Learning to be Me

“I’m bad and that’s good. I will never be good and that’s not bad. There’s no one I’d rather be than me”

Sometimes we criticize animated films because they always seem to have the same message: self-esteem. Be yourself. Accept yourself for who you are. You’ll find happiness when you do. “Nonsense!” we cry,  “We don’t find our worth in ourselves. There’s nothing worthy in myself. Christ gives us worth.”

But perhaps we should be a bit more nuanced about ‘self-esteem’ (for lack of a better term) . The fact remains that, even after the Gospel, I am still me. That is,  my affections change from the world to Christ and from sin to personal holiness, but my basic personality remains intact. Martyn Lloyd Jones writes this about our personalities (or temperaments in his words):

“Temperament…does make a very great difference in the actual experience in the Christian life…For the fact of the matter is that though we are all Christian together, we are all different, and the problems and the difficulties, the perplexities and the trials that we are likely to meet are in large measure determined by the difference of temperament and of type. We are all in the same fight, of course, as we share the same common salvation, and have the same common central need. But the manifestation of the trouble vary from case to case and from person to person. There is nothing more futile…than to act on the assumption that all Christians are identical in every respect. They are not, and they are not even meant to be.”

The truth is we all have to learn to live with ourselves–our personalities and their particular strengths and weaknesses. Circumstances will come and go, but no matter what, you will always be you. So, if you struggle to understand and accept your own personality, it’s going to be a constant battle and source of discouragement. You cannot escape yourself. You cannot escape your insecurities, and the particular weaknesses your personality is prone to.

As we think about ‘self-esteem’, we should distinguish that there are neutral aspects of our personality, and then there are sins closely tied with our personalities–that is, our personalities make us more prone to certain kinds of sin than others. The latter we must learn to put to death but the former we can learn to accept. God has made us uniquely in his image. Moreover, when he saved us, he didn’t put our personality into a holy cookie-cutter mold; he is making our particular temperament more like Christ. The glory of the Gospel is that many different types of people all choose to love God and find him worthy of praise despite their differences.

For myself, I’ve always struggled with insecurity about these neutral aspects of my personality. I’m more quiet and reserved. I don’t have a boisterous personality or a particularly sharp sense of humor. I’m uncomfortable in large groups. Because of these characteristics, I often feel as if I can never truly belong because I’m not funny, memorable, or outgoing enough to carve out a lasting space in people’s lives. I often feel like I’ll never be truly useful in ministry because I don’t always have a ton to say or I can’t easily connect with people.

This insecurity leads to recurring sins, most notably, self-focus and unthankfulness. Fear of my own inadequacy directs my attention constantly inward. There could be great things happening all around me but instead of enjoying them, I’m thinking to myself: what does this person think of me? Am I fitting in? Why am I weak in this way? This, in turn, leads to unthankfulness. Whatever good thing is eclipsed by the discontent I feel about myself.

I need to be extra diligent in recognizing these sins and rooting them out of my life. Why? Because they’re so closely tied to my temperament, if I’m not careful, they easily become part of the daily routine how I act, think, and feel. Sadly, I’ve had entire seasons of life and ministry be characterized by this self-focus and unthankfulness. If I’m not careful, these sins can rob me both of my joy and my usefulness in ministry. 

Here are a few thoughts about learning to come to terms with my own temperament and its limitations.


1. Learning to be Thankful

Here is where I’d probably depart from animated films. Pixar, Dreamworks, and Disney will tell you: those worries that you have about your inadequacies? They don’t really exist. You’re perfectly lovable just the way you are. Just believe in yourself!

But I don’t think that’s true, even if we’re talking strictly about the neutral aspects of our personality. Our insecurities aren’t completely unfounded. We feel them because there is some truth to them. Now I’m not saying we don’t blow them way out of proportion. I know I sure do. I know oftentimes when I hear people talk about their weaknesses and flaws, I’m often confused because I don’t see them at all. And I’m sure my insecurities would seem the same way to other people. We should labor to be as realistic about ourselves as possible.

But my weaknesses do exist. As a whole, I can look at my life and know that I am loved by close friends and family and that God uses me in ministry, but that doesn’t take away the sting of disappointments in everyday life when I feel alone or helpless.

Instead of ignoring our limitations, perhaps the best way to come to terms with them, is to acknowledge they exist, but to learn to be thankful for them. It’s true that if I were more outgoing, then I would struggle less with feeling accepted. If I had a better sense of humor, I would be more useful in ministry than I am now. But if I could magically fix everything I didn’t like about myself, I would also lose something crucial to my sanctification.

