My heart was moved eternally by a sermon, by Matt Chandler of The Village Church, titled, Sovereign Over All. He spoke on the issue of self-esteem and the promise of the Gospel. I simply want to share with you a good chunk of it. It’s a bit long but definitely worth the read or listen.
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Somehow the message of your helplessness, your frail, useless brokenness and the necessity of Christ and the glory of Christ has been replaced with instead, “You’re good, I’m good, we’re good and the answer to our woes is feeling better about ourselves and then attaching Jesus’ name to it.” It’s what I’ll lovingly call “the cult of self-esteem.” That’s what it is. And here’s what people do. They proof text like crazy. They’ll take like one fourth of one verse in one book and build this entire theology around it. Like I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard somebody quote that Zephaniah text, “We’re the apple of His eye. Look how much He loves us.” I don’t even know what that means. You know why you’re the apple of His eye? Not because you have any real, intrinsic value, but instead because you are evidence of His grace and goodness. That’s your value. Or my favorite, and what I mean by favorite is the one that enrages me, is the “Love your neighbor as you love yourself. If you would just love yourself more, you would be able to…” I mean this is devastating. Okay, I’ll move my Bible back, and we’ll just talk as humans. Do you know the problem with high self-esteem? It will absolutely make you go to bed at night knowing you’re a liar and knowing at any moment you’re going to be exposed for the lying fake you are. Because you’re not good, and neither am I. Intrinsically, by the time I was two, I was stealing. So were you. Everybody in here’s got that story, especially if you have kids, where you get home and you’re unpacking stuff and you’re like, “Uh oh. What’s this?” “I got it.” “No, you’re two. You don’t get anything.” You just realize, “Hey, I just stole from Target. Awesome.” I guarantee you that you were lying by five. Let me ask you a question. Who taught you how to lie? Maybe is it intrinsically in your wicked soul? Did anybody here growing up bite and hit other kids in the nursery? I wonder what it was in you that said, “I’m not getting what I want. You know what the answer is? Physically harming another human being.” Oh, could it be that your soul is wicked? So here’s what ends up happening when you’re like, “Oh, I’m a great man, and I walk in this…I’m a great woman…” The only way you can justify that belief is to look around for scoundrels and compare yourself to them. The problem is in the end, you’re going to be compared to the holiness of God and you will be found lacking. And so, when all of a sudden self-esteem slams into the gospel, it’s so contrarian to the idea of the gospel that you’ll get one or the other but you will not get both. Because one says you’re worthless and in need of a Savior and the other says you’re so worthy you’ve got a savior. Those are different messages. One happens to be the message of the Bible; one happens to be a very notion among arrogant Americans. And listen, there are times in here where I can honestly say this to you. Why do you think I’m saying this? Do you think I’m trying to build the church right now? Do you think I’m trying to make you feel better about yourself? Could it be I’m doing this because I believe with my whole heart that what the Bible says is true and I love you enough to say it to you?
Let me show you. I’m going just read off a bunch of men in the Bible and how they viewed themselves. In dealing with the Lord about Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham in Genesis 18 said this, “Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes.” Jacob, when he returned after 20 years of exile in Genesis 32 says this, “I am not worthy of the least of all the deeds of steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant.” When God came to Moses, you remember Charlton Heston, on the mountain and said, “You’re going to lead My people out of Egypt, you’re going to lead My out of slavery.” Moses responds, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?…Oh, my Lord, I am not eloquent, either in the past or since you have spoken to your servant, but I am slow of speech and of tongue.” Now let me read to you the response of God because this is profound. Exodus 4. “Then the LORD said to him, “Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the LORD? 12Now therefore go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall speak.”” Let me show you what He didn’t say. Moses didn’t say, “I can’t speak, I’m not a good enough leader, I’m not adequate enough,” and God step in and go, “Now Moses, don’t talk about yourself like that. You’re a buddy. I love you. You’re a good guy and you speak well.” Is that how God responded? No, He went, “You are a stuttering moron. You’re right. Here’s the good news. I’m your God. I made the mouth, I’ll give you the words, I’ll lead you. Quit looking at your own inadequacies and your own uselessness and look to Me and live.”
