I Know That I Am Nothing

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Jeffrey Thayne

Today, we hear a lot about the importance of self-confidence and self-esteem. Where does this concept originate? Well, sometimes we think poorly of ourselves. The oft-proposed solution is that we should think more highly of ourselves. I think the intent behind this idea is probably good; clearly, self-derogatory thoughts are not constructive, and probably symptomatic of deeper spiritual problems. However, I wonder if M. Catherine Thomas is right when she says that “self-esteem” is a red herring, a distraction from deeper and more important spiritual truths.1

Where is the scriptural warrant for the importance of self-esteem? Where is the scriptural warrant to think about ourselves at all (good or bad)? Consider: whether we think badly of ourselves, or highly of ourselves, we are still thinking about ourselves. James Faulconer explains,

A poor self-image—like every self-image including a good one—is selfish. To be selfish is, by definition, to be self-centered, to place oneself at the center of things. But to be concerned about a self-image—good or bad—is also to place oneself at the center.2

C. S. Lewis gives an example when talking about humility. He agrees that the difference is not between thinking highly or poorly of yourself:

Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call “humble” nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody. … He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.

Scriptural Views of Self

Despite intense efforts, I have yet to find any scriptural support for the belief that positive self-thoughts are the cure for negative self-thoughts. In fact, the scriptures point the opposite direction. Let’s consider the teachings of King Benjamin, who said:

I would that ye should remember, and always retain in remembrance, the greatness of God, and your own nothingness, and his goodness and long-suffering towards you. …

If ye do this ye shall always rejoice, and be filled with the love of God, and always retain a remission of your sins. (Mosiah 4:11–12)

Thomas points out that Ammon is a perfect example of someone who obeyed this counsel, and received the promised blessing:

I do not boast in my own strength, nor in my own wisdom; but behold, my joy is full, yea, my heart is brim with joy, and I will rejoice in my God.

Yea, I know that I am nothing; as to my strength I am weak; therefore I will not boast of myself, but I will boast of my God, for in his strength I can do all things. (Alma 26:11–22)

Notice: Ammon thought nothing of himself, but was yet full of joy! Isn’t this a strange contrast to the philosophy that mortal happiness depends on a positive self-image? What is the secret? Ammon tells us: confidence in God. Thomas says it quite nicely:

For Ammon, it seems, the whole concept of self-esteem was irrelevant. Being filled with the love of God was of far greater worth than any sense of self-confidence. If one grand objective of earth life is to gain access to the grace of Jesus Christ for our trials and divine development, then we will immediately realize that self-confidence is a puny substitute for God-confidence.1

Indeed, the solution to a negative self-image is to reach outwards, and to look upwards, not to look inward. The qualitative difference between Ammon’s sense of nothingness and our own self-derogatory thoughts is that Ammon didn’t obtain his sense of nothingness from looking at himself or thinking about himself; he got his sense of nothingness from looking to God and thinking of others. The story of Moses’ conversation with God illustrates this quite nicely:

The presence of God withdrew from Moses, that his glory was not upon Moses; and Moses was left unto himself. And as he was left unto himself, he fell unto the earth.

And it came to pass that it was for the space of many hours before Moses did again receive his natural strength like unto man; and he said unto himself: Now, for this cause I know that man is nothing, which thing I never had supposed.

But now mine own eyes have beheld God; but not my natural, but my spiritual eyes, for my natural eyes could not have beheld; for I should have withered and died in his presence; but his glory was upon me; and I beheld his face, for I was transfigured before him. (Moses 1:9–11)

How We Become Aware of Our Nothingness

It was Moses’ encounter with the God that brought him to an awareness of his own nothingness, not his reflection on his weaknesses. It wasn’t because of a self-centered look inwards, but because of his relationship with the Savior and his newfound access to His grace. Thomas continues:

Some may not like the dichotomy between the pursuit of self-esteem and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Some may say that you can pursue and have both. But I do not find this idea of both pursuits in the scriptures. …

Low self-esteem is often associated with feelings of incapacity, or a sense of victimization, or the realization that we can’t make happen the opportunities, the approval, the feelings, etc., that we feel we need. But our relief comes when we realize that God has made us powerless so that as we cleaved unto him, he could work miracles in our lives.1

