Pursuing Self-Esteem

Jeffrey Thayne

Today, we hear a lot about the importance of self-confidence and self-esteem. Sometimes we don’t feel like we are adequate to the task at hand, and sometimes we think poorly of ourselves. This sometimes makes us miserable. It makes sense to believe that the solution to this problem is to think more highly of ourselves (increase our self-esteem), and to be more confident in our ability to do the things we need to do (increase our self-confidence). However, I disagree. I don’t believe that the scriptures ever teach us to think highly of ourselves, or to trust in our own abilities. Now, before you hang me for saying this, give me a chance to explain.

Self-Confidence

The scriptures never teach us to be self-confident. However, the scriptures do teach us to be confident in God. There’s a difference between self-confidence and confidence in God. Let’s see if I can express the difference.

Self-confidence implies that we are confident in our skills, ability, or traits. For example, if I’m super self-confident, I might say, “I know that I can pass this test, because I’m skilled at math, and I’ve studied really hard.” I’m confident in traits that I have, because of things that I’ve done. Simply put, my confidence is in me. That’s why it is called self-confidence. The scriptures don’t teach us to rely on ourselves. In fact, the scriptures explicitly forbid relying on ourselves. We read in Jeremiah, “Cursed be the man that trusteth in man, and maketh flesh his arm.” I think that includes us.

In contrast, the scriptures teach us to be confident in God. Let’s consider some examples. When Nephi’s brothers claimed that it was impossible to get the scriptural records from Laban, Nephi didn’t say, “I’m confident in our ability to do this.” Rather, he said, “Let us be faithful in keeping the commandments of the Lord; for behold he is mightier than all the earth, then why not mightier than Laban and his fifty, yea, or even than his tens of thousands?” That’s confidence. With that kind of confidence, Nephi could walk into the most dangerous of situations with courage. But it’s not self-confidence at all. It’s confidence in God.

Here’s another example. When Syrian forces surrounded Elisha and his servant, his servant asked, “Alas, my master! How shall we do?” Elisha didn’t respond, “Don’t worry, we have the power to survive this. We can do it!” Instead, he said, “Fear not: for they that be with us are more than they that be with them.” In other words, Elisha was serenely confident in the face of danger, but not because of any sense of self-confidence. It was because he knew of God’s willingness and power to protect them. He was confident in God.

The scriptures are full of similar examples. If we doubt that we are adequate to the task at hand, the solution is not to convince ourselves that we are. Because we aren’t. The tasks at hand are usually far too great for us to do ourselves. Rather, the solution is to recognize when that God is able to do all things, and that His power, and with His assistance, we can do anything He wishes us to do. And when we recognize this, we can be serenely confident, but in a much deeper way than we could if we trust our own abilities. I like the way that M. Catherine Thomas says it: “Self-confidence is a puny substitute for God-confidence.”

Self-Esteem

Likewise, the scriptures never teach us to think highly of ourselves. Yes, the scriptures remind us repeatedly that we are loved by God and that we are His children. However, the scriptures consistently teach us to think of ourselves as nothing.

Let’s start with Moses’s encounter with God. According to scripture, “Moses stood in the presence of God, and talked with him face to face.” Can you imagine that? A personal conversation with the ultimate Other, God Himself. Following this conversation, Moses said to himself, “Now, for this cause I know that man is nothing, which thing I never had supposed.”

The term “nothingness” is used many times in the scriptures. Let’s consider the teachings of King Benjamin, who said: “I would that ye should remember, and always retain in remembrance, the greatness of God, and your own nothingness,… If ye do this ye shall always rejoice, and be filled with the love of God.” Here, we have been counseled to remember our own nothingness next to the greatness of God. We’re promised that if we do this, we’ll experience joy. Later, Mormon shows us an example of this. I can’t help but think that he included Ammon’s story specifically to illustrate King Benjamin’s sermon. Ammon witnessed thousands of people convert to Christ as a direct result of his actions. Yet, he says, “Yea, I know that I am nothing; as to my strength I am weak; therefore I will not boast of myself, but I will boast of my God, for in his strength I can do all things.” In addition, Ammon says, “Behold, my joy is full, yea, my heart is brim with joy, and I will rejoice in my God.” Ammon recognized his own nothingness, and experience joy, just as King Benjamin promised.

