Jane Tooher developed this article on self-image from a conference address to Christian women, but its argument about where we find our sense of self applies more broadly. Her question: is it possible to understand yourself without reference to God?
Bible-believing Christians aren’t surprised by the human obsession with ourselves. From the fall onwards, humans have turned away from God and towards our own hearts. Some outside Christianity have also made much of this obsession, finding explanations other than the spiritual one. Bryan Appleyard, for example, attributes it to the changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution. Over a hundred or so years, people have exchanged religion for work, community for corporation; and the consequent loss of significance in one’s daily environment has meant that “…the individual had to seek his own salvation within himself. This led directly to the idea that the self must be studied, then pampered and, finally, esteemed.” (p.26)
Appleyard suggests that the current fascination with self-esteem is a way of escaping a “rootless and confused world”. He quotes T.S. Eliot: “Humankind cannot bear very much reality”.
Is self-esteem part of the Christian way of thinking about yourself? Or is it a sinful response to the world, a way of boosting our morale and avoiding the reality of sin? How might a Christian idea of self differ from a worldly one?
The world’s view: unrealistic and unhelpful
A baby is born, and the mother asks, “Is the child normal?” That is the last time she ever wants her child to be normal. She wants her child to be above normal, above others, better than others.
A wordly approach to the self is based on competition. How do you know if you are intelligent? You compare yourself with the person next to you (we do it from a very early age). Are you beautiful? Have a look around you and see how you compare.
Such an approach to self-identity is antisocial; it makes fear the basis of relationships. Other people become threats, and it leads to loneliness and distance between people. The worldly approach to self-esteem is to make sure your head is above the heads of those around you. In the end, you aren’t likely to know yourself very well anyway.
The other element of a worldly approach to self is to say that you can determine your own identity. We make choices; we can change; we can be whoever we want to be. But very few people experience anything like such freedom. We are all born into particular circumstances, with particular abilities, opportunities and problems. The world says “take control and become whatever you desire”; but this is unrealistic and discouraging for the great majority of human beings.
The Bible’s view: look outside yourself
So where do we look for a realistic and helpful understanding of ourselves? The biblical answer is: look to your creator. Look outside yourself, to the one who formed you. At first this suggestion gets our backs up: don’t tell me who I am! But, let’s reflect on its advantages. By focusing on our creator:
- our knowledge of ourself is not limited to our own ideas;
- our knowledge of ourself is not dependent upon competition with other people;
- we know that we are not lonely, for someone created us. We are wanted from the start.
To understand ourselves, then, we need to understand our maker, and why he made us like he did. All of the Bible helps us in this task of knowing who God is and who we are, but there are some passages which are more key then others. Here we can highlight just a few to give us an overview of the Bible’s approach to the self.
Creation (Gen 1-2)
In Genesis 1-2, God is revealed as a sovereign, mighty, relational, working, resting, and purposeful God. All of his creation has a purpose, and all of it is good. Humanity is created in God’s image to rule, male and female together (Gen 1:26). There is also a second creation description of woman, (Gen 2:18, 22), where she is created as man’s helper. The verses together suggest that to be female means to be created in the image of God, to be the only suitable helper for the male. The woman is a fellow ruler, but her emphasis is to help him do this. The woman is not created solely for the work, otherwise another man would have been created—a fellow worker. The woman is not a new man, not a better man. The animals are helpers, but the woman is the only suitable helper. To only see woman as a helper will be a disfigurement of he—she could have been an animal. To only see her in the image is a disfigurement of her—she could of been another male. She must share in the man’s rule to be a suitable helper for him, for she was created to help him rule. We need both sides of the coin to begin to understand some foundational principles for what it means to be a man and a woman.
The Fall (Gen 3)
Since Adam and Eve rejected God, resulting in God’s judgement over them, is humanity still like God? Being in the image of God is the very essence of being human, in that by being human you share the image, whoever you are, even after the fall (see Rom 2:23; 5; 1Cor 15). This is true for every human being, from small to tall, conception to old age, handicapped, rich, poor—every human being shares in the image of God, and therefore they are all to be valued.
We may not all be kings and queens in relation to each other now, but we are in relation to the other creatures, and we are in a unique relationship with God, which the other creatures don’t have, because we alone are created in God’s image.
Yet we rule this world in a disfigured, incomplete fashion, for the world has been subject to futility and is hostile to our rule. The ideal of being ruler and helper will now be difficult. This frustration to rule properly is seen in Israel’s history throughout the Old Testament, yet there is hope. Genesis 12 promises a time will there will be rest and when we get to the New Testament and we meet Jesus, we see this promise fulfilled as he brings in the new creation.