It is important to emphasize an distinction here: Moses, Ammon, and King Benjamin aren’t thinking badly of themselves when they speak of their own nothingness; they aren’t even thinking of themselves at all—they are thinking of God. Faulconer agrees with Thomas, and adds an important corollary:

It is important to reiterate that it is not only worrying about good self-image that is a problem. Having a bad self-image, being incapacitated by depression about one’s lack of ability, looks, relations with others, or anything else is despair, and despair denies God. Those doing those things recognize their weaknesses, but they do not add to that a remembrance of the goodness and long-suffering of the Lord. Bad self-image, depression about one’s lack of ability, looks, or relations with others are at best only ways of feigning our nothingness before God. On the other hand, a good self-image, self confidence, etc., are ways of feigning our confidence before him. Having a good self-image and having a bad one are mutually exclusive, but being aware of one’s nothingness and being confident before God are not only not mutually exclusive, they are also the same thing. For once I am aware of my nothingness I can begin to trust the Lord as I really ought, whole-heartedly and without reservation, and when I do that he gives me the confidence I need, confidence in him.

It strikes me that there is an irony concealed in the mutual incompatibility of good and bad self-images … for by making them mutually exclusive, we are able to think we can or must choose between them, that there are no other choices. Thinking that way, we are able to think we are doing something grand when we get over having a bad self-image by replacing it with a good one; we are able to persuade ourselves that we have genuinely changed and, thus, to make ourselves feel good without ever having given up self-centeredness that was the problem in the first place. But change without repentance isn’t real. It’s just more of the same old thing, but covered in a more socially acceptable garb. Thus, working at changing our bad self-image instead of learning to trust the Lord is little more than a way of filling ourselves with activities and thought that allow us to avoid repentance. In its masquerade as confidence, self-esteem resulting from a good self-image may well be the thing that prevents us from seeing our own dependence on God and the necessity of the Atonement.2

The Language of Zion

This seems like a bold claim. Perhaps, if it seems too bold, it is because we are accustomed to using words and terms borrowed from the philosophies of the world, rather than the words given us by the scriptures and the prophets. This ties directly into my previous post, “The Restoration of All Things.” Is there not a danger in superimposing the philosophies of the world onto the doctrines of the gospel? Ought we not to use the revelations of the Restoration to re-evaluate the prevailing dogmas of philosophy, psychology, or whatever our discipline may be? Faulconer explains:

The scriptures don’t speak of self-image, though they do speak of confidence. Perhaps part of the reason we are sometimes too quick to transport the “philosophies” of men into the gospel is that we are too quick to translate the terms of the gospel into terms that have their origin in the thought of the world. … What would our lessons be like if when we talked about esteem we talked about it in the scriptural sense, and when we talked about confidence or love we used the scriptures as our guide? Would anything be lost? Wouldn’t a great deal be gained by developing a religious language to talk about our religious experiences rather than borrowing from the discourses of our secular pursuits? … Armed with an unborrowed language for talking about our spiritual experience, might we not find that deepened religious experience in turn deepens our otherwise secular pursuits?2

I believe that we have been separated from a loving Father in Heaven through the Fall. Of course we are going to feel the pains of separation and a sense of loss and loneliness while we are in this world. This is why the Lord has promised to send us his Comforter, the gift of the Holy Spirit. I ask the same question M. Catherine Thomas asks: Is it possible that, seeking other sources of comfort than God’s grace, “we have created the whole issue of self-esteem in an attempt to soothe this fallen, homesick self?”1


1. M. Catherine Thomas, “The Doer of Our Deeds and the Speaker of Our Words,” BYU Speeches, 1993.
2. James Faulconer, “Self-image, Self-love, and Salvation.”
3. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, book 3, chapter 8: “The Great Sin.”


  1. Selfishness is an interesting topic.

    The battle between good and evil is really the battle between love and selfishness. Greed, pride, and envy are all children of selfishness.

    “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.” (Matthew 22:37)

    What does it mean to love? If you love someone, do you not care for that individual? Do you not try to help the individual succeed? Do you not try to help the individual find joy and happiness? Do you not sacrifice yourself for his or her sake? If we are to help God succeed in his plans and we wish for Him to find joy and happiness, what is it that He is trying to accomplish?

