about humility vs. low self-esteem (with pictures!)

Last week I prayed for humility and I got it, sort of. I joked to a couple friends, “I’m not going to pray for that again!” After all, It always seems as if the prayers we’re not all that excited about praying are the ones God chooses to answer the quickest. Like praying for patience, for example. I rarely pray for it because I’m terribly afraid to get it.

As for humility, well, I pray for it because I genuinely want it. Often what I end up with, however, is low self-esteem. I usually feel like my baseline for self-esteem sits dangerously low as it is, having fought with suicidal depression, alcoholism, PTSD, etc. for the vast majority of my life. Ironically, I vacillate between severely low self-esteem and a severely inflated sense of pride and indignation. I could never figure out why until now.

So here I am, agonizing Dawson’s Creek-style over the difference between humility and self-esteem and thinking it’s such a fine line between the two and how could pride logically fit into this picture, and God leads me to Romans 8 and opens my eyes to, well, the answer: Pride is self-esteem (whether high or low); humility is God-esteem.

The idea of “esteem” originally comes from a Latin word meaning to value, appraise, estimate the worth of. Self-esteem is constantly evaluating or estimating my own worth. It’s viewing everything in terms of myself and my own perceived value. It’s putting myself in the center of everything. Everything around me, then, is viewed in terms of my own self-worth, whether how these things make me feel, how I think they should make me feel, how I think they should or shouldn’t be. I’m essentially creating my own idea of absolute truth based on how I view myself. I drew a picture:

The problem with this is that idea of “absolute truth” is anything but absolute. As my ideas about my self-worth fluctuate, my view of everything else fluctuates as well. The other problem with this idea is it’s, well, unscriptural. This is what the Bible calls our “sinful nature.” But we’ll get to that.

Humility is not low self-esteem. Humility has nothing to do with our own esteem. True humility is focused on one thing and one thing only—the complete worthiness of God. I called it God-esteem, and that’s a little cheesy, but it’s the best way to define it. Humility is viewing everything in terms of God’s worth and God’s absolute truth, including the way we view ourselves (hence the double arrow in my sketch). There is no room for pride with true humility. We focus on God’s worth first and foremost and subsequently view everything else in terms of God’s standard. Here’s my drawing:

Back to the sinful nature. What the Bible calls our sinful nature is our self-esteem: finding value in ourselves for who we are rather than who God is. You could also call it idolatry, worshiping the created instead of the Creator. It’s our self-esteem that’s at the root of our sins. It’s what caused Adam and Eve to disobey God in the first place—they wanted to be more like God and valued their own potential wisdom over obedience to God. I usually think through my sins (and sometimes even chart out the recurring ones because I’m a little nerdy like that) and every single one of them always comes down to one thing: pride. That is, self-esteem.

So, Romans 8. Actually, the whole book of Romans should be renamed the book of Humility, because that’s essentially what it’s all about—God’s worth, our inadequacy, Jesus’ glory, our justification and sanctification in Christ alone. I considered writing out Romans 8 and commenting on how it so clearly handles this issue, but for brevity’s sake I’m just going to leave you with 8:1-14. As you read through, I’d encourage you to think in terms of “sinful nature” as “self-esteem” and “Spirit” as “humility,” i.e., God’s worthiness. It’s a lesson all its own.

So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus. And because you belong to him, the power of the life-giving Spirit has freed you from the power of sin that leads to death. The law of Moses was unable to save us because of the weakness of our sinful nature. So God did what the law could not do. He sent his own Son in a body like the bodies we sinners have. And in that body God declared an end to sin’s control over us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins. He did this so that the just requirement of the law would be fully satisfied for us, who no longer follow our sinful nature but instead follow the Spirit.

Those who are dominated by the sinful nature think about sinful things, but those who are controlled by the Holy Spirit think about things that please the Spirit. So letting your sinful nature control your mind leads to death. But letting the Spirit control your mind leads to life and peace. For the sinful nature is always hostile to God. It never did obey God’s laws, and it never will. That’s why those who are still under the control of their sinful nature can never please God.

But you are not controlled by your sinful nature. You are controlled by the Spirit if you have the Spirit of God living in you. (And remember that those who do not have the Spirit of Christ living in them do not belong to him at all.) And Christ lives within you, so even though your body will die because of sin, the Spirit gives you life because you have been made right with God. The Spirit of God, who raised Jesus from the dead, lives in you. And just as God raised Christ Jesus from the dead, he will give life to your mortal bodies by this same Spirit living within you.

Therefore, dear brothers and sisters, you have no obligation to do what your sinful nature urges you to do. For if you live by its dictates, you will die. But if through the power of the Spirit you put to death the deeds of your sinful nature, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.

  • JD

    I thought I understood this, but NOW I do! Thanks for sharing God’s truth.

  • Rebecca, etc.

    Thanks for the feedback. 🙂

  • tannerrobinson

    Great article. Really spot on. I’ve had trouble with low self-esteem, thinking I was honoring God by beating myself down when really I am “fearfully and wonderfully made” and shouldn’t be focusing on me anyway! Low self-esteem and humility are different things indeed. Humility is the accurate recognition of the gifts and talents that you have been blessed with but also understanding that they in no way make you superior to anyone else. If someone else had been given the same gifts couldn’t they have done just as well or better? The humble person knows that the truth is yes, anyone in your position could have done just as well as you. Instead nothing but gratitude is in order and focus on the Giver, not the gifts or lack thereof.