We often forget in the pain of weakness that weaknesses is crucial to our growth. Do you remember what Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 12:7-9?

So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. (2 Corinthians 12:7-9 ESV)

Now, I don’t know what Paul’s ‘thorn in the flesh’ was, but limitations of temperament can fit the bill in my life. They are constant. They seem like they’re always with me reminding me of my weakness. Yet, God has used them to teach me the most important lesson of all: I am weak so I need to depend on him. I am weak all the time and so I need his strength all the time. In every conversation, every meeting, every second of every day.

Where would I be if I could hide all the weaknesses of my temperament? Perhaps I could be more popular and more useful, without sacrificing the lowliness that comes with weakness. But more likely, I would trust in myself. I would become conceited, self-sufficient, and would boast in my own abilities.

2. Learning not to Compare

I’m writing this post sandwiched in between two fantastic ministry opportunities. Earlier this summer, I was privileged to go to China (You can read it about it here!). This next week, I will have the privilege to minister to high school students at Chinese Bible Mission (or CBM as it’s more commonly known).

I am blessed beyond belief to be able to participate in Gospel ministries like these. At the same time, I know how easy it is to waste these opportunities by comparing myself to others instead of serving joyfully. It’s easy to become discouraged because the other counselors are more useful than me. Or to feel that because I’m more reserved, I can never fit in with the team or the other counselors as well as others can.

How sad it is to waste such precious time in envy, wanting what others have instead of being floored that God allows me to serve at all. If you and I are ever going to put to death insecurity, we must put to death our sinful tendency to compare ourselves to others.

3. Learning to Serve

When I struggle with own insecurity, my tendency is to want to retreat. To retreat from fellowship. To retreat from leadership. To retreat from taking initiative and being intentional with others. To retreat from being bold and taking risks for Christ. But this is a wrong reaction. This is essentially saying, because I can’t serve in the selfish way I want to serve or be useful in the way I want to be useful, I won’t serve.

But God has gifted me in many ways. He has gift me with many opportunities. Should I not use the personality, the talents, and the strengths God has given me to bless the church? Paul writes this in 1 Corinthians 12:12-20:

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. (1 Corinthians 12:12-20 ESV)

I may not be a mouth, or a nose, or the eyes. Perhaps I may be something small in the body of Christ. But the church has diverse needs, and God has created a diverse body to meet those needs. The church needs outgoing people and quiet people. The church needs introverts and extroverts. People who can bring laughter to large groups and people who can listen well to the newcomer who still hasn’t quite fit in. Part of learning to be me is to learn how God has gifted me to serve the church and to use those gifts with joy and zeal.

4. Learning to be Loved

Because of our weaknesses we often feel inadequate. We feel inadequate to measure up to the expectations of the people we care about. We feel inadequate to be useful in the ministries and service opportunities that God has placed us in. And our fears are right; we are inadequate. We have limitations in the neutral aspects of our personality. We are disqualified because of the sinful aspects of our personality. If people knew us as we really are, who would judge us as worthy? No one.

God knows everything about us. He knows our weaknesses and sins better than we know them ourselves. Yet, God still loves us. He loves us so much that he sent his own Son to die on the Cross to purchase us. And if that weren’t enough, He still uses us to do his work. He employs broken jars of clay so that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. Praise God for weakness because it brings us to treasure the gracious God who shows us grace.

For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; (1 Corinthians 1:26-27 ESV)

Dating, Career, and our Self-Destructive Self-Righteousness

There are two main questions burning in the minds of most collegians:  Whom should I date (and eventually marry)? and what career-path should I choose? These two great unanswered questions loom over our lives as we transition from the comfortable carefree atmosphere of college to the scary realities of the “real world”.  The stakes are high since how we choose to answer these questions will alter the rest of our futures. Failure in either area leaves us in the dreaded  categories of single, unemployed or if you’re especially unlucky, both (And that’s not even mentioning the possibility of being unhappily married or unhappily employed!). Unfortunately, many collegians, myself included, feel confused, lost, and inadequate in both of these areas. As a result, worries about dating and career leave us trapped in cycle of heartache and fear.

In this post, I wanted to ask the question: does God save us apart from our works, but make us earn our dating relationships and our careers by our own self-righteousness? Should we view our success in dating and career as dependent upon our own efforts?

