One of a Kind
A Biblical View of Self-Acceptance
  M. Blaine Smith ~ SilverCrest Books ~ 2012

Chapter One
Feeling Small
 

Once I was asked to speak on self-image to a group of gifted Christian athletes on a weekend retreat. I was excited about the opportunity to share my thoughts on self-acceptance with these men. But in the afternoon before the talks began, as I sat watching them devour one another in a brutal game of volleyball, it suddenly occurred to me that I could not match the athletic skill of any of them.

For the rest of the weekend, as I went on to talk about the importance of a positive self-image, I fought back inferiority feelings. There was no need for this. The group was gracious to me and received me well as a teacher. None of them seemed the least bit concerned about my limitations in their specialized area. I should have been encouraged.

But inside I felt small--a victim of the arbitrary barometer I chose to set for myself. My sense of inadequacy made it difficult for me to enjoy the time.

I doubt that anything more strongly affects our sense of fulfillment and well-being than our self-image. When we feel good about ourselves, we can endure a great deal of tension and challenge and still hold on to a basically positive view of life. But when our self-image is low, we find a way of making even the most encouraging circumstances seem bleak.

Coming Up Short

Most of us, I suspect, have had the experience of feeling small. It need not, of course, have anything to do with physical size or athletic ability. In fact, the most graphic portrait of an individual with a poor self-concept in the Old Testament is that of Saul, the first King of Israel. And of all people in Scripture, he was well endowed: a very tall man, greatly esteemed for his physical size and vigor. "There was not a man among the people of Israel more handsome than he; from his shoulders upward he was taller than any of the people" (1 Sam 9:2).

Yet Saul suffered a gross sense of inferiority. Part of the problem was self-consciousness over his family background in the deprecated tribe of Benjamin. When Samuel approached him about becoming king, Saul replied, "Am I not a Benjaminite, from the least of the tribes of Israel? And is not my family the humblest of all the families of the tribe of Benjamin?" (1 Sam 9:21). Like most Jews of his time, Saul placed great stock in his family and tribal identity. This was a vital gauge of personal worth to him and an area where he felt that he fell drastically short of the ideal.

Family background may or may not be as significant a factor in your self-esteem or mine. But each of us holds standards against which we constantly measure ourselves. And most of us have often enough failed to live up to these that we know what it means to feel defeated and inferior.

For some, feeling small is just a momentary experience. Their healthy self-identity gives them the resilience to bounce back when they feel they have failed.

For others, feeling small is a way of life. They never feel they have measured up to their own standards, and they never can say, even to themselves, "I am worthwhile." They go through life with a chronic sense of inferiority, making it exceedingly difficult for them to find fulfillment in anything they do.

Love Short-Circuited

Our self-image affects not only our well-being and fulfillment but also our ability to relate to the world outside ourselves. Studies of human nature, for instance, have time and again shown the close relation between our love for ourselves and our capacity to love others.

Psychology, to be sure, has tended to overstate the point. We cannot agree with Erich Fromm that our feelings for ourselves and our feelings for others are "conjunctive," or identical. Putting it that way overlooks the volitional aspect of love so stressed in the Bible. Scripture talks about loving as an act of will whether or not we feel like it, implying that feelings of love will sometimes follow the act of love rather than precede it.

At the same time, it is clear that our feelings for ourselves affect our emotional capacity to respond to the biblical commands to love. If I dislike myself, I will probably be preoccupied with myself, perhaps immersed in self-pity. This will rob me of emotional energy for loving others and mental energy for thinking creatively about the needs they may have.

On the other hand, if I have a healthy love for myself, this becomes a wellspring within me from which feelings of love for others can flow. This was perhaps in Jesus' mind when he told us to love our neighbor as ourselves (Mt 22:39; Mk 12:31; Lk 10:27). Love for myself will not guarantee that I love others in a Christian fashion. I need the biblical commands on love to motivate me and to clarify how love should be expressed, or else I will be forever in danger of expressing love inappropriately. But there is no question that a proper love for myself provides a vital psychological reserve for effectively loving others the way Christ did. It makes it easier to forget about myself and to concentrate on the needs of others.

One evening a man phoned me, obviously needing consolation. He had been rejected from a job position he had long hoped to get. He was terribly discouraged and was doubting his worth in God's sight.

When the phone rang, I was mowing the lawn, and it was getting dark. I was obviously out of breath when I answered the phone and mentioned to him that I was in the middle of cutting the grass, hoping he would ask me to phone him back when I finished. But he simply responded, "Oh," and went on to share his situation with me in great detail. His preoccupation with himself effectively blocked him from any sensitivity to needs I might have, even though he is normally a very considerate person. It was only after we had talked for some time and he began to feel reassured that he started to show some interest in my concerns (and by then the sun had set).

