Gospel Hope for Self-Haters
Christians are not immune from self-hatred.
Self-hate ranges between a feeling of self-disappointment to self-condemnation. We look around at others and compare ourselves and we don't measure up. We hate ourselves for how we look, how we feel, what we’ve done, what’s been done to us, or what we keep failing to accomplish. It often lives under the surface of our lives because it has never been named and identified. Some Christians perpetually feel like losers and seem to continually struggle with anger.
This is self-hatred and it can fuel self-condemnation and feed all sorts of false attempts at self-atonement.
And while the spiritual implications of this struggle are huge, not much has been written for Christians who struggle with self-hate. For those who live with the shame of what has been done to them, Ed Welch’s 2012 book, Shame Interrupted: How God Lifts the Pain of Worthlessness and Rejection, has proven helpful. But what about those who feel self-hate for something they have brought on to themselves, some personal sin or personal failure?
Bible counselor David Powlison is the executive director of CCEF, the senior editor of the Journal of Biblical Counseling, and he will be publishing a new book in September, titled: Good and Angry: Redeeming Anger, Irritation, Complaining, and Bitterness (New Growth Press).
His book addresses self-hate, and I recently connected with Dr. Powlison for an unhurried weekend conversation about gospel hope for self-haters, an episode that will extend beyond our average nine-minute episodes.
Dr. Powlison, it is always a joy to talk with you.
Tony, it is a real pleasure. It has been a long time since you and I have connected and you are a brother and it is a joy when brothers can connect to each other.
Yes, amen, it has been far too long. As you know, for our time together here, I want to talk about self-hatred. This is something you’ve been thinking about for a long time, but does not get addressed much in the church. So I’ll open with a broad question first: How do you define self-hate, and what is at play here, at root?
Let me say, first off, that there are a lot of moving pieces in this. It is a very common, complex, deeply rooted issue that human beings struggle with — it has a number of vectors, angles, and different factors that come into play. So in its essence, it is simply a judgment that we make against ourselves. It is a voice of condemnation, accusation, a voice that shouts or whispers failure, unclean, damned — a voice of self-loathing.
You might say that is the most overt door into us talking about the topic. But I would actually say that for us to understand clearly we need to take a big step back and say: What is this issue fundamentally? And my starting point on understanding it and then addressing it is essentially it is an issue of the conscience. The conscience, which is the metaphor “in your eyes.” You know, every man did what was right in his own eyes, if it is according to his own evaluation. The conscience is this evaluative capacity that is wired into us. We are in God’s image. And so we are wired to make judgments. And we are wired as human beings to make judgments of everything, of the weather, of the food we are eating, of God, of events that are happening in our world, of other people — and of ourselves.
“The eyes that self-haters live before are often a composite of what the Bible calls pride and the fear of man.”
And when we are talking about self-hate, then, it is anchored in creational underpinnings in terms of that we are made to evaluate, but then we are fallen. Our conscience is skewed, which basically means that, in a variety of ways, we misjudge. We falsely evaluate. We falsely condemn and we falsely commend. We like and approve of things that are off, and we attack and are judgmental towards things that we ought to love. In at least four different ways that our conscience gets distorted, all have a bearing on the self-hatred issue.
1) I live before the wrong eyes. First Corinthians 4:1–5 is a profound passage on how Paul says: It doesn’t really matter what you think of me. In fact, it doesn’t really matter what I think of myself. It is the Lord who judges. Now that doesn’t mean Paul doesn’t assess himself. He says: I am not aware of anything against me, but it is God who judges. And so one of the ways the conscience skews is when I become attuned to where my own opinion of myself and other people’s opinion of me — which are these two vectors and which self-hatred most often works — those eyes become what is important and the eyes of God recede into the backdrop or are distorted. We get a false view of how God might view us.
2) I listen to the wrong voice. So in the area of self-hatred, I hear accusatory voices, such as people who perhaps mocked me or attacked me. Or I might say to myself that ultimately the accuser and liar who stands behind all lies is the voice and, even if I think it is God who is accusing me, I distort that god so he is a god of no mercy — he is a Satan in a sense who is merely damning.
