) is what drives the other two.

2. Self-esteem, self-love, and self-confidence do not mean being arrogant, conceited, or haughty.

Christians should not think that they do things alone or must take matters into their own hands. (Think of Moses’ mistake in Numbers 20:10-13 when he struck the rock for the Israelites.) Christians glory in God and what He has allowed them to do. They revel in God’s wisdom first before proceeding with a task.

3. Self-esteem, self-love, and self-confidence is rooted in recognizing that a person is “very good” and “fearfully and wonderfully made.”

In Genesis 1:31, God looks over everything that He’s created and declares it all “very good.” That includes people (Gn. 1:27). The author in Psalm 139 beholds the wonders and the works of God and confidently states in verse 14 that He praises the Lord for being “fearfully and wonderfully made.” This is a confidence and esteem of the self that is rooted in a confidence and esteem of God.

4. The path to self-esteem means taking responsibility for your thoughts and actions.

From Jillian Michaels’s book, Unlimited:

Responsibility isn’t about blame. Taking responsibility is about empowerment, acknowledging your capability to change things, and moving on from your current situation to something better.

You may be thinking, But life has dealt me a bad hand. It’s really not my fault that my life sucks. I’m not saying taking responsibility means controlling all the things life throws at you—none of us can do that. And there are times when we are victimized.

There comes a time in adulthood, however, when you need to take responsibility for how you allow these tragedies to affect you and for how they form you. You can control your reactions to life’s less-than-perfect moments to affect an outcome that is favorable to you. (p. 68)

Remember what happened in the garden after the Fall in Genesis 3? Blame-shifting. It had no place in the garden and it has no place in our lives.

5. Building self-esteem, self-confidence, and self-love means banishing negative thoughts about the self with positive ones.

I know this is cliché (one of my complains about Jillian’s book but it’s something she seems to revel in) but Christians who struggle with lack of esteem must begin favoring positive thoughts over negative ones. Jillian’s book addresses this in Chapter 8 “Stop Selling Yourself Short.”

I’ve always frowned at positive affirmations in the past as kooky or stupid. Now, I’m realizing how crucial it is to my outlook on life, and in turn, the way I serve God. My brain is besotted with thoughts of:

You’re a loser.
You’re worthless.
People would be better off without you.
There is no righteousness in you, no, not one.

When I hear a negative thought in my head, I say something positive back OUT LOUD.  So here’s what’s happened in my head for the past two days:

Mind: You’re a loser. Out Loud: I am very good and fearfully and wonderful made by God.
Mind: You’re worthless. Out Loud: I have value because I’m created in the image of God.
Mind: People would be better off without you. Out Loud: God created me for a purpose and my job is be a diligent worker for Him and for others while I’m here.
Mind: There is no righteousness in you, no, not one. Out Loud: Through Christ, I am righteous, accepted, loved, and welcomed.

I have more thoughts on the issue of self-esteem and self-confidence from a Christian perspective, but this post is meant to banish the idea that loving one’s self is sinful and wrong. I’m sick and tired of being miserable and hating who I am and looking forward to bridging the gap of developing self-esteem in guidance of God’s word.

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  1. April 27, 2011 at 9:41 PM

    Great topic! This remind me of a quote from M. Scott Peck (one of my favorite authors) in his book “The Road Less Traveled and Beyond” where he says on page 113 “…there is a difference between insisting that we always feel good about ourselves… and insisting that we regard ourselves as important or valuable…. Understanding and making this distinction is a prerequisite for mature mental health. In order to be good, healthy people, we have to pay the price of setting aside our self-esteem once in a while and not always feeling good about ourselves. But we should always be able to love and value ourselves, even if we shouldn’t always esteem ourselves” Feeling good about the self and loving the self is not the same thing. So, self worth is more crucial, I think, than self esteem. Just my opinion. Thanks.

    • Kassi
      April 27, 2011 at 10:41 PM

      I don’t think it’s possible to always have positive self-esteem or self-confidence. But it’s something worth working toward. If we do something bad, yes, we should feel the negative feelings associated with it but we should not allow ourselves to stay there. We must experience the negativity, learn from our mistakes, and move back into the direction of positivity.

      I would agree that a sense of self-worth is more important than self-esteem. Thanks for the insight!

  2. Lisa
    June 20, 2011 at 1:42 PM

    Kassi,
    Thank you for being honest and writing this article. Many Christians I know believe “self esteem” is a dirty word. I struggled with this issue as well and came up with the same answers as you did. I’m sure that there are many others out there like us who are going to be freed from condemnation when they read what you shared. Thank you!!!

  3. July 30, 2011 at 1:27 AM

    I was just writing on the topic of self-martyrdom, which is basically wasting away while trying to be all things to all people, and then I came across your post. I was cheering you on the whole way through! The verses that shaped my piece are some of the same that shaped yours. I love it when God’s Word is so clear on a point that two different people with two different writing agendas come to the same conclusion. Anyway, a long-winded way of saying, I think you are right on, and I’m really glad you wrote this post. You are a great writer!

    • Kassi
      July 31, 2011 at 2:53 PM

      Thank you for the compliment! It’s always good to know when others feel similarly.

  4. Brian Pendell
    April 1, 2012 at 12:25 PM

    This is something I struggle with as well. I am from a fundamentalist background and trying to find my footing in the larger Protestant community without constant self-hatred and self-loathing — reinforced by well-meaning sermons which assume a particular self-image that I simply don’t have.

  5. Susan
    April 1, 2012 at 5:41 PM

    I have struggled with the same enemy and was raised in Baptist church. It’s been years unlearning the self-hate that they teach, and the religiousity and the self-righteousness by or through works.

  6. August 13, 2012 at 3:51 AM

    I was also taught that the bible presupposed self-love (all people naturally love themselves) and that we ought to treat others at least as good as we treat ourselves according to Mark 12.

    Given that, I was also taught that we must daily die to ourselves and that “self-esteem” is a form of idolatry.

    Worm Theology is often caricatured by those who hope to elevate the human condition, but it is essentially biblical.

  7. October 10, 2012 at 9:41 PM

    I’ve been trying to figure out if my view is skewed. I’ve been taught my whole life that self-esteem and self-confidence are bad because if they get out of control, they lead to pride and “pride goeth before the fall”. So tonight I decided to get a definitive answer and went to google. I read a bunch of pages and eventually found one that matched up with my understanding of the Bible,,, it was this article. Being a conservative Baptist, I am all too familiar with the “self hate” theology that seems to permeate the Evangelical church, I wish all of God’s children would read your article, examine it against the mirror of the Word and come to the same conclusion I have “If God loves me, who am I to not?” and “If God holds me in high regard, who can tell me I am not allowed” As long as we remember who we are in Christ, and where we would be without Him, we won’t step over the line from self-confidence to pride.

    Thank you

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