You see it everywhere. The quiet ‘tween girl who always slides in the back row, carefully noting if her outfit fits the day’s style. The feverishly working student, always desperate to get the professor’s attention by having the right answer, getting the best grade in the class. From the inner city kid who joins a gang to “just belong” to the top-level businessman haunted by emptiness, the problem is a strange one to plague our society—considering we have the best educational systems, comforts, medical care, and family structure perhaps the world has ever known. But still, we as Westerners lack purpose and value, instead turning to a thousand ways of “coping with self-hatred”: entertainment, careerism, religiousity, fashion, food and food disorders, alcohol, and self-harm.
Psychologists diagnosis it as low self-esteem. One study claimed that up to 85% of the population struggles from low self-esteem. To fix it, one must think enough positive thoughts to counteract the poison of self-hatred. Self-help books, like this sample from the top bestsellers in 2020, continue to sell in the millions:
- Get Out of Your Head: Stopping the Spiral of Toxic Thoughts
- Think Like a Monk: Train Your Mind for Peace and Purpose
- Empty Out the Negative: Make Room for More Joy, Great Confidence, and New Levels of Influence
- No Worries: A Guided Journal to Help You Calm Anxiety, Relieve Stress, and and Practice Positive Thinking Each Day
Behind the pretty cover designs, the message doesn’t work. In fact, positivity and self-esteem are some of the most ingenuous, subtle, but fatal lies—even demonic.
“Now wait,” you might say. “I agree these books might not be coming from a Christian perspective. But how can you call positive thoughts, peace, and thankfulness demonic?”
Let’s take a step back. As humans made in the image of God, we have inherent value placed upon us by our Creator. The devil, however, is a mastermind at taking truth and slightly twisting it, utilizing what looks harmless for his own sinister purposes. If he can’t use outright paganism and possession (which can be taboo in a secular society), he’ll suggest more subtle ideas: “You’re created for happiness,” “You’re made in God’s image—so love yourself,” or “God loves you just the way you are.”
Why are such statements so tragically false? They undermine the very basis for which we were created, for which the entire universe exists: God’s glory. God created us, not because he needed companionship, but solely as a means by which to display his infinite array of attributes. He created us as men and women to find our fulfillment, satisfaction, meaning, life itself, within a relationship with him. Our dependence on him displays his strength. Our joy in him displays his affection and care as our Father. And even our sin displays the glory of his grace through Christ’s redemption at the cross. In other words, nothing in this universe is about us. It’s all about him.
Pride, the base sin of all sin in our heart, produces the double, Gollum-like personality of self-hatred and self-love that eats away at our being. Whether we’re thinking negative or positive thoughts about ourselves, we stand guilty of that same sin that kicked Satan from heaven and Adam and Eve from the garden. For all along, we were never made to look inward, either in groveling despair or attention-craving confidence.
If the Spirit is at work, that news should be devastating. That means my greatest attempts at self-humiliation, “I am a worm” attitude is as great as a sin as boasting and self-righteousness. No amount of my own effort to humble myself (believe me, I tried it for years) will produce anything but more self-focus, more pride.
The only answer is the gospel, which has a Copernican-Revolution effect on the human heart. But like in Copernicus’ day, we can’t bear to think that the universe doesn’t revolve around us on planet earth but the sun. The simple, but painfully offensive, message of the gospel is look away from self to Christ. Renounce all self-righteousness, religion, morals, and goodness and accept his righteousness as the one who died in our place. That simple act of faith is the death of self-esteem.
Practically, what does this look like? After all, the issues of mental health, self-harm, depression, and identity issues are so widespread we are bound to know someone struggling if not in the battle ourselves. How can I encourage others to stop thinking about self and look to Christ?
- Look to Scripture. The Bible deals with all the issues in man’s heart, but it does so in a way that is inherently God-centric. We desperately need passages like Isaiah 6, Ezekiel 1, and Revelation 20 to make us stop and tremble at the majesty of God.
- Preach a Christ-centered gospel to yourself everyday. On the hard days, when you can hardly remember what truth is, listening to the gospel through audio scripture, a sermon, or the sometimes hard-hitting truth of fellow believers refocuses our minds.
- Serve others. I’ll never forget the story of a missionary family who rescued a large number of women from trafficking. In midst of their busy ministry life, the missionaries had no idea how they would help each of these women go back into their past and heal from such deep wounds. They simply didn’t have time. So instead, they had all the women start serving the needy alongside their ministry. Guess what happened? Focusing on others through serving totally healed each of the women, with absolutely no psychoanalysis, therapy, or treatment for their past. Serving humbles us, keeps our hands busy, and brings us joy in the joy of others.
We were made to be small, and God large. Any other arrangement not only robs God of the glory he deserves, it also brings ruin to our lives. The gospel gives God such glory through stripping us of any credit and rewriting the story to be all about him. Of course, the devil hates a gospel about God’s glory, so instead, he has manufactured a subterfuge gospel: the gospel of self-esteem and positive thinking. Tragically, his lies have wrecked the church, wrecked “Christian counseling” (much less secular counseling), and wrecked the victims of this false gospel. After the millions of self-help books sold, it was one lonesome man in the desert, wearing camel skin and eating locust, who said the only words that will fix man’s problems: “he must increase, I must decrease” (John 3:30).