In his very short work, The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness, Tim Keller offers a wonderful insight on the question of self-esteem from his study of 1 Corinthians chapter 4…
“If someone has a problem with low self-esteem we, in our modern world, seem to have only one way of dealing with it. That is remedying it with high self-esteem. We tell someone that they need to see that they are a great person, they need to see how wonderful they are. We tell them to look at all the great things they have accomplished. We tell them they just need to stop worrying about what people say about them. We tell them they need to set their own standards and accomplish them – and then make their own evaluation of themselves.
“Paul’s approach could not be more different. He cares very little if he is judged by the Corinthians or by any human court. And then he goes one step further: he will not even judge himself. It is as if he says, ‘I don’t care what you think – but I don’t care what I think. I have a very low opinion of your opinion of me – but I have a very low opinion of my opinion of me.’ The fact that he has a clear conscience makes no difference. Look carefully at what he says in verse 4. ‘My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent.’
“What would Paul say to those who tell him to set his own standards? He would say it is a trap. A trap he will not fall into. You see, it is a trap to say that we should not worry about everyone else’s standards, just set our own. That’s not an answer. Boosting our self-esteem by living up to our own standards or someone else’s sounds like a great solution. But it does not deliver. It cannot deliver. I cannot live up to my parents’ standards – and that makes me feel terrible. I cannot live up to your standards – and that makes me feel terrible. I cannot live up to society’s standards. Perhaps the solution is to set my own standards? But I cannot keep them either – and that makes me feel terrible, unless I set incredibly low standards. Are low standards a solution? Not at all. That makes me feel terrible because I realize I am the type of person who has low standards. Trying to boost our self-esteem by trying to live up to our own standards or someone else’s is a trap. It is not an answer.
“When he says that he does not let the Corinthians judge him nor will he judge himself, he is saying that he knows about his sins but he does not connect them to himself and his identity. His sins and his identity are not connected. He refuses to play that game. He does not see a sin and let it destroy his sense of identity. He will not make a connection. Neither does he see an accomplishment and congratulate himself. He sees all kinds of sins in himself – and all kinds of accomplishments too – but he refuses to connect them with himself or his identity.”
Keller, Timothy (2013-12-06). The Freedom of Self Forgetfulness 10Publishing. Kindle Edition.
You won’t be surprised to find that Keller’s ultimate answer is in the gospel, but how he gets there is a treat. I highly recommend picking up a copy of this short work. It’s transformative.
For Monday, May 11: 1 Corinthians 5