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Thinking About Yourself LESS

Pastor Josh's summer newsletter.

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Thinking About Yourself LESS

Pastor Ryan spoke to us on Sunday from 1 Corinthians 13:5, "Love is not self-seeking" or does not insist on its own way. This had me thinking more generally about "self-centeredness" and what to do about it.

I was reading a book recently that makes the case that traditional cultures have always believed that too high a view of yourself is the real root cause of most evil in the world. Crime, violence and abuse all stem from people having too high a view of themselves. So what is the remedy? You clamp down. You modify external behavior. You tell people they’re bad.

On the other hand, in modern/postmodern cultures (and especially the United States), we have had almost the opposite cultural consensus. It’s not too high a view of self, but low self-esteem that is to blame. Low self-esteem is behind all the sins and failings of people in our society. If self-esteem is the real problem, you don’t really have to make any moral judgments or real calls to life change. Instead, we need to build people up.

And so you have these polar opposites: Traditional cultures who say you heal inflation by deflation, and modern/post-modern cultures who say you heal low self-esteem with pride or boasting.

But when we read 1 Corinthians, we see something different than either of these approaches. There are elements in both, but by and large the gospel is something else entirely. Look at what’s happening in chapter 4.

[1] This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. [2] Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful. (ESV)

Paul reminds the Corinthians that, as a minister, he has a job to do. He’s a servant of Christ and a steward of the mysteries of God. And he is required to be found faithful in doing this. But then you get to verse 3 and he says, “Oh, and by the way, I don’t care what you think of me.”

[3] But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court.

The word for judged is the word for verdict. Paul says, “I’m not looking to you, or to any human court for a verdict on my life. My identity, my self-regard, is not tied to what you think of me." Which sounds a little like the self-esteem movement. "Don’t let the world judge you! Only you should judge yourself!" Ah, but keep reading…

[3] But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself.

So Paul says, "I don’t care what you think of me, but ultimately I don't care what I think of me. I do not even judge myself." To put it another way, he’s saying: "I have a very low opinion of your opinion of me. But I also have a very low opinion of my opinion of me."

Now this is getting interesting. And this is what I mean about this approach being different than either that of traditional or modern Western cultures. Paul says, I’m not going to try to play the game of trying to get to be somebody by getting your verdict on my life by pleasing you. I’m not out to please you. Would it be great if you were pleased? Sure, but that’s not my goal. That’s not what I’m after, and that’s not what my identity is built on. But the flip side is, I’m not just going to try and boost my self-esteem either, because, as empty as your verdict on my life is, my verdict on my life is just as futile.

This is how Tim Keller explains it:

What would Paul say to those who tell him to set his own standards? He would say it is a trap. A trap he will not fall into. You see, it is a trap to say that we should not worry about everyone else’s standards, just set our own. That’s not an answer. Boosting our self-esteem by living up to our own standards or someone else’s sounds like a great solution. But it does not deliver. I cannot live up to my parents’ standards — and that makes me feel terrible. I cannot live up to your standards — and that makes me feel terrible. I cannot live up to society’s standards — that makes me feel terrible.

Perhaps the solution is to set my own standards? But I cannot keep them either — and that makes me feel terrible, unless I set incredibly low standards.

Are low standards a solution? Not at all. That makes me feel terrible because I realize I am the type of person who has low standards. Trying to boost our self-esteem by trying to live up to our own standards or someone else’s is a trap. It is not an answer.

So what is the answer? C.S. Lewis, in his chapter on pride and humility in Mere Christianity, writes:

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. Probably all you will 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 little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.

The remedy to our emptiness is not to be puffed-up (self-boasting). Nor is to be torn down (self-loathing). True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it’s thinking of yourself less. And I don’t think there is a person who does this better than the apostle Paul. On the one hand, he’s so bold. He plants churches. He has had a gigantic influence on the Western world. He was an enormous figure in his own lifetime. If you read his letters, you see this is not someone suffering from low self-esteem. He constantly says hard things and calls people out. But on the other hand, he regularly discusses his weaknesses and failings. He tells the story of how he used to persecute Christians. Even after his conversion, he talks about how unimpressive he can seem. He shares about his weakness and calls himself the “chief of sinners.” Paul is both bold and humble at the same time.

The world says you heal your low self-esteem through pride (puff yourself up). Or, you heal an inflated ego by being torn down (poke a hole in it). But Paul says, I’ve come to the place where I just don’t think about myself all that much. It’s not self-hating; but it’s not self-boasting either. He sees his sins, but he doesn’t connect them to his identity. He sees his successes, but he doesn’t connect them to his identity either. A person free from constantly thinking about themself is really and truly freed up to love others.

Worth a Look

  • One of my favorite writers, J.I. Packer, died this week. He begins his wonderful book, Knowing God, "As clowns long to play Hamlet, so have I longed to write a treatise on God." Packer's theolgical and devotional writing has been such a blessing to many, myself included. I never met him personally, but I've always been struck that by the testimony of others that, as he good as he was as a scholar, he was an even better Christian man. All kinds of tributes are being published, but I really enjoyed this one.
  • Doug Serven has compiled a new group of essays from folks in our denomination, including one from our own Ryan Zhang. Check out Hear Us Emmanuel.