In his book, In A Pit With A Lion On A Snowy Day, Mark Batterson wrote, “self-consciousness isn’t just a curse. It is part of The Curse.” How true that is. So much of what has happened to human nature as a result of the fall has to do with focus on self. Self-consciousness is a big part of that. What an awful feeling it is when we become self-conscious. Studies have revealed that public speaking is named by more people as their top fear than anything else. Even more so than death, which means that some people would rather die than speak in public. Why is that such a common fear? Because we are all so self-conscious. That sense that everyone is looking at us is terrifying for most of us. And our self-consciousness is so terribly persistent. When we see group photographs in which we appear what is the first thing we do? We look for ourselves in the picture. How do I look? In fact the biggest factor in how good we deem the picture to be is how good we look in it. Why is that? Because we are so conscious of self.
Our willingness to try is severely limited by our self-consciousness. In the early years of our marriage Laurie took ice-skating lessons. She progressed pretty well up to a point, but one day was ready to give up. She was trying to learn some new things and she was struggling. What made it frustrating was the eleven year old girls who were out on the ice mastering the very thing Laurie was trying to do while she kept falling. She felt she was looking bad. Frustrated, somewhat embarrassed, she thought she should just quit because she couldn’t do it. We talked about it and she came to the conclusion that the only way to learn the new skill was to keep pushing and not care how she looked. The only way to succeed was to not be self-conscious but to keep failing if necessary. She persevered and finally mastered the skill. She became quite a good skater, but it would never have happened if she had let self-consciousness win.
Self-consciousness certainly has spiritual effects on us. One of those classic moments in the Bible was the incident in 2 Samuel 6 when David had the ark of the covenant brought to Jerusalem. It was a huge celebration. David was excited. Verse 14 says, “David, wearing a linen ephod, danced before the Lord with all his might.” He didn’t do that because he thought he was a terrific dancer. He did it because he didn’t care how he looked or what anyone thought. He cared only about honoring and celebrating his God. His wife, Michal, was into appearances and she was seriously irked by David’s behavior. She let him have it with both barrels when he got home. “How the king of Israel has distinguished himself today, disrobing in the sight of the slave girls of his servants as any vulgar fellow would” (verse 20). In case you didn’t catch it, that little comment was dripping with sarcasm. David’s response was “I will celebrate before the Lord. I will become even more undignified than this.” In other words, “you ain’t seen nothing, honey. Just wait.” David fired back that all he cared about was celebrating God, and if she thought this was bad she should wait for the encore. It’s pretty clear to me that had he been self-conscious none of that would ever have happened. Who did God think was right? Verse 23 says, “Michal daughter of Saul had no children to the day of her death.”
Self-consciousness feels awful, it limits us, it keeps us from serving God with abandon the way David did, and it diverts us from loving others. The obvious effect of being conscious of self is that we will not be conscious of others and their needs. Unfortunately, we are self-conscious. I am confronted with how true that is when I am at a restaurant and spill something on my shirt, something that happens with distressing regularity. There’s nothing like being out in public with a nice food stain on your shirt to get you in touch with your inner self-consciousness. No one likes being self-conscious. No one wants to be self-conscious. So how do we free ourselves of this terrible curse?
There is no easy formula for this. And ultimately the answer is that we don’t. It is only the transforming grace of God and the power of His Spirit that can rid us of this curse. But there are some things we can do that will expedite the process. The most obvious thing I can do is to ask God to change me so that I become less conscious of self. That’s a prayer I believe he is anxious to answer. A second and hugely important step we can take is to become more secure in who we are in Christ. The more I revel in his love for me and his acceptance of me, the more that matters to me, the less I will care how I look to others. Like David, I won’t care if I look undignified or foolish as long as God is celebrated. In his book Batterson encourages us to “think of spiritual maturity as a continuum. On one side is God-consciousness and on the other side is self-consciousness. To become like Christ is to become less self-conscious and more God-conscious.”
There is one other thing we can do. Several years ago author and pastor John Piper answered a letter from a teenager in his church who was struggling with growing up and with all the self-consciousness of the teen years. In his letter to the boy Piper cited what he had seen in his own father as well as in the Apostle Paul and in C. S. Lewis. He wrote that those all of those men “seemed incredibly healthy, precisely because they were so absolutely amazed at everything but themselves. They showed me that the highest mental health is not liking myself, but being joyfully interested in everything but myself.” There are so many fascinating people, so many amazing things in this world, so many interesting events going on around us. Our self-consciousness tends to blind us to all of it. When we become more absorbed in the people and events happening around us perhaps we will become less distracted by ourselves. But the key to doing any of that is faith. When I believe that God loves me, that he is working in my life and that in his sovereignty he will see to it that I will get wherever I need to be, then I can entrust myself to him. With that certainty I can throw myself into all of the fascinating things and people around me with selfless abandon. Years ago we took a trip on the train to Seattle at Christmas. Part of the trip took us through the mountains in Northern California and Oregon. The scenery was spectacular as everything was covered in snow. I recall seeing elk standing in the snow not far from the tracks, gazing at the train as we went by. Had I been navigating through that snowy landscape I would have been stressed and obsessing with what I was doing. But on the train I was relaxed. I let the engineer drive the train and I enjoyed seeing all the beauty around me. As we relax in God’s sovereignty we can stop obsessing about ourselves and pay attention to what is happening around us. How freeing that will be.