We’ve cited at least three stories in which our nothingness is emphasized. How in the world can that help someone who is miserable because they think poorly of themselves? It seems quite counter-intuitive. However, let’s consider. When Moses says that “man is nothing,” this sounds self-degrading, but think for a moment why Moses is saying this. Is Moses sitting there focusing on his own weaknesses? Is Moses counting the ways in which he is a failure? Not at all. Moses recognizes his nothingness not by thinking of himself, but by encountering the greatness that is God. I imagine Moses’s thoughts were not focused on himself, but on God. The same is likely true of Ammon. He probably isn’t thinking of himself at all, but of the greatness of God.

C. S. Lewis gives an example when talking about humility: “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. … He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.” In other words, the choice is not between thinking poorly about ourselves or thinking highly about ourselves. The choice is between thinking about ourselves and thinking about God and others. I like James Faulconer says it: “A poor self-image—like every self-image including a good one—is selfish. To be selfish is, by definition, to be self-centered, to place oneself at the center of things. But to be concerned about a self-image—good or bad—is also to place oneself at the center.”

In other words, whether we think badly of ourselves, or highly of ourselves, we are still thinking about ourselves. This is why those with low self-esteem and high self-esteem can both be miserable. The solution is to not think about ourselves at all.

Conclusion

In conclusion, let me share an important point that James Faulconer makes about both self-esteem and self-confidence. He says:

Bad self-image, depression about one’s lack of ability, looks, or relations with others are at best only ways of feigning our nothingness before God. On the other hand, a good self-image, self confidence, etc., are ways of feigning our confidence before him. Having a good self-image and having a bad one are mutually exclusive, but being aware of one’s nothingness and being confident before God are not only not mutually exclusive, they are also the same thing. For once I am aware of my nothingness I can begin to trust the Lord as I really ought, whole-heartedly and without reservation, and when I do that he gives me the confidence I need, confidence in him.

Isn’t that fascinating? It is by recognizing our nothingness before God that we begin to truly be confident in Him. Moses’s experience might illustrate why this is. It is because Moses witnessed the greatness of God that he recognized his own nothingness, and it is in that same experience that he truly sees God’s power and therefore gains confidence in Him.

M. Catherine Thomas refers to the pursuit of self-esteem as a “red herring,” which means a distraction from the real issue. The real solution for those who are miserable because they think poorly of themselves is not to get them to think highly of themselves. Rather, it is to help them have real, personal encounters with God. This will help them (1) to think about something other than themselves, and (2) to recognize the greatness of God and their own need to rely on Him.

However, the pursuit of self-esteem and self-confidence is more than just a red herring. There’s a hidden danger to this way of talking about things. James Faulconer explains it far better than I can.

By making [good self-esteem and bad self-esteem] mutually exclusive, we are able to think we can or must choose between them, that there are no other choices. Thinking that way, we are able to think we are doing something grand when we get over having a bad self-image by replacing it with a good one; we are able to persuade ourselves that we have genuinely changed and, thus, to make ourselves feel good without ever having given up self-centeredness that was the problem in the first place. But change without repentance isn’t real. It’s just more of the same old thing, but covered in a more socially acceptable garb.

Isn’t that a tad scary? This is why the language we use to talk about these sorts of things is so crucially important. Pursuing high self-esteem will not bring us closer to God. It may make us less miserable, but for the wrong reasons. The solution is to seek personal experience with God, and to ask Him to help us to stop thinking about ourselves and to trust in Him.

M. Catherine Thomas explains, “Low self-esteem is often associated with feelings of incapacity, or a sense of victimization, or the realization that we can’t make happen the opportunities, the approval, the feelings, etc., that we feel we need. But our relief comes when we realize that God has made us powerless so that as we cleaved unto him, he could work miracles in our lives.” In other words, we need to invite God to “open [our] eyes, that [we] may see” the heavenly forces that are ready to assist us. We need to have personal experience of the greatness of God, so that we can both trust in Him and realize our own nothingness before Him.

15 thoughts on “Pursuing Self-Esteem

  1. Jeff, I don’t think we disagree that much, but I would have expressed it a bit differently. Genesis makes it clear that man is created in the image of God, which means we should have a tremendous amount of self-confidence and self-esteem because we are created after the image of the greatest being in the universe. So, we certainly have tremendous potential, and the Gospel emphasizes our potential greatness.

    But I also agree with your post that once we are aware of God in our lives we achieve the most when we realize our nothingness in comparison to Christ’s sacrifice. Paraphrasing CS Lewis, the moment when we think we have done enough or are good enough is the moment we need to do more. You can never sit and say, “yeah, I’m good enough” because you never are.

    I would also add that many people suffer from low self-image, and this affects their ability to get stuff done in life. I’m skeptical that all of our “build your self-esteem” schemes will get anything done about this, but I’d like to hear your thoughts on this problem.

