Have you ever made yourself absolutely miserable—so miserable that you wanted to die? I have.
As a young man I had aspirations to become noble and good. I wanted to be a good latter-day saint and a good person. I was so serious about my goals that, when I was a freshman in college, I kept a chart on which I evaluated myself on 27 criteria every single day. Was I kind to my sister? Was I thrifty? Did I use my time well? Did I get to bed on time? Every day I gave myself a letter grade in each of those 27 areas. Oddly, when I did well, I gave myself a C. My chart was littered with C’s and unnumbered D’s and F’s. I had very high standards for myself and I wasn’t meeting them.
Would you guess that this self-evaluation activity energized my life and growth—that it made me happy and spurred great progress? Or would you predict that I became discouraged, sullen, and depressed. You probably know the answer. I was exhausted and dispirited. I wanted to die to be relieved of my misery. I prayed to be run over by any passing truck.
Constantly evaluating ourselves against impossible standards is a guaranteed way to make ourselves miserable. And failure feeds hungrily on itself. Failure makes us more self-critical which makes us ultimately more discouraged and less productive. Maybe you’ve tried it and had the same results I had. Maybe you’re doing the same thing—or something like it—even now.
Mentored by a Brother
Let’s imagine that I had a caring older brother or friend who wanted to help me, what would he have said to me? How would he have helped me?
He might have said, “Hey, Wally, look at all your good qualities.” He might have tried to convince me that I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and people like me.
He would have failed. For every positive data point he shared, I could have offered ten negative ones—in part because I was so vigilant in observing my failings. Also because I’m a fallen person in a fallen world. The truth is that I have abundant failings. There is no denying that sad truth.
He could have told me, “Wally, you’re a son of God. You have divine heritage and potential.”
I would have shaken my head: “Satan was also a son of God. So is every convict on death row.”
He might have tried: “You’re better than so many people in many areas.”
You know the rejoinder because you’ve probably used it: “And I’m much worse than people in important areas. And I’m hopelessly below my standard and—more importantly—God’s standard.”
Yep. I was not to be cheered by cheap encouragement. I found the usual assortment of reassurances to be meaningless—even insulting.
Fortunately I was distracted from self-destruction by a full-time mission. I am thankful that the light of the gospel began to flood the dark corner where my mind was stuck. Little by little I have come to understand how my system of self-evaluation was making me crazy. I learned a couple of key truths:
1. I was right: I was frequently a mess. Even now, decades later, I am still frequently a mess! In spite of my good intentions and continuing efforts, I am a fallen human in a fallen world. The scriptural teachings are correct; left to my own devices and self-centeredness, I am an enemy to God, myself and my fellow mortals (See Mosiah 3:19). And so are we all.
We tend to ignore this uncomfortable truth because it doesn’t fit with our happy humanism. When we do, we have no convincing argument against our nagging self-disappointment. No matter how much we reassure ourselves that we ought to have abundant self-esteem, we know full well that we fall short of what we hope to be and what God commands us to be.
2. Being imperfect is part of the plan. It is absolutely essential in order to test our mettle—in order to determine what we’re made of. Will we turn to hollow self-reassurance? Will we ignore the painful truth? Will we desperately work to make ourselves okay? Will we give up and surrender to our worst impulses?
Or will we throw ourselves on the merits, mercy and grace of Him who is mighty to save? Only One option has the any power to redeem us. Only One name under heaven has the power to rescue and transform us. There is only One Way.
When we deny that we are fallen and therefore fall short, we commensurately deny our dependence on the Lord Jesus Christ. The fall and the atonement are essential companions. They are part of God’s plan to see what we value most—to what source we will turn for a remission of our sins.
When we try to convince ourselves that we can make ourselves into decent people on our own without the love, teachings, and atonement of Jesus Christ, we minimize the only power that can save us.
When we try to make ourselves into all that God requires of us without accessing that power, we are asking the arm of flesh to do the work of Gods. It simply cannot work.
The World’s Counterfeits
Let’s compare the world’s positions with God’s prescriptions. The world suggests that we should love ourselves, that we cannot love anyone else until we do, and that people can like us the way we are or jump in a lake. (Or we can go to therapy to change ourselves.)
God recommends that we worry less about ourselves and focus on loving and serving others. Also, rather than accepting ourselves as we are, God recommends that we activate the power of the atonement to enable mighty changes in our souls.
It is easy to see that the world has turned God’s plan upside down, replacing a love of God with a love of self. You can see why I write and teach against the lure of self-esteem. Research studies consistently point to the failure of self-esteem to improve people and strengthen relationships. The self-esteem dogma is a myth. More importantly, the emphasis on self-esteem with its focus on the self, insults God’s plan, ignoring the fundamental realities of our mortal contract. It distracts from the only power that can rescue us.
