Why I Don't Believe in Myself... And Neither Does Jesus.
Does anyone else recall from their youth the oft repeated refrains of school assemblies and motivational speakers: Believe in yourself! I recall these words as a core part of my elementary school liturgy.
The message sounds good for sure. Confidence. Persistence. A positive attitude. I can do anything I put my mind to. Dream big. Hold nothing back. Believe in yourself.
But I have to be perfectly honest... I don't believe in myself. Here's why.
Before you buy a house, you have an inspector come and check a whole range of possible points of failure in your new investment. Before signing the dotted line for a pre owned car, it's customary to take it for a drive, look at the maintenance history, and do your due diligence to make sure you're not making a monthly payment for a lemon.
Do we exercise the same due diligence when it comes to believing in ourselves? Or is the mantra so ingrained that we believe it without thinking? Perhaps even despite evidence that suggests otherwise? More importantly, how does believe in yourself align with the Scriptures?
Jesus Doesn't Believe in Me
Nestled in between two popular pericopes in John's Gospel is this terse little section about human nature, and what things are really reliable. You're probably familiar with the account of Jesus clearing the temple in John 2:13-21. We remember that one because we're surprised that Jesus is not as meek and mild as the children's books would paint him. You're probably also familiar with the account of Nicodemus that follows shortly after (3:1-15). This is where Jesus speaks about being "born again" (or "born from above") - a phrase that even those with little to no biblical knowledge have heard before. Think, for example, of the phrase "born again Christian" (which is kind of weird and redundant because you can't be a Christian without being born again/from above, and if you're born again/from above, that makes you a Christian... but I digress....)
Right in between these two familiar readings are a few verses that we may miss if we're in a hurry. However, I would argue that they connect the theme of these two well-known readings, as well as deal a serious blow to the whole idea of believing in oneself.
Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in a man (2:23-25).
The original language is really helpful here. Many people see Jesus and believe in him (επιστευσαν). Most translations obscure the fact that when the text says Jesus did not entrust himself (ESV) or commit himself (NKJV), the verb for these words is actually the same verb for "believe" used in the previous sentence.
As awkward as it sounds, a literal translation would be:
"Many believed (επιστευσαν) in his name... but Jesus on his part was not believing (επιστευεν) with reference/in relation to them."
Now, one could argue (and rightly so) that words have slightly different meanings in different contexts, and that the verb πιστευω here could carry the idea of "entrusting or committing oneself" rather than just "putting one's faith in someone/something." I'm sure a word study and some digging around in detailed Greek dictionaries would reveal this to be true (I still have a sermon to write this week... so maybe another day!). But the use of the same verb "to believe" in a positive manner toward Jesus and then in a negative manner toward human beings within the same context reveals a stark contrast between who is worthy of belief and who is not. Jesus is reliable and worthy of faith. He is light and no darkness dwells within him (1 John 1:5). Human beings, on the other hand, are not faithful enough to be objects of faith. That's true of other people, and especially ourselves. Even the Apostle Paul remarked, "I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh" (Romans 7:18).
A Better Belief
At first glance, finding fault with "believe in yourself" may seem like either pessimism or unwarranted crankiness. I don't believe it's either. In fact, quite the opposite. Pulling the plug on believing in myself opens up a whole new world of possibilities. It means that I give up trusting in the delusion that I am in control, that I know best, and that I am in any sense the master of my own destiny. To lay aside the shackles of self-belief means the freedom of belief in Christ. I entrust myself to him wholly and completely because, as the old hymn goes, "On the Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand." I know for certain that if I am anything, I am sinking sand. And in contrast, Christ is a rock foundation.
And how amazing it is.... like, really, truly, unspeakably amazing it is that after Jesus sized up the human race and found us all to be faithless, that he gave himself for us. Paul calls Jesus, "The Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me" (Galatians 2:20). That kind of love is worth believing in. It's a love that pursued us when we were found to be faulty foundations.
We were never created to believe in ourselves. Were we created to be confident? Yes. But only with confidence properly placed. Does God intend us to face the challenges of life with a positive attitude? Sure. But there's nothing positive in our lives apart from what comes from the hand of God.
Learning to live as a Christian means learning to say, more and more, I can't. But Christ can. We are not independent creatures. We were created to be on constant life support - inseparably tethered to the source of life himself - Jesus Christ. Apart from him, we can do nothing (John 15:5) But believing in him (and not ourselves), we can do all things (Philippians 4:13). Not necessarily the things we want to do (like score touchdowns and be awesome at life - the typical American interpretation of this verse). But certainly the things we need to do. And that will give us plenty to do this side of the resurrection.
Pastor John Rasmussen - Our Savior Lutheran Church - South Windsor, Connecticut