The reason I ask is that for myself it oftentimes feels that way. In Christian college culture, most of us seem to treat dating as if it were dependent on our works. Our confidence in regards to dating grows the more “righteous” things we do and the more other people perceive us as “righteous”. Our confidence falls as we consider our shortcomings, be it flaws in our looks, our personality, or our character.  Likewise, our success in schoolwork and career seems largely dependent on ourselves. If we don’t study hard, get the right internships, and choose the right career path, then we’ll crash and burn in an increasingly competitive work force.

I think if we honestly uncovered the fundamental attitude of our hearts it would look something like this: If I want to date this guy/this girl, or want to enjoy success in my career then I have to be good enough. I have to be more, do more, work harder and outperform everyone else in order to find the happiness that I long for. If I don’t, I’ll fail.

We know that trying to earn our way to heaven leads either to prideful self-righteousness or crushing despair, but doesn’t trying to “earn” our dating relationship or our career leave us in the same dilemma? Either we will be confident for all the wrong reasons, or we will be paralyzed by our own insecurities of whether we measure up.  All of this, of course, doesn’t seem quite right. Would God gives us salvation as a gift, but then make dating and career dependent on works?

I don’t think so. The Gospel not only revolutionizes the way we see salvation, but it also reaches, transforms, and brings freedom and peace to the areas which we hold dearest to our hearts, including our fears about dating and career.

Our salvation tell us this. First, we have been justified. This means that God has given us the righteousness of his Son so that when he looks upon us, he sees Jesus’ perfection. Second, it tells us we have been adopted. Because Christ has bridged the gap between sinful man and holy God, we can now be welcomed into God’s family as sons of God. We need not fear that God will ever cast us out from his family. We have Christ’s righteousness, so we know that just as God will forever love Jesus, so too he will forever love us.

I know what you’re thinking.  “Enough with the theology Chris. You say the same things in every post (Yes, I know I do). Tell me what does that mean for my future dating relationships and career?”

It means this: Jesus has secured God’s love for us and allowed us to become members of His family. This means that in our dating relationships and in our careers, we no longer have to base our confidence in ourselves. Instead, we can trust that our Father in heaven, who loves us with the same love with which he loves  Christ, knows our needs. He knows the future, he loves us and will provide what’s best for us, whether that’s singleness or marriage, unemployment or a job. Do you see how this logic is inevitably tied back to salvation? It’s common advice in these things to hear people say “Trust God, he has a plan for you” but how can we be sure? How can we find real peace in these things? The power and confidence we have in God’s provision for us in dating and career comes from beholding his provision for us in Christ. As Paul says, “he who did not spare his Son, but gave him up for us all, how will he not also give us all things?”

Praise the Lord. Because of the breathtaking love God has shown us in the Gospel to save us and become our Father, we can find real rest from our anxiety. We can trust in Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:31-33: “Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink’ or ‘What shall we wear’  you could insert ‘Who shall we marry’ or ‘What career should I choose’]? For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you”. We can live in Paul’s exhortation in Philippians 4:6-7 : “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requsts be made known to God. And the peace of God which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus”

Now, of course, this doesn’t mean we should stop refining our character so we can be the best husband or wife we can be. It doesn’t mean that we should stop taking the necessary steps to have a successful career. What it does mean is that we ought to live by the words of 1 John 4:18-19: “there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to with punishment and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because he first loved us”. We are free from the paralyzing fear that we’re on our own and that unless we measure up, we’ll fail.  When we’re saved it doesn’t stop us from doing good works, but we no longer do them because we’re terrified we’re going to go to hell. We do them because we love God and want to honor him. In the same way, we still prepare ourselves for marriage and for our careers, but the perfect love of Christ frees us from the fear of failure. We can pursue our relationships and our careers trusting that whatever comes, comes from a Heavenly Father who knows what is best for us.

I think if you uncovered many of our beliefs about dating and career, the first thing you would find is idolatry. For all intensive purposes, these things are our functional salvation. The second thing you would find is a self-destructive self-righteousness.  The freedom of the Gospel tells us this: First, your salvation is not here, it’s in Christ. But second, God knows our hearts and knows how we long for a godly spouse and a career in which we can honor God. The good news of the Gospel tells us this: you no longer have to fend for yourself. You are cared for, loved, and provided for.

