What do we do when we’re bogged down by self-loathing thoughts? When our own minds hurl cruel insults and harsh condemnations at us, causing us to despair and doubt that God could really love us?
If you struggle with these things, I’m not here to tell you to just “get over it.” Nor am I going to insist that hating ourselves is a good thing because we’re sinners. The truth is, self-loathing is sinful and unhealthy.
This is a reality the world readily acknowledges… but they’ve prescribed the wrong medicine to fix it. Self-esteem is their go-to resolution.
Esteem (v): Respect and admire.
Self-esteem (n): Confidence in one’s own worth or abilities; self-respect. (Oxford Dictionary)
Generally, self-esteem consists of the following methods:
- Speak and think highly of yourself, recognizing your inherent worthiness and goodness.
- Be proud of your accomplishments and good attributes, and accept compliments from others.
- Don’t expect perfection from yourself; just try your best.
- Be hopeful and optimistic about your abilities and future.
The problem with self-esteem is that the truth of God’s Word comes right up against each of those points.
- The Bible speaks of us as sinners, that we are by nature children of wrath (Eph. 2:3).
- Pride and self-exaltation lead to destruction (Prov. 18:12).
- God is the Judge, and He expects us to be holy, upright, and blameless before Him according to His Law (Lev. 20:26; 1 Peter 1:16).
- Apart from Christ, we are moral failures; we can do nothing good in God’s eyes (John 15:5), and our future holds only the anticipation of hell.
Reading that list without the gospel, one could say, “Well, what’s wrong with hating ourselves then, if we’re as bad and hopeless as the Bible says we are?”
There are two things wrong with that conclusion. First, non-Christians who struggle with “self-esteem” aren’t hating themselves in a way that actually leads to repentance. They obsess, not over their failure to please God, but their failure to please themselves. They live and fall by the standards they’ve created, rather than God’s standards. They are more concerned about how they appear to others rather than how they’ve offended the Lord. The fact is, if they truly see their sin the way God does, it will ultimately lead to hope, not despair.
And second, the root of self-hatred is not a humble awareness of our fallen state. It’s actually rooted in the same problem as self-love–the idol of self.
Even as Christians, we can slip into the sin of focusing more on ourselves and our failures than on God and His glory. Self-deprecation denies the gospel, the Word of God, and puts the spotlight on us instead of Christ.
No, we don’t need self-esteem.
We need Christ-esteem.
But how do we put Christ-esteem into practice?
1. Turn your eyes away from self and behold Jesus in the gospel.
It’s true that we must acknowledge our sins in order to receive the good news of the gospel. But the only way we will be able to see our wickedness rightly–so that it leads us to confession and forgiveness–is by seeing Jesus on the cross.
Self-examination can only take us so far. But there is no truer representation of what we deserve for our rebellion than the bloody death of Christ–as He was killed in our place, for our sins. The only way we could be saved from eternal punishment was through the Blessed One becoming a curse, the Author of life Himself descending into death.
There is a huge chasm of difference between self-loathing, and recognizing the great price Jesus had to pay to ransom us. As we take our eyes off ourselves and fix them on Him, we find hope.
Why? Because He did it–He paid for our sins! If we are in Him, they no longer stand against us. Not only that, but He rose from the dead and ascended into heaven, and now reigns in glory. And that is our future state, too–not buried in the ground forever, but risen and reigning, made into perfect worshippers at last.
So when self-condemnation rears its ugly head, we can freely confess our unworthiness, yet still find reason to rejoice–not through esteeming ourselves, but esteeming Christ’s work in the gospel, saving us and making us His.
2. Replace self-hatred with Christ-adoration.
The mind has the ability to dangerously obsess over certain things. If we’re not careful, we can rehearse in our thoughts, over and over again, the various characteristics we don’t like about ourselves. We can shudder at seeing ourselves in the mirror, cry over every harmless mistake, and make up exaggerated lies about who we are and what others think of us.
But the great news is that we can never be too obsessed with Christ!