    “For behold, this is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” (Moses 1:39)

    From this scripture we find that His mission is focused on us. It is focused on our salvation, our progression. So, if we truly love Him, we will do whatever we can to help Him achieve success. Thus, we must concern ourselves with the spiritual well-being of all those with whom he concerns Himself. We must concern ourselves with the spiritual well-being of our brothers and sisters. But wait, we are missing someone – and we can’t successfully help Him unless we focus our attention on everyone that should receive this attention. So who is this missing someone? It is self. Because of His love for me, I must concern myself with my own spiritual welfare as well as my brothers and sisters. Is this selfish?

    “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” (Matthew 22:39)

    There are two wonderful lessons that this second great commandment teaches me. The easy lesson is that I must love everyone. Easy, yet profound if you consider the good versus evil, love versus selfishness parallel.

    The second lesson is a bit more subtle. “…as thyself.” So, if I hate myself I am at liberty to hate those around me? Not so fast. Going back to what was said a moment ago, can we hate what God loves? Perhaps the lesson here is that of balance.

    If putting yourself in the center is selfishness, what would putting everyone else in the center be? Love? Or self-hate? If the antithesis to love is selfishness, and putting everyone else in the center is not love, then would it be selfish? Is this feigned humility? A selfish martyrdom?

    So what is the right answer? Who should be placed at the center?

    What if true unselfish love is a matter of putting everyone in the center, self included.

  2. I read this article i , I’m a person i dont have self-confidence and self-esteem, so this article let my thinking its a good article 🙂

  3. M,

    Thanks for the comment! I appreciate your thoughts.

    I’m still not sure that I see the need to focus on ourselves, or to put ourselves at the center of our lives. It is true that the Lord’s purpose is to bring to pass our immortality; that is, the Lord is focused on us. But that doesn’t mean that we ought to put ourselves at the center of our lives. Elder Bednar reminds us that while God’s purpose is to bring to pass our immortality and eternal life, God tell us, “Behold, this is your work, to keep my commandments, yea, with all your might, mind and strength” (D&C 11:20; emphasis added).

    Faulconer makes an interesting point:

    Some defend the claim that self-love is necessary if we are to love others by referring to part of Leviticus 19:18: “Thou shalt love they neighbor as thyself.” After all, this scripture has been repeated by Christ several times, and it seems to refer to the necessity of self-love. But it is not clear that it does. In the first place, the scripture assumes that those to whom it is addressed love themselves, but it doesn’t command them to do so.

    … For example, we can imagine that I am an ambulance driver on an emergency run and someone says, “Drive as your teenage son does.” Clearly the person wants me to drive as he supposes my son does—speeding—but it is unlikely that he is also saying my son should drive that way. He has given me something to compare my driving to without approving—or disapproving—of the standard of comparison.

    By the same reasoning, the command to love another as myself is not a command to love myself. It assumes I do, and it tells me to use that as a standard for loving others. Without adding something to it that isn’t there, it says no more than that.

    I must make a point here: even if the scripture does imply that we should love ourselves (I don’t think it does), it is the only place in scripture that does (that I know of). The entire body of scripture seems to be exhorting us to forget ourselves in the service of others, and to remember our nothingness before God, our incapacity to achieve our own salvation witouth Christ, and our ineffectiveness at doing His work without divine grace. Indeed, if self-love is a true concept (I don’t believe it is), then certainly it gets inordinate or undue attention in our day, considering how little the scriptures talk of it.

    Certainly we should take care of ourselves. Why? Because, if we don’t, we won’t be around to serve others. I envy those with that kind of genuine charity, that genuine other-centeredness, who look out for themselves only because that is what is best for those around them. The opposite of selfishness is other-centeredness. Both self-love and self-hate are focused on the self, and thus not other-centeredness.


    Please remember that you are worth everything in God’s eyes. I don’t want to give anyone an excuse for self-hate, since, once again, self-hate is a focus on the self and a counterfeit of humility.

  4. “…I know that man is nothing…”
    “…I know that I am nothing…”

    We are all here striving to grow, to overcome, to be proven, to progress. What if such such observations are a way of marking one’s position along the journey and breaking free of any illusion or selfish delusion? A way to say, I know where I want to go and now that I know where I am, I now have a better idea how far I have yet to go.

    This nothingness spoken or written of is relative to Him. Relative to Him, we are nothing. Relative to His other creations, we are definitely not nothing. Why relate ourselves to Him? Because this is our objective, to become as He is. To relate ourselves to the animals of the field is to look down rather than up.

