Stop Believing in Yourself

August 22, 2011

What do we tell children every day of their lives?

“Just believe in yourself.”

Just believe in yourself, and you can do anything you set your mind to do.

Geez.  We spend a lot of time trying to build up our kids self-esteem.  I’m pretty sure we worship childhood.  The last thing we want to do is let a kid go disappointed, or let their self esteem get dinged.

But that phrase, “Just believe in yourself,” it suddenly seems…well, wrong.  Like it’s the last thing, especially as Christians that we ought to be teaching our kids.

Drunk on Self Esteem

This whole thought occurred to me Sunday morning…while I was in the middle of giving my message at church.  Somehow, it seemed, even I was daydreaming while I was talking.

It suddenly struck me that believing in myself, something I had been told to do my whole life, now sounded completely ridiculous.

So at an appropriate point while I was talking, I blurted it out.  “You need to stop believing in yourselves.”

It sounds absurd, un-American, sacrilegious!  We’ve been so indoctrinated that self-esteem is the ticket to success and happiness.  How could I say we should not believe in ourselves.

There is a place for it.  Kids need to know that they are talented (in a few ways), and they are loved unconditionally.

But there comes a point where it’s just too much.  We’ve gotten drunk on self-esteem, and we’ve got a huge hangover on believing in ourselves.

Belief in Yourself Doesn’t Work

The thing is, deep down, we know self esteem doesn’t work.

Most adults who are willing to be honest have realized that believing in yourself is not enough to accomplish much.  It can drive us to accomplish things.  But just self esteem doesn’t make us doctors, inventors or athletes.  The funny thing is so many people accuse Christians of blind faith in a dead rabbi, while they hand onto a blind faith in themselves.

Blind faith in ourselves can drive us to failure just as often as success, for anyone.

Maybe you’ve experienced it.  You believed in yourself, but you still didn’t succeed.  You’d think that was breaking a law of nature the way we think of self esteem.  You may call me a pessimist.  I call myself a realist.

Most adults fail at many things, despite how much we believe in ourselves.  We flunked classes, were cut from teams, lost businesses, got divorces, and made all kinds of other mistakes we never believed would happen to us.

I know myself well enough that I don’t want to believe in myself anymore.  I’m too unreliable.

You Can’t Do Anything

What Christians rarely stop to think about is that self esteem is mentioned nowhere in the Bible.  Jesus never told anyone to believe in themselves.  But somehow, Christians have drunk the self-esteem kool-aid too.  We justify why we go to church by saying, “I just have to believe in something bigger than myself,” but in practical matters, we’re often not much different from atheists.  We go home and wonder how we are going to solve this or do that or pull ourselves up by our bootstraps.

Jesus said that without him, we can do nothing.

Paul said that he is dead, and it is only Jesus who lives in him.  Does that sound like a guy who nursed his ego on deluded self confidence.

You’ve got to stop believing in yourself.  If you’re anything like me, you’ve failed a lot.  And given the chance, you’ll fail a lot more.  In fact, you’ll probably make the same failures again.  Old habits die hard.

But here’s the great part.  As soon as we give up self esteem, we also give up many of our limitations.  As soon as we stop having faith in ourselves and start having faith in what God can do through us, our faith is no longer restrained by things we’re no good at.  Now, God’s not going to make you a star athlete.  But you never know what God will do with someone whose faith is too big to just believe in themselves.

Not believing in yourself is really pretty…empowering.

What do you think?  Is self esteem killing us and our children?  Should we be preparing kids for life by being realists, or let them believe that they can do anything and everything?

50 responses to Stop Believing in Yourself

  1. Hi Matt,

    If I did not have low self esteem, I’d have no esteem at all.

    John Cowart

  2. I think the self-esteem movement has turned an entire generation into selfish, egomaniacal people who think they’re entitled to whatever they want just because they want it. I want my kids to be successful–however they define that–but I refuse to tell them they can do or be anything they want to be. That’s just not true.

    • Bad parenting! If your kids want to grow up to be dinosaurs, fire trucks or triangles, you should encourage them to believe they be those things! 😉

    • Same here. Exactly what I think. I’m a huge fatalist, I know I can achieve whatever is on the cards for me to achieve, I can’t tell in how many cases it will be what I want to achieve as well. I usually tend to want to achieve what I know I can achieve though because then I can express a little pride in myself for how I made use of the talents I was given by God.
      People think I’m just weak or negative or deviated by a Catholic upbringing full of silliness for refusing to step past the border of arrogance.
      Alessia recently posted..Bright Young Things: on Victoria’s Secret and being a woman

  3. Great blog and I am sure to be a great discussion.

    I think the root issue is that most of our religion is emotional. We debate all these facets because they make us feel: good, secure, powerful, right, pride, spiritual smugness, or give a false sense of humility. We apply human logic to spiritual problems… human nature – maybe.

