Self-Affirmation vs Biblical Self-Esteem
American society has seemed to become
a place where self-affirmation is being overused. On
social media, we repeatedly see self-affirming memes, and on
televised media we hear self-help gurus teaching people to
tell themselves positive messages. Some of this has to
do with the principles of karma and the law of cause and
effect, as they are envisioned by New Age and Unitarian
systems of belief.
I do not wish to discredit or harm those with this belief system, but recently these belief systems have had a negative influence on Christianity. It has transformed into the Health and Wealth Gospel, which is a twisting of God's Word to fit these philosophies.
Many have written to expose the heresy within the Health and Wealth Gospel, so I'm not here to do this. My concern, however, is Christians telling themselves things that the Bible doesn't fully support. To be fair, there's a very subtle difference between self-affirmation and "biblical self-esteem," which is a phrase I made up. The Christian walk isn't about self-reliance, but reliance upon Christ. It's not "Jesus take the wheel," either. The Christian life isn't about self-esteem, but about Christ-esteem, essentially. I'll do my best to explain this.
This document is currently in draft form. All Scripture quotes from the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB).
Traits of the Positive Self-Affirmation MovementThere are a couple of distinguishing traits of this positive self-affirmation movement. Let the reader understand: I was a Master Resilience Trainer for the military. This isn't about the positive psychology movement, but a small unscientific ("pop psychology") subset of the positive psychology movement that preaches self-esteem via telling yourself positive things. This is not a sinful or wrong thing, but there are some limitations, and what I currently see in the media is taking things too far to the point of it becoming a lie.
The first distinguishing feature is that positive self-affirmations are self-focused. All the affirmations have to do with the self. The problem with this is that human beings are imperfect. This is sort of a "pull yourself up by your own boot straps" mentality.
The second distinguishing feature is that one is telling one's self things that may not be true. If a cowardly person keeps telling themselves, "I am courageous," are they courageous? They may become more courageous, but do they become more courageous merely by repeating that to themselves? If I keep telling myself I am stronger than Mike Tyson, do I become stronger than Mike Tyson by telling myself this? Or by taking positive action steps to become stronger than Mike Tyson by lifting weights, for example?
The third distinguishing feature of the positive self-affirmation movement is that it may encourage a person's thoughts to depart from reality. If a person encounters a crisis event, like being mugged, does repeating these things to themselves stop the mugging? Does a homeless person get rich by telling themselves they are rich?
Fourth, I know of no psychologically verified therapy mode where self-affirmations cure anxiety, depression, or any other significant mental illness or deficit. I am a senior in a psychology program, and I've yet to encounter such a thing. This is not to say it does not exist, but that I am unaware of any. And indeed, what I have learned, especially about depression, is that you cannot "mentally trick" yourself out of it simply by repeating to yourself "I am happy", etc.
Surely positive self-affirmation can be useful for smaller things, like steeling one's nerves before a public speech, so I'm not here to say that all positive self-affirmation is bad. But given its self-focus, how it could be advocating self-lying, and how it could be encouraging a break from reality, I cannot choose it over the biblical model. I am not saying it's sin, but it could include sin if we're teaching people to lie to themselves. I think there's a better way forward, which I am now going to share.
First Refutation: From Psychology
Psychological science does not yet prove
that self-affirmation has any benefits. Trying to take
something that isn't scientifically shown to help you and trying
to combine it with poorly sourced Scripture verses (often out of
context or applied far too broadly) is like combining two things
that haven't been shown to be valid together and expecting them
to suddenly be valid. It's not logical.
First, positive affirmations don't work because they target your conscious mind. So from a psychological standpoint, everything in the above meme doesn't work. However, what does work is interrogative reasoning: "Am I ugly? Am I worthless?" And if one goes to Scripture for the answer, this could produce positive results, but not because of positive affirmations. Instead, because of interrogating and fact finding within the Word of God. Which only brings us to our second point.
Second, note that the majority of those preaching positive self-affirmations are found on Oprah and Maury, daytime television with dubious scientific content. They are there to build their name and their brand. They are there to sell you products and books. It is very wise to be skeptical of the truth claims of those who stand to benefit from you believing what they say. These pop psychologists and their books come and go. Science doesn't.
