Is the Phrase 'Focus on Yourself' a Myth or Biblical?
- Annette Griffin Contributing Writer
- 2021 26 Jan
At some point in time, we’ve all received this simple advice from friends, popular memes, or even counselors: “focus on yourself,” “to thine own self be true,” “self-love is self-care.” No doubt, getting permission to turn inward, especially when we’re feeling down, sounds right. But does this remedy for unhappiness truly satisfy the deeper needs of our soul? There is a time and place for healthy self-reflection. The Bible is full of examples from heroes of our faith who took a respite from everyday life to look inward. Emotionally spent after Jezebel’s threats and his run-in with King Ahab, Elijah sought refuge in the wilderness to contemplate life (1 Kings 19). Jonah did some serious introspection while in the belly of the big fish (Jonah 2). David tearfully soul-searched after the death of his newborn son. (2 Samuel 12:15-22)
At the conclusion of their self-reflective exercises, these men of God emerged stronger and more equipped for the battles to come. What was their key to success? Their me-time was not spent in isolation. In Far too 'healthy' spiritually Selwyn Hughes sums up this crucial detail this way: “The important thing to remember is this - self-examination should always be carried out in the presence of God. If this is not adhered to, then the exercise can become harmful and counter-productive.”
A believer who engages in healthy self-focus always does so in God’s presence. “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:23-24)
When we leave God out of the picture during self-focus—nothing good can happen. The only self we can discover, apart from Him, is not worth finding (Matthew 10:39).
What Does Focusing on Yourself Mean?
The world’s recommendation to “focus on yourself” stems from the humanistic belief that we are all born with innate goodness, intrinsic value, and a store of happiness that needs only to be harvested to realize. Proponents of this theory believe that by focusing your full attention on your own needs, wants, and desires you can discover your worth, unlock your happiness, and take control of your life.
While we should never forget that we are created in God’s image and therefore have worth, in Biblical Self-Esteem Kate Motaung explains the problem with viewing that worth as an object of focus. “But as much as we should remember our worth in God’s eyes, we shouldn’t neglect what’s inside – we are fallen, wretched sinners, desperately in need of God’s grace and mercy every hour of every day (Romans 3:23). We are completely incapable of doing anything good whatsoever, apart from the enabling of His Holy Spirit (Romans 3:10-12).”
The idea of self-focus resonates deeply with our inherent sin nature. The Bible refers to this sinful nature as our “old self.” By God’s grace, believers no longer have any obligation to our old selves. We have been given a new nature or “new self”. The miraculous part of this exchange is that God didn’t provide a cleaned-up version of our old nature and call it new. That would never do. When we accept Christ as our savior, He makes all things new by giving us His own nature (Galatians 2:20).
Contrary to the world’s humanistic remedy, to fix one’s self by focusing on self, God provided a better means to find refreshment for our souls—a better focal point—Christ in us. When believers do take the time for introspection, He made sure we’d find the answers to our deepest needs, by coming face to face with Him. “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you--unless, of course, you fail the test?” (2 Corinthians 3:5).
What Is the Biblical View of ‘Old Self’ vs. “New Self”?
On this side of Heaven, the practical struggle between our old and new natures is real. “For the Christian, the old sin nature, if not properly dealt with, can become a major hindrance to living supernaturally. A Christian who, for any variety of reasons, does not properly deal with his old sin nature is said to be living in a state of carnality, or worldliness. Such a carnal Christian is usually a miserable person -- even more miserable than the nonbeliever,” explains the late Dr. Bill Bright in The Story Of Two dogs.
Our old self and new self are diametrically opposite. So, the self we choose to focus on matters. Here’s what the Bible has to say about our two natures:
“You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” Ephesians 4:22-24.
“Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. Your old self has died, and your new life is kept with Christ in God” Colossians 3:1-3.
“Therefore we do not lose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day” 2 Corinthians 4:16 (NKJV).
“For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin—" Romans 6:6.
Does the Bible Tell You to Love Yourself?
Nowhere in Scripture are we ever instructed to love ourselves. The reason for this is two-fold. First, humans don’t have to be told to love themselves; loving ourselves comes naturally, and we do it very well. That’s why the Bible instructs us repeatedly to, “love our neighbors, as ourselves.” [emphasis added]
Sure, there are times when our circumstances or actions cause us to feel the harmful emotional effects of low self-esteem or even self-loathing. But those negative conditions are indicators of self-love. You can’t be deeply disappointment by someone you don’t truly love. We love ourselves by default (Ephesians 5:29).
The second reason the Bible purposefully avoids teaching us to love ourselves is that the pursuit of self-love is a futile exercise that leads down a dangerous path (2 Timothy 3:1-2, Galatians 6:3).
When we spend our time, effort, and energy trying to master self-love—we aren’t using those valuable resources to love the long list of people whom God has called us to love. We are called to love the Lord our God with everything in us (Luke 10:27). We are called to love the lost people of this world (Romans 13:8-10). We are called to love our brothers and sisters in Christ (John 13:34-35). We are called to love our enemies (Matthew 5:43-48). We are called to love our spouses (Ephesians 5:25). And we are called to love the stranger in our land (Leviticus 19:33-34). As if this weren’t enough if you include scriptures that equate honor, respect, and servitude with love, the scope of our responsibility becomes too vast to comprehend.
This weighty mission to love everyone in the world, and love God above all, may seem like an impossible task—especially when we’re feeling less-than-lovable, ourselves. The temptation to think that we must first “learn to love ourselves,” so that we can adequately love others, may seem logical—but it’s not God’s way.
God doesn’t expect His children to muster up the love required to minister to a broken world. His Son already did that. Whatever God calls us to do, He equips us to do through Christ (Philippians 2:13). Even if humans could stockpile enough self-love to share with others, it would be an inferior offering to humanity. God’s love, through us, is the only imperishable love that has the power to fill and heal.
When we sacrificially and obediently choose to show love—rather than seek it—God’s perfect love fills the void in our own lives, spills over to others, and draws the world to Himself (1 Peter 1:22-23, 1 John 4:12-13, Ephesians 5:2).
We serve a God who has provided us with everything we need to combat our “self” problem. Our purpose, strength, and worth are hidden treasures, but we won’t find them by focusing inward. These valuable gems are hidden in Christ, and it’s every believer’s privilege to seek Him out to find them. Veronica Neffinger sums up this amazing provision in Where Are You Finding Your Self-worth? “We can rest and shake off our burdens and curl up at the feet of a God who is madly and passionately in love with us. A God who’s got this — all of this, no matter what your “this” might be. No more masks or fake confidence or pressure-filled days. Instead, may we be vulnerable and free.”
Photo credit: ©GettyImages/Khosrork
Annette Marie Griffin is an award-winning author and speaker who has managed and directed children’s and youth programs for more than 20 years. Her debut children’s book, What Is A Family? released through Familius Publishing in 2020. Annette has also written curriculum for character growth and development of elementary-age children and has developed parent training seminars to benefit the community. Her passion is to help wanderers find home. She and her husband have five children—three who have already flown the coop and two adopted teens still roosting at home—plus two adorable grands who add immeasurable joy and laughter to the whole flock.