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The Folly of Self-belief

This week, Pastor John hands over the TAGD keyboard to Pastor Brent Whitefield, Northpoint’s Pastor of Missions and Outreach.

The Folly of Self-belief

Hello Family,

It is the message of nearly every Disney movie, the mantra of motivational speakers and self-help gurus, and it is what passes for communal wisdom in a community that has rejected divine sources of wisdom. No doubt you have heard it in popular culture, from the lips of your children’s teachers and coaches, and perhaps you have even caught yourself repeating it: Be yourself and believe in yourself. The idea is heart-warming and inspirational, and we can find ourselves nodding along in agreement. We instinctively root for the movie hero to draw on their own self-belief to achieve their desired goal. Being yourself and believing in yourself are such articles of faith in our world today that even when they clearly don’t deliver the results we want, we move the goalposts. We are deeply committed to rewarding self-belief and self-actualization; this is why every kid gets a trophy.

The trouble is that there are probably few ideas more contrary to the teachings of the Christian faith, and none in our day more destructive. Authenticity has been raised to the level of a cardinal virtue. People who are true to their character, however poor that character may be, people who speak their minds, heedless to the destructiveness or insipidity of their words are commended for being true to themselves, authentic. The Bible describes such a person as a fool. For Christians, wisdom is not found in conforming to their original natures but rather in being transformed by the renewing of their minds and conforming more and more to the example of Christ. The Christian is a new creature, old things have passed away and the new has come. Through regeneration or new birth, a one-time transaction, and through sanctification, an ongoing process, we are no longer what we once were. We are radically and irreversibly changed. This is a work of God, not actualized or assisted by belief in ourselves, but only possible by faith in God.

The idea that it is important to believe in yourself is so destructive precisely because we are such poor objects of faith. Deep down, if we are honest, we know this to be true. Imagine I were to enter the cockpit of a Boeing 747 and profess that I have faith in myself to get the plane off the ground and convey the passengers safely to a distant destination. Would that faith be well placed? No, I possess neither the skill nor the training to make that plane move one inch. All the faith in myself that I could muster wouldn’t change that fact. However, were I to tell an experienced pilot: “I have faith in you to get us to our destination,” that faith would likely be rewarded. It is not the intensity of faith that is important, but the object of faith.

Belief in myself may be of some value: I can trust myself to tie my own shoes, make my own breakfast, or compose this essay—in other words, I can believe in myself in those facets of life that require little or no faith. But in all those important areas where faith, which is the assurance of things hoped for and conviction of things unseen, is necessary, I recognize that faith in myself is worthless. I freely admit that I am powerless to change my basic character, unable to keep the commandments of God unfailingly, much less to do anything to determine my future and eternal destiny.

The heart of the Christian message is this: If you have experienced the fruit of just being yourself and have seen the limitations of what you can achieve by believing in yourself, you may be bitter and racked with guilt. Don’t be disheartened—there is hope. Having recognized that you cannot save yourself, will you now place your faith in the only one who can help? Having relied on your own work and fallen short, will you now rely on the work of Christ on your behalf? Only by doing this will you find the inexpressible joy, eternal peace, and secure rest that this world cannot offer and that you can never give yourself.

Pastor Brent Whitefield