I certainly do not recommend Calvinistic self-hatred. No. I recommend that we “let [our] sins trouble [us], with that trouble which shall bring [us] down unto repentance” (Alma 42:29). We do not ignore our sins and weaknesses. Neither should we dwell on them. We use them to remind us of our dependence on Christ. We throw ourselves on His mercy. We rejoice in His goodness. We know that we are saved and warmed by His redemptiveness not by our self-assurance programs.
Fortunately there are abundant models of the God-prescribed perspective in scripture after whom we can pattern our thinking and acting. I draw on their words when I need help finding my way toward growth.
Nephi turns from self-loathing to rejoicing when he focuses on God: “Nevertheless, I know in whom I have trusted” (2 Nephi 4:19).
Ammon, when accused of boasting by his brother, stated his situation with heavenly perspective: “I know that I am nothing; as to my strength I am weak; therefore I will not boast of myself, but I will boast of my God, for in his strength I can do all things” (Alma 26:12).
Alma teaches us that calling for self-celebration and self-protection is infinitely inferior to calling on God. In the moment of decision, he cried out: “O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me, who am in the gall of bitterness, and am encircled about by the everlasting chains of death” (Alma 36:18).
Jesus Himself modeled this mindset. He refused to let Himself be called good master. “Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God” (Matthew 19:16). In everything He did, He gave praise to the Father. If the only perfect person to live on this earth refused to accept praise, then self-celebration on our part seems worse than tacky. When we celebrate our puny efforts as a personal accomplishment, we offend the God who gave us breath.
Jesus not only accepted no praise, He also allowed every kind of injustice and indignity to be heaped on Him. It is true that He took stands against evil as directed by Father, but the idea that we can never allow our dignity to be dented or our rights to be trampled is not supported by His example. He was clear about who He was but He gave all honor to His Father and He tolerated torrents of disrespect.
I recommend that you identify a scriptural character who can provide you a mantra for dealing with self-issues. My personal favorite remains Alma: “O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me!”
Continuing the Lesson
If God rescued me from self-destruction with a mission, He cemented His lesson two decades later when I was serving as a bishop. One Sunday afternoon a young adult came to see me and described a life full of sin, abuse, and immorality that left me dumbstruck. I saw no hope for making sense of her life. When she finished her terrible tale, she asked me, “Bishop, what does God want me to do?” I was amazed to hear myself say: “There are three things the Lord would have you do.” I described three specific and encouraging directives from Heaven. The counsel from God was loving, supportive, hopeful, and wise. I was amazed at His love for one whose life had been the ugliest mess I had ever seen. And I realized that He had finally dealt a death-blow to my own resistance to His love. I now knew that He loved me; that one truth changed everything.
He understands my foolishness in this fallen world and He rejoices when I partner with Him to be a better disciple. He is quite determined to save me and get me home with the heavenly family filled with glory. If I were to evaluate myself on those 27 criteria today I would still find an abundance of weakness. But I have put away my graph paper. I have finally found the key. My happiness and well-being do not depend on my faultless conduct or convincing myself that I have earned the right to “esteem” myself. They depend on recognizing the source of my redemption. Every day I call on Him for strength, for mercy, and for forgiveness and redemption from my fallenness. And every day as I call on Him, I feel His love. I have replaced flimsy attempts at self-love with that powerful and durable love that comes from God.
James E. Faulconer, a BYU philosophy professor, has put our choice bluntly. He says that we can choose self-love or salvation. One OR the other. They are mutually exclusive. Any attempt to reassure ourselves that we are good will keep us from falling at His feet and crying for mercy.
And this is the means whereby salvation cometh. And there is none other salvation save this which hath been spoken of; neither are there any conditions whereby man can be saved except the conditions which I have told you.
Believe in God; believe that he is, and that he created all things, both in heaven and in earth; believe that he has all wisdom, and all power, both in heaven and in earth; believe that man doth not comprehend all the things which the Lord can comprehend.
And again, believe that ye must repent of your sins and forsake them, and humble yourselves before God; and ask in sincerity of heart that he would forgive you; and now, if you believe all these things see that ye do them. (Mosiah 4:8-10)
From our mouths should come neither self-justification nor self-celebration but supplication to God, celebration of His love, and pleas for forgiveness. The gospel of Jesus Christ teaches the only way we can be saved.
We are all held hostage by ideas that threaten our happiness and damage our relationships. I am debunking some of the most pervasive ones with articles on my new blog. I would love to have you join us to read, discuss, and share them as they are posted: www.miseryorhappiness.com
Read James E. Faulconer’s: Self-Image, Self-Love, and Salvation at https://jamesfaulconer.byu.edu/papers/self_image.pdf
For a thought-provoking and deep analysis of the ways we make sense of life written by a brilliant psychologist, read Roy Baumeister’s Meanings of Life
For more about the failure of self-esteem, read John Hewitt’s The Myth of Self-Esteem or Jean M. Twenge’s Generation Me.