  2. It doesn’t matter whether we are made in the image of God or not, we can’t become like him without his help. In my opinion, we couldn’t stay like him without help either.

    In the strict sense of the term, I completely agree with Jeff here. In the colloquial sense, I think self confidence is perfectly legitimate as long as it is conditioned on the sort of actions that could gain divine assistance and approval. Self-esteem for anything else is poisonous to the soul.

  3. I have to agree with Jeff as well. Pride, the deadliest of the seven deadly sins, could be defined as a love for ones self or ones accomplishments. Taking the glory as your own instead of acknowledging that you could do nothing without God.

  4. While I agree with Jeff’s comments (as well as those expressed by Sister Thomas–her talk is magnificent), I think that in the modern Church we run into the barrier of the scripture that says “We are saved by grace, after all we can do”. This is often interpreted as meaning “Don’t even think of asking God for help until you have used every last ounce of your own strength and ability”–which would seem to require high amounts of self-esteem, self-confidence, self-will, and so on. As long as it is interpreted this way, I think the self-esteem mindset will always be with us.

  5. Geoff, I think we are consistently reminded that we are children of God because this helps us recognize that God is willing and wanting to help us. If we were strangers to God, we could acknowledge His greatness but have no confidence that He’ll assist us. But if we acknowledge both God’s greatness and His fatherhood, we can then approach Him confident that He’ll reach out and give us aid (not because of any merit of our own, but by virtue of our familial relationship with Him). So, for me, being confident before God requires an acknowledgment of our relationship with Him as His children. So, this doesn’t lead to more self-confidence, but to more God-confidence, as M. Catherine Thomas would put it.

    I believe that the language we use to talk about these things is pretty important. Language communicates implicit worldviews that we are often not aware of. The emphasis on self-esteem and self-confidence grew out of the humanistic branch of the social sciences, and has some unintended consequences (as James Faulconer explains). Humanism focuses our attention on ourselves (that’s one of the reasons it’s called humanism—it shifts our focus from the divine and the supernatural to the human).

  6. I have a problem with the comparison between “self confidence” and “confidence in God”, because it is like comparing apples and oranges. They are entirely different ideas, and one cannot substitute for the other. This is what the D&C has to day about what can only be considered a form of “self-confidence”:

    Let thy bowels also be full of charity towards all men, and to the household of faith, and let virtue garnish thy thoughts unceasingly; then shall thy confidence wax strong in the presence of God; and the doctrine of the priesthood shall distil upon thy soul as the dews from heaven (D&C 121:45)

    The term “confidence in God” is indistinguishable from the term “faith in God”. It means you believe in God and trust in him.

    “Self-confidence” is something entirely different. It is a question of whether you believe in yourself, your current course of action, and your ability to take future actions without harming yourself or others.

    The last thing that God needs are people who are deprived of the proper form of self confidence. In fact that is precisely what he condemns in D&C 58:26-29. People who have so little self confidence that they won’t act as agents unto themselves and do many things of their own free will, bring to pass much righteousness, and so on.

  7. I read that scripture (D&C 121:45), and I don’t see self-confidence. That isn’t the only way to interpret it. Rather, I see exactly what Nephi had, and Elisha. It’s a confidence in God. It’s a confidence rooted in God’s power, not our own. In fact, I very nearly quoted that scripture in my article in support of the idea that we should place our confidence in God, not ourselves.

    As far as D&C 58 is concerned, I believe you’re conflating two different things. Having complete confidence in God (as opposed to confidence in ourselves) in no way means that we’ll wait around doing nothing until God commands us. You’re mistaking a proactive willingness to act in God’s name and pursue His work with self-confidence, when they aren’t the same thing at all. Proactivity and self-confidence are not the same thing. We can be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and seek to further God’s work in ways that we haven’t been specifically commanded to yet, and still place all our confidence in God, rather than ourselves. You’re comparing apples and oranges. =)

  8. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the phrase “then shall thy confidence wax strong in the presence of God” refers precisely to the type of experience that Moses had. When we experience the presence of God, whether through the Spirit or His actual presence (as Moses experienced), we are brought to an awareness of our own nothingness and God’s awesome love and power. In those moments, we realize that we can have perfect confidence in Him, and as long as we maintain the presence of His Spirit (through virtuous and charitable living), we can maintain that sense of humbling, awe-inspired confidence in the grace and power of God.

