We live in a society that exalts self-centeredness. This has always been a characteristic of our fallen race, but modern Western culture has made a public fetish out of it. Every supermarket checkout counter bears mute witness to the elevation of the self to deity. There, magazine after magazine promotes the primary virtue of "looking out for number one". There is even one unabashedly named Self while another periodical addresses itself to the plural, Us.
The response of some in the Church to this obsession with the individual has been to step up the number and ferocity of sermons attacking this sin of pride. A frequent target is the idea of "self-esteem". Today any number of human problems in our world is attributed to persons lacking this quality, which Webster's defines as "A confidence and satisfaction in oneself". In certain wings of the Bible-believing Church, self-esteem has been demonized to the point that it is assumed that any Christian leader who uses the term positively has fallen away from the Faith.
A frequently used charge in the attack on the concept of self-esteem has been the biblical exhortation that believers must "die to self". It sounds like a definitive answer to those Christians who have foolishly chosen to believe that we have any right to think positively of ourselves in any way. But we do well to examine whether dying to self is the equivalent of hating self.
Perhaps the dying the Bible urges is not so much self-annihilation as it is self-forgetfulness. At its most basic definition, the quality of self is simply the awareness of our existence as separate entities from God and others. It was God who designed this characteristic into us. It is what separates us from the animal kingdom and is a primary element in our race being made in the image of God. God made us self-aware, as He Himself is. Adam and Eve had a sense of self in the Garden before the Fall.
But in that Fall, human self-awareness became cursed in the sense that our self-knowledge now included a knowledge of our corporate and personal wickedness. The conscience became operative in our sense that we do wrong and are unable to stop. It is this awareness of sin that God uses to convict a soul of its need for a Savior.
Our salvation in Christ then gives us reason to regard ourselves as valuable in the eyes of a God who loved us enough to die for us. We can have self-worth that comes from the Lord's grace in His declaration of our worth in Christ Jesus.
Is it possible that the dying to self we are commanded to undergo has less to do with self-hatred than it does with self-forgetfulness? Our most profoundly blessed moments in life come when we are so focused on God that we are caught up in His presence and the awareness of ourselves "grows strangely dim". This also happens when we become lost in our love for or concern over another human being. Our Lord has been called "a Man for others" and it is that kind of self-forgetfulness, manifested in His many acts of love which culminated on the cross that we are to emulate as His disciples.
For the child of God to hate the self, in the sense of who we have been created to be in Christ, is a sin in and of itself. It is undoubtedly true that we should not embrace self-esteem in the secular sense of exalting ourselves over others (and ultimately over God). This does not mean, however, that we cannot possess a healthy sense of the worth God has given us, rejoice in that reality, and ultimately use the comfort and confidence it engenders to help us reach out to others in a healthily self-forgetful way.
At the same time it is a deep blessing to be able to love another so much that we are set free, even if only for a time, from the unhealthy obsession with ourselves alone that we continue to struggle with as yet-imperfect disciples. Praise be to God that He will soon send His "Man for others" back to our self-centered world to overthrow it and usher in a Kingdom in which all our love is perfect love.
© Shea Oakley. All Rights Reserved.
Converted from atheism in 1990, Shea Oakley has written over 350 articles for electronic and print publications since 2002, including Disciple Magazine (and Pulpit Helps Magazine), The Christian Herald, The Christian Post, Christian Network and Crosshome.com. In 2003 he graduated from Alliance Theological Seminary with a Certificate of Theological Studies. Shea and his wife Kathleen make their home in West Milford, New Jersey.