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 “it’s never about you” fallacy, or the idea that all we need to do to fix our issues is focus on God. I argued, in particular, that a high God-esteem isn’t enough to fix low self-esteem. This week, for my final post on this article, I want to look at another part of Masonheimer’s argument I’ll call the “it’s all your fault” fallacy.
Masonheimer’s article explicitly links the roots of insecurity and “poor self-image” to sin, and importantly, to “rebellion,” in the following passage:
The truth is that, apart from the transforming power of Christ, I’m not beautiful, special, or all that unique. I’m born into sin, and bent to rebellion. My insecurities and fears pulse through Adam’s blood in my veins. These can’t be rooted out with shallow “encouragements”. What I need – what every woman needs – is a soul-deep solution to the problem of sin. Insecurity is not the problem. Fear, poor self-image, marriage problems – these are just symptoms of the real disease. The disease is sin, and we all have it.
We need freedom, not compliments.
The gospel is good news only to those who recognize their need for Jesus. When you create a culture that uses Jesus for little more than a spiritual feel-good, it’s no wonder the women it produces can’t get victory over anxiety, anger, insecurity, or fear. They leave our churches knowing all about themselves, and knowing little about Christ.
Our insecurities and low self-esteem, therefore, are merely signs of a deeper problem, which is the sin that “we all have,” and that “[w]e need freedom from.” Our sin is also later referred to as “our pre-Jesus ugliness.”
The problem with attributing insecurities to sin and rebellion in this generalized way is that it implies that they are always the result of personal sin, or something that you are guilty of. In other words, insecurity is always “all your fault”( which is why I’m calling this idea the “it’s all your fault” fallacy).
The truth, though, is that there’s more nuance to sin than that, an idea first brought to my attention in Edward T. Welch’s book Shame Interrupted. (I’ve since realized that this book has its own issues with self-esteem, so I can’t fully endorse it, but on this point, it’s good.) Welch argues that we not only feel “shame from our own sin before God” but “from the sins of others and from our own weaknesses,” the latter of which include “[v]ictimization, neglect, physical disability, [and] intellectual disability” (265, 267). He also notes that shame is different from guilt:
Guilt. . . . says, “You are responsible for wrongdoing and legally answerable.” “You are wrong.” “You have sinned.” The guilty person expects punishment and needs forgiveness.
Shame. . . . says, “You don’t belong--you are unacceptable, unclean, and disgraced” because “You are wrong, you have sinned” (guilt), or “Wrong has been done to you” or “You are associated with those who are disgraced or outcast.” The shamed person feels worthless, expects rejection, and needs cleansing, fellowship, love, and acceptance. (11)
Guilt comes from our personal actions; shame can stem from guilt, but it can also stem from things that are not our fault at all. But because shame still feels bad, it’s easy to think we really did do something wrong, even if it’s not true (Welch 52). It’s even easier to make this mistake if Christians don’t do a good job of discussing sin, guilt, and shame in all of its complexities, and in my experience, they usually don’t. I hadn’t heard of any of this until I read Welch's book when I was 24.
And if there’s one aspect of sin that’s discussed the most, it’s our personal sin. If distinctions aren’t made, then, it’s easiest to assume that a discussion of sin refers to things that are our fault. That’s especially the case if you struggle with poor mental health and are already used to constantly putting yourself down.
Unfortunately, as we’ve seen, Masonheimer’s discussion of sin lacks nuance. I don’t think you have to mention all aspects of sin every time it’s discussed, but if you’re going to talk about insecurity and poor self-image, I think it’s absolutely necessary, because those issues are NOT always due to personal sin, and as I just said, the people who struggle with them are already more inclined to blame themselves.
Yes, you can have low self-esteem as a result of pride, the thinking being, as Welch says, “‘I want to be greater than I am and I feel bad because I am not more successful’” (though, I would add, this shouldn’t be confused with normal ambition or the desire to succeed) (9). But another of “low self-esteem’s accomplices” is shame that doesn’t come from guilt. I would go so far to say that if struggles with depression, anxiety, or low self-esteem are ongoing, they almost always stem from non-guilt shame.
They can be the result of chemical imbalances in the brain, the sad result of the brokenness of our bodies in a fallen world. They can be the result of years of being hurt by others through abuse or trauma. They can be both. The people who struggle with these things don’t need to be given another reason to feel bad about themselves by hearing about their “pre-Jesus ugliness” -- they need to know that they are accepted and loved and supported.
So please women’s (and men’s, and children’s) ministry, tell us we’re beautiful. We are God’s good and beautiful creation. We’ve sinned, and been sinned against, and suffered from the effects of sin on creation, but we’re not worthless, ugly worms. In fact, God valued us so much that he sent Jesus to give us life. He loves and cares for us in our struggles and will someday make all things right. Until then, we love and care for one another.
We can hear the whole truth of the gospel and feel good about ourselves. But some Christians, even if they do feel good about themselves, are reluctant to ever refer to themselves as “good people.” Next week I’ll talk about why I think that’s harmful by responding to a piece from Tim Challies. Stay tuned!