How Should We Understand Self Image?
Casting off the heavy burden of self-esteem
A few weeks ago I learned something important about myself. I don’t know how I made it into my 30’s without this information, since it was a part of my everyday life, but I also doubt I’m alone in my ignorance. After all, how many people really know what their gallbadder does?
I first got to know my gallbladder after I developed severe abdominal pain. The paramedics speculated about the cause, one wondering about appendicitis while another suggested kidney stones. However, a CT scan and an ultrasound later, I learned that the real culprit was my gallbladder.
Three weeks ago, if you had asked me what a gallbladder does, I would have stared at you blankly. But these days, oh these days, I’m a gallbladder expert! I know all about them, what they’re supposed to do, and what happens when they malfunction. I also learned that once a gallbladder stops being a “team player” as I like to say, it’s time to give it the boot. So that’s exactly what I did. With the help of a great surgeon, I kicked my gallbladder to the curb.
Looking back on it, it’s striking how little thought I give to my body until it stops working. Only when sickness demands my attention do I pay my body any mind. Sure, I try to eat well and exercise appropriately, but my body draws little of my concern when it is working properly. And while I should never take my body for granted, the freedom from concern is a sign of health. It’s a good thing.
In his book The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness: The Path to True Christian Joy, Tim Keller also notices how physical ailments grab one’s attention. However, Keller takes the concept a step or two further by applying it to self-image. Keller explains that “the parts of our body only draw attention to themselves if something is wrong with them.” This is true of our physical body, but it is also true of the self. Keller goes on to say,
“The ego often hurts. That is because it has something incredibly wrong with it…It is always making us think about how we look and how we are treated. People sometimes say their feelings are hurt. But our feelings can’t be hurt! It is the ego that hurts—my sense of self, my identity.”
Keller’s analysis presents quite a challenge to the popular self-esteem movement of today. Rather than remedy one’s low self-esteem through a positive self-image, Keller argues that high and low self-esteem are two sides of the same coin. Both are symptomatic of a wounded self. Both are preoccupied with the self in a way that is spiritually sick. Both attempt to ground one’s identity on a foundation of sand. And both supplant God as the center of one’s life, thereby robbing Christians of meaningful purpose and life-giving joy.
The freedom of self-forgetfulness
The goal of the Christian life is not high self-esteem or a great self-image. Not ultimately, anyway. Instead, the goal of the Christian life is the self-forgetfulness that springs from a healthy soul. In the same way that I “forgot” my gallbladder while it was healthy, we can experience the same liberation when our selves are healthy and whole. The less wounded we are, the less self-focused we need to be.
Does this mean that spiritual health is to be found in self-neglect or self-deprecation? Certainly not. As beings made in the image of God, as houses of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19), and as children of the King, we should afford ourselves the care, dignity, and respect fitting of our creation but not as an end unto itself. We do these things as an overflow of our devotion to Christ. By losing ourselves in pursuit of the Lord, we find ourselves all the more.
The solution to low self-esteem, then, is not self-affirmation. We cannot praise ourselves, or our children, into a spiritually whole self-image. Nor can we will ourselves to self-forget. Why? Because self-forgetfulness is not a discipline, but a fruit. Simply look at one of the clearest examples of self-forgetfulness in all of Scripture: the Song of Songs.
The path to self-forgetfulness
The Song of Songs is a love poem that captures the intimacy and passion between a man and a woman. It celebrates the beauty of marriage while pointing to the greater, more perfect union between Christ and the church. What is interesting about the poem is the absence of self-consciousness. With a few exceptions, the two lovers remain absorbed in one another, endlessly cataloging one another’s lovely traits. Occasionally the woman remembers herself and experiences moments of self-doubt, but she is mostly transfixed with her beloved. She is so taken with him, and he with her that they luxuriate in blissful self-forgetfulness.
The Song of Songs reminds us that self-forgetfulness is a fruit of love. As you fall in love with another person, your attention is rapt. Engrossed in your beloved, your cares are no longer captive to the self. Likewise, the answer to low self-esteem is not a greater focus on the self, but to fall hopelessly in love with Christ. By meditating on the gospel, grieving over personal sin, remembering the Savior’s love, and allowing His grace to wash over you, you till the soil out of which intoxicating love might flourish.
In one of his letters, C.S. Lewis once wrote, “Put first things first and we get second things thrown in: put second things first and we lose both first and second things.” A healthy self-image is a good thing, to be sure, but in the hierarchy of Kingdom priorities, it is a “second thing.” For believers, the starting point, motivation, and goal—the “first thing”—is the glory of God as manifested in the gospel of Christ. Only in pursuing this first thing will the second thing be thrown in. Only in devotion to Christ does healthy self-image lie.
So I encourage you to lose yourself. Lose yourself in the love of Jesus, wherein you will find yourself, and love yourself, as God intended.