I Know That I Am Nothing
Today, we hear a lot about the importance of self-confidence and self-esteem. Where does this concept originate? Well, sometimes we think poorly of ourselves. The oft-proposed solution is that we should think more highly of ourselves. I think the intent behind this idea is probably good; clearly, self-derogatory thoughts are not constructive, and probably symptomatic of deeper spiritual problems. However, I wonder if M. Catherine Thomas is right when she says that “self-esteem” is a red herring, a distraction from deeper and more important spiritual truths.1
Where is the scriptural warrant for the importance of self-esteem? Where is the scriptural warrant to think about ourselves at all (good or bad)? Consider: whether we think badly of ourselves, or highly of ourselves, we are still thinking about ourselves. James Faulconer explains,
A poor self-image—like every self-image including a good one—is selfish. To be selfish is, by definition, to be self-centered, to place oneself at the center of things. But to be concerned about a self-image—good or bad—is also to place oneself at the center.2
C. S. Lewis gives an example when talking about humility. He agrees that the difference is not between thinking highly or poorly of yourself:
Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call “humble” nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody. … He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.
Scriptural Views of Self
Despite intense efforts, I have yet to find any scriptural support for the belief that positive self-thoughts are the cure for negative self-thoughts. In fact, the scriptures point the opposite direction. Let’s consider the teachings of King Benjamin, who said:
I would that ye should remember, and always retain in remembrance, the greatness of God, and your own nothingness, and his goodness and long-suffering towards you. …
If ye do this ye shall always rejoice, and be filled with the love of God, and always retain a remission of your sins. (Mosiah 4:11–12)
Thomas points out that Ammon is a perfect example of someone who obeyed this counsel, and received the promised blessing:
I do not boast in my own strength, nor in my own wisdom; but behold, my joy is full, yea, my heart is brim with joy, and I will rejoice in my God.
Yea, I know that I am nothing; as to my strength I am weak; therefore I will not boast of myself, but I will boast of my God, for in his strength I can do all things. (
Notice: Ammon thought nothing of himself, but was yet full of joy! Isn’t this a strange contrast to the philosophy that mortal happiness depends on a positive self-image? What is the secret? Ammon tells us: confidence in God. Thomas says it quite nicely:
For Ammon, it seems, the whole concept of self-esteem was irrelevant. Being filled with the love of God was of far greater worth than any sense of self-confidence. If one grand objective of earth life is to gain access to the grace of Jesus Christ for our trials and divine development, then we will immediately realize that self-confidence is a puny substitute for God-confidence.1
Indeed, the solution to a negative self-image is to reach outwards, and to look upwards, not to look inward. The qualitative difference between Ammon’s sense of nothingness and our own self-derogatory thoughts is that Ammon didn’t obtain his sense of nothingness from looking at himself or thinking about himself; he got his sense of nothingness from looking to God and thinking of others. The story of Moses’ conversation with God illustrates this quite nicely:
The presence of God withdrew from Moses, that his glory was not upon Moses; and Moses was left unto himself. And as he was left unto himself, he fell unto the earth.
And it came to pass that it was for the space of many hours before Moses did again receive his natural strength like unto man; and he said unto himself: Now, for this cause I know that man is nothing, which thing I never had supposed.