3) I stand next to the wrong standard. And that is a huge issue. Whether the things for which I condemn myself: Are they actually wrongs? Are they things like killing someone and abortion or anger and hostility? Is it sexual immorality? Is it that I have lied and made a false representation? Or is it a sense of failure because I am not as good-looking as I want to be or not as athletic or my brother makes more money than I do? What is the standard by which or against which I fail?
4) I look to the wrong savior. Who is the sin-bearer? Am I the sin-bearer? Do I punish myself and atone and try to make up and try to make it all better? Or do I actually have a savior? Is there a sin-bearer for true wrong? Is the power of the living Holy Spirit to renew my conscience so that I live before the right eyes in the fear of God, I listen to the right voice, the voice of a God of redeeming love, I stand next to the right standard, the standard of faith and love, and I look to the right Savior?
So those are all these background issues that it is that inner twisting of how we look at the world and at ourselves and assess it that then underlies one of the ways the conscience can go very bad and become very destructive in self-hatred.
God’s role here is huge. I want to press into that a little later. But first, how does self-hatred most often manifest? What are the warning signs you look for? And what are the most common root causes that drive self-hate?
This is one of these places where the question of self-hatred relates closely with a bunch of issues that our culture would talk about under the category of low self-esteem. In other words, esteem is an evaluative word and it has to do with how I evaluate myself. I don’t particularly like the word. I think it is a distorted, wrong word to use, but it is the culture’s attempt to say that what they are describing that goes on in people is real.
So I was just talking with a man a few weeks ago who is a mature Christian. He had just been going through some real soul-searching and he had realized — I will put it in his words:
Over the years, I always felt condemned inside. It was as though there was this inner voice that always said: “You are never good enough. You always . . . (blank). You didn’t . . . (blank). You won’t . . . (blank). You can’t . . . (blank).” And it was the voice of my father, who was a very critical man and it has been in recent weeks as I have been seeing this for what it is and seeing how pervasive it is, it is as if the Lord has been saying to me: I am your real Father. I give you something better. I actually speak of you and know you through a different lens. You have a different identity than the one that you are measuring yourself by.
This man made a really profound comment. He said: “I was talking with my wife and I said for years it has always been as if daily life was in living color and God was in grey tones. And he is reversing that. And that voice, the wrong voice, the voice of the critical human being — it damned me — is being replaced by the voice of a Father who justly assesses us for real failings and does it with real mercy that is right there.”
Yeah and for him and all his apparent failures, he heard his father’s voice of condemnation. In another example, one I read often in the APJ inbox from our listeners has to do with body issues. If a woman hates herself for being fat, it can lead to binge eating, which of course leads to hating oneself more for binge eating and weight gain — and on and on it goes. Self-hate seems to function as a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy.
It is a prophetic voice and every human being lives by prophets, if you will. We are always listening to a voice and that voice can be one we self-generate. It can be one of the culture’s messages. It can be the voice of God, the true voice of God. It can be various kinds of lies from sociocultural, peer pressure, advertising, cultural images or, in the case I just mentioned, a parent.
So, yeah, there are self-destructive cycles where what we believe hooks in to directly how then we interpret life, how we interpret ourselves and events. It hooks directly into, then, what we do. You could say in the scenario you just gave, Tony, my voice tells me: I am a horrible person. I am fat. I am ugly. I am a failure. Nobody will love me.
Food is both a “cause,” because I overeat, but then food is the “savior,” because it is the one place where I feel at least temporarily a sense of comfort and relief, even though it actually compounds my problem.
So, what you could say there is that you have got this mini-drama of redemption happening with sin and condemnation and then salvation. Only the entire drama is skewed, because our weight is not one of the Ten Commandments. There are issues of gluttony that are worth dealing with, but in the case you are describing, it is a much more profound issue of, What is my identity? How do I define myself? What is the standard by which I measure who I am as a person?
And let’s say I have a hormonal disorder or genetic propensity to be large, not thin. I’m condemning myself for something that is actually part of creation. Or let’s say I am taking medication that causes swelling, retention of fluid. So I am damning myself for something which is actually not what my true identity is. It is damning myself for a lie. And then it just perpetuates itself and I do the very thing that heaps more condemnation on me as an attempt to find a temporary soothing savior in the moment.