    Jesus applied supernatural wisdom and power to every situation he was in. The woman at the well, the feeding of the 5,000, turning over the tables of the money changers, and the woman taken in adultery. People marveled at his teaching and his wisdom. It is simple he said, “I do what I see the Father doing.” Religion and psychology often ignore what the Father is doing – more comfort and security I guess.

    I tell my kids they did a good job when they did a good job. I fine my 23-year-old $20 per hour when she comes home after 11 pm, and I send my 7-year-old to her room when she talks back. I tell them they should be proud of their accomplishments when they achieve something such as an award, or a diploma. I post their artwork all over the house and have a special room for it where I frame it. I put their sculptures in display case in the dining room. And tell them truth about their character, some times in a loud voice. And I tell them I love them no matter what they do as well as being generous with hugs and kisses, even the eldest who is a boy. But I never tell them they can be anything they want. I encourage them to be who they are, and I look to see what God has destined them to be and I support that.

    And lastly, I sat them all down and confessed that things that I have done to be a bad example of the Father – how else could I encourage the to do what the Father was doing if I wasn’t doing it…

    • I remember my dad telling me about when he worked in his Dad’s store. He made a nickel an hour, but his cousin made eight cents. So dad asked why he wasn’t making eight cents, and his dad told him, “I’ll pay you eight cents when you’re worth eight cents.”

      • Your dad got paid for working in the store?!?!? I worked every weekend and every summer for nothing! I am goung sue my father’s estate. 😉 My self esteem is shot.

  4. Thanks for this Matt. I’ve forgotten that I can’t do anything apart from Christ.

    When I read all through the Proverbs, the theme of esteem seems to always come from other people, not self.

    Thanks again for the reminder.

  5. Couple of thoughts–

    1) Everything in moderation. Not giving a kid any self-esteem is pretty much emotional abuse. Give a kid too much, and you end up with all those rejects from “American Idol”.

    2) “We justify why we go to church by saying, “I just have to believe in something bigger than myself,” but in practical matters, we’re often not much different from atheists. We go home and wonder how we are going to solve this or do that or pull ourselves up by our bootstraps.”

    –I guess I don’t really understand your point here. Don’t we kind of HAVE to do that? I mean, there are a thousand decisions that have to be made in a day, from big to small–I’m not exactly in the habit of asking for God’s guidance when I’m picking out my socks.

    I guess my approach (and what probably happens with a lot of people) is to manage most things on my own, but ask for God’s help when it’s a “big” decision or I’m really desperate.

    It sounds like you don’t think this is the right approach, but if it isn’t what am I supposed to be doing?

    Because, I’m sorry, but even after 30+ years of hearing preachers, church camp counselors, and Sunday school teachers tell me to “believe in Jesus” and “Just let Jesus do it”, I still really don’t understand what that means.

    • I’m just saying what I feel I fall into. I go to church and tell people to rely on God, but it’s rare that I actually call on God to help me solve a problem or get a project done or deal with a difficult person. I might even pray about it, but I’m still solving problems in my own strength and wisdom.

    • Abby, I’m sure Matt is going to explain but I am struck by the rawness and honesty of your comment. Yours is a question that all of us have to ask ourselves if we want more of Jesus.

      Matt talks about the ability of ‘doing’ by believing in yourself and that’s the problem. We don’t have to ‘do’, we just have to be:

      Be a son or a daughter.

      The question is about identity, not ability. I’ve spent considerable time, re-learning my identity (and I still don’t get it all the time).

      The fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-23) is born out of relationship and of ‘being’ in Christ, which in turn, produces fruit (works) that are naturally occurring. You’ve never heard an apple tree groan trying to produce the fruit. It just does because it’s attached to the trunk, which has roots that give it life.

      In July, I wrote 9 posts about Identity and I’ve barely scratched the surface,

      Know Jesus personally & intimately and the rest will follow.

    • I agree that we have to give our kids a little boost now and then. For example, my daughter is potty-training, and we act like it’s the biggest deal in the world when she goes pee in the potty. haha But I know that is helping her figure it out. And we tell our kids that we love them and smother them with hugs and kisses. They need that kind of emotional boost. That’s different than telling our children that they can do anything they put their minds to if they just try hard enough. We want them to put effort into what they do, but we want them to understand that they need to trust God more than themselves.

