Humility, repentance and self-esteem

“You are descended from the Lord Adam and the Lady Eve, which is honour enough to lift the head of the humblest beggar and shame enough to bow the shoulders of the greatest Emperor”.

Well, something like that anyway. A rough quotation-from-memory from one of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia Chronicles (Prince Caspian it turns out).

My question for today is, is it possible to have high self-esteem at the same time as a humble and repentant attitude?

For those of us who are tentatively moving out of a more rigid, fearful type of faith into a more open and free one, this can be quite a dilemma. From where we’ve come from, we still have a sense that we ought always to be feeling guilty and bad about ourselves. We feel that we should see ourselves as wretched, worthless worms snatched from hell by sheer mercy alone, and that humility and repentance must mean self-abasement before God.

Of course, there is some partial truth in all this. We are all sinners saved by grace. We read the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector and see that it was the one who beat his breast and said ‘Have mercy on me, a sinner’ who went home justified with God, rather than the respectable citizen who was confident in his own righteousness. There is always a place for humility.

Highly loved (if occasionally irritating)

But on the other hand, God doesn’t call us miserable worms. He calls us holy saints, beloved children, friends; precious people made in his image, for whom Christ lived and died. He’s not asking us to go around hanging our heads in shame all the time, intoning ‘Mea culpa’. We can have total self-worth, based on the fact that he loves and prizes us highly, delights in us as a dad delights in his kids (which doesn’t mean they don’t still irritate the heck out of him at times).

All this doesn’t preclude humility but rightly understood inspires it. That the Almighty Creator of the vast universe of endless nebulae and galaxies cares that much about me is a fairly humbling thought.

It also doesn’t mean that we’re perfect or never need to repent – just that we’re acceptable, and accepted.

True humility then, I’d suggest, is knowing our right place before God. We’re not God; the universe doesn’t revolve around us, and doesn’t even massively require us – in fact, it seemed to get on fairly well for several billion years before we ever graced the scene. Though I’d like to think that it’s a little better off for having me on board now. 😉

The shadow side

The other thing of course is that we all have what I believe psychologists refer to as our ‘shadow side’. Basically that’s all the thoughts, attitudes and emotions which we feel are so unacceptable that we do our best to hide them even from ourselves. Hence we often fall into the ironic self-bluffing game of playing ‘Good Christians’, where we do and say all the right things, including abasing ourselves regularly before God as terrible sinners, while actually being completely blind to most of the really obvious mess in our lives.

Meanwhile God’s calling for radical honesty and authenticity – ‘truth in the inmost parts’. Maybe that’s what repentance is – being prepared to offer God every part of ourselves, including our deeply unacceptable thoughts and feelings, rather than trying to hide behind being a ‘good Christian’. (I’m not sure he’s that interested in ‘good Christians’ – didn’t he say something about having come come to call the sick, not the healthy?). Only when we relate to God in this way can he start to transform our whole person into his full likeness.

Shitty but wonderful

The truth then is that we are shitty but we’re also wonderful – and loved. Perhaps humility and repentance don’t so much mean saying ‘sorry I’m rubbish’ but something more along the lines of ‘thank you Lord that I’m totally acceptable to you as I am; now keep making me more like you’.


(*Sorry, that’s the result of the two weeks in Kenya – you have to have an ‘Amen’ in there somewhere.).

About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
This entry was posted in Mental health, Psychology, The faith journey and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Humility, repentance and self-esteem

  1. David Holland says:

    You make me chuckle and Amen.

    I had a friend who worked in mental hospitals when I was younger and she told me how much guilt played a part of the lives of her clientele.

    That is why Romans 7:24-25 is so personally powerful for me. I can literally feel the guilt flow out of me – At one moment I am wretched and in the very next moment I am free and accepted, it is like stepping through the gate into the Emerald City, black and white to color 😉
    Another one of my favorite verses is Psalm 19:9 and in particular the translation that the fear of the Lord is “clean”. It is enlightening to realize/remember that there is a difference between clean fear and craven fear. Humility is healthy, self condemnation is not (one could even argue that self condemnation is usurping God’s role as judge). So yes, amen and amen.


    • harveyedser says:

      Thanks David! Interesting distinction between healthy humility/fear and self-condemnation. So many people believe that Christianity is about feeling guilty for sin, which is such a travesty. But it’s one that the church sadly often perpetuates!


  2. Jenny Rayner says:

    Hi Harvey. Yes, Amen. Once again you immediately make me feel “I could have written that!” (Except perhaps the “Shitty” word, but that’s a generational thing!) Don’t know whether you ever read, or watched “Anne of Green Gables”, but I feel that I’ve found a “kindred spirit”.

    One of the good things about the doctrine of election, however else you view it, is that it proves our value to God, as being “chosen in Him”, which is a far greater honour than being descended from Adam and Eve. I am amazed that God should so value me that He has chosen me to be an ambassador for Christ and has entrusted me with the message of reconciliation. (2Cor 5:19-20.)

    I think you would enjoy “The Discipline of Grace” by Jerry Bridges (NAVPRESS, ISBN 0-89109-883-6) if you have not already read it. There is a good chapter on the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, and the key message of the book is “Your worst days are never so bad that you are beyond the reach of God’s grace, and your best days are never so good that you are beyond the need of God’s grace.”


    • harveyedser says:

      Sorry Jenny – I was deliberately being a little controversial with the word ‘sh*tty’. It’s always a tricky balance to strike between using strong language to make a point and being offensive!

      Yes, I have read and watched Anne of Green Gables (and enjoyed it, though I don’t normally admit that in male company!). That’s what comes of being partly brought up by two elder sisters…

      I’ve not quite worked out what I think about election, but I agree that being chosen by God is breathtaking. Being bearers of his image is also pretty wonderful, which I guess is where the Adam and Eve bit comes in.

      I’ve not read ‘The Discipline of Grace’ so will add it to my burgeoning book list! That’s a good quote about your worst and best days.


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