But now mine own eyes have beheld God; but not my natural, but my spiritual eyes, for my natural eyes could not have beheld; for I should have withered and died in his presence; but his glory was upon me; and I beheld his face, for I was transfigured before him. (Moses 1:9–11)
How We Become Aware of Our Nothingness
It was Moses’ encounter with the God that brought him to an awareness of his own nothingness, not his reflection on his weaknesses. It wasn’t because of a self-centered look inwards, but because of his relationship with the Savior and his newfound access to His grace. Thomas continues:
Some may not like the dichotomy between the pursuit of self-esteem and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Some may say that you can pursue and have both. But I do not find this idea of both pursuits in the scriptures. …
Low self-esteem is often associated with feelings of incapacity, or a sense of victimization, or the realization that we can’t make happen the opportunities, the approval, the feelings, etc., that we feel we need. But our relief comes when we realize that God has made us powerless so that as we cleaved unto him, he could work miracles in our lives.1
It is important to emphasize an distinction here: Moses, Ammon, and King Benjamin aren’t thinking badly of themselves when they speak of their own nothingness; they aren’t even thinking of themselves at all—they are thinking of God. Faulconer agrees with Thomas, and adds an important corollary:
It is important to reiterate that it is not only worrying about good self-image that is a problem. Having a bad self-image, being incapacitated by depression about one’s lack of ability, looks, relations with others, or anything else is despair, and despair denies God. Those doing those things recognize their weaknesses, but they do not add to that a remembrance of the goodness and long-suffering of the Lord. Bad self-image, depression about one’s lack of ability, looks, or relations with others are at best only ways of feigning our nothingness before God. On the other hand, a good self-image, self confidence, etc., are ways of feigning our confidence before him. Having a good self-image and having a bad one are mutually exclusive, but being aware of one’s nothingness and being confident before God are not only not mutually exclusive, they are also the same thing. For once I am aware of my nothingness I can begin to trust the Lord as I really ought, whole-heartedly and without reservation, and when I do that he gives me the confidence I need, confidence in him.
It strikes me that there is an irony concealed in the mutual incompatibility of good and bad self-images … for by making them mutually exclusive, we are able to think we can or must choose between them, that there are no other choices. Thinking that way, we are able to think we are doing something grand when we get over having a bad self-image by replacing it with a good one; we are able to persuade ourselves that we have genuinely changed and, thus, to make ourselves feel good without ever having given up self-centeredness that was the problem in the first place. But change without repentance isn’t real. It’s just more of the same old thing, but covered in a more socially acceptable garb. Thus, working at changing our bad self-image instead of learning to trust the Lord is little more than a way of filling ourselves with activities and thought that allow us to avoid repentance. In its masquerade as confidence, self-esteem resulting from a good self-image may well be the thing that prevents us from seeing our own dependence on God and the necessity of the Atonement.2
The Language of
This seems like a bold claim. Perhaps, if it seems too bold, it is because we are accustomed to using words and terms borrowed from the philosophies of the world, rather than the words given us by the scriptures and the prophets. This ties directly into my previous post, “The Restoration of All Things.” Is there not a danger in superimposing the philosophies of the world onto the doctrines of the gospel? Ought we not to use the revelations of the Restoration to re-evaluate the prevailing dogmas of philosophy, psychology, or whatever our discipline may be? Faulconer explains:
The scriptures don’t speak of self-image, though they do speak of confidence. Perhaps part of the reason we are sometimes too quick to transport the “philosophies” of men into the gospel is that we are too quick to translate the terms of the gospel into terms that have their origin in the thought of the world. … What would our lessons be like if when we talked about esteem we talked about it in the scriptural sense, and when we talked about confidence or love we used the scriptures as our guide? Would anything be lost? Wouldn’t a great deal be gained by developing a religious language to talk about our religious experiences rather than borrowing from the discourses of our secular pursuits? … Armed with an unborrowed language for talking about our spiritual experience, might we not find that deepened religious experience in turn deepens our otherwise secular pursuits?2
I believe that we have been separated from a loving Father in Heaven through the Fall. Of course we are going to feel the pains of separation and a sense of loss and loneliness while we are in this world. This is why the Lord has promised to send us his Comforter, the gift of the Holy Spirit. I ask the same question M. Catherine Thomas asks: Is it possible that, seeking other sources of comfort than God’s grace, “we have created the whole issue of self-esteem in an attempt to soothe this fallen, homesick self?”1
1. M. Catherine Thomas, “The Doer of Our Deeds and the Speaker of Our Words,” BYU Speeches, 1993.
2. James Faulconer, “Self-image, Self-love, and Salvation.”
3. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, book 3, chapter 8: “The Great Sin.”