If we find that we struggle with a low self-image, we need to look carefully at it, because it may not be low at all. It may in fact be a frustrated inflated self-image.
Paul wrote this in Romans 12:3:
For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.
What our world often calls low self-image, I think Paul would say is just another way of thinking too highly of ourselves.
Holy and Unholy Ways of Thinking Highly of Yourself
There’s a holy and humble way to think highly of yourself. If you are a Christian, you are a saint who is part of “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for [God’s] own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9). You are a new creation in Christ and no longer that old condemned person (2 Corinthians 5:17). God intends for this to be part of your self-image.
But there’s an unholy, prideful way to think highly of yourself — being selfishly ambitious and counting yourself more significant than others (Philippians 2:3). This should not be part of your self-image as a Christian, and if it is, it usually results in “quarreling, jealousy, anger, hostility, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder” (2 Corinthians 12:20). This is probably the high thinking Paul had in mind in Romans 12:3.
Holy and Unholy Ways of Thinking Low of Yourself
Likewise, there are holy and unholy ways of thinking low of yourself.
If you see yourself as having once been the foremost of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15), only being what you now are by the grace of God (1 Corinthians 15:10), you look for the low seat at the banquet (Luke 14:10) because you consider others more important than yourself (Philippians 2:3), and the cry of your heart is “[Jesus] must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). This is holy lowliness.
But if you suffer from a chronic sense of failure, underachievement, and shame because compared to others you just are not smart enough, attractive enough, competent enough, gifted enough, organized enough, educated enough, successful enough, rich enough, or prominent enough, that is almost always an unholy lowliness.
And this sort of low self-image also tends to result in “quarreling, jealousy, anger, hostility, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder” (2 Corinthians 12:20). Because, in truth, we are thinking quite highly of ourselves indeed, and are sad, ashamed, and frustrated that we can’t garner the admiration of others we desire. And we are ripe to tear down those we see above us.
Fighting Unholy Lowliness
We all battle this at times. It is a temptation common to man (1 Corinthians 10:13). And Paul helps us fight this inverted form of thinking too highly of ourselves in Romans 12.
He reminds us that “as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another” (Romans 12:4–5). We are meant to be different because we have different functions. This undermines envy and encourages our sense of stewardship.
And Paul tells us these different functions come to us as grace-gifts from God: “Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them” (Romans 12:6). What we have, we have received from God, and he wants us to be content with what we have (Hebrews 13:5). And we are to use what we have received “according to the measure of faith that God has assigned” (Romans 12:3). The gifts come from God and the faith to use them comes from God. In fact, we “cannot receive even one thing unless it is given [us] from heaven” (John 3:27). This undermines covetousness and encourages our faith in God.
Unholy lowliness comes from comparing ourselves with one another in the spirit of the disciples who competed over “which of them was to be regarded as the greatest” (Luke 22:24). No doubt some felt clearly superior, while others felt envy due to their lesser giftings, opportunities, or attention.
But if we put this unholy lowliness to death by choosing to believe that all of us have been assigned by God sacred functions in Christ’s body, and humbling ourselves under God’s mighty hand, trusting him to exalt us at the proper times and ways (1 Peter 5:6). If we really seek to consider others more important than ourselves (Philippians 2:3), and not trust our impulse to be first, and remember that the least among us often is the one God considers great (Luke 9:48), then we will be thinking with godly “sober judgment” (Romans 12:3).
Low self-image — unholy lowliness — which is in truth thinking too highly of ourselves, is weight we must lay aside in order to run our faith race (Hebrews 12:1). Let us look to Jesus (Hebrews 12:2) who showed us how to do this by coming to us as one who serves (Luke 22:27) and humbling himself to the lowest place for us (Philippians 2:8).