Second Refutation: the Bible
So then what does the Bible have to say about
this? Many things. This answer will be a little long,
so please have patience.
It's Not About YouOne very big point to learn from the Bible is that our mental, emotional, and spiritual well being should be mainly sourced from God. Our thoughts and beliefs matter, but the source of all good isn't within us human beings. It's found in God.
The model given to us isn't positive self-affirmation. II Corinthians 10:3-5 says:
For though we live in the body, we do not wage war in an unspiritual way, since the weapons of our warfare are not worldly, but are powerful through God for the demolition of strongholds. We demolish arguments and every high-minded thing that is raised up against the knowledge of God, taking every thought captive to obey Christ.
Very clearly, it's not about us. Our weapons are powerful through God. It also points out that we don't fight this war with flesh, but with the Spirit. Really, they come from God, for if we had our own worthwhile weapons to defeat the negativity of our flesh and the lies of the Devil, we wouldn't need to rely upon God, and the Bible would say we had weapons of our own. But instead, our weapons are powerful through God.
As well, we take thoughts captive and make them obey Christ. It doesn't say we argue with them. It doesn't say we think happy thoughts. It says we make them obey. We come at them with Scripture. We need to know what the Bible, what God, says about us.
Another example we find in the temptation of Christ. Consider the following from Matthew 4:
Then the tempter approached Him and said, “If You are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” But He answered, “It is written: Man must not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.”
Then the Devil took Him to the holy city, had Him stand on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down. For it is written: He will give His angels orders concerning you, and they will support you with their hands
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.” Jesus told him, “It is also written: Do not test the Lord your God.”
Again, the Devil took Him to a very high mountain and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. And he said to Him, “I will give You all these things if You will fall down and worship me.” Then Jesus told him, “Go away, Satan! For it is written:
Worship the Lord your God, and serve only Him.”
Then the Devil left Him, and immediately angels came and began to serve Him.
Note a couple of things. First, all of the Devil's temptations address, or are associated with, Christ's identity. "If You are the Son of God...." The Devil's temptations often involve trying to attack our identity in Christ.
Second, notice that every time, Jesus used Scripture, not positive self-affirmations (merely telling Himself, for instance, "I am the Son of God") to refute the Devil. And the focus of those Scriptures wasn't Himself, but the topic at hand. Jesus didn't quote "No weapon formed against me will work" (Isaiah 54:17). While I don't think it would be wrong to quote this, note that Jesus used a Scripture that directly disproved or corrected the Devil. The focus wasn't Himself.
So if Jesus quoted Scripture, and not self-affirmation, who are we to think that we can win against the Devil with self-affirmations and not Scripture?
The Devil can argue with you. You can shout inside your mind "I am beautiful" when he attacks you with "You are ugly" all you want. You're just arguing. Instead, take him to Scripture, something he cannot argue against.
This theme of doing things through Christ is repeated many times in the Bible. Philippians 4:13 says I can do all things in Christ. That distinction is important. If you believe you can do everything (leaving out "in Christ", which means you're depending on yourself), you will fail, which would shatter your faith. But if instead you believe that you can do everything in Christ, you will most likely succeed. Jeremiah 17:5 makes it clear that we're not to trust in ourselves.
Note that I must correct one false self-affirmation here. Some say that "God will never give us more than we can handle." In terms of temptation, yes, 1 Corinthians 10:13 says God will make a way for us to bear temptation (note: not escape, but to "bear up under a load", per the Greek word hupophero). However, sometimes God will let us get overwhelmed, not to harm us, but so that we can learn to trust Him even more (2 Corinthians 1:8-11). It's all about God, not ourselves.
A further proof of this can be seen in the fall of Lucifer. In Isaiah 14, we read:
You said to yourself: “I will ascend to the heavens; I will set up my throne above the stars of God. I will sit on the mount of the gods’ assembly, in the remotest parts of the North. I will ascend above the highest clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.”