I am not suggesting that such problems of insensitivity should merely be dealt with psychologically. We all need a heightened awareness of the biblical commands to love, and we need to strive to take an interest in others even when we do not feel personally affirmed. But there is no question that as we grow into a more healthy, positive self-concept, we will find it more natural to get outside of ourselves and love others in a meaningful way.

Great Expectations

As our self-image affects our ability to love others, it also affects our work and accomplishment in life. One sociologist observes:

"Much of what a person does or refuses to do depends upon his level of self-esteem. Those who do not regard themselves as particularly talented do not aspire to lofty goals, nor are they overly disturbed when they fail to perform well.... On the other hand, those who place high value upon themselves are often willing to work very hard. They consider it beneath their dignity not to do their very best."

There is a close connection between our general self-esteem and the level of energy we put into what we do. In addition, we are greatly influenced by specific convictions of what we can or cannot do.

A friend of mine was a long-distance runner in high school. From grade eight through grade ten he ran on school track teams with very mediocre performance. He often came in last, and coaches and classmates discouraged him about his possibilities for success. "But for some reason," he says, "I could never shake the image of myself as a star runner. I simply saw myself winning, even when the results kept pointing in a different direction." By his senior year he had become the top performer on his large, high-school track team and one of the best long-distance runners in the county.

Don't get me wrong. I do not mean to imply that we can get whatever we want in life simply through "positive thinking." If our expectations of success are not coupled with a realistic understanding of our potential and limitations, we can be on dangerous ground. At the same time, we would be terribly mistaken to think there is no connection between our expectations and our accomplishments. My friend, I believe, had a realistic sense of his own skills and capabilities. But without his positive self-expectation, I doubt he would have been able to see beyond all the negative reinforcement he was getting.

Confidence that we can succeed probably has as great an influence in reaching a goal as ability itself. In the same way an expectation of failure can too easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Stunted Faith

In saying that our self-image affects our love for others and the work we do, I am perhaps not saying anything particularly novel. These ideas have been widely proclaimed in both Christian and secular writings.

What is far less appreciated, I believe, is the effect our self-image can have on our relationship with God. We realize, of course, that an exalted self-concept can cause us to put ourselves above God. There are numerous illustrations of this in Scripture. "Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty?" King Nebuchadnezzar declared (Dan 4:30). His self-worship led to severe mental problems (Dan 4:31-33).

But the fact is that low self-esteem can also contribute to problems in our relationship with the Lord. For one thing, if my self-esteem is low, I may tend to blame God for things I don't like about myself. Intimacy with God may be difficult as a result, and I may find it hard to trust him to meet needs in my life, since basically I am not pleased with the work he has already done.

By the same token, I will probably lack the motivation to take steps of faith for the Lord. By "step of faith" I mean doing something which I believe the Lord is leading me to do but which humanly seems to involve risk. In such a case it is not sufficient simply to believe in God's power in a general sense. I must believe in a most concrete way that God wants to vest his power in and through my life, to meet my needs and the needs of others. This means believing that I am important to God, that he cares to take an interest in me and to work through me to accomplish significant things.

A poor self-image can provide powerful resistance to such a perspective. If I am not important to myself, I may find it hard to believe that I am important to God. With the mass of humanity in the world, why would he want to give special attention to me or use my life to accomplish anything extraordinary?

Of course my insecurity may push me toward a compulsive striving to please God and to impress others through my accomplishments. And indeed many may be impressed with my energy level and apparent spirituality. But the workaholism that results springs not from faith and natural motivation but from a dislike for myself which keeps me from ever feeling that I have been successful. And in spite of the continual assurances of forgiveness in Scripture, I never feel that I am forgiven by God or that he is happy with me. Underneath I am in bondage to a works theology where I feel continually under the gun to prove myself to God and others. Outwardly my life seems virtuous to many, but inwardly I am a driven and frustrated individual.

On the other hand, I may just give up. My lack of self-respect may even keep me from caring whether I enjoy the benefits of being in the will of God. It is interesting how often biblical moral commands appeal to our sense of self-respect or our desire to improve our lives. In talking about wisdom, for instance, Proverbs 8:35 states: "He who finds me finds life and obtains favor from the LORD." If I am not concerned with improving the quality of my life, I will obviously lack motivation to take such a biblical instruction seriously.

