"Believe in Yourself!"

From despair.com
Or so the saying goes.  It is a popular maxim that has been around for some time, and has maintained an almost universal popularity.  But G.K. Chesterton, some years ago, gave a powerful critique of it.   In his book, Orthodoxy, he writes this.  It is worth mentioning that these words were published in 1908, well before the decades and decades of "believe in yourself" mantra in the U.S.
Thoroughly worldly people never understand even the world; they rely altogether on a few cynical maxims which are not true.  Once I remember walking with a  prosperous publisher, who made a remark which I had often heard before; it is, indeed, almost a motto of the modern world.  Yet I had heard it once too often, and I saw suddenly that there was nothing in it.  The publisher said of somebody, "That man will get on; he believes in himself."  And I remember that as I lifted my head to listen, my eye caught an omnibus on which was written "Hanwell."  I said to him, "Shall I tell you where the men are who believe most in themselves?  For I can tell you.  I know of men who believe in themselves more colossally than Napoleon or Caesar.  I know where flames the fixed star of certainty and success.  I can guide you to the thrones of the Super-men.  The men who really believe in themselves are all in lunatic asylums."
He said mildly that there were a good many men after all who believed in themselves and who were not in lunatic asylums.  "Yes, there are," I retorted, "and you of all men ought to know them.  That drunken poet from whom you would not take a dreary tragedy, he believed in himself.  That elderly minister with an epic from whom you were hiding in a back room, he believed in himself.  If you consulted your business experience instead of your ugly, individualistic philosophy, you would know that believing in himself is one of the commonest signs of a rotter.  Actors who can't act believe in themselves; and debtors who won't pay.  It would be much truer to say that a man will certainly fail, because he believes in himself.  Complete self-confidence is not merely a sin; complete self-confidence is a weakness.  Believing utterly in one's self is a hysterical and superstitious belief like believing in Joanna Southcote: the man who has it has 'Hanwell' written on his face as plain as it is written on that omnibus."1
And here we are, one hundred and four years later, and that maxim lives on with hardly a critical thought given to whether or not it's actually worth believing.  If you wish to see people today who believe in themselves, look no further than the awful acts of American Idol that so quickly gain infamy in the popular culture and millions of hits on YouTube.

The fruits of this deplorable maxim are in plain view on every side in our culture.  The crusade for "self-actualization," self-esteem, and "believe in yourself" found in the grade schools of our nation has had all too predictable and all too tragic results, the repercussions of which have not yet been fully realized.

I can express nothing but shock and dismay that Christians, especially Christians around my age, often give their assent to this maxim.  Indeed, it has a strong foothold in the church, and the results are - once again - predictable.  It is strange that a belief in such direct conflict with the teachings of Jesus could be so popular in the church.

Believing in oneself is the first and greatest of all sins.  It is that great falsity that threw an idyllic world into terror and suffering; it is the great lie that polluted the Garden of Eden.2  The call to "believe in yourself" is not some New Age fad or self-help advice; it is the cardinal sin among the cardinal sins.  There is a name for those who believe in themselves above all else: the Damned.  And you can bet the Great Deceiver believes in himself.

The most obvious question is the one asked by the publisher in response to Chesterton: "Well, if a man is not to believe in himself, in what is he to believe?"  Chesterton wrote the book Orthodoxy in response to that question.  I hope to be a bit more brief.

It is interesting that in the opening chapter of Norman Vincent Pearle's famous and infamous book The Power of Positive Thinking, he quotes the Bible five times to defend the thesis of that chapter, namely, "believe in yourself."  Ironically, none of the verses so much as vaguely suggest that one should believe in oneself.  In fact, more than one of the verses alone and all of the verses in context make it explicitly clear that one should trust in Christ.

Simply put, there is no biblical basis for the dictum "believe in yourself."  But shouldn't we believe in ourselves insofar as we were created in the image of God?  In a sense, perhaps.  But only as there is buried beneath mountains of abominable sins a glimmer of the face of God.  And so it is not in us in which we believe per se, but in that now tarnished and darkened image.  Above all, we must believe in God; if we are to believe in ourselves, it is only onsofar as we believe in Him.