    Jeff: I’m still not sure that I see the need to focus on ourselves, or to put ourselves at the center of our lives.

    Exactly. It is exclusion that I take issue with. All should be put into the center. God is to be in the center, our neighbors are to be in the center, and we are to be in the center. Love is interconnected and circular.

  5. Jeff: Certainly we should take care of ourselves. Why? Because, if we don’t, we won’t be around to serve others.

    Abraham was a good example of this. He asked Sarah to deceive Pharoah so that he wouldn’t kill Abraham. And his motive? “That it may be well with me for thy sake” (Gen. 12:13). He only sought protection so he’d be in a position to take care of his wife.

  6. Nathan

    Good Point, maybe yes we need to take care of ourselves for the people around us, i think no to serve, just to be with the other. sometimes, the person you dont know cares more about,
    more of we care in ourselves.

    We should take care ourselves. Why? Because if we Dont, We Wont be around to LOVE others.

  7. Wow! Excellent article, Jeffrey. I’ve read it twice and want to read it again as well as the cited articles.

    I’d like to discuss: How can we really come to know our own nothingness? I believe it’s a process, like most gospel principles, but there must be specific ways to develop “God-confidence” such as through hope, faith, charity, humility, repentance, trust in the Lord.

    What do the rest of you think?

  8. Interesting questions! It’s always tempting to codify the process into a set methodology. I think the best way to come to know our own nothingness is to draw close to God. Having our own experiences with the Spirit and communicating with God on a regular basis will certainly remind us of our nothingness before Him, as it did Moses.

    I agree that hope, faith, charity, humility, repentance, and trust in God are crucial elements of the process.

  9. Rachel:There must be specific ways to develop “God-confidence.”

    Well, here’s one way:

    “Let thy bowels also be full of charity towards all men, and to the household of faith, and let virtue garnish thy thoughts unceasingly; then shall thy confidence wax strong in the presence of God; and the doctrine of the priesthood shall distil upon thy soul as the dews from heaven.” (D&C 121:45)

  10. Thanks Jeff and Nathan. I agree with what you said and appreciate the scripture.

    For anyone else interested I found and read all of James Faulconer’s talk, “Self-image, Self-love, and Salvation.” It was wonderful!

    In the Bible Dictionary under “God” it says:
    “God can be known only by revelation. He must be revealed, or remain forever unknown” and “that Jesus Christ is the only Way to God.”

    The other verses in Mosiah 4, 9-13 more fully explain what we must do.
    Verse 13 says, “And ye will not have a mind to injure one another, but to live peaceably…”

    Isaiah 11:9 states:
    “They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.”

    1 John 4:7-8
    “Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God.

    “He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love.”

    Thus gaining knowledge of God comes through Jesus Christ as we love and serve others.

    Another fascinating scripture that I think goes along with Jeff’s “Language of Zion” is 1 Corinthians 2:9-14

    “But as it is written, Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.

    “But God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit: for the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God.

    “For what man knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of man which is in him? even so the things of God knoweth no man, but the Spirit of God.

    “Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the spirit which is of God; that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God.

    “Which things also we speak, not in the words which man’s wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth; comparing spiritual things with spiritual.

    “But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.”


  11. Awesome scriptures! Thanks!

    It’s way cool when our readers do research of their own, and also when they read our original source materials! I hope this post was true to the intent of Faulconer’s article.

  12. About Rachel’s question about how can we come to know our own nothingness:

    One of my favorite scriptures is Ether 12:27: “And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them.”

    Elder Maxwell in April 1995 conference talk said that in this God *promises* to show us our weakness (Deny Yourselves of All Ungodliness, Ensign May 1995).

    Not only does that scripture say that we can see our true capacity (weak) when we come to God, but if we humble ourselves, he can make that, which is weak in us, strong. Confidence is not mentioned here, but humility is. I like the idea that Lewis had, which was cited above. At least partially humility is the will to place ourselves in the service of God – losing ourselves in service of others as a way of finding ourselves. Our weakness contributes to our humility, and humility contributes to God-confidence.

  13. Thanks Velska, these are great scriptures and quotes. Humility really is a necessary gospel principle. To be charitable we must have humility; to accept Christ we need humility; to repent we must humble ourselves.