This is why God punished him (verse 15). We dare not repeat his failure. He was all about that self-affirmation. "I will" is repeated many times. Yes, it's a subtle difference, "I am strong" versus "I am strong through God", but one recognizes where the strength comes from, while the other exalts the self.
Refuting the MemeSo now that we've discussed this, I would like to go, step by step, to refute some of the messages in memes like this on social media:
- "I am courageous." Are you courageous? Because whether you are or not, why base it on yourself? Why not say, "I can be courageous because God is on my side"?
- "I am unstoppable." This is untrue: you are human. God is unstoppable. You are not.
- "I am victorious." Or is God victorious through you (Romans 8:13)? God is the One Who is victorious. We are His servants doing His mission, not our own. We are victorious through Him, and He does 99% of the work through us in the power of the Holy Spirit. Really, we are victorious only through Christ. All we do is submit to God's will being done through us. This could be better expressed, "God is victorious through me."
- "I am love." Doesn't the Bible say God is love? But you can be full of God's love through the power of the Holy Spirit. Through the Holy Spirit we receive the power to love our neighbor as Jesus wants us to. So this should read, "I can be full of God's love." The solution when you're angry or frustrated isn't to tell yourself "I am love", but instead to pray and ask God to give you love to show to others.
- "I am blessed." Yes, you are. This one is true.
- "I am anointed." Yes, you are, with the Holy Spirit. But I would caution those who are saying this to themselves, don't assume you are anointed. Ask for the Holy Spirit's anointing. A slightly better way to say this would be, "The Holy Spirit's anointing can be present in my life." This turns our focus on God who anoints, rather than ourselves.
- "I am successful." Are you? And by what standard? Or is God the one who is successful through you? Doesn't Romans 8 teach that the only way to be successful in obeying God's standard on righteousness is to be filled with the Holy Spirit, and let it work through you?
- "I am healed." This one is dangerous. You may be
healed spiritually. You may be healed by God, true, or
only eventually when you cross the pearly gates. But
simply repeating this to yourself doesn't result in
healing. God heals. And God can heal you whether
you have a positive mindset or you do not. To say
otherwise is the Health and Wealth Gospel heresy, and/or the
Name It, Claim It heresy.
- "I am healthy." I'm going to play devil's advocate
temporarily with this one. Are you really healthy?
Do you exercise 5 days a week for 20-30 minutes of
cardio? Do you eat properly? What are your mental
habits? How healthy is it to lie to yourself? See,
this is why such positive affirmations don't work. You
can't positively affirm yourself into being physically or
mentally healthy. As well, you should know (based on
other articles) that, scientifically speaking, our behavior accounts
for 40% of our health, but not all of our health.
But you can say, "God is the Lord My Healer" (Exodus
15:26). The focus is on God. We should eat right
and exercise, watch what media we intake (Philippians 4:8), go
to the doctor or therapist when we need it, etc, but
ultimately God is our healer. The focus should be on
God. And you cannot escape the influence of
genetics. God can intervene, and God often does heal,
but you can't live a sedentary lifestyle that harms the temple
of God in you but pray "God heal me." You should "put
feet on" those prayers by acting in faith to Scripture (1
Corinthians 6:19-20) by taking good care of your body, as much
as possible. But you should also pray and ask God to
heal you when you're sick. Sadly, too many churches
don't mobilize their elders to ask God in faith to heal people
- "I am beautiful." I don't think our focus should be on
outward beauty. So if this is talking about how God sees
us, spiritually, then yes, we are beautiful to Him. But
if this one shifts to thinking about society's standards about
physical beauty, doesn't one set themselves up for failure or
unhappiness? With all due respect, all it takes is a
trip to the beach to realize why we shouldn't view each other
as the world does, i.e. outward appearance. Another
question to ask yourself is, "Do you need to be (outwardly)
- "I am whole." I can't really agree there, as that doesn't seem to fit God's design in Genesis 1-2 in terms of relationships. At minimum, we as human beings are not whole by ourselves, but we become whole through a relationship with Jesus Christ. So this might be better expressed as "God makes me whole" rather than "I am whole."
