A Lenten Selfie

As I Was Saying

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Traveling abroad a few months ago, I noticed lots of people using selfie sticks. A selfie stick is a portable light-weight rod to which you attach your cell phone. When you take a picture of something—a waterfall, a palace, or some other great tourist attraction—you are always in the picture. It’s all about you.

In his wonderful book The Road to Character, David Brooks talks about this being a selfie age. It’s the age in which our children are told from the earliest age how great they are, how much they have accomplished. The biggest fear is that they may lack self-esteem.
Well, it worked.

The Gallup organization has for a long time been polling people’s attitudes toward themselves. Back in 1950, 12 percent of high school kids would describe themselves as  “a very important person.” In 2005, it was a whopping 80 percent.

How can that be? Back in 1950, if a high school kid thought of herself as a very important person, the reaction of her parents and teachers might have been, “Who do you think you are?” But today, parents and teachers are trying to instill precisely the notion that each kid is very important.

On the one hand, every person is important in the sense that they have inherent worth as an imagebearer of God. No one is expendable; no one is worthless. On the other hand, in the larger scheme of things, 80 percent of high school kids are not very important people. They are not extraordinary or highly competent or special. They’re just high school kids.

So what’s wrong with that approach? Isn’t it good for us to have a healthy self-esteem? Well, no, it’s not good, for a number of reasons, the most important of which is that it instills pride, which is the chief human vice, instead of humility, a prized virtue.

Humility isn’t putting oneself down or groveling in the muck of self-loathing. Humility is the sane virtue of understanding that you aren’t the best or the brightest. It’s realizing that you have a lot to learn from others, and you have a long way to go in becoming a full human being.

In his book, Brooks tells lots of stories about great leaders in various fields. One of the striking features of these people is their humility. Very few of them thought of themselves in terms of greatness. Most were deeply aware of their flaws, the the gaps in their knowledge or skills, and the gratitude they owed to others who had helped them on their way.

In Lent we remember that humility is also a prized Christian virtue. We begin by getting some ashes smeared to our forehead, and being told we are dust. In this season we especially focus on our inadequacy, our sinfulness, our failures. We confess that

we have sinned against you
in thought, word, and deed, 
by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. 

That’s our Lenten selfie. It’s not groveling, it’s the simple truth, and without internalizing that truth we distort ourselves. Lent is like standing in front of a full-length mirror under a bright light, revealing all our flaws and flab, our wrinkles and bruises. 

As for self-esteem, “Whoever glories, let them glory in the Lord” (2 Cor. 10:17). We have one basis for our self-esteem: we have been loved and redeemed by Jesus Christ, and as we humbly submit to him, he is making us into the the glorious people God intended us to be. The only selfie that counts is one with him in the picture.

About the Author

Len Vander Zee is a retired CRC pastor now serving as interim minister of preaching at Church of the Servant CRC in Grand Rapids, Mich.

See comments (2)


Interesting article, but I’m left with as much confusion as clarity.  It think your overall emphasis is that there is (in Western society) a loss of humility and a new emphasis on self-esteem. And this new emphasis is basically detrimental.  And to you, the Christian emphasis should be on humility, not self-esteem.  But I think you are using terms that can have more than one emphasis. For instance, the dictionary in my computer has two definitions for self-esteem.  1. a realistic respect for or favorable impression of oneself; self-respect.  and 2. an inordinately or exaggeratedly favorable impression of oneself.  I would think that society and educators are striving for that first definition of self-esteem in young people, a realistic respect for oneself or self respect rather than an exaggerated favorable impression of oneself.  And seeing as we are created in God’s image, that seems good.  Does such self respect cancel out humility.  Did Jesus’ humility remove his self respect?  Can not people (and Christians) be humble in this Lenten season while at the same time have self respect?

I may be wrong, but it seems to me that when you advocate for humility in this season of Lent (or any season), you are calling for a “self loathing” or an intentional demeaning of oneself.  By the remembering of our sins and fallen character we should see ourselves as God does, depraved sinners worthy only of eternal damnation.  Under the Kennedy approach to evangelism that our churches used back in the 70's, the first question a person was asked, “If you were to die tonight and stand before God and he should ask, Why should I let you into my heaven, what would you say?  And of course the only realistic and hopeful answer was, “I am a fallen sinner, unworthy of your love and entrance into heaven, O Lord.”  But does that mean we should go through life with a sense of self loathing and disrespect for oneself?  I doubt it.  But of course, you realize that such a self loathing, has been a Christian perspective within Christianity (including Reformed) world and life views in the past, and should be in the present if I read you right.

You ask how the shift is possible (revealed by Gallup) that in 55 years young people can go from seeing themselves as unimportant to being very important.  It seems obvious that such an upgraded perspective has come as a result (in part) because of the waning influence of Christianity on Western society.  In the 1950's Christianity still had a widespread influence on Western society.  But increasingly this influence is diminishing.  Even within our churches, approaches to evangelism that emphasize the sinfulness and depravity of individuals, has lost favor.  If it is losing favor in the church then certainly more so in our culture.

Teenagers with healthy self-esteem and toursists with selfie sticks are not the problem. When it comes to fostering arrogance, the log is in your own eye, CRC. Here's how your members view their place in the world:

⦁ Our beliefs are beyond question and opinions coming from outside our belief system are irrelevant. 

⦁ We know what the creator of the universe thinks. What's more, we can talk to him, and he cares about our every move. 

⦁ It is best to be educated in our own private schools and colleges where you won't be tainted by conflicting viewpoints.

⦁ Our mission is to "transform" outsiders to think like us.

⦁ It was wrong that we stripped Native Americans of the their culture, language and family ties to make them more like ourselves. We should, however, still work to replace other religions with ours.

⦁ Many of us know God doesn't want women in church office or gays as members.

⦁ We know more about the natural history of the earth, life and humanity than scientists.

⦁ The rest of the world is full of evil and temptation that we should ignore and resist.

⦁ We have a covenant with God wherein people like us will spend an eternity in righteous bliss, but those who don't conform will know perpetual agony.

No wonder members feel that, deep down, they're above others (though they would never admit it). Their perfect book and doctrine trump modern circumstances as well as the fallen reasoning and emotions of the human mind. People with other beliefs are deluded, condemned and a danger to the world.

I don't think it's a coincidence that Reformed churches have produced more than their share of individuals of exceptional economic, political and military hubris. Or that the political parties favored overwhelmingly by Reformed church members are known for stigmatizing foreigners, disenfranchising minorities, promoting American interests with force abroad and stepping on the poor. These attitudes are born from an arrogant sense of superiority fostered by know-it-all churches like the CRC.