      I think there are a lot of decisions we make that don’t necessarily require prayer and guidance ahead of time. Either God doesn’t care (e.g what color socks we wear), or we already know the answer based on His Word.

      But I think Matt’s point is that we should stop relying on our own abilities so much and start relying on God. Put our faith in Him, recognizing that without Him we can do nothing. I don’t get the phrase “Just let Jesus do it” either. Yes, we need to pray for the little and big things, but we are the ones that still have to make the decisions to follow His lead. He doesn’t do things for us that we need to do for ourselves. For example, I might pray that I really need a job, but he’s not going to give one to me if I never apply for one or go to an interview. You know?

      Sorry if this was convoluted. 80)

      • You’ve got it. It’s important to build kids up. There’s no problem with boasting on a tyke for a “small” accomplishment like using the toilet. It’s a big deal to them!

        Maybe the problem is we grow up and are still expecting to be praised for every small task we do.

    • Abby,
      You summarized a really common viewpoint when you wrote, “I’m not exactly in the habit of asking for God’s guidance when I’m picking out my socks.”

      A few years back I addressed this exact question in my blog. It’s too long to repost here, so here’s the link:

      Basically, God usually doesn’t care what socks we wear, but what if one particular day He DOES care–would we notice? And where do we draw the line… what’s important? I think we need to be tuned in to God enough so that we’d hear His voice should He choose to have an opinion about a decision we’re making.

      It’s a matter of applying Prov. 3:4–“Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding…”

  6. Great Thoughts matt!

    I’m with you. But…we are fighting a whole system here…

    My little girl just started Kindergarden…and it’s seems logic for me to talk to her about her asking God for help when she needs it in understanding homework or something…

    But what about the teachers?….do I tell her…hey, stop telling my child she can do anything she wants to if she tries really hard? (i’m trying to teach her she can do anything “Through Christ” who strengthen’s her.

    • You can’t control the teachers. But you can use what they say as a teachable moment like you described.

    • Or maybe wait a bit to actually see what the teacher does.

      Maybe this is a regional or a cultural thing, but when I was in school there wasn’t exactly this big epidemic of the whole “you can do anything!” attitude among the teachers (quite the opposite really, except for maybe the kids in the “gifted” classes)–and I grew up in the 80’s and early 90’s when it was supposedly rampant.

      Isn’t kindegarten a little too soon to worry about it, anyway? At that age all they can really do is imagine, and what’s wrong with that? I have a kindegartner myself who really wants to be a scientist and build robots and if his teacher wants to tell him he can do that I’m completely fine with it. He’s got the next 12 years to find out how hard it is to get into MIT.

  7. Matt, you’ve touched on such a core teaching pervasive in the church and in a common worldview.

    My son will not be one of those on American Idol telling the camera that his mother always told him he can sing – he can’t, neither can I but I tell him sing out loud to Jesus, because Jesus thinks it’s beautiful.

    I also tell him, where Jesus gives the vision, he will provide the provision.

    Nothing is impossible for him who believes [in Jesus], but apart from him I can do nothing.

  8. I once heard James McDonald say something to this effect: “We don’t need more or less self-esteem. We need absolutely no self-esteem. We need Christ esteem.”

  9. Dang it Matt. You gotta quit hacking into my brain. This topic was on my cue for a post this week. I had written a one sentence reminder in a topic list that said “In our effort to teach kids self esteem we have inoculated them against needing a Savior.”

    I guess I will put off my post for a while so I don’t feel like a plagiarist chump. Now I will have to write something else or both of my readers will be on my case. haha

    Great post and so very true. We (Christianity) have bought into the entire concept. I think it may come from compartmentalizing our lives. Our self esteem is in our “week life” and our Christianity is in our “Weekend life”, so to speak.

  10. There’s also the dangerous risk of doing the extreme opposite, which is feeling like you have no worth whatsoever. Which is why I try to find a balance; I try to remind myself that, just like the song says, I am weak but He is strong.

  11. Thank you for saying it. I’ve been a total self-esteem junky – perfectionistic, over-achieving, and almost completely self-absorbed as I sought approval of others.

    (I speak in the past-tense but I still struggle through it.)

    The more I walk along this journey with Christ, the more I realize just how prideful and incapable I am. Its terrifying and freeing all at the same time.

    The more Jesus breaks my self-esteem down, the more freedom I have. It is not me, but Christ in me. Thank God Jesus never expects us to be able to do anything we put our minds to.