    Here’s another great scripture for knowing God:

    “For strait is the gate, and narrow the way that leadeth unto the exaltation and continuation of the lives, and few there be that find it, because ye receive me not in the world neither do ye know me.

    “But if ye receive me in the world, then shall ye know me, and shall receive your exaltation; that where I am ye shall be also.

    “This is eternal lives—to know the only wise and true God, and Jesus Christ, whom he hath sent. I am he. Receive ye, therefore, my law.

    “Broad is the gate, and wide the way that leadeth to the deaths; and many there are that go in thereat, because they receive me not, neither do they abide in my law” (D&C 132:22-25)

  14. “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” (Matthew 22:39)

    I have enjoyed reading this series of writings very much and have gained so much strength from the words given.

    I remembered reading C.S. Lewis’s book ” Mere Christianity ” where C.S. Lewis explained his thoughts on how one can ‘ love thy neighbour as thyself. ‘ His explanations were, to me, quite convincing and helpful in my understandings.

    I have just rummaged through my book shelves and found the book – Chapter 7 ” Forgiveness ” – here I go, dropping a few quote lines from the book which I loved reading.

    Quotes –

    ” Well how exactly do I love myself … I have not exactly got a feeling of fondness or affection for myself, and I do not even always enjoy my own society. So apparently ‘love your neighbour’ does not mean feel fond of him or find him attractive.

    Do I think well of myself, think myself as a nice chap ? well I am afraid I sometimes do but that is not why I love myself. In fact it is the other way round : my self-love makes me think myself nice, but thinking myself nice is not why I love myself.

    So loving my enemies does not apparently mean thinking them nice either…. for a good many people imagine that forgiving your enemies means making out that they are really not such bad fellows after all, when it is quite plain they are.

    Go a step further. In my most clear-sighted moments not only do I not think myself a nice man, but I know I am a very nasty one. I can look at some of the things I have done with horror and loathing. So apparently I am allowed to loathe and hate some of the things my enemies do….. I must hate a bad man’s actions, but not hate the bad man: or as they say, hate the sin not the sinner.

    How could you hate what a man did and not hate the man ? … it occurred to me that there was one man to whom I had been doing this all my life – namely myself. However much I disliked my own cowardice or conceit or greed, I went on loving myself. There had never been the slightest difficulty about it. In fact the very reason why I hated the things was that I loved the man. Just because I loved myself, I was sorry to find that I was the sort of man who did those things…

    Christianity does not want us to reduce by one atom the hatred we feel for cruelty and treachery. We ought to hate them…. but it does want us to hate them in the way in which we hate things in ourselves : being sorry that the man should have done such things, and hoping, if it is anyway possible, that somehow, sometime, somewhere he can be cured and made human again. ……..

    Even while we kill and punish we must try to feel about the enemy as we feel about ourselves – to wish that he were not bad, to hope that he may, in this world or another, be cured : in fact to wish his good. That is what is meant in the Bible by loving him: wishing his good, not feeling fond of him nor saying he is nice when he is not….

    I admit that this means loving people who have nothing lovable about them. But then, has oneself anything lovable about it ? You love it simply because it is yourself. God intends us to love all selves in the same way and for the same reason: but He has given us the sum ready worked out in our own case to show us how it works. We have then to go on and apply the rule to all the other selves. Perhaps it makes it easier if we remember that that is how He loves us. Not for any nice attractive qualities we think we have, but just because we are the things called selves. ”

    C.S. Lewis – Mere Christianity.

    I hope that this adds to the stimulating thoughts already said.

  15. Ross, I love that passage in Mere Christianity! It was one of my favorite parts the first time I read it. It helped me breath a sigh of relief, knowing that I wasn’t a failure just because I couldn’t constantly generate feelings of affection or fondness for some people. That didn’t necessarily mean I wasn’t loving them; it sometimes meant I was seeing the situation truthfully, and was just disappointed.

  16. Another perspective on what it means that man is “nothing”…

    Look at it this way. Being ‘nothing’ means that you are not bad, you are not good, you are nothing. The power of the atonement allows us to be ‘nothing’ rather than something. Realize that every day is a new beginning. There is no yesterday, there is no tomorrow… there is only now. Today you are nothing… make something out of that – make the decision to be gods and goddesses.

    The nothingness of man is a great thing because out of nothing can come greatness beyond measure.


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