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Well, I thought wryly, as I scrutinized the reflection blinking back at me in the mirror. At least God didn’t give me an opportunity to be vain. The features of my face assaulted my eyes painfully. It was all wrong—especially my nose. Well, Lord, as I was saying … at least I’ll never be capable of vanity, like beautiful girls are. That’s a blessing. I suppose. Risking another glance in the mirror, I winced. Right.
A few years ago, I was the classic case of insecurity. I still struggle with it to a degree today.
If you can relate, you’ll know what I mean. Although praise always conjures up a fleeting feeling of pleasure, it’s as if every compliment will inevitably smack a brick wall: They were just being nice. They didn’t really mean it.
We all know that “low self-esteem” is rampant, especially among young people. And yet in spite of all the attention that the subject receives, the real issue is almost always skirted.
Psychologists would have said that my root problem was a battered self-image and quickly prescribed a system of positive thinking as the antidote.
It wouldn’t have worked.
Because the diagnosis would have been dead wrong.
The issue wasn’t that I needed more positive support from friends and family. I can’t blame the culture either. My problem wasn’t caused by the airbrushed models I compared myself with constantly.
When a man with a brain tumor complains that his head hurts, his doctor doesn’t hand him an aspirin, grin, and cheerfully announce that “it’s all better.” The same principle applies here: The cause must be treated for healing to occur, and low self-esteem is nothing but a symptom. All my insecurity was merely the telltale sign of a much deeper issue.
First things first
Let’s play a definition game. I’ll give you a word, and you’ll rack your brain for the traits that give away its presence. Ready, set, go …
Pride. Quick, what are your very first associations with that word? What traits, thoughts, and actions go along with it? Mull it over for a moment before reading on.
Perhaps, as I usually do, you thought of a cocky “I’m all that and more” attitude. Obviously that wasn’t my issue. Since I wasn’t a nose-in-the-air kind of gal, I naturally assumed that I was off the hook—pride-free.
Ah, no. Not exactly.
Arrogance is certainly the most visible manifestation of pride, but I made the mistake of overlooking its subtler manifestations. Although we may not usually place self-deprecation and insecurity in the same category alongside vanity and arrogance, in many cases they belong there just the same.
Sounds contradictory, doesn’t it? It’s easy to acknowledge that a girl who flaunts her drop-dead-gorgeous looks has a problem in the area of pride, but am I really saying that a girl who thinks she’s completely unattractive and untalented may struggle with the very same issue? For me, the answer was an emphatic yes.
Artfully disguised under a false veneer of humility, this form of pride is often difficult to detect. And yet, once I stopped to prayerfully examine my heart, it immediately became plain that my “humility” wasn’t the real deal. How? My thoughts were completely absorbed in myself. Did you notice in my list of complaints about myself, the predominant occurrence of the words “I’m” and “my”? True humility does precisely the opposite—it forgets itself.
In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis wrote something that glued itself to my mind. (Lewis has a knack at doing that.) He said:
“A really humble man … won’t be a sort of person … who’s always telling you that, of course, he’s nobody. Probably all you’ll think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him. If you do dislike him, it will be because you feel a bit envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He won’t be thinking about himself at all. There I must stop. If anyone would like to acquire humility, I can, I think, tell him the first step. The first step is to realize that one is proud. And a biggish step, too. At least, nothing whatever can be done before it. If you think you’re not conceited, it means you are very conceited indeed.”
Both arrogance and insecurity share a common denominator, and that denominator is self-absorption. Isn’t that what pride is, after all—setting ourselves up on the throne that only God deserves? Whenever I’m worried about my appearance and natural abilities, isn’t it always because I crave admiration? If I’m honest, wasn’t that the real reason why I cared so deeply about what other people thought of me? Fretting is a dead giveaway that my thoughts are turned inward, and inward thoughts are a dead giveaway that I’m proud.
The Only Solution
If pride is the underpinning ailment, the gospel is the only cure for it. Pride is forced to wither in the shadow of the cross. If my focus is on Christ—if my soul is riveted by the beauty of His sacrifice, His love, and His unmerited forgiveness—a fixation on how others perceive me is not even a viable option. It is impossible to be absorbed by both ourselves and our Savior at the same time; it must be wholly one or wholly the other.
Our Maker formed us, lovingly and tenderly, so that He might be admired. Whether or not anyone admires us is frankly insignificant; we were created to reflect the glory and beauty of Christ to those around us, not the glory and beauty of me.
With our eyes on Christ, the whole view changes. In a self-absorbed perspective, the opinions of other people are paramount. From a Christ-centered perspective, the accolades and disdain of others matter little, because His approval makes man’s look like dust. In a self-absorbed perspective, our value is based off of appearance and performance. But when our lives are marked by a deepening understanding of the gospel—when we are transformed every day anew by the truth that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8)—we will be moved to humble rejoicing, knowing that our worth is found in the Father’s unmerited, boundless love.
The gospel doesn’t offer us a boost of self-esteem, because a boost of self-esteem isn’t what we need. Instead, it corrects our deepest problem with something infinitely richer and more satisfying: an offer to esteem our Maker first.