And the temporary soothing savior pushes us into greater self-hate. If I can go existential for a moment, it seems self-hatred is a trap of perceived failure, or being told you are only a failure. This self-condemnation becomes a self-fulfilling loop of prophecy that, over time, becomes more and more inescapable and more and more damaging.
Yes, that is a very powerful way to put it. I think there is a lot of different angles you could describe where you get trapped: failure, outcast, exposed, dirty, degraded.
You have flagged one that is very prominent, a sense of failure — I am bad, I am condemned. This is a sense of moral failure. But the human experience has so many interlocking complexities. Failure is one motif that might really be helpful for a certain struggler. And you think how that failure motif is so profoundly spoken to by the love of God in Christ that you can acknowledge real failures and there is true mercy. You are beloved. Even despite real failures. And then this correction of the Spirit works, where those perceived failures that are actually distortions.
But then you think of this lens, this sense of being an outcast — you are rejected, being isolated from people. And then you think how the love of God actually comes to that and says, The one who is the outcast, the one who is despised and shamed, is actually my beloved. I welcome you. I am yours. Come in. I am your father. You are not cast out.
Or you could come to the lens of feeling exposed — you are naked and vulnerable. Everything that is wrong with you is just out there to be seen, which someone who struggles with obesity really is exposed in our culture, and there is a sense of shame in that. And so here is a God who promises: He covers us; he makes us safe. We aren’t exposed and in danger.
Or you think of the lens of you are dirty — you are unclean, a horrible person. You are despicable. You are disgusting. And here is a God who says: You are not dirty. I have washed you. Even though your sins are as scarlet, you are as white as snow — you have been cleaned by my love (Isaiah 1:18).
And then one final one would be degraded — you are dehumanized, you don’t matter, you are invalidated. And we have a God who says: No. That is right there in Psalm 22:24. He has not treated lightly the affliction of the afflicted. He has not abhorred and pulled himself back. We count, we are cared for, we matter — rather than that sense of being degraded, depersonalized, dehumanized.
The grace and power and presence of God meet us in our greatest needs, including self-hatred.
And we could just look at many different pieces of the experience and some of those different ways of talking about what goes on with sort of the result of self-hate and the kind of milieu of self-hate. Different ones of those may really strike a nerve with a different struggler. In each case, it is one of those wonderful things how there is always something about the nature of who our Lord is, and how specifically he cares for us, that maps straight on to the experiences we must struggle with.
God is the only escape from the loop of self-hate. Yet many self-haters would say, That is not the God I know. What would you say to those who struggle with self-hate, especially outside the church, who assume the worst thing in the world for a self-hater to ever do is to believe in God, because he would only condemn them and fuel their self-hate further. What would you say to this person?
I am not able to unpack all of the process that might go into that conversation, but maybe I can get to the bottom line. I would say, Your idea of God is my idea of the devil. You are viewing God the way that the Scripture portrays Satan: this relentless, accusatory, hard master who means ill for you and is always there to scold you. And that is not the God of the Bible.
The God of the Bible, yes, has a just anger when there is real wrong, but take the person whose sense of shame and failures because of what has happened to them — they have been mistreated or mocked or lied to. This is the God whose anger actually comes to your defense. He is the protector of victims. He is the refuge for those who suffer oppressors and liars. That is a theme in many, many psalms. God’s anger is actually a part of his love in that sense: that he is our defender against what is false and harmful. And where there is just anger — things we have really done wrong — this is a God who came in person as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29). There is true mercy.
So that sense that, “I believe God would just heap up more condemnation” is off — especially considering the fact that the person doesn’t believe in God. They are now continuing to manifest the distortion of their unbelief and how to imagine what God might be — not the God who came in person, who sympathizes with our weakness, tested in all ways like as we are yet without sin, and therefore there was a throne of grace where there is mercy to intercede, there is forgiveness (Hebrews 4:14–16). There is love. There is care. And then grace to help in our time of need. But actually in the moment, when we are struggling, there is grace there. His power and presence actually help us.
The self-hater must live before God’s eyes, led by God’s voice, measured by God’s standard, and delivered by God’s Savior. So there is a freedom in God’s standards.