  9. I think there is a fine line between the kind of confidence God wants us to have and the kind of prideful confidence we can easily drift into. If you really think about it, you probably don’t like the idea of a God who really really wants you to feel like dirt and recognize how great he is compared to how much a pile of crap you are.

    Ldsphilo- reverse what you are saying. Imagine a God who says, “I want you to realize how much you are nothing and how awesome and loving I am.”

    I don’t think God really says that. So with that in mind, I’d suggest what we read in the scriptures is what we say in our own fallen state, when we recognize the greatness of God. I’m not saying the scriptures or prophets who used this literary tactic, so to speak, were wrong as it has one part of the truth from a certain point of view. But not the complete truth. The God that I worship and want to be like does not need to tell others how lowly they are without him. Maybe he’d like us to recognize that we are dependent on him for every blessing, but that’s more of a subjective take on things.

    You could probably just as effectively say God wouldn’t be God without us. For his entire work and glory is wrapped up in us. We are to make up the jewels in his crown.

  10. But I hasten to add I don’t really disagree with the take the prophets have in the scriptures or really what you are saying. I’m just not sure how much it represents everything on the subject of confidence, if you get my point of view.

  11. Just to quote a scripture from Isaiah which comes to mind about the perspective of things….

    “Surely your turning of things upside down shall be esteemed as the potter’s clay: for shall the work say of him that made it, He made me not?”

    Just as the clay depends on the potter to be shaped into its full potential, the potter requires mold-able clay to be considered a potter at all.

  12. I don’t think Moses felt like dirt after His encounter with God. He acknowledged His own nothingness and total dependence on God, but he didn’t feel like dirt. One unfortunate assumption we make in our modern society is that being entirely dependent on someone else (God) is a bad thing, and we would and should feel like dirt about it. But it’s not. It’s an awesome, humbling experience to realize our total dependence on God. It’s a marvelous thing. We as a modern society value independence as a measure of greatness, but the scriptures teach us something different. It’s the humility to acknowledge our total dependence that makes us great. So, to interpret it as God saying that we are a “pile of crap” assumes that our dependence on God is a bad thing, when it’s not.

    The God that I worship and want to be like does not need to tell others how lowly they are without him.

    Interestingly, though, this is precisely what He has done throughout scripture. It seems counterintuitive to modern, accepted parenting techniques… but He does it nonetheless. How many times in scripture has God needed to remind his people of their total dependence on Him?

  13. It’s a confidence in God. It’s a confidence rooted in God’s power, not our own

    I still think you are avoiding a crucial distinction. There are two dimensions here:

    (1) Confidence in the actions of whom?
    (2) Confidence based on what?

    That leads to at least four combinations:

    (1) Confidence in your own actions, based on divine support
    (2) Confidence in your own actions, without divine support
    (3) Confidence in God’s actions, based on his character
    (4) Confidence in God’s actions, for no particular reason

    I claim that (1) and (2) are two different kinds of self confidence, one good and one bad. Claiming that (1) is “confidence in God” makes no sense. That is what (3) and (4) are.

    D&C 121:45 is about the doctrine of the priesthood. It is not about confidence in God’s actions, it is about being able to have confidence in your own actions, based on divine support. If it were all about God’s actions the priesthood would be irrelevant.

    The whole point of the priesthood is the delegation of divine authority to individuals. If there is no delegation, there is no priesthood. Referring to one’s ability to make proper decisions with divine support isn’t “confidence in God” – that is what faith in God is – it is a form of divinely rooted self-confidence, knowing that what you are doing is the sort of thing that he will endorse.

  14. lds – I understand your point. Do you see mine?

    I suggest there is more than 1 point of truth in this matter and you seem to be staking out a single point of truth and claiming “this is it.” I don’t refute or disagree with what the scriptures say, but I think it is somewhat mistaken to presume that is -all- they say on the matter.

    We are totally dependent on God for all we have and for the Plan of Salvation that we are all taking part in. I haven’t disagree with that. And I recognize the scriptures in many cases for what they are — God’s inspired servants reasoning out revelation as it comes to them. I would never suggest, and more important, I think the prophets in the scriptures themselves, would never suggest that what they are saying on any given matter, “says it all”.

    And there’s an important aspect I think we need to consider in confidence, self-esteem, and the worth of souls. The worth of souls is great. It’s not lower than dirt. One soul to God can be worth all the wealth and all the creation of this world. And it is that work, and that glory of eternal creation that makes God exactly who he is. And he invites us to be a part of that work both in our limited (but far reaching) capacity in this life as well as the unfathomable aspect into the eternities.

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