Job says, “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you;…” Listen to the response of Job after he sees God, because the popular notion is, once we see God, we’ll feel so much better about ourselves that life will be easy. Job says, “Now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” That’s a little different.
Isaiah says, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”
John the Baptist says, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.”
A tax collector and a Pharisee are in the temple. The Pharisee looks over at the tax collector and says, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men…even like this tax collector.” The tax collector beats his breast and says, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” Jesus says one of those justified. He’s not talking about the Pharisee if you don’t know how that one ends.
A couple of my favorites from the New Testament. There was a centurion who wanted a servant healed and sent word to Jesus. And so Jesus started walking to the centurion’s house, and before Jesus got there, the centurion sent another runner to Jesus. And the runner gets there, he’s out of air and he goes, “Uh, the centurion wanted me to tell You that he’s not worthy to have You even come into his home. And if You will, You can just heal the servant without ever coming into his house.” And Jesus was like, “Yeah, he’s right. Tell him his servant’s healed,” and He walks away. Pretty profound.
There was the Canaanite woman who comes up to Jesus and asks for healing and Jesus goes, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” Her response is, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table,” and God heals.
Peter, honestly you can pick any text that he is ever in, but let me give you one in particular. Luke 5 says, “When Simon Peter saw [the power of Jesus on the lake], he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.’”
Paul says, “I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh.” That’s in Romans 7. In 2 Corinthians 4, “We have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” In 1 Corinthians 3, he says, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.” And then my favorite in 1 Timothy 1, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.” If Paul who wrote 75% of the New Testament, the greatest missionary our faith has ever known is the foremost of sinners, I’m not sure what that makes us. He continues, “But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.”
In no instance in any of these Scriptures that I read does God ever correct their lowly view of themselves, ever. Not one does He step in and go, “That is not true.” Not one does He go, “I want you to quit saying that about yourself.” Not one does he say, “This is an unhealthy view.” It seems that healing and wholeness and the weight of the gospel slams into our soul not when we elevate and savor the self, but rather when we see our smallness coupled with the size of the grace and mercy of Christ.
The gospel solution when a person is paralyzed by a sense of guilt or unworthiness or uselessness is not to increase self-esteem. The biblical answer to a paralysis of low self-esteem is not high self-esteem, it’s sovereign grace. Let me read to you Isaiah 41:14. It’s one of my favorite examples. Jacob cries out to God, “I’m a worm, I’m a maggot, I’m worthless.” This is his prayer to God. Here’s God’s response, “Fear not, you worm Jacob, you men of Israel! I am the one who helps you, declares the LORD; your Redeemer is the Holy One of Israel.” It seems like how God heals, how God restores the heart of Jacob is not to say, “You’re not a worm; you’re a beautiful butterfly.” But instead, He says, “You are a worm, but I’m your God. I will lead you. I will guide you. I will never forsake you. You are a worm, but I’m here.”
How exhausting is pretending to be strong? I mean, that’s why church can be so exhausting. Because there’s all these external pressures to be okay, despite the fact that the gospel’s all about a celebration of us not being okay and having God love us anyway. Like, there’s this pressure to be okay and to be more than we are. What ends up happening is we start learning the rules and we start trying to obey them. And we start finding out that we can’t really obey them so what we start to do is pretend that we are obeying them and that things are working and that we don’t have any doubts and that we’re not concerned at all and that nothing’s difficult for us and every time we read the Bible, the Holy Spirit audibly just tells us exactly what that means and everything’s working out just fine and we begin to build this kind of pretense, this kind of pretending that all is well and everything’s okay. I mean, it’s just exhausting. It’s just absolutely exhausting. It’s such a far cry from David in Psalm 40, where he says, “I will never keep quiet about my sins in the great assembly.” I can tell you this. We would only ask David how he’s doing once and we would never ask him again. “How you doing?” “Ohhhh, sit down…Where are you going?” Because he would not just say, “I’m fine.” You’re not going to get “I’m fine” with David; you’re going to get, “How long will You forsake me, Lord?” from David. He’s just a different animal. It’s just exhausting trying to pretend. It just really is. And not only that, I think pretending robs you of the very power of the cross. It’s what steals from you depth and your shot of really being transformed.
