I’m back in school now. And now that I’m back in school, I’ve found that two of my more destructive tendencies have come to the fore again. First, I constantly seek to prove to myself that I’m better than others, and I take pride in myself when I think I’ve succeeded. Second, I worry constantly that I’m not as great as I think I am. These are two sides of the same coin. When your sense of self-worth comes from your perceived superiority to others, you will feel insecure. Because at some point, someone will be better than you.
I have been learning how to fight these tendencies for my entire life. As early as elementary school, I evaluated myself on the basis of my abilities relative to my peers. And whenever I felt that I came up short, I felt awful about myself. Even if it was something I didn’t particularly care about. In third grade, we had to draw a map of the world from memory. One of my classmates, Zhong, did a great job (although he did forget to draw Australia). I can’t remember how mine turned out, but I do remember being upset with myself to the point of crying because his was so much better. Why was I so bothered? Drawing wasn’t even “my thing.”
Over time, my expectations of myself became somewhat more reasonable. I didn’t have to be the best at everything, just my things, i.e. academics. I didn’t need to be the most talented when it came to art or athletics, but I did need to get the best grades. And, for the most part, I could. And I did. And because I did, I’ve been able to preserve this unhealthy way of thinking about myself and my worth. I have “proven” to myself that I can rely on my abilities and achievements to give me value.
But I know that I can’t rely on my abilities and achievements to give me value. I know that’s not where value fundamentally comes from. And I know this because I don’t value other people in my life solely for their abilities and achievements; I value them because of who they are.
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about what Paul wrote in Philippians 3:
2Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. 3For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of Godb and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh— 4though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law,c blameless. 7But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.8Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— 10that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
The word translated “rubbish” in the ESV is σκύβαλον, which basically means animal excrement. The connotation is of utter worthlessness, and even of disgust. Paul looks at his fleshly advantages and assigns them the same value as excrement in comparison to the value of knowing God.
I am a Christian, and I know that God has adopted me as his son, making me an heir to his eternal kingdom. In comparison to that, what are my grades? What is this degree I’m getting? It’s all “rubbish.”
But I have this constant worry that I won’t get the grades I want, or that my degree won’t be conferred with the kind of honors that I hope for, or that I won’t get a sufficiently prestigious job. I tear myself apart over things which are ultimately trivial, because I have convinced myself that they are important. Or perhaps I have managed to convince myself that I can trust myself more than I can trust God. Either way, I have made myself into a fool by putting my confidence in the flesh.
I pray, as I have for years, that God will give me the ability to trust in him instead of in myself, that he will take away my pride. I don’t want to put my confidence in the flesh. It’s exhausting and miserable. I feel as if I’m constantly in this precarious position where my entire sense of self depends on how I do on the next assignment I turn in. And I don’t want to feel like that. As I always have, I need to be delivered from my own pride.