Sure, and among the standards is a proper view of who you are: the Ten Commandments — you might say the bones of the standards. God gives us a definition of ourselves. He tells us that we are creatures — we are actually made to meet him. Every human being, whether they love him or hate him, know him or repress the knowledge of him, needs him and lives dependent on his kindness. He tells us that we are sinful, that we have fallen short of love for him and a tender heart toward our neighbors, and, thus, we have come into judgment. But then consider the whole way that the Scripture comes; that is, it gets revealed in the context of redemption happening, of a God who moves into the human dilemma in order to bring grace and bring resolution. Those are all identity statements. Those are all true things about ourselves.
And then he is a God who gives gifts. So there can be a fair and honest assessment of, What are the gifts he has given? How can these be used, what is that going to mean, and what things do I contribute in relationships or the things that I bring to my friendships or to marriage or to the small group I am in? He gives gifts.
And you think how every one of those identity statements, even the ones that are very humbling and challenging, that do address our real failings, they all go somewhere that ultimately has joy and gratitude as the payoff. It doesn’t mean there is not struggle. One of the things that has really struck me reading the Psalms, loving the Psalms, is that there is only one psalm in which there is absolutely no shadow in the backdrop or looming shadow of either evils we struggle within ourselves or evils that beset us liars and killers. And it is Psalm 150. It takes you all the way to the end, and all that is left is joy. And the first 149 might always have somewhere in them that this world is a hard place. This world has difficulties. And we actually can seek and find our heavenly Father, our Savior, our shepherd, our life-giver, our refuge, our truth-giver in the midst of the things that are the exact places we struggle.
Very perceptive. When you address self-hate, it is typically in the context of anger. How does anger expose areas of self-hate?
Again, I am going to make a bit of a background comment. We all love a simple answer, but the human condition doesn’t boil down to a tweet. So I think throughout most of the history of thoughtful Christian reflection, theological reflection on human experience, on Scripture, that hate is actually the larger category. The huge divide in reality between love and hate mirrors the divide between true and false, the divide between faith and unbelief, and the divide between good and evil.
So there is this fundamental divide, and as we think about how our conscience works, both love and hate do get distorted. So I can love myself and commend myself and think I am great and feel righteous and think I see truly and be completely distorted. Or I can do the same in how I hate myself.
Hate is actually the bigger category. It is linked with the biggest issues of all for us as human beings. You might say anger is a subcategory. I am angry at myself: How could I do that? I was so stupid. I can’t believe I said that. I did that again. What a horrible person. How could God ever love me? And you might say that is a temper tantrum directed at myself. But then you also get other unhappy variances like the feeling of hopelessness or despair, melancholy, and there can be a kind of self-laceration and self-hatred that is more just sorrowful and aggrieved and depressed and hopeless.
You can get the negative feelings, you might say, and it is being fearful and anxious and panicky over my perceived inadequacies and failures. You can get the feeling of just being overwhelmed. Feeling overwhelmed is one of the most common experiences the psalms capture. It doesn’t entirely break down into an emotional category, but it says a lot of things packed into it.
So, anger is certainly one of the lenses that really helps you understand self-hatred. It can flair in a moment of self-condemnation. But self-hatred is an expression of a conscience that is miskeyed, and disoriented is probably the overarching category.
You’ve written, “The eyes that self-haters live before are often a composite of what the Bible calls pride and the fear of man.” How does this work?
The man that I spoke of a bit ago, it was his father’s voice. And fear of man is taking our cues off of what another person says. And there was also his own voice inside himself. It was something he said to himself. So he failed against the eyes of a very significant person in his life, and he failed in his own eyes.
One of the ways I have found helpful to people in counseling ministry is: When we lose our bearings, where the eyes of God, the voice of God, the standards of God, the salvation of God don’t compel my experiential reality, then I actually become awash in some combination of being overly sensitized to what other people think of me and overly sensitized to how I evaluate myself.
And that would just read off almost the entirety of secular like self-esteem literature which sees accurately that their self-esteem is a composite of what you think of yourself. But being secular, it disorients from the true dynamics of both of those, one of which I would call pride — where I am the arbiter of reality — and one is fear of man — where other people are the arbiters of reality.
So I would probably add a third piece. I would say that pride and fear of man are in front of the curtain on stage, and behind the curtain is the devil who is the archetype of pride and the liar that we believe. We fear and take our cues off of a false voice.