- "I am confident." A person who is not confident
repeating this to themselves isn't likely, in my estimation,
to be able to trick themselves into being confident.
Rather, as we understand Scripture, we realize that we can be
confident in God. Our own abilities and talents aren't
perfect, and we can forget things. We're human.
But we can have complete confidence in God. I've spoken
in public many times, teaching positive psychology and
resilience for the military. When I get nervous, I
remind myself that God is my protector (Psalm 7:10).
- "I am forgiving." Are you? Or does God have to tell us to be forgiving and how to do so in Scripture? I would not hold myself up as the shining example of being forgiving. I would rather say "Through God, I am able to completely forgive," etc. It is through God we find the strength to forgive the unforgivable.
- "I am grateful." I don't know if anyone on earth can truly say they are 100% grateful, nor that they are always grateful for everything they should be. So rather than hold myself up as the example, I would say "Through God, I am grateful."
- "I am generous." Again, I don't know if anyone on earth, and especially not me, is 100% generous. There are people living in other places in the world that are much more generous than I am. And the fact that this ended up as a meme with someone's face on it tells me they could be acting more generous by selling their electronics to give to the poor. I'm not judging, I'm simply pointing out that there are clearly examples of people more generous than I am. And the average person living in the United States of America are doing far better, financially, than others. So instead, I would say "God is teaching me to be generous" and/or "God is blessing me so that I can bless others."
- "I am strong." If you have to tell yourself this, does that really mean you're strong? With all due respect, there will always be someone who's more emotionally, mentally, spiritually, or physically stronger than you. But you can say "God makes me strong" (Ps. 18:34). In fact, notice the context of Psalm 18:34: "He trains my hands for war." The Psalmist doesn't claim that he does this himself, but that God is who makes him strong.
- "I am favored." This one is correct: if you are a child of God, you are indeed favored by God. Maybe not by others, depending on your relationships, but definitely by God.
- "I am able." Able to what? I would suggest that this is better expressed, "God is able" (see Hillsong, etc). Jeremiah 17:5 is very clear: trusting in others or yourself is not good. Our ultimate trust is in God, not others, not ourselves.
- "I am powerful." With all due respect, I sincerely doubt that, when compared to God. And compared to other humans, there will always be someone who is more powerful in terms of business, music, art, interpersonal relationships, etc. Really, this would be better expressed, "God is powerful on my behalf" (2 Chronicles 16:9). The power doesn't come from us, but from God.
- "I am fruitful." Are you? I'm going to say that few American Christians (excluding missionaries) are spiritually fruitful. I include myself in this. We need to do a much better job at witnessing to others and helping those in need. And even then, even if we bear spiritual fruit (leading someone to salvation in Christ), surely someone else is bearing more fruit than us. I think this would be better expressed, "I am fruitful in Christ." Assuming you are being fruitful, of course. And this is also a generalization, so I don't know if this is talking about the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5) or of soul witnessing or discipleship (Matthew 28), etc.
- "I am God's masterpiece." This is absolutely true.
A Better MemeHere are some better positive self messages that are based on the gospel, sourced from this website:
- "By God's strength, I can live a life free of anxiety." Matthew 6:25-33
- "God loves me and wants to share Himself with me." John 14:21, John 3:16
- "God made peace with me through Jesus." Romans 5:10
- "God is happy when I produce fruit." John 15:8
- "When I am weak, God is strong." 2 Corinthians 12:9
- "God is strong through me." Colossians 1:29
- "I am God's masterpiece." Ephesians 2:9-10
- "I have faith God can heal me." Mark 5:34
- "God can give me wisdom that exceeds earthly wisdom." (Jeremiah 33:3)
- "God can resore my strength as I trust in Him." Isaiah 40:31
- "Jesus brings peace." (Luke 24:36)
- "As I keep His commands, I remain in God's love." (John 15:10).
- "Jesus is my strength." (1 Corinthians 1:17).
- "God will provide all my monetary needs according to His will." (Philippians 4:19)
- "God is my refuge." (Psalm 46:1).