Understanding the age God has caused us to live in, will help us understand ourselves.
The new creation
In 2 Corinthians 5 and its surrounding chapters, Paul describes himself and the readers of the letter as naked, groaning for the heavenly home (it would be worth looking up this chapter now). Suffering has been the way of life for all humanity since the fall, and some of us suffer terribly. A middle class, Western mindset (or a prosperity preacher) can deceive us for a while into thinking we have our life under control, but the house of cards inevitably falls.
The purpose of our maker in all of this is to swallow up what is mortal, with life (2 Cor 5:4). The answer to our death is life, eternal life, a beautiful permanent home where we will be at rest. God has promised that this will happen, and he has given us his spirit as a guarantee, and so we live by faith, not by sight (2 Cor 5:7). There are times when most of us doubt that Jesus will return, maybe especially when we are feeling low about ourselves. Some of us will always struggle with doubt, and Jude 22 commands us to be merciful to those who do. But because we have the spirit, we can look back and see how God has acted, (rose Jesus from the dead), and we can look forward, (and he will raise us from the dead). This is true no matter how we feel.
Before we enjoy this eternal life, we must all appear before the judgement seat of Jesus (2 Cor 5:10). But this is not overwhelming for the beliver (alhtough it may be daunting), for God has shown his love to us in the death of Jesus on the cross. At the cross, we can understand ourselves properly—sinners before God, and loved by him to the most extraordinary degree.
But since we know the fear of the Lord, we don’t want others to face judgement day without trusting Jesus, and so like Paul, we try and persuade them about Jesus (2 Cor 5:11). Since we live our lives in response to what God has done, we look at people differently, (2 Cor 5:14-17). We see from a spiritual perspective. They are no longer a threat to us, but we now look at them on the basis on what Jesus has done and what he will do in the future. We now look at people desiring that their greatest need—a relationship with God—be fulfilled, rather than looking at them from an earthly perspective where they could be a threat to us, or somehow make us feel better about ourselves.
Many men and women experience guilt. Just because we can feel guilty, doesn’t mean we are guilty. A friend of mine who is a victim of sexual abuse often feels guilty that the abuse happened, because she thinks she could have stopped it. She is not guilty, but she feels guilty. Our guilt is paid for in Jesus death, but unfortunately our feelings continue at times, sometimes for a long time. This affects how we feel about ourselves. Don’t allow the evil one or others to accuse you of guilt that you don’t have. Often we can feel most guilty about secret things, so bringing it out in the open to someone you can trust often diffuses it, deals with it, and can make it easier for us to move on.
If, because of Jesus’ death, we view other people differently, how then should we view ourselves as Christians? There is plenty that could be said, but let’s consider one area—gifts.
Serving God’s church—the self’s goal
In Romans 12:3, Paul says, “For by the grace given to me I say to everyone of you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgement, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.”
The Bible challenges us to be realists about ourselves. All Christians have been given faith, so we are all in the same boat. There is no one better than anyone else; we are all in a position of receiving mercy. If you realise you have been shown mercy by God, you won’t look so much at yourself, but you will look to God and come to understand he has made you a member of a body. The rest of Romans 12 speaks about this body, and that each member of this body has been gifted by God (Rom 12:6). Our gifts may be different and that is fine and necessary. We need to accept how God has made us and how he made us is good. Rom 12:3 is a warning about self-evaluation.
The world’s view is that we should use these gifts to make us look better, get richer and be more powerful. But this ignores who gave us the gifts. To have a proper self-esteem is for us to understand our maker, and to understand why he made us, how he saved us from sin, and how he has equipped us to serve others.
One final note. It is important for us to remember God’s sovereignty and goodness in gifting us. That will help us better to understand ourselves. God has gifted me the way he has chosen to. Some of these gifts include my singleness and my age, my circumstances in life, and my background. I have just turned 35, and some people consider this an expiry date for women who haven’t had children. But God is sovereign over whether I have children or not. I won’t always have the particular gifts I do now, and I’m not sure how God will choose to ‘gift’ me in the future, but I do know from God’s word that he has gifted me for the common good, no matter what age or stage of life I am in. This is liberating, and an enormous encouragement for me to make the most of my situation in life whatever it is, not to compare myself with others, and to be content and joyful with being me. I hope it is also freeing for you.
Andersen, W.E., ‘Self-esteem, Self and Sin,” Journal of Christian Education, (42/1, April 1998), 25-36.
Appleyard, B., ‘Confidence Trick,” The Weekend Australian, Sept 21-22, 2002, 25-27.
Johnson, E.L., ‘Self-esteem in the Presence of God,” Journal of Psychology and Theology, (1989, 17/3), 226-235.