  12. Matt, great points! You’ve hit on something that drives me nuts. Why would I want to “believe in myself” when I can depend on the God who made the universe?

    The issue becomes even more important when it’s an area where we excel. If we feel competent, we’ll never see the need to submit our work to God, asking him for inspiration and guidance. Yet Prov. 3:4 tells us to “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.” How do we do that when our understanding seems to work so well?

    Maybe we’re afraid that God’s idea of success won’t be the same as the world’s… or ours.

  13. Great post Matt! I especially like your point that self-esteem is not listed anywhere in the Bible, yet we tend to nestle it right in there with the fruits of the spirit! Thanks for the cautionary reminder.

  14. Not only isn’t self esteem listed in the Bible, it runs contrary to many of its principles. For example: trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. Or: Everything I have gained, I count as lost compared to the surpassing worth of Jesus Christ my Lord. And these are only the verses that came to the top of my head.

    Whether or not you’re Calvinist, “total depravity” is fairly evident, both in the world and in ourselves. Esteeming in a totally-depraved Self seems like an awful idea.

  15. Last summer we went to Disney World and through out the day they kept playing a dog saying, “Celebrate You!” Apparently celebrating me and my kids really means spending too much money on concession food, standing in line for long periods of time, and sugar rushes.

    Obviously kids can’t do anything they want. We all have limitations. I do think kids need to be imaginative, creative, and pursue the impossible. Not because they are already great, but so that they can do something great. Too many of us settle for good enough. Instead of celebrating me, I need to just be who I am, work my tail off to get better, and then contribute.

  16. If anything, it is amazing I have any self-esteem at all! My parents were very realistic. “You can be whatever you want when you grow up, as long as you work hard at it and don’t choose something stupid.” I love those two!

    My wife and I believe in building up children, but we do not believe in necessarily building self-esteem. We understand that we can do little apart from God, so why should we push anyone to believe too highly in themselves? We can do some things well, sure. God gives some people high intelligence, some people great sports abilities, some people artistic talent, and others the ability to speak well. We can do all of these better with God!

  17. This is Such An Amazingly Awesome Post. Certain people have “gifted” my kids with books having the “Believe in Yourself” theme. After the first reading, they were usually put in a back corner or under a bed. If uncovered, I would fail to discourage the younger kids from gnawing on them, use them as coasters for icy cold beverages in summer and allow them to be left on the floor to be walked on so that they would disintegrate rapidly and have to be thrown out. Reading them more than once typically made we want to heave. Unfortunately, such drivel is even in classic books like _The Wizard of Oz_.

    Another saying that causes intestinal distress is “He/She has to first love himself/herself before they can love others.” I heard that phrase a lot growing up about one person in particular. Most people I know, including myself and the one person in particular, have no problem loving themselves more than other people. At this point in time, I would have to bite my tongue hard to prevent myself from saying, “What a load of donkey ca-ca!” Does anyone know who coined this phrase?

  18. good stuff. tough when parenting not to fall into this trap.

  19. Wow. I see there has been some lively conversation here while I was sleeping off the nasty effects an emotional night. Hmmm…

    I grew up in the Me Generation of the 1980s. I even have a button somewhere that says “Me. World Tour. 1986” although I never went on a world tour. All of the Me-istic pop psychology was really coming out at that point. I thought I must be missing something, because I didn’t have much self-esteem (but at the same time I was having a nasty fundamentalist church experience – where to turn?).

    Now I cannot get rid of enough “me” to accomplish much. I’m sure there were plenty of types of egotistical people around when Paul, Peter, John, and others were shaping the writings of our New Testament. But it shows the amazing forethought of a loving God that He also had them writing the anti-dote to the 1980s Me Generation all those years in advance.

    No, I don’t need any more self-esteem. I need more Jesus and less me. More faith in the One and less faith in this one. Glad you said that, Matt.

    • hahahaha! I’ve been having such a bad day that I didn’t even see that I’m over 24 hours late to this party! silly “me”! 😉

  20. First off, as a preacher, I must confess that I have daydreamed while in the midst of a sermon as well. I like to think that it was the Holy Spirit grabbing my mind and taking control of my thoughts to get a point HE wanted across, instead of whatever I happened to be saying at the moment. Second, thanks for the post! As a counselor, I have been saying this same thing for years! Trusting in self leaves us empty, because our worth comes from God, not ourselves. What’s sad is even the secular world sees the fallacy of self-esteem. A quote from the movie Fight Club says, “We were all raised to believe that we would be [great], but we’re not, and we’re pretty ****ed off about it.” That’s where we as Christians need to step in and show them where their true worth lies, otherwise they will look elsewhere to find their worth, as we have seen for the past 20 years or so: sex, job, money, etc. They start believing the lie of “if I could just ________, then I’d be happy.” The amazing paradox is that the adult world, even though they have seen the devastation unfulfilled expectations (realistic or not) leaves, they still perpetuate this garbage to the younger generation. Brainwashed, the all of them. A couple of years ago, a group of high schoolers on the US Math and Science team were about to go into an international competition. The interviews with them showed that they felt that they were “the best”, yet they finished almost dead last. But hey, at least they FELT good about themselves!