Let’s take our enslaving thoughts about ourselves, lay them aside, and instead, fill our minds with all the amazing attributes of Jesus. The more we read Scripture and walk in the Spirit, the more we will be captivated by His perfections–and less concerned about our imperfections.
I’m not saying we should ignore our failings. But we need to allow Christ’s beauty–which is infinitely more important–to overshadow them. It’s only by growing in adoration of Him that we will become more like Him.
Here is a beginner’s list of the wonderful characteristics of Christ, shown through selected Bible verses. As you are taught by the Word, add some of your own findings!
- His compassion: “But when He saw the multitudes, He was moved with compassion for them, because they were weary and scattered, like sheep having no shepherd.” (Matthew 9:36)
- His love for His people and humble servitude: “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45)
- His gentleness, as we follow Him: “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)
- His perfect obedience: “[Jesus] committed no sin, nor was deceit found in His mouth; who, when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously….” (1 Peter 2:2)
- His love of the Father: “He went a little farther and fell on His face, and prayed, saying, ‘O My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will.'” (Matthew 26:39)
- His justice and reign: “The Lord has said to Me, ‘You are My Son, today I have begotten You. Ask of Me, and I will give You the nations for Your inheritance,
and the ends of the earth for Your possession. You shall break them with a rod of iron; You shall dash them to pieces like a potter’s vessel.'” (Psalm 2:7-9)
- His eternal glory: “…His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds; who being the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person, and upholding all things by the word of His power, when He had by Himself purged our sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become so much better than the angels, as He has by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they.” (Hebrew 1:2-4)
As you adore Christ, remember your blessed union with Him. Recall that he dwells with you and in you, and that God is continually transforming you into His image by His power. You may hate to live with yourself sometimes, but the Lord Himself has sought you and made His home with you–not because of your goodness, but His!
3. Speak praises to God, rather than insults to yourself.
Do you constantly berate yourself with unnecessary criticisms about your appearance or natural abilities–things you can’t even control? Or do you go on furious, self-directed rants about your past decisions and failures?
Supplant those thoughts and words with holy praises to God. You don’t need to bolster yourself up with compliments. That is vain-glory! Seek to worship the Lord, which is what we were all created to do, and the insults will fall away into obscurity.
The Psalms contain beautiful praises to pray and sing to Him:
“Oh come, let us sing to the Lord!
Let us shout joyfully to the Rock of our salvation.
Let us come before His presence with thanksgiving;
Let us shout joyfully to Him with psalms.
For the Lord is the great God,
And the great King above all gods.” (Psalm 95:1-3)
4. Forsake the idol of self and serve the living God.
The more we focus on serving the Lord, the less we fall into unhealthy introspection and obsession over ourselves. Colossians 3 helps us put this into practice:
Instead of seeing only your own (temporary) problems… “Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth” (v. 2).
Instead of worrying about what others think of you… love others selflessly and “put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering; bearing with one another, and forgiving one another…” (v. 12).
Instead of worrying and fretting over yourself… “let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to which also you were called in one body” (v. 15).
Instead of feeling resentful of God’s providence in your life… “be thankful” (v. 15).
Instead of letting your bitter, foolish words fill you up… “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom” (v. 16).
Instead of isolating yourself, in either self-hatred or self-praise… join with the church in “teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord” (v. 16).
And don’t forget… “whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him” (v. 17).
5. Direct your despairing heart toward hope in future glory.
Are we sinful, even as believers? Yes. Do we have many flaws and imperfections? Definitely. Will we struggle to keep our eyes on Christ and off ourselves, in this life? Of course.
But can we look past these things to see the beautiful ending of our story–
Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. And everyone who has this hope in Him purifies himself, just as He is pure. (1 John 3:2-3)
What greater hope can we have, that one day we will be like Him–like Christ! And that is our motivation for pursuing holiness in this life.
Heaven is filled with “the spirits of just men made perfect” (Hebrews 12:23), and we will one day join them. All of our sin will be completely gone, and we will be given glorified bodies to perfectly praise and enjoy the Lord forever!
What a great prospect! Let your soul drop off the shackles of self-loathing and ascend to the skies in the joy of this promise–“Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27).