It is common, particularly for Christians, to confuse humility and self-contempt, believing that avoiding the sin of pride means considering ourselves shameful and dirty. Here I confront the idea that our glory needs to be hidden and demeaned. In fact, maybe true humility and gratitude can only come when we learn to bless the beauty in how we were created.
“Understood correctly, our love for ourselves, our “yes” to our self, may be regarded as the “categorical imperative” of the Christian faith: You shall lovingly accept the humanity entrusted to you! You shall be obedient to your destiny! You shall not continually try to escape it! You shall be true to yourself! You shall embrace yourself! Our self-acceptance is the basis of the Christian creed. Assent to God starts in our sincere assent to ourselves, just as sinful flight from God starts in our flight from ourselves.” —Johannes Baptist Metz
She squirmed as she sat across from me, unable to join in my delight of her. “But I can’t be prideful,” she said, sitting in my office with her hands softly holding her face. “Yet your self-hatred is acceptable and pleasing to God?” I asked. She shook her head in disbelief, neither of us knowing which direction she would turn.
What was so heartbreaking to me was that her “glory” actually felt like “sin” to her. If she were to internally arrive at goodness and glory, it was somehow equated to “pride.” She grew to believe that her “wickedness” was the truest and noblest quality about her, her core identity was dirty, and thus self-annihilation made sense, because God hates “sin.” This message is quite common, and it can easily be manipulated by Evil and birth the pride of self-contempt (I’ll explain that concept more thoroughly, but a little backstory first).
I understand my client’s battle well. I grew up Southern Baptist; three times a week my mom would drag me to church. I listened some, but spent most of my time drawing on those strange fuchsia-colored envelopes. As I continued to grow and mature, I listened to sermons a bit more intently and focused a little less on the unpleasant solos from the choir director’s wife.
The main thing that I took away from the thousands of hours of sermons was that “I was a sinner.” I was wicked and Jesus was good. I had better accept Jesus in my heart, or I would burn in Hell forever. That was it. I got saved seven times just to make sure. But no matter how many times I was washed in the blood, I still felt dirty, I still felt like I was bad. My shame was deeper than my salvation. My sin, my darkness, was truer than my glory. My sinfulness was the majority of what was preached—90 percent of the messages were about how sinful we all were.
Despite how true it is that I am a sinner, and so was everyone in that congregation, what was most true was only preached 10 percent of the time, or just left out of the gospel message all together. What is most true is that I was made in the image of God, that God smiles over me, despite my depravity, that the authority of the cross was and is greater than the supremacy of shame.
In the conservative religious culture that I grew up in, self-hatred became blessed as humility, and any love of self was labeled as haughty. Being taught John 3:30, “He must become greater and I must become less,” was used as gasoline to fuel my self-destruction. It was never explained to me that you couldn’t become “less” until you have become a “whole.” Until you know who you are, and tell the truth of your goodness, you cannot fully acknowledge the greatness of our God.
To lovingly bless the beauty of what God has created in all of us does not produce pride, but a posture of immense gratitude and humility. Self-contempt and self-annihilation are actually quite prideful stances—we unconsciously think our self-hatred can cleanse us, that we can sit in God’s place and forgive our own sin. We become consumed with self by unconsciously cutting ourselves down, mocking our own successes, and allowing insecurity to fuel our drive to perfectionism.
We can only access authentic humility when we have a full self to humble. We can only avoid the sin of self-contempt and pride by joining Truth. We must start telling the truth of who we are and who we see others to be. To love one’s self is a “categorical imperative” to the Christian faith; to love one’s self is to love our creator God. This split can no longer be. We must integrate a love for self, and a holy adoration for the one who made us so stunning.
[This article initially ran in 2018]