In one of his less read books, The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis drives the point home:
All those expressions of unworthiness which Christian practice puts into the believer's mouth seem to the outer world like the degraded and insincere grovelings of a sycophant before a tyrant, or at best a façon de parler like the self-depreciation of a Chinese gentleman when he calls himself "This course and illiterate person."  In reality, however, they express the continually renewed, because continually necessary, attempt to negate that misconception of ourselves and of our relation to God which nature, even while we pray, is always recommending to us.  No sooner do we believe that God loves us than there is an impulse to believe that He does so, not because He is Love, but because we are intrinsically lovable.  The Pagans obeyed this impulse unabashed, a good man was "dear to the gods" because he was good.  We, being better taught, resort to subterfuge.  Far be it from us to think that we have virtues for which God could love us.  But then, how magnificently we have repented!  As Bunyan says, describing his first and illusory conversion, "I thought there was no man in England that pleased God better than I."  Beaten out of this, we next offer our own humility to God's admiration.  Surely He'll like that?  Or if not that, our clear-sighted and humble recognition that we still lack humility.  Thus, depth beneath depth and subtlety within subtlety, there remains some lingering idea of our own, our very own, attractiveness.  It is easy to acknowledge, but almost impossible to realize for long, that we are mirrors whose brightness, if we are bright, is wholly derived from the sun that shines upon us.  Surely we must have a little - however little - native luminosity?  Surely we can't be quite creatures?
For this tangled absurdity of a Need, even a Need-love, which never fully acknowledges its own neediness, Grace substitutes a full, childlike and delighted acceptance of our Need, a joy in total dependence.  We become "jolly beggars."  The good man is sorry for the sins which have increased his Need.  He is not entirely sorry for the fresh Need they have produced.  And he is not sorry at all for the innocent Need that is inherent in his creaturely condition.   For all the time this illusion to which nature clings as her last treasure, this pretense that we have anything of our own or could for one hour retain by our own strength any goodness that God may pour into us, has kept us from being happy.  We have been like bathers who want to keep their feet - or one foot - or one toe - on the bottom, when to lose that foothold would be to surrender themselves to a glorious tumble in the surf.  The consequences of parting with our last claim to intrinsic freedom, power, or worth, are real freedom, power, and worth, really ours just because God gives them and because we know them to be (in another sense) not "ours."  Anodos3 has got rid of his shadow.4
Ultimately, the message of the gospel - the message of the Bible as a whole - has nothing to do with our own loveliness.  In fact, it stresses quite the opposite given our wayward state.  What it does affirm is God's love for us.  It does not say, "For God so loved the world because it was awesome."  It says, "For God so loved the world."  Full stop.  The key point is God's love, not any inherent good we might claim to have, as Lewis pointed out.  There are a myriad verses which Lewis and Chesterton's ideas echo.  I will leave you with one.

Trust in the Lord with all your heart
And lean not on your own understanding;
In all your ways submit to Him,
And He will make your paths straight.
Do not be wise in your own eyes;
Fear the Lord and shun evil.
~Proverbs 3:5-6

1.  Chesterton, G.K., Orthodoxy, p.18-19
2.  I make this claim for a couple of reasons.  The first is that the serpent deceives Eve by claiming that they would become "like gods."  The second is that, when it comes to the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, a popular position among theologians is that eating of that tree was not so much a desire to come out of ignorance into knowledge, but was a claim of independence from God.
3.  Anodos is the main character in George MacDonald's Phantastes (you can find a free ebook version here), where his shadow is an evil power that torments him.  Incidentally, George MacDonald's writing had a powerful influence on both Chesterton and Lewis, including Phantastes.
4.  Lewis, C.S., The Four Loves, p.130-131
Next Post Newer Post Previous Post Older Post Home


  1. When I saw this post, I was really hoping you would quote Chesterton; I'm glad you did. Moreover, I'm reminded that Francis Schaeffer says that the Fall alienates us not only from God and others, but also ourselves. That clearly has implications for believing in one's self.

