The ancient Greek philosophers famously said, “Know thyself,” even inscribed the phrase on the temple walls to their idol gods, and perhaps this is good advice as far as it goes. But in knowing ourselves, what do we learn, and can we really trust ourselves?
Hi, I’m Rex Rogers and this is episode #25 of Discerning What Is Best, a podcast applying unchanging biblical principles in a rapidly changing world, and a Christian worldview to current issues and everyday life.
Many years ago, when we lived near New York City where I served as a Christian college administrator, we attended our daughter’s Eighth Grade graduation ceremony. It was a nice outdoor affair conducted with the usual academic pomp and circumstance, complete with commencement speaker and individual diplomas. It was a nice experience for our daughter and her friends.
While I know it is rare indeed to remember anything a commencement speaker says, I’ve never forgotten this speaker’s presentation. This was back in the day when self-esteem was the huge educational if not cultural fad of the moment. Everyone was into raising their self-esteem and books were pouring off the shelves, especially those aimed at women or children.
This speaker, no doubt with good intentions, used the words self, self-esteem, self-awareness, self-acceptance, self-care, even self-actualization at least twenty times in her mercifully brief speech. It was overwhelming. Basically, her message to the graduates was, you owe it to yourself to take care of yourself and the best way to do this is to look inside yourself and pursue whatever your authentic self wishes to do or be.
It all sounded like a wonderful experience of freedom and self-fulfillment.
This exaltation of the self has not gone away in American or Western culture. The self-esteem movement ran hot for some time, eventually resulting in among other things, trophies for every player, effusive praise in the face of error or lack of learning, feel-good affirmations for any and all behavior, thus a generation of children growing up (but not maturing) with a sense of entitlement, little in the way of expectation, a limited work ethic, no vision for themselves, an inability to deal with loss they were never asked to experience, and a sense of meaninglessness.
Some have blamed this movement for the so-called “snowflakes” entering higher education today, students so emotionally fragile that mere unpleasant words trigger their ability to function normally, hence, the arrival of “safe spaces” and politically correct lists of vocabulary allowed in the classroom. And sadly if ironically, for all this attention to the self, young people today are unhappy.
Add to this the ubiquitous Internet: Every day, online influencers essentially say the same thing in thousands of Instagram posts, TikTok videos, and websites promoting products that ostensibly improve the self.
Celebrities model this message as they post daily logs of their lives built around their appearance—beauty and fashion—materialistic excess, jet set lifestyles, opulent homes, non-stop parties, sensuality, and promiscuity.
Whatever they desire, they do, because, well, they are the beautiful people whose lives are a model for us all. No one says it, but the message is, hedonism is healthy.
Self-actualization, indeed, self-aggrandizement, is the ultimate path to the good life, to utopia, to heaven on earth.
Now I understand that some individuals, perhaps because they have been badly mistreated by parents or others, suffer from a serious lack of personal confidence, i.e., self-esteem. I understand this condition, particularly when resulting from emotional or psychological damage, is a very difficult challenge to overcome. I am not minimizing those peoples’ pain or otherwise ignoring their hurt. We should care about them. There is a biblical understanding and a Christian way to encourage and help these people.
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What I am saying is that while personal confidence and self-esteem rightly understood are wonderful blessings, promoting a philosophy rooted in humanism – self-esteem or specifically the self, as the answer to all our life problems, does not work.
We hear bland statements like, “Just believe in yourself,” or “Practice self-love,” or “One of the deepest ways to increase confidence is to connect to your inner power.”
Or how about, “The more you believe in yourself, the more you could trust yourself. The more you trust yourself, the less you compare yourself to others.”
― Roy T. Bennett.
“Spirituality is not adopting more beliefs and assumptions but uncovering the best in you.” ― Amit Ray, Beautify Your Breath – Beautify Your Life.
“No one knows your truth but you. If you're secure in yourself, no one and no(thing) can touch you.” ― Brittany Burgunder.
The problem with all these comments that in essence say, Trust yourself, is that yourself is inherently untrustworthy. That’s right, you the self, and me the self, are untrustworthy.
The time in which we live is often called Postmodernity, and the dominant philosophy of our day is called Postmodernism. “Postmodernism views human beings as autonomous, self-determining agents…Gone is any notion of a transcendent, objective moral law, or even the natural laws of modernity. Reality is now subjective, the product of human minds.”
“Because postmodernism sees all reality as subjective, we no longer have a basis for human rights. Life and liberty have been replaced by a new overarching human right: ‘The right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.’” But this autonomous self, little gods, leads to social chaos. (Scott David Allen. Why Social Justice Is Not Biblical Justice.)
On the other hand, a Judeo-Christian worldview sees our times and our place in it differently, which is to say, accurately. While we as human beings are made in the image of God and as such are blessed with eternal value, significance, and meaning, while made in the image of God we are blessed with a right and righteous sense that God loves each and every one of us. We as individual selves are somebody. We can and should, therefore, possess a humble self-esteem based upon this knowledge.
But because of the Fall, because of sin, each human being is born in sin and possesses a sinful, depraved heart.
Jer. 17:9 reminds us, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?”
Rom. 3:10 says, “As it is written: “There is no one righteous, not even one.”
Rom. 3:23 states, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
And there is a remedy,
“But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).
In the book of Ephesians, the Apostle Paul speaks directly to the issue:
“You were taught with regard to the former way of life to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires, to be made new in the attitude of your minds, and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph. 4:22-24).
The Word of God describes humanity as we are – created in God’s image and uniquely, ultimately valuable, that is, We all matter. But we are also members of a sinful, fallen human race, capable of great evil and in need of redemption provided through Christ.
The point is, if we simply look inside ourselves, we find a sinful heart. We find someone untrustworthy. We find attitudes and values that do not conform to what God wants for us, which is to say what is best for us.
So, if we really want to improve ourselves, to change the self, we need to look not inside but outside ourselves to gain perspective, to know who we are, and to discover what may be done to bless our lives.
The self cannot fix or save itself. Let me say that again, the self cannot fix or save itself.
Pursuing the self’s natural desires leads us into hopeless hedonism, a toxic brew of shiny objects that only leads us on the broad path of destruction.
Meanwhile, God has not left us adrift. So, don’t trust yourself.
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart
And lean not on your own understanding;
In all your ways acknowledge him,
And he will make your paths straight” (Prov. 3:5-6).
Well, we’ll see you again soon. For more Christian commentary, be sure to subscribe to this podcast, Discerning What Is Best, or check my website, r-e-x-m as in Martin, that’s rexmrogers.com. And remember, it is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm.
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