Despite our good theology and Biblical literacy, I think if you wanted to know how we as collegians are really doing you’d take a look at how we view dating and carer. After all, that’s where the rubber of our faith meets the road. Do we still live like we’re fending ourselves? Like we have to earn our future spouses or our jobs with our works? Or do we trust in the Gospel that says that because we have been justified and adopted, we have absolute confidence that our Gracious Heavenly Father will provide everything we need to be like our Savior?

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths” (Proverbs 3:5-6)

Coram Deo: Reflections from a Birthday Boy

I don’t know if it’s like this for everyone, but I’ve noticed that my birthday exposes a lot of how I idolize my human relationships. In our culture at least, your birthday is an entire day dedicated to celebrating you. On your birthday, you receive a flood of texts and an even bigger avalanche of Facebook comments from your friends (and a bunch of other random people). Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you’ll get some free food or a birthday party. Your birthday is the day where your friends pat you on the back and tell you that they’re thankful for you and appreciate all the things you do for others. My heart eagerly eats all of this up. “Finally,” it says, “some acknowledgment so I know all those times I served and sacrificed in the background weren’t in vain. Finally, some security to know that I really am cared for and some affirmation to know that I am good enough.”

What my birthday reveals about me, I think, is that deep longing that runs through all of our hearts, a desire to be seenunderstood, and appreciated by those we value most. In this case, I value the approval of my friends and the people I want to impress. My birthday brings me joy because the people I care about most give evidence, through a message, or a letter, or a gift, that they see, understand, and appreciate me.

Of course, the kind of appreciation we receive on our birthday is always short lived. It’s true our friends sincerely appreciate and love us, but, no matter how caring and thoughtful they are, they can’t always tell us or express that concretely to us everyday. And thus, if we have this mindset of always looking for and needing direct affirmation for what we do, the other 364 days of the year will inevitably be a painful cycle of insecurity and lack of purpose. Which brings me to my question today: How can we find joy and fight off loneliness when so often the work we do and the struggles we experience go unseen? And what should we do in those all-to-common moments when the limitations of our human relationships leave us feeling unappreciated, insecure, and inadequate?

In short, here’s my answer: a true understanding of the love of God frees us from always needing to have the approval of others in order to be happy. In those moments when we feel unseen, misunderstood, and unappreciated by others, we can find true and lasting comfort in the fact that God sees, God understands, and God loves and because of Christ, he always will. And even if everyone in the world forsakes us, we can cheerfully press on through life because God matters most and He is enough for us. Joy, then, is found through learning to daily live Coram Deo, “before the face of God”and to ground our identity and worth in the fact that God loves us and, because of Christ, his love will never change.

Now, that’s the short version. But for you brave folks, who are willing and able to bear with my long-windedness, let me try and flesh this out. Throughout the years, Matthew 6 has been helpful in teaching me how to lay aside my idolatrous need for the approval of others, and to find joy in doing things in secret for God.

“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their rewardBut when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you…

And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by othersTruly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

(Matthew 6:1-21 ESV)

If you followed along with the italicized and bolded phrases, you probably noticed how Jesus repeatedly contrasts the reward of being seen by others in public with the reward of being seen by God in private. Three times Jesus reiterates that those who give, pray, and fast “to be seen by others” already “have received their reward”. Those, in contrast, who practice righteousness for their “Father who is in secret” are rewarded by the “Father who sees in secret” Now, I think something profound is going on here. Jesus here is going beyond a simple command here to live for the approval of God and to stop living for the approval of man. Jesus’ contrast shows not only what the command is but also the wisdom of why the command is given. Jesus wants to show us that living for God is not only the right thing to do, but also that the reward for living for the secret approval of God is infinitely better than the public praise of men.

I’ve found it helpful to think of it this way. To live your life for the approval of people–to make that the foundation of your self-worth and identity–is to enslave yourself to a merit-based salvation, a kind of justification by works.  That may sound extreme, but that’s exactly what our idolatry does: it exchanges joy in God’s salvation for joy in something else. What’s more is that to live for the approval of people is to enslave yourself to a salvation which can never give you the thing that you’re looking for. Our longings to be seen, understood, and appreciated can never be fulfilled completely or securely in our human relationships. We are all finite beings. Our loved ones cannot witness every sacrifice you make or observe every struggle you deal with. They cannot perfectly understand our motivations, our flaws, and our deepest hurts. And, because of their sin and ours, they cannot fully appreciate us in the way we long to be appreciated. Instead, our relationships will, at times, have conflicts, misunderstandings, and fluctuate with the ups and downs of our circumstances. These limitations mean that our human relationships are never fully secure. We can never have full confidence that we are loved. In fact, most of the time, even in our close relationships, we feel the exact opposite.  We wonder if we are valued. We wonder if our cherished relationships will survive or will fade in time. We wonder if we are good enough: if we measure up socially, spiritually, and in our competencies. We wonder if anyone sees the good things we do or sympathizes with the struggles we face, and what’s the point of it all if they don’t.

