Earlier this year I read a fascinating book by the American pastor and theologian Tim Keller, The Freedom of Self-forgetfulness. His central thesis is that true Christian freedom is found when we stop seeing ourselves as the centre of the universe, and give that place to God instead. “A truly gospel–humble person,” the book’s blurb explains, “is not a self–hating person or a self–loving person, but a self–forgetful person.”
I wrote a blog post building on one of the concepts in the book for my church’s blog ‘Salt‘. The target audience for the blog is ‘thoughtful Londoners [and others] exploring matters of faith, philosophy, and life’, hence the reference to exploring Christianity. I write for the blog regularly, but I’m not sure if I’ve ever got round to sharing any posts here before – I’ll try to do better in future.
But without further ado, here’s the most recent:
Do you suffer from high self-esteem?
There’s a terrible disease ravaging our nation. It is destroying lives, decimating families, and devastating whole communities, and you could be a sufferer. It is the cancer of high self-esteem.
Symptoms include: wishing your friends didn’t show off so much on social media about how great their lives are; feeling angry when your boss takes the credit for your work; only playing sports or games that you’ve got a good chance of winning or performing well in; feeling like the bravest thing you’ve done in the last few years was posting a ‘no makeup selfie’ when that was a thing.
Do any of those sound like you? Do you feel the need to look good, to be recognised for your skills, to have the perfect home/holiday/partner/kids?
None of these are bad things in themselves, but when we take them to extremes—when not getting them makes us angry, upset or even depressed—then it’s time to consider that we might have a problem. These days our culture tends to consider this behaviour low self-esteem. Your sense of self-worth is so fragile, we say, that you need to be constantly praised and encouraged in order to help you recognise how great you are.
The American pastor and author Tim Keller says we’ve got this completely the wrong way round. It’s not that we think too little of ourselves but that we think about ourselves altogether too much. In the ranking of who and what matters in this world, we put ourselves much nearer the top than we should, and we have to constantly battle to keep ourselves there.
That’s why it matters when our friends seem to have a better life than us (at least according to their carefully posed, edited, cropped and filtered Instagram posts—you know they’re playing the same game, right?). It causes us to compare ourselves and fear we’re not making the grade. It is why it bothers us so much when someone else gets the credit for our work; we fear being overlooked and undervalued, because it means someone else is overtaking us in the rankings. We have to look good, do well and be noticed (for the right reasons) all the time otherwise we’ll find ourselves in freefall down the league table of life, and we might end up—*gasp*—as nobodies.
If you’ve ever looked into Christianity, this might have been one aspect that put you off. To become a Christian you have to admit that you’re not measuring up. You have to accept that you’ve made a pretty big mess of things trying to live successfully in this world. It can be hard enough to face the fact that we haven’t lived up to our own standards, but recognising that there is an even higher standard—God’s—that we should have been meeting, and admitting to him how very badly we’ve missed that, that takes some serious humility.
But once you’ve diagnosed the illness and accepted the cure, you get to experience wholeness and freedom like you’ve never dreamed of. You can see the amazing pictures of your friends with their beautiful families having perfect holidays and be genuinely happy for them. You might wish you could afford a similar experience, but you don’t feel any resentment towards them for their good fortune. You can see other people receiving praise for your work without feeling hurt, angry or threatened, because the outcome matters more than your ego. You can be criticised without feeling devastated, mocked without taking offence. You can play games you’re not particularly good at and find it’s no longer a disaster when you lose. In short, life is just much easier and less fraught with fears because your sense of self-worth is no longer bound up in your own success or failure.
How is this possible? What is the magic pill that can bring this sense of security? It is the recognition that Jesus Christ is the most important person in the universe, and that he loves you completely.
Once the highest authority in the universe says you are seen, known, loved and accepted, you don’t need to strive any more. Who cares what your boss, friends or total strangers think? You can get on with living life without having to strive for recognition because you’ve already got it.
Of course, there are challenges. Living as though you are no longer the most important person in the world isn’t an easy transition to make. I’ve been a Christian for actual decades, and I can tell you that it isn’t always easy and straightforward. My ego still gets bruised sometimes, and I still find myself wanting to go my way and not God’s more often than I like to admit. But what I can tell you is—it’s worth it.
You can go on striving to maintain your tender ego, or you can hand it over to someone else, and live free from that burden. What have you got to lose?