  2. Allow me the pleasure of saying, “Right on.”

    The grave reality of self-worship seems the crux of man’s ironic existence. Ironic in that we are endlessly encouraged to “make a name for ourselves”—the very sin at the Tower of Babel that God so justly despised. The Great I Am, Name above all names, is placed on the back burner since of course “we can do it” better, faster, stronger on our own terms...so long as we just believe in ourselves. This cardinal sin, as you rightly deemed it, has indeed been the problem since the great lie of Genesis 3, and consequently, the problems in virtually every arena of man’s vapor-of-an-existence can be attributed to it. Today, the lie screams at us from all arenas: from quotes of Oprah now gracing our Starbuck’s sleeves, New Age titles flying off the shelves at bookstores and making top-seller lists, political correctness often entailing “tolerance” [when they actually mean embracing] of sin, to the clever sin of people-pleasing generating watered-down messages within Christian churches.

    The cringe-worthy cliché and supposedly encouraging advice to “believe in oneself” is devastatingly overused [as one time alone is sin enough, to be sure]. Sickeningly, this phrase epitomizes the hollow concept of self-worship surrounding it, the utter antithesis of following Christ. We are living in a world all-too-easily inspired and in churches not easily enough offended by sin. In a word: screwed up priorities...“they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen” [Rom. 1:25].

    It is the heart-wrenching reality of self-love that keeps sinners from knowing Christ’s love and believers from defending Christ more boldly and trusting in Him alone. Like Peter, I deny my Lord each time I believe in myself rather than Christ to control innumerable aspects of existence in this fallen earth. “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin” [Rom. 7:24-25].

    It seems that faith wholly rests upon continual realization of personal depravity and so accepting Christ’s righteousness instead of our “filthy rags” [Isa. 64:6], though it's so human to direly cling to those filthy rags. The best news ever is that the correct object of belief [Jesus Christ rather than self] solves the conundrum and mindblowingly separates us from our rags and cleaves us to His purity.

    A pastor described to me the concept of sin as analogous with a tree: Twigs and branches are sins that seep out from remnants of the heart’s corrupt “humanness” [no matter how seemingly minor frighteningly deem the unseeming-perpetrator deserving of hell-fire]; The trunk is pride; The root from which all sin grows is unbelief in Jesus, who alone can graciously redeem man from believing in himself.

    I knew a janitor who when asked how he was, would answer, “Better than I deserve.” Little does he know the impact that has had on me as it often comes to mind, reminding me of God’s mercy, grace, and my depravity apart from Christ. Christ: the Sanity of mankind. Apart from Him is only chaos and insanity in which this world tragically and obsessively revels—the great loves which she cannot do without [lest all be saved and thereby gain sanity, clarity, Truth]. Praise God that where worse than Hanwell is deserved, the sane realm of His Word is offered.


    p.s. I was recently told about your blog, and having perused its pages just want to say “Ahha!”—how utterly refreshing—water to a parched tongue, Windex to a clouded windowpane. A stark contrast to the ample “hollow and deceptive philosophies” the world has to offer on its platter of deceit. It can be a daunting task to find believers who will delve into philosophical or political conversation. Also, Orthodoxy is arguably one of the greatest books of the 20th century. So thank you for writing and forgive me if this was too lengthy a post.

  3. Paula,

    Thanks for your kind words and enlightening comment. I especially enjoyed reading about your janitor friend and his grateful words-- I will have to keep that in mind when I am having a bad day and it is tempting to take the infinite blessings the Lord has bestowed upon me for granted.

    I'm glad that you found our blog and am looking forward to future interaction. Might I ask how you were brought here?


    PS. You have definitely won the award for longest comment so far, methinks :)

  4. I was brought here in fact by Steve's parents, who happened to run into mine at a restaurant the other evening...our fathers work together :)