That’s very good. You mentioned Twitter earlier, and no doubt social media amps up how we compare ourselves and how we project ourselves. Is there a technological side to self-hate in this age of social media — especially visually — where what we see online becomes the voice we follow?
I do think the visual technology accelerates certain forms of it, so we become immediately aware of forms of talent — say in sports or music or acting that, if you lived in a small town in 1900 in rural America, the talent is with whoever got the lead in the high school play. The star athlete is whoever actually got to play quarterback. But none of them is NFL-caliber and none of them gets contracts for $20 million to do a movie. So, beauty and talent and money and possessions — because of the visual qualities of our culture and our media commits to us — we are immediately aware of the most beautiful, the most talented, the most athletic, the most wealthy, the most luxurious lifestyles, the most exotic bucket list.
Probably start going back to photography, and photography was the first medium where then you could start to see parts of the world that you never visualized outside of your immediate experience. But then movies extenuated that and then the last 30 years has just been a highly accelerated awareness of what is out there.
I was talking to somebody recently. They commented on one of the reasons they realized they were going to ditch their Facebook account, in their words, were: “I realize that I was continually comparing my life to someone else’s highlight reel.” I thought: What a great way to put it. I don’t know if it was original to her, or if she picked that up somewhere, but yes, you are watching somebody’s carefully curated, manicured, projected image of their life, and they are usually smiling. They don’t have bad breath.
Social media is a really helpful way to then make contemporary the Bible’s discussion of fear of man, because it puts right in front of us the opinions and values and attitudes of other people. And this can be very compelling. And this fear of man can feed self-loathing. Imagine what it is like. In our culture, you can choose any kind of sexual disorientation imaginable and you are extolled. But having a body mass index over 30 is the cardinal sin: You evil doer! If your BMI is over a certain number, you’re a loser in life and you are bound to die young. It is just not the way God’s reality in truth works.
Fascinating. So how do we care for brothers or sisters in Christ who particularly struggle with self-hate? Are there any keys for how we can do this wisely?
Yes, and anything I say, Tony, is going to be merely a glimpse — a panorama.
One of the obvious starting points is that we do a huge disservice to our brothers and sisters, to our children, to our spouse when we simply live by a different set of values. You think of the significance of a woman who does not live for her appearance. She dresses tastefully. She dresses appropriately. But she is not obsessed. She walks into a room and she is instead asking: Who is the lonely person here? Who is the old friend that I haven’t seen in a while that I can reconnect to? And there is a freedom about her. There is a joy. There is a kindness. There is a freedom from anxiety. And that is just one example where I do think that our faith and the kind of lifestyle that emerges from it is very compelling and very liberating — being in a place where you are not being continually judged by bogus standards.
Thus, you are being drawn toward, to pick a common Old Testament phrase, “he walked in the ways of David his father” (1 Kings 3:3; 2 Kings 22:2; 2 Chronicles 34:2). What does it mean? David is a man after God’s heart. That is not depicting the fact that he was apparently very handsome and a great warrior. It is talking about the fact that he lived the Psalms. He was keenly aware of his sins. He wasn’t perfect. He sinned flagrantly on occasions. He was aware of his sins. He knew that God was merciful. He sought God. He loved God. He expressed joy and gratitude for the blessings God gave. I would say, to live in the way of his father David is to live the psalms.
Some Christians continually feel like losers and struggle with anger. But God’s grace is always sufficient.
And if you are in a community where people are orienting their meaning of life to living the Psalms, living in the wisdom of the Proverbs, living in the footsteps of our Redeemer, Jesus Christ, whose DNA is redemption, then approaching life is a venue in which the proud can be brought down and the humble can be raised up. That is huge. That is just an atmosphere way that our conscience is renewed. You want to hang out with people who are actually putting their way together differently.
If I were just to say one factor from a more pointed part, it does seem to me that as we think about the immediacy of the struggle of self-loathing, self-condemnation — I am so horrible. I don’t do anything right. I am just a disappointment. I am a drain on everyone. I am a loser — those are all voices, and they are voices that rob us. They rob a person of faith. They rob a person of joy. They rob us of love. It robs us of the ability to be thinking of others.
