Wednesday 24 February 2016
There is an obsession in the wider church today with teaching people to love themselves, to focus on self, to stand in front of the mirror and proclaim ‘I am awesome!’ Much of it is the product of good intentions, because there are a lot of hurting people in this world, and people want to help. We should be building people up, helping them feel loved, and helping them feel secure in their family environment, workplace and other contexts. But what I am talking about goes a step further than that and delves into the realm of self-affirmation of the narcissistic kind, the kind we should expect from a Hollywood movie about a famous football player, not from those who say they teach the Bible. So I want to speak to this issue and begin with a bit of my own story and struggles from my teenage years.
I was an emotionally messed up teenager in many ways. I had lost my faith in God at the age of twelve because of a counterfeit movement of the Spirit. I gave up on Christianity, but it took me a while to recognize that I had done so. I progressively walked further and further away from the faith until I gave it up completely at about 15, though I stopped going to church when I was 17, as I didn’t have a choice until then.
Because I walked away from what gave me certainty when I was young, I began searching for fulfilment in different places. I became fixated on other worlds and I wanted to escape reality, so I tried to fill my longing for meaning with delving into science fiction and fantasy. I became obsessed with the world of Star Wars, the powers of the Jedi, the stories of the space battles, the intrigue of a world where so much more was possible. I read many, many books and stories because it was luring to me, it was exciting, but it was ultimately a meaningless path to fulfilment, because it is a fantasy world, a fun one sure, but one disconnected from reality in a truly profound way (though I still enjoy sci-fi).
I explored other means of fulfilment as well; sport, work, I got a job as soon as I was old enough, then it was alcohol, girls and eventually drugs. I had a jacket when I was 18 that said on the back of it: ‘I’ve fallen in love twice: Once with a beer bottle, once with a mirror.’ How narcissistic, but it was an accurate description of who I was at the time. I was seen as a reasonably good student in high school, but behind the scenes I was progressively getting more rebellious, I was sick of being the good kid, I was sick of being a nerd, I was sick of being who I was, so I tried to forge a new path, which ended rather obviously in disaster. I swung between jumping into doing drugs and fighting against them from the age of 17 to 22, six years of burning my life like a candle lit at both ends, it wasn’t good.
Some would say I was a just an uncertain kid who needed affirmation, who needed to learn to love myself, so that I didn’t become depressed and do stupid things that put my life at risk. Those who actually knew me would be able to tell you that I had no confidence problems at all, I was in fact supremely confident. Both would be right to some degree, internally I was an uncertain kid, and I was over confident, these two personality traits combined together into a truly destructive force. Because I was uncertain about who I was and what I wanted I would try almost anything, because I was overly confident I thought I could handle it (I couldn’t). But what I definitely did not need was to learn to love myself more, what I needed, and what everyone needs more than anything is not a deep self-anchor like a strong self-esteem, or self-affirmation, but a true anchor, something firm that we can all lock onto to keep our selves stable.
You see telling people to find their fulfilment, or their joy, in life in themselves is like telling a ship’s captain to anchor his ship by dropping anchor into the hull of his ship, it’s ultimately a fruitless exercise as it is not going to lock the ship into place. In fact it may be worse than fruitless because if you drive the anchor deep enough and hard enough it will pierce the hull plating and the ship will sink. I had driven the anchor of my life deep into self-esteem and I was sinking fast. Or you could say it is like encouraging the earth to rotate around itself. I am not the best person to give this example, because I am not an expert on the show, but from what I hear about him the Dr from Dr Who has the power to make sun disappear. What would happen if the sun was vanished from our solar system by a powerful being? Well the earth and the whole system would go sky rocketing into oblivion. It’s ok though, we would be instantly frozen and therefore wouldn’t have to experience the earth hurtling out of control through space, not that this is any consolation. No, a ship cannot lay anchor in itself, and a planet cannot rotate itself. The ship needs land, or a reef, something solid, sure and firm, the earth needs the sun, something constant, strong and powerful, and we need something or someone outside of ourselves to anchor our lives to or we will end up like self-anchored ship; drifting, or like a self-rotating planet; destroyed, barren and dead.
What we really need is a dose of reality: we cannot find complete joy in ourselves, and we cannot seek to find complete joy in this world; we need to turn to the source of life and joy everlasting, we need God; more specifically we need to come to God through Jesus Christ. It was when I became a believer in Jesus Christ that I stopped seeking joy in myself, and started to see that self-affirmation was not helpful but dangerous as it took me away from the true fountain of life and joy; Christ. Jesus teaches us through his word that it is better to humble ourselves, than exalt ourselves, for he lifts up the humble, but humbles those who exalt themselves (Luke 14:11). Jesus is the firm foundation, the cornerstone as he is called, and he gave me the ability to begin to seek to find my rest and ultimate joy in him. I don't do it perfectly, none of us will, but when we are made new in Christ he reorients our compass north towards him and gives us his Spirit to help us to continue to re-focus on him.
So why is there this great obsession with self-affirmation? The answer is simple: sin. In our sinful natures we are cut off from the sun to our planet, the land to our ship’s anchor, and we seek to find joy in sinful and ultimately meaningless ways. This is why the church is rife with teaching encouraging people to love themselves, to honour themselves, to look at how awesome they are. As Paul said, “3 But mark this: there will be terrible times in the last days. 2 People will be lovers of themselves…” (2 Tim. 3:1-2). He said more than this, but this is something we should hone in on, because this idea of loving ourselves has wormed into the church and become a part of our conferences, our best-selling books, and our teaching to young people. But here’s the ringer, the Bible is not about self-affirmation, or helping us find fulfilment in ourselves, it in fact does the opposite, it points us outside ourselves to Christ, as Jesus said, “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life” (John 5:39-40).
When we seek to help struggling young people, or any one really, by teaching them to say to themselves: ‘I’m all I need’, or ‘I’m awesome’, or something similar, we are not ultimately helping them, but are actually pointing them away from Jesus, in whom life is actually found, a life that teaches us to deny ourselves, not self-affirm, a life that teaches us to look to Christ, to get out of ourselves and into focusing on him.
The Biblical writers do not say, ‘God loves me because I’m awesome.’ They say, ‘God loves me because he is awesome.’ To give a biblical example in Psalm 8 when the writer says: “…what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them? You have made them a little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honour” (Psalm 8:4-5), this is not an exercise in self-affirmation, but worship of God, as shown by the last statement in the Psalm, which is identical to the first “Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! (Psalm 8:1,9). David here is praising God, not himself, he’s in awe of the fact that the awesome God of all creation bestows such honour on human beings as ruling over this earth, when only God deserves the glory of rule. David is moving from self-focus to God-focus, or in other words he is not worshipping himself, or humanity, but God.
A lot of what happens today is well meaning. Taking someone who is struggling with self-image issues and self-esteem issues and making them believe they are actually incredible, and awesome, and powerful in and of themselves, can make people into very successful human beings of a kind. But the ultimate end of such teaching is destruction, because we are designed and created not to find our fulfilment in ourselves and our ability, but in Christ and what he has done for us. If we use the Bible to point people to themselves we are ultimately making the mistake that the religious leaders Jesus condemned in John 5 did, we are teaching people to look for a way of life apart from Jesus, and this is ultimately the path to destruction, as Solomon wrote, “There is a way that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death” (Proverbs 14:12).