Reflections on spiritual themes (and a few other things).

Month: June 2022

Why Believing in Yourself Is a Bad Idea

The Gospel of John records a long conversation between Jesus and his apostles on the night he was betrayed. The content of John chapters 14-17 began in the upper room where they celebrated the Last Supper and continued all the way to the Garden of Gethsemane. It was a hard conversation about how they should prepare for his death and departure. 

The conversation began with this admonition: “Do not let your heart be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me” (John 14.1). He said that no matter what happened, trust God. 

If Jesus had said this in the 21st century, and if he were a motivational speaker, or successful blogger, or life coach, or talk show host, he might have said something like this:

  • “Let not your heart be troubled, believe in yourself.”
  • “Let not your heart be troubled, because you’re a winner.”
  • “Let not your heart be troubled, you’ve got this!”
  • “Let not your heart be troubled, look within for the answers.”
  • “Let not your heart be troubled, you’re awesome!”

But then, Jesus wasn’t a life coach, he was God’s Only Begotten Son. He wasn’t interested in their self-esteem, but their spiritual transformation. 

The Bible never says to believe in ourselves. In fact, it assumes we already have a certain degree of self-love programmed into us by our Creator. When Jesus said to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 19.19), he was saying that we should love our neighbors in the same way and to the same degree as we do ourselves. He wasn’t promoting self-love, he was assuming it.

The apostle Paul said, “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others” (Philippians 2.3-4). In other words, loving others demands that we love them as much as we love ourselves.

The apostle Paul also warned too much self-love. He said, “For through the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think; but to think so as to have sound judgment” (Romans 12.3). Too much self-love causes too much ego.

This isn’t to say that self-esteem and self-respect and self-love are unimportant. What it does say is that what we think of Christ is far more important than what we think of ourselves. 

So, when you’re struggling and troubled and hurting, what do you do? You do what Jesus said: “Do not let your heart be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me” (John 14.1).

Doubting Teresa

She was known popularly as Mother Teresa. She died in 1997 at the age of 87. She spent 50 of those years in the streets of Calcutta, India, working among its poorest and sickest residents. 

After she died it was learned that she struggled for much of her adult life with nagging doubts about her faith and God. Whatever you think of her, I suspect the “Saint of the Gutters” has more sympathizers than detractors. Any Christian who’s struggled with doubt can sympathize. 

The most faithful of men and women struggle at times with doubt, or at least with what we know is God’s will for us.

  • Job declared, “Though He slay me, I will hope in Him” (Job 13.15). 
  • At times, Moses preferred death to leading the Israelites (Exodus 17.4; 32.32; 33.15). 
  • Jeremiah accused God of deception and coercion: “O Lord, You have deceived me and I was deceived; You have overcome me and prevailed” (Jeremiah 20.7). 
  • In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus confessed, “My soul is deeply grieved, to the point of death… If it is possible, let this cup pass from me” (Matthew 26.38-39). 

Faith, struggle, and doubt often exist side-by-side. It’s not that faith is swallowed up by doubt, but that doubt is kept at bay by faith. Doubt forms as we try to reconcile the contradictions and conundrums of life. Faith is how we sort through these issues to find answers. 

I want to suggest two solutions. First, Teresa of Calcutta, despite her doubts, kept working. Paul said that what matters is, “faith working through love” (Galatians 5.6). He said, “do not lose heart in doing good” (6.9). Keep working.

Second, in one letter Teresa noted that, “I accept not in my feelings — but with my will, the Will of God — I accept His will.” That’s a crucial distinction. Doubt is sometimes fostered when we put feelings above facts. Frankly, there may be times when we don’t “feel like” being Christians, yet we keep doing what’s right. John said, “We will know by this that we are of the truth, and will assure our heart before Him in whatever our heart condemns us; for God is greater than our heart and knows all things” (1 John 3.19-20). Keep seeking God’s will.

Doubt is sometimes a necessary if unwelcome companion to faith. But the apostle Paul’s insight can help us keep doubt in its place: “But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves; we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. For we who live are constantly being delivered over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death works in us, but life in you” (2 Corinthians 4.7-12).


“Envy is the art of counting the other fellow’s blessings instead of your own.” (Harold Coffin)

I think the primary problem with envy is a loss of perspective. We often think the “good life” is the one we don’t have; the life that someone else has. 