  21. Well said my friend, now that is something that should be heard in a church full of people, not just a Church of No People.

  22. Interesting piece. If only it were true. Your comment:
    “Blind faith in ourselves can drive us to failure just as often as success, for anyone.”

    I would rewrite as follows:
    “Blind faith in ANYTHING can drive us to failure just as often as success, for anyone.” It makes no sense to accept anything blindly, without evidence and rational thought.

    If in fact “Jesus said that without him, we can do nothing.”, he was wrong. In fact, there are (and have been) billions of people who are not followers of Jesus or believers in biblical authority who have accomplished much.

    Believing that you are powerless is dangerous, reckless thinking and will itself, lead people to repeat the same mistakes. Humans can and do learn from their own mistakes, even when they are predisposed (genetically, psychologically, etc) to specific weaknesses. It takes hard work, honesty, and accountability. If you believe “You can’t do anything”, that’s probably exactly what you’ll do and likely write it off to “God’s will”.


    • Allen, thanks for the thoughts, but the Bible says that the rain falls on the wicked as well as the righteous. In other words, you are right – people can accomplish a lot without giving credit to God. But more importantly, Jesus wasn’t just talking about tying your shoes without God’s help. He was referring to spiritual matters. He was saying we can do nothing to please God on our own.

      Finally, it appears that you refute my point by proving it. You rewrote my words as “blind faith in anything” etc. So blind faith in yourself is destructive, which you agree with, right?

      • Matt,

        Yes, I do agree with you regarding blind faith in yourself. The operative word is blind: I needn’t have blind faith in myself or “faith” at all; I see evidence that when I study, practice, and test, I learn and gain new skill. When I run, cross train, and strengthen, I advance athletic skill. When I seek to understand others with a “heart” of service and put their needs ahead of selfishness, my service becomes useful and I can change lives. I do not need to have “blind faith” in myself, God, Jesus, or anything to see that affects of my toil.

        To quote the bible as authoritative in these matters is not proof. You can believe in its source as God’s Word if you wish, a priori, and use it as a model for your life if you wish, but these assertions about blind faith and our inability to do anything except through Jesus lack any evidence to support the claims.

  23. I see confusing of what self-esteem really is.
    Without self-esteem we are nothing. Self-esteem is knowing yourself and your capabilities. Without self-esteem we are lost in nothingness. It is not self-esteem that is at fault it is what we incorrectly teach our children and others what we think sel-esteem is.
    Is it not written that man is made in the image of God which means we are not nothing.

    Do not confuse Self-esteem with the Ego for the Ego is not unlike a warped self-esteem without humility where we become swollen-headed and think we are superior in all that we do or can do.

    So the difference is –
    Self Esteem – In all humbleness Know thyself and know the Universe.
    Ego – Delude yourself and know nothing.
    So cast down the Ego, and not self-esteem, and know yourself for what you truly are.

    Walk in beauty

  24. True self-confidence is the type of confidence that God gives us, so how Christians should view the saying “Believe in yourself!” is that they rather believe in the potential that God’s given them.

  25. Agnostic myself I have always thought a large problem with Christianity is how Christians believe the world was created very specifically for them. Their belief that regardless of what they do the world, every animal, every earthly process is being monitored has always bothered me for some reason. I find it incredibly refreshing to read this article on blind-faith in relation to yourself. I think that at some point in time our development as a society surpassed our need for Christianity, just as you have outgrown believing in yourself, and we as humans began to get too drunk on similar happy vibes. While the substance, lessons and ethics behind those vibes rings very fundamentally true the overindulgence in it all has begun to hurt us and we should have learned to read between the lines as you have. I am certain you are on a path towards Agnosticism. Thank you for the good read.

  26. Thanks for sharing this important message. We just started our music production house, its hard at present, but belief in ourselves is making us move forward and eventually everything will fall in place. We know it!! And your words made our belief stronger. Cheers from India

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