The language I was thinking about as I was preparing for our talk was somehow to set up what you might call a contest of voices. We are having these political debates currently, and it is the most terrible form of debate: mutual mockery. So what is a constructive debate? How do you get a different voice talking?
My wife Nan and I happened to be reading in the end of Zephaniah and thinking about the issue of self-hatred. And you think: In self-hatred, one feels a deep sense of shame and imperfection. So here is a line out of Zephaniah: “On that day you shall not be put to shame” (Zephaniah 3:11). That is fighting the voice of shame or the sense that one is all alone and completely struggling and no one is for me or with me and the world is a dangerous place and people are judging me.
And then we read, “The King of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; you shall never again fear evil” (Zephaniah 3:15). You know, the voices of falsity and lies and condemnation and “you are stupid” and “you always blow it” are evil. And so here it is: I am in your midst. You are not alone. You don’t ever need to fear evil. I am the mighty one who saves. You think how that touches the sense of powerlessness, the sense that nobody could really love me, because I am so marred, I am so dirty, I am so shameful. I failed so badly.
Here’s the voice of the Lord himself. “The LORD your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing” (Zephaniah 3:17). Think of how within self-loathing there is a very talkative inner world going on that is very unhappy. “He will quiet you with his love. He will exult over you with loud singing.”
I am doing a bit of a barrage there, but you imagine to take in one precise eye-dropper of truth that would actually set up a contest of voices between the lie and something that is actually true. And in setting it that way, it is very different from, you might say, just cognitively rehearsing Christian truths, theological truths. It is actually when God himself is the voice speaking, saying, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (Exodus 34:6–7). He is actually saying something that competes with the false voices, and it is not just something you rehearse in your own head. He’s actually inviting you to come out of yourself, out of the death spiral, the vortex of self-hatred, as we are talking about it right now.
There is another voice that is talking here. And it may take me a long time and much prayer and the help of others and reminders to hear that voice. But whenever I hear that other voice talking, I am actually pulled out of myself and I become open to the God who loves me. I become open to the reality that there is a place of mercy and hope and protection and welcome and refuge and affirmation — not affirmation in the sense of stroking your ego and making you feel good about yourself, but affirmation that gives you an identity with living. You are a child of the living God and he is your Father — to hear that like the man I mentioned earlier in our conversation. I am your true Father and you are mine, and I am not going to forsake you.
So that contest of voices, I think, is one real specific way that everyone who changes in this area, some form of that has actually happened in that man or woman’s life.
Those of us who love Reformed theology — as I know you do — will read our forefathers who perpetually stressed our self-humility before God. Fundamentally, what is the difference between destructive self-hatred and appropriate self-humbling before God in repentance? And do you think the Puritans in particular pushed us too far in an unhealthy direction here?
It’s hard to judge a man’s heart from 300 years or 400 years’ distance. So I more reflect some of the things I have seen contemporary Christians do with that heritage where it does become an overly scrupulous self-condemning. “I am always a wretch.”
Many of us are familiar with the collection of Puritan prayers, The Valley of Vision. And it is very rich — the cream of very thoughtful understanding of human sinfulness and God’s mercy. And for that I commend it. That said, there is a continual tone that misses human suffering, and misses that the things we struggle with are not just the result of committing serious sin, but that we have been lied to.
The man I mentioned earlier in our conversation, of course he is a sinner and he is very aware of that, but you might say he is hyperaware of it. And often where our piety lands within the Reformed and evangelical world is where sin is the only problem and suffering and the lies that are told us is kind of made secondary.
When you read the Psalms, it is not secondary. It is a parallel intertwined problem — sin and suffering; the evils we generate out of our heart and the evils that beset us in lies and aggressions. They are in this continual dance and interplay. And so I have actually written in my copy of The Valley of Vision interpolated a number of other prayers that capture the note of seeking God in the midst of afflictions and try to restore that balance to the Psalms.
And then the other thing that I think is going to be missing there, it is missing in tone — though it is present in certain words — is genuine joy and gratitude. Our God is good and he is great, and the doorway to that is not always, Look and see what a horrible person I am! You can wake up in the morning and just simply say, “This is the day the Lord has made. I will rejoice and be glad in it (Psalm 118:24). Lord, clear the cobwebs from my mind. Awaken me to yourself. Teach me. I am your servant.” That is what Psalm 119 says. The psalm is very aware of our sinfulness and very aware of our sufferings, and it is also very joyful. And all those things seem to get on the table in a really striking interplay.