A good illustration of this comes from Proverbs 23.1-3: “When you sit down to dine with a ruler, consider carefully what is before you, and put a knife to your throat If you are a man of great appetite. Do not desire his delicacies, for it is deceptive food.”

Who wouldn’t want to be invited to a king’s banquet? Who wouldn’t want the best food prepared by the best chefs served in the best setting? What could possibly be wrong? Solomon’s point is that if something looks too good to be true, be cautious. 

Almost all of Proverbs 23 is a warning against envy in some form or another. Solomon tells us to be cautious about wanting what others have. In fact, he tells us that even if the grass is greener in your neighbor’s yard, it may also be poisonous.

As you step through the chapter, there’s a warning against envying the wealth and status of a ruler (v 1-3); a warning against desiring wealth (v 4-5); a warning against being friendly with a miser (v 6-8); a warning against friendship with sinners (v 15-19); a warning against desiring a prostitute (v 26-28); a warning against seeking solace in alcohol (v 29-35). The implicit message is that these seeming avenues of bliss are really cul-de-sacs of misery.

What’s the solution to envy? The answer is the exact center point of the chapter: “Do not let your heart envy sinners but live in the fear of the LORD always” (verse 17). 

The fear of the Lord brings happiness and fulfillment because it brings perspective and discernment. It keeps us from desiring things that are harmful or meaningless. It helps us discern between what’s worth pursuing and what’s worthless. It helps us see on the one hand what we should worry about, and on the other hand, what’s pointless. 

If you struggle with jealousy and envy, there’s a solution. Rather than looking across the fence, look up. Rather than thinking about your neighbor’s possessions, think about God’s provisions. Rather than wanting to be like others, learn to be more like God.

Overcoming Evil

I’ve been thinking a lot about the recent school shooting in Uvalde, Texas. It’s hard to wrap my head around the notion of a teenager choosing to end the lives of 19 children and 2 adults. It’s hard to grasp that degree of indifference, hatred, and animosity toward one’s fellow humans. 

How we deal with the evil around us says a lot about us. For some, it’s why they no longer believe in God. For others, it’s why they doubt the power of God or the goodness of God. And they question the intellect or goodness of anyone who would believe in such a God. 

The Bible doesn’t shy away from the problem of evil, in whatever form it may occur. Job wondered why he was suffering, even though he knew he wasn’t guilty of blatant transgression. The psalmist wondered why his wicked neighbors prospered (Psalm 73). Solomon saw injustice on top of injustice under the sun (Ecclesiastes 4.1-3). It’s not a new problem. 

How do we deal with evil when we encounter it? I want to look at a three-part answer given to us by the apostle Paul in Romans 12. He doesn’t (nor will I) address the philosophical or theological dimensions of evil. He simply gives three practical admonitions to help us cope with evil on a daily basis.

First, he says, “Abhor what is evil” (v. 9). It’s hard to condemn the evil in others if our own attitude is suspect. We can’t afford to wink at evil or make subtle distinctions between our sins and the sins of others. Good is the atmosphere in which we thrive. We must surround ourselves with others who love what’s right, who do what’s right, and who encourage others to do what’s right. That’s why fellowship other Christians is so vital in our daily walk. You can’t avoid evil, but you can learn to think properly about it.

Second, he says, “Never pay back evil for evil to anyone” (v. 17). That’s simple enough. If someone provokes you, don’t respond in kind. If someone curses you, bless them. If someone angers you, let it go. I don’t believe he’s addressing the issue of self-defense or defending the innocent who are targets of evil attacks. I believe he’s addressing kind of things we face every day at work, or at the store, or in the neighborhood, or at a restaurant. We can’t avoid evil in these circumstances, but we can learn to exercise self-control in the way we respond. As Paul says two verses later, “Leave room for the wrath of God” (v. 19b).

Finally, he says, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (v. 21). It’s easy to be discouraged. It’s easy to throw up our hands in despair and ask, “What’s the use?” It’s easy to think that God doesn’t care. Evil will ultimately be defeated by God. He’s greater than Satan, greater than evil, and greater than sin. The victory was won at the cross by Jesus. He simply asks us to wage our own war here in this life.

Today and every day, choose good.