What does it look like to live for the praise of man? Endless labor to secure approval and endless struggle because that approval is impossible to secure. We feel the frailty of our relationships, and so we seek, by our own efforts, to make sure that our good deeds are seen. We try through our own self-glorification to ensure that we are understood, and through our own worthiness that we are appreciated. What is the reward for all our efforts? Fleeting joy, like the facebook messages and texts you receive on your birthday, that last for a moment. But the very next day you have to fight again to make sure you are worthy to be seen, understood, and appreciated. Justification by works  is a cruel master. It drives us to labor endlessly, but never provides us with the rest and security that we seek.

In contrast,  to live for God’s approval through the Gospel is to experience the freedom of salvation by grace, justification apart from our own efforts. God alone can give us what we truly long for—to be seen, understood, and appreciated, and he can do so in a way that’s eternally secure. Our relationship with him suffers none of the limitations of our human relationships. We long to be seen and understood; God sees everything we do both in public and in private. He sees beyond our actions to understand the intentions of our hearts, even better than we can do ourselves. Now, apart from the Gospel, this would be terrifying. In his omniscience, God would certainly see and understand us, but in his holiness, how could he possibly love us? He sees through the hypocrisy of every act of public righteousness and witnesses all of our private failures. He sees us how we really are in our heart of hearts: woeful sinners. However, by his grace, God not only gives us the one relationship we need most, he makes it indestructibly and unshakably secure by paying the ultimate price. In the Gospel, God sends his very own Son to give himself up for us, so that we might be made righteous in his eyes. He justifies us with the blood of Christ, so that He might see and understand our wretched sinfulness, but still love us with the very same love with which he loves his Son. And, he takes it a step further by adopting us and making us his children. He is now our Father who is eternally committed to loving us.

What is the reward of living for the private approval of God? It is to have the deepest desire of ours heart to be seen, understood, and loved fulfilled and it is to have it fulfilled securely—the love we need, we forever have in Christ. It will never change or fail. We need not fear that he will see something in us that will make him change his mind. The Gospel says that God has seen us at our lowest, while we were yet sinners, and saved us anyway. As the popular phrase goes: “though we are more sinful than we could have ever imagined, we are more loved than we could have ever dared hope.” This love is more than an abstract theological idea. It extends to meet our needs in the nitty-gritty messy details of everyday life. Remember the question we set out to answer? How can we find joy and fight off loneliness when so often the work we do and the struggles we experience go unseen? And what should we do in those all-to-common moments when the limitations of our human relationships leave us feeling unappreciated, insecure, and inadequate? If we live for the approval of God—if that is the foundation of our self-worth and identity, we can find comfort and lasting joy. Our acts of righteousness might go unnoticed by others, but our efforts to please him will never be wasted. As Jesus said, our Father who is in secret sees in secret and rewards the private obedience that nobody else knows about. We need not feel any insecurity either. Unlike our human relationships, we don’t have to measure up. We don’t have to earn God’s approval by the righteous things we do. Because of Christ, we can be absolutely confident that our Father appreciates our devotion to him and will guide and discipline us until we become like Christ.

Living for the approval man is a life of slavery and leads ultimately to empty religion and personal hypocrisy. But what freedom there is in living Coram Deo! In living before the face of God instead of for the praise of men! We are free to love others, not as an end to our loneliness, but out of the overflow of the love that has been given to us. We are free to be humble and to have our good deeds go unseen by men, for we know our Father sees. We can even be misunderstood, hated, and persecuted for our faith. In short, we can cherish our human relationships without depending on them, and, if need be, we can let them go because we already have the most important one.

It’s not my birthday anymore, and it won’t be for a long time, but praise the Lord, that everyday I am upheld by the greatest gift of all. Thanks to Christ I know that God sees, He understands, and, despite all of my weaknesses and failures, He loves me.

For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ. (Galatians 1:10 ESV)

In case anyone was interested, this post is a long overdue (3 years overdue, to be exact) follow-up to a post I wrote called An End to Loneliness.