So I do see concerns in our piety and the emphases of our theology. Reformed theology is often so focused on the remedy to sin that restores our relationship to God. But that narrow focus misses the much more complex tapestry of how the Psalms build on that foundation in which justification by faith, adoption, election, and so forth are all arrows launched in the Old Testament about God’s steadfast love and mercy and his coming to be with his people. All those arrows land in the New Testament and Jesus said: We have this foundation. But then the other parts of human experience are not, thereby, minimized.
So it seems like self-haters need time to soak in the Psalms.
Yes, and not just soaking like the lives of those who make them feel more depressed! I have recently been thinking a lot about Psalm 40. It starts out really joyful: God did hear me when I was in trouble. He did save me. He rescued me out of the pit. And then there is fruitful ministry and joy and song and I proclaim the name. And then it has this turning point where all of the sudden, evils without number are besetting me. My sins are more than the hairs on my head. There are people out to get me. I am in trouble again — I am in this dual trouble with my sinfulness and my sufferings. And yet it concludes: “I am poor and needy, but the Lord takes thought for me” (verse 17). As for me I am totally needy, but the Lord takes thought for me. And so there’s a profound sense of comfort.
Yes, you can look at your sins, and you can be crushed by them for a moment. But it goes somewhere. It goes out and ends up resounding and courageous and clear and glad and thankful.
Amen! I think Sarah in Genesis 18 could be the patron saint of self-haters — the old, decrepit, worn out, used up, barren, good for nothing wife of fatherless Abraham. Her words (Genesis 18:12). It seems that God loves to break into a life like that.
Yes. I love one of Tim Keller’s marquee lines: the upside-down kingdom. And certainly that barrenness theme is one of the primo ways Scripture does that — whether it is a Sarah or Hannah or whether Rahab. And we get Jacob, for that matter: a rat! Sarah was like Elizabeth, who had the shame of being unable to conceive. So whether it is that you are a manipulator and a con man, or whether it is that you have just failed in this thing that is really important — like a wife who really hopes she can be a mom — the louder side, a moral failure. It is a form of suffering that can bring a sense of shame also. Well, the Lord is a Redeemer.
And we have all known really godly women for example who in God’s providence either never married or they married and were unable to have children. And they have always had to go through a process of grappling with that — grappling with identity, grappling with what it means to be a woman, grappling with, How does one find one’s way to courage, dignity, and purpose? And we have all known women who really successfully ran that race. The Bible is very joyful at the birth of children. Yet one of the prime metaphors in Isaiah 54 is of the barren woman who, you know, spreads her tent. She has a huge family. She loves many, many people, has many children.
One of the lovely characters in C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce is Sarah Smith, an ordinary village woman. Every lonely child was her friend and every cat knew that she cared. She is now a queen with the way Lewis portrayed her, full of regal glory — just so upside-down. God makes a different kind of beauty and a different kind of life and a different kind of purpose.
Well, on this topic of self-hate, we have covered a lot of ground and we must end. Any final thoughts for us to leave with?
I hope people who do struggle with self-hate know in the first place that this is a really common struggle. They are not alone. Often a self-hater can feel like everybody else seems confident and happy and their life is going forward because they put on a good face — and not just on Facebook, but in church. It is often very surprising, people who struggle with an inner voice that says: You are just a horrible person. How can you call yourself a Christian? People must really hate you. You are not really good at making friends.
Let the truth of the gospel confront all the lies of your self-hate.
Self-hate is a really common struggle and it has roots worth digging out because those roots are how our conscience works. They lead directly to the mercies of God in Christ in a way that can become very personal and very pointed. And that other voice that enters the debate is the voice of life, and it can win the debate. It is a battle worth fighting to hear the other voice.
It sure is, that was Dr. David Powlison, author of a new book launching in September, titled: Good and Angry: Redeeming Anger, Irritation, Complaining, and Bitterness (New Growth Press). Check it out.
Thank you for listening to this special extended weekend conversation on the Ask Pastor John podcast. I’m your host Tony Reinke, and we will return on Monday with John Piper.