Does faith stem from self-confidence?

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Because of the discouragement that many of us feel in the face of the tremendous tasks before us, and the tragic self-disparagement in which that so many of us so frequently engage in (at the adversary’ behests encouragement), we often place value on self-esteem in the Church. A strong corollary of self-esteem is self-confidence, at term discussed by social scientists as self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is a belief that we have the abilities to perform the tasks required of us.

Self-efficacy, however, can also be considered a form of “putting one’s trust in the arm of the flesh,” and, as such, can be contrasted with divine humility, or perhaps Christ-efficacy — a belief that Christ, through us or others, can perform the tasks necessary for the salvation of man. This involves an intimate recognition of our own inadequacies and our total reliance on Christ, while at the same time studying diligently to be sharper instruments in His hands.

The hidden worldview: Self-efficacy

Self-confidence and self-efficacy is vital part of faith and success.

A strong sense of self-efficacy is considered by most psychologists to be as important as having a high self-esteem.  Self-efficacy is the belief that success is something within our power, because of our natural ability, intelligence, practiced skill, or preparation. Albert Bandura, the originator of Self-Efficacy Theory, argues that “beliefs of personal efficacy constitute the key factor of human agency,” in part because “if people believe that they have no power to produce results, they will not attempt to make things happen.”((Bandura, Albert. “Self-efficacy: toward a unifying theory of behavioral change.” Psychological review 84, no. 2 (1977): 191.)) We are only act when we believe the desired outcome is within our reach, as a consequence of our actions. Bandura further explains:

Unless people believe they can produce desired effects by their actions, they have little incentive to act. Efficacy belief, therefore, is a major basis of action. People guide their lives by their beliefs of personal efficacy.((Bandura, A. (1997). Self- efficacy: The exercise of control. United States of America: W.H. Freeman and Company.))

In other words, we have to feel as if we have some measure of control over the outcome of the things we choose to do.  According to Bandura, “a resilient sense of efficacy enables individuals to do extraordinary things by productive use of their skills in the face of overwhelming obstacles.”((Bandura, A. (1997). Self- efficacy: The exercise of control. United States of America: W.H. Freeman and Company.)) That is because individuals with self-efficacy confidently pursue their desired goals, because they are convinced that their actions will make a difference. Bandura contrasts self-efficacy with reliance on divine power:

People have always striven to control the events that affect their lives. … In primitive times, when people had a limited understanding of the world around them and few ways to alter its workings, they appealed to supernatural agents who were believed to wield control over their lives. People practiced elaborate rituals and codes of conduct in an attempt to gain favor from, or protection against, supernatural powers.

The growth of knowledge over the course of human history greatly enhanced people’s ability to predict events and to exercise control over them. Belief in supernatural systems of control gave way to conceptions that acknowledged people’s power to shape their own destiny. Human ingenuity and endeavor supplanted conciliating rituals to deities as the way to change the conditions of life.((Bandura, A. (1997). Self- efficacy: The exercise of control. United States of America: W.H. Freeman and Company.))

In these passages, Bandura contrasts self-efficacy with (presumably primitive, unenlightened) belief systems that attribute human success to deities, fate, or other such outside forces. In contrast, he argues, human success is within human reach. By viewing human achievement as being a product of human action alone, we feel less inclined to blame outside forces for our failures, or to generate excuses for underachievement. We are more likely to press forward in spite of obstacles, and to search for ways around setbacks.

According to research, one of the best ways to help individuals increase their sense of self-efficacy is to invite them to set reachable goals, and to help them accomplish those goals through deliberate planning and practice. Through this, individuals begin to attribute their success to their own activities, rather than to outside forces. In a very real sense, the idea of self-efficacy is strongly connected to the idea of self-mastery and self-control. Those with a strong sense of self-efficacy feel as if they are in control of their lives. While much of the psychological research literature on self-efficacy can be highly technical and filled with complex jargon, the basic gist of the idea can be easily seen in the advice we are commonly given to just “believe in yourself” and “imagine, believe, and achieve!”

An alternative: Christ-efficacy

Acknowledging our total dependence on God is the first step towards sharing in His power.

Self-efficacy can be contrasted with confidence before God, or what could be termed, “Christ-efficacy.” Our goal is not confidence in our own abilities to affect change in the world, but rather to serve God with an eye single to His glory. Ultimately, our confidence must be placed in Him. From the perspective of Christ-efficacy, He becomes the protagonist of our story — and we are only side characters. Christ taught, “For whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted” (Luke 14:11).

In other words, we need to invite God to “open [our] eyes, that [we] may see” the heavenly forces that are ready to assist us in the work set before us. In the Old Testament, when Syrian forces surrounded Elisha and his servant, his servant asked, “Alas, my master! How shall we do?” Elisha didn’t respond, “Don’t worry, we have the power to survive this. We can do it!” He didn’t try to boost the self-confidence of his servant. Instead, he said, “Fear not: for they that be with us are more than they that be with them” (2 Kings 6:15-16). In other words, Elisha was serenely confident in the face of danger, but not because of any sense of personal self-efficacy. It was because he was confident in God.

We see this pattern in the scriptures repeatedly. When Nephi’s brothers claimed that it was impossible to get the scriptural records from Laban, Nephi didn’t say, “I’m confident in our ability to do this.” Rather, he said, “Let us be faithful in keeping the commandments of the Lord; for behold he is mightier than all the earth, then why not mightier than Laban and his fifty, yea, or even than his tens of thousands?” (2 Nephi 4:1). That is not self-confidence, but confidence in God. Paul taught, “he that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord” (2 Cor. 10:17). Ammon’s acknowledgement of God’s hand in his missionary activities follows this same pattern — he didn’t attribute his success to his own planning and practice, but to God’s hand in their lives. He said, “Blessed be the name of our God; let us sing to his praise, yea, let us give thanks to his holy name, for he doth work righteousness forever” (Alