As part of my series on Christians and self-esteem, I’m responding to what I see as a number of fallacies in Phylicia Masonheimer’s recent article, “Dear Women’s Ministry, Stop Telling Me I’m Beautiful.” Last week, I addressed the “worms” fallacy, or the idea that we have no value or beauty apart from Christ and his redeeming work, and argued that we do have inherent value because we are created by God, whether we ever become Christians or not. This week, I want to look at another part of Masonheimer’s argument I’ll call the “it’s never about you” fallacy.
Masonheimer argues that focusing all of our attention on Christ will solve our insecurity issues. She refers to these as “insecurity, fear, and identity crises,” “poor self-image,” and “anxiety.” Hearing that we are beautiful won’t fix these problems, she argues: “exalting Christ” will. We don’t need to talk about us, just God. As she writes:
[W]hen all women do is worship Jesus, the insecurities, fears, and anxieties pale in comparison to His everlasting glory.
When our eyes turn to His beauty instead of pandering to ours, insecurities die.
When our ears listen for His voice instead of listening for more about us, fear has no place.
When our minds think about who He is instead of who we are, we find an identity wrapped in eternal purpose.
Worshiping and hearing about Jesus is all we need, then, to feel okay about ourselves. Masonheimer made this sentiment more clear in her comment to my first article:
The message I am writing "against", if you will, is "fluff" theology. Never digging deep into the gospel, saturating ourselves with God's Word, studying the Bible for ourselves to defeat depression, anxiety, and "low self esteem". A high God esteem, like you said, is the cure for low self esteem.
As I wrote back to her, I distinctly did not say that “A high God esteem...is the cure for low self esteem.” But this wording helpfully sums up the “it’s never about you” fallacy: the idea that “high God-esteem,” by itself, will solve low self-esteem, that all I need to do is focus on God to fix my personal issues. I don’t need to hear any application of the truth about God or understand how it applies to me, because it should never be about me or my issues. Praising God is all I need to “defeat” any insecurity, anxiety, or depression.
If you think I’m reading this idea into Masonheimer’s article, look at what one of the commenters wrote:
I’m only a senior in high school, so while I haven’t been to many women’s ministry events, I do see this idea also permeating youth ministry–instead of telling students about Christ, they try to tackle the superficial issues of relationships with peers and watered-down theology. Thank you for this reminder of what we really need to be focusing on–your writing has blessed me so much! It’s so important to remember that Christianity is, at its heart, so simple–all we need to focus on is Jesus. Not ourselves, not beauty, not marriage or self-esteem–only Christ.
Masonheimer’s response? “Excellent observation Kimberly! Good for you to notice this and be a difference among your peers!”
Masonheimer is being consistent here. The “it’s never about me” fallacy logically follows from the “worms” fallacy. If we believe, as she does, that all of our beauty and value comes from Christ alone, that we’re really just worms without Christ, messages really shouldn’t ever be about us. It makes perfect sense that all we need to do to cure our insecurity, anxiety, depression, or any self-esteem issue (or, apparently, any issue), is to focus on Christ and how good He is -- talking about ourselves won’t solve anything, because all we are is worms, anyway. I’ve already made my case for why the worms fallacy is wrong, but there other reasons why having high “God-esteem” and solely focusing on him won’t give us high self-esteem all by itself.
First, obviously, clinical depression and anxiety are mental illnesses that need mental, emotional and sometimes even physical solutions. They’re not spiritual problems. No one would tell a cancer patient that all they need to do is pray more -- they’d tell them to pray, but also to get chemo. Likewise, if someone has clinical depression, she should pray, but she also get counseling, cognitive therapy, medication, etc.
But let’s say we’re not even talking about clinical mental illnesses, but just about having low self-esteem or insecurity. Focusing solely on God and talking about how great he is, and never hearing about ourselves, won’t fix that either.
First, on a very general level, the whole idea that Christianity is only about looking at Christ and never focusing on ourselves and the issues we deal with cuts out half of the gospel. The gospel message is about God and all of his goodness and holiness, yes, but it’s also about what God has done and is doing for you. And even if we know that Jesus died for us, the question remains, as the title of one of Francis Schaeffer’s books says: How should we then live? Look at Paul’s letters -- they start out with theology and who God is, but then they move to specific instructions about specific issues, or application. It makes no sense that we would never, as Christians, need to focus on beauty, marriage, or self-esteem -- how we look at those issues should be influenced by how we view Christ and his gospel, but that doesn’t mean we don’t need to look at the issues themselves. To go even further, the Christian life can’t just be solely about Jesus, because otherwise we’d never learn anything else, like math or spelling or how to drive a car.
But to focus more specifically on insecurity and self-esteem, only saying how great God is without any reference to ourselves will never give us self-worth. Just imagine the thought process here:
You: “Wow, I really don’t like myself that much. I don’t feel confident that I have anything of value to offer to anyone.”
Women’s Ministry Leader: “Well, did you know that Christ is AMAZING and he died for you?”
Would your response be: “Really? Great! I feel great about myself now! Thanks!”
That certainly hasn’t been my response. It’s been more like, “Wow, God really is great to die for someone as terrible as I am. He’s so great that he loves me even though I’m awful.” That’s high God-esteem, but does that sound like high self-esteem? From my personal experience, I can tell you that it doesn’t. I can talk all day about how great God is without feeling any better about myself.
What I need to hear is something like this:
Women’s Ministry Leader: “I’m really sorry you’re struggling with that. I hope you know that God, who is AMAZING, created you in His image and for a purpose, so you have dignity and worth. You are beautiful and special to Him. In fact, you are so valuable to him that even though you, like everyone else, are a sinner, he died for you so you could have a relationship and life with him, forever."
Me: “Wow, God really is great. And if GOD created me and loves me so much that he died for me, I really must have value and worth.”
That’s high God-esteem and high self-esteem. I need to hear not only about our great God, but about what our great God thinks about me (and, to get back to the worms fallacy, that he doesn’t think I’m worthless).
So, it’s not only okay but necessary for women to hear about themselves in addition to hearing about God, especially if they struggle with low self-esteem, depression, and/or anxiety. It can be about us sometimes.
But there’s another reason why Masonheimer thinks that it should only be about Jesus and not about us. She argues that insecurity is only one of many “symptoms of the real disease,” which is sin, often implying that the root cause of insecurity and low self-esteem is always personal sin. Next week I’ll discuss the fallacy behind that idea.