Okay, here’s the first sentence of the first sermon from Jesus to the crowds. “Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” Blessed are the ones, happy are the ones, being healed are the ones, growing in depth are the ones, worshiping are the ones who are keenly aware of their inadequacies, their failures, their uselessness, how prone they are to wander, their difficulties. Blessed are the ones who keenly understand their brokenness, for they will be comforted. So let me trace the two paths for you. You’ve got the one guy who’s trying with all his might to not be the mess up that he really is. And every time he hears, “You’re a hypocrite, you’re a failure,” he feels, “I know, I’ve got to try harder. I’ve got to get better. I hate this sin. This sin owns me,” and he tries to work harder. So he comes to church every week and he hears someone talk best practices, “This is what a Christian should look like. This is how we should live.” He knows he’s not living up, and so he gets overwhelmed, he gets depressed, he thinks it’s just not working for him and he contemplates giving up. That’s track A; you’re welcome to hop on it. Here’s track B. Track B is, “Hey man, you’re a hypocrite.” “I know. How crazy is it that Christ still loves me? How crazy is it that He lavishes forgiveness and love on me? I’m doing the things I know to not walk in that anymore. And I now I’m constantly messing up, but praise His name that He still loves me right now.” “Hey man, you’re a bitter, angry man.” “I know I am. This has become increasingly clear to me because I try to follow Christ, but how unreal is He? How beautiful is He? How amazing is Christ that, in the middle of my bitterness and rage, He extends grace and mercy and love to me?” “Hey man, you’ve got a real lust issue.” “Man, I know. I’m in the step studies and I’m going to counseling and I’m trying to resolve this thing, but how beautiful is Jesus right now that, right in the middle of my lust, He loves me?” Not, “How great am I that Jesus loves me.” You take that turn and that’s blasphemy upon blasphemy upon blasphemy. Not how great am I that He would love me; how great is He that He would? Now, I don’t know how the gospel got hijacked and got turned into “Be clean! And when you’re clean, you’re a great testimony.” How so? And I love when Christ grows us to that point where we finally get to walk away from the stuff that’s haunted us. It’s coming. But I can tell you this. I can tell you my early days of church, sitting in a room where they put the miracle guy in front of you, they put the miracle guy that’s like, “For years, I drank a whole bottle of Jack Daniels, smoked a package of cigarettes and tried to sleep with anything I could get my hands on. I accepted Christ two years ago on Thursday and have not struggled with anything since. Christ shows up in the morning in my room personally, we talk, He tells me what to do, I struggle not in obeying him.” And the dude just flies off the stage and flies back to his seat. And I’m in year one in my walk with Christ going, “What’s wrong with me? I don’t even have any wings.” And I’d hear those testimonies and do you know what I’d think? “Something’s broken. Something’s wrong in me. I guess I’m not saved or I don’t get it.” I just one time want to hear the testimony of the guy that stands up and goes, “Oh, I believe He loves me, but every day’s a war.” Because that’s so much more attractive to broken people.
Do you see why arrogance and the gospel can never hold hands? It’s the same reason why high self-esteem and the gospel can never hold hands. They’re contrarian to one another. You can’t be arrogant if you understand the gospel. It’s hard to judge people when you understand the gospel. It really is. It’s hard to judge another when you realize your own depravity. It’s hard to walk with a swagger and tell other people what they should be doing. The gospel creates humility, gentleness, graciousness, which is what we’ve been called to be. Because let’s say you are type A and you figure out how to white-knuckle all the issues of your life—that ends in pride. You’re right back to Romans 1. So this is the good news. This is why I’m here. This is how I became a preacher. It definitely wasn’t, “These are the movies I can watch and the real lame t-shirts I have to wear.” It sure wasn’t “Hey, throw this on the back of your car.” No, this thing tore my heart up, because when I was at my worst, Christ was like, “Oh, I love you.” And it wasn’t because of me He loved me. It was His grace, His glory, the display of His perfection. It’s profound.
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How can He be so good to us? Sigh.