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.
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.”
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.
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.