With all that psychology has shown us about the role of subconscious and unconscious desires for punishment, I suspect that a person can have an unconscious desire to bring punishment on herself or himself through disobeying the commandments of God. Thus the Proverb continues: "but he who misses me injures himself; all who hate me love death" (v. 36). While the writer is not, of course, talking refined psychological language, the implications of this statement are worth pondering. Those who hate themselves may actually be inclined to punish themselves through disregarding the will of God.

Saul Sells Out

King Saul provides an illuminating example of how a poor self-image can affect obedience to God. Saul's downfall occurred because he did not have the courage to obey God completely. In 1 Samuel 15 God commands Saul to destroy totally the Amalekites in retaliation for their opposition to Israel. Saul carries out the command partially; but he "spared Agag [the king], and the best of the sheep and of the oxen and of the fatlings, and the lambs, and all that was good, and would not utterly destroy them" (1 Sam 15:9).

Samuel expresses God's displeasure with Saul in a most revealing statement: "Though you are little in your own eyes, are you not the head of the tribes of Israel? The LORD anointed you king over Israel.... Why then did you not obey the voice of the LORD?" (1 Sam 15:17, 19). Samuel relates Saul's disobedience to his self-image--his sense of feeling small: "though you are little in your own eyes." Saul finally confesses to Samuel that he betrayed the Lord because he "feared the people and obeyed their voice" (1 Sam 15:24).

The connection between self-image and obedience seems unmistakable here. Saul's lack of self-respect kept him from appreciating the work of God in his life. Even though God had made him king over Israel, Saul failed to perceive the significance of this. He failed to grasp that he was important to God and that God could be trusted fully. In the moment of decision he was unable to believe God would protect him from the wrath of his own people, and he followed their desires rather than the Lord's.

Wrong Conclusions

We could, to be sure, draw an unfortunate conclusion from Saul's example--that our self-image must be perfect before we can have a meaningful relationship with God or be able to do his will. God forbid! The Scriptures certainly do not imply this. Still, Saul shows some of the problems of a poor self-image. We need to heed his example.

But at the same time we must accept that our self-image will always be less than perfect this side of eternity. This does not mean we are of no use to God. The liberating truth of the gospel is that God takes us where we are and, in spite of many weaknesses, does marvelous things in and through our lives. We could cite numerous examples of Christian saints who lived most impressive lives in spite of self-images that fell far short of ideal. I think of a minister I know who has effectively shepherded a large congregation for many years, written many books and influenced numerous people to pursue the pastoral ministry. Yet he admits that he has carried a sense of failure throughout most of his life.

Too often, I think, our self-image discussions leave us feeling more defeated than uplifted, for we realize how far short we fall from some ideal. I am reminded of a cartoon in Time Magazine: A Woman lies on a psychiatrist's couch, while the psychiatrist angrily waves his finger at her and shouts, "After all these years you still feel guilt over that matter? You ought to be ashamed of yourself!"

I sincerely hope that our discussion in this book does not have such a negative effect. My point in this chapter is that self-image is an important area for Christian growth. God is not ultimately limited by my self-image. But as my self-image becomes more what God wants it to be, I will become a clearer channel for what he wants to do through me, less of a hindrance to his work. And I will open myself more fully to experiencing his gift of abundant life.

By the same token, we must conclude that God is concerned with improving our self-image. This is one of the areas where he wishes to bring his grace and healing to bear on our existence. If we are going to cooperate with God's nurturing process in our lives, then we should be concerned with developing a healthy self-image. And certainly the subject of self-image deserves the same careful study that we would apply to any important doctrinal area of the Christian faith.

I hope this book will be a stimulus to readers in thinking through some important aspects of Christian self-image. Some will undoubtedly claim there is a danger in undertaking a study of this sort--that too much attention to self-image could lead to an unhealthy preoccupation with the self. I suspect such a danger does exist: too much attention to any area of knowledge can be unhealthy. But I believe an even greater danger exists in not studying self-image. That danger is the real possibility that my self-concept may end up being other than what God wants it to be. And to the degree that my self-image falls short of God's ideal, I am putting limitations on my life of faith.

Our approach to this topic will be twofold. In part one we deal with the general issues, giving attention to the definition of self-image, considering the biblical idea of a healthy self-image, and looking at some barriers to self-esteem--unhealthy comparisons and the problem of self-consistency. In part two we will examine in greater depth the biblical perspective on four vital self-image areas: physical appearance, personality, abilities and gifts, and the unique circumstances of our lives.

Excerpt taken from One of a Kind: A Biblical View of Self-Acceptance, Copyright 2012 M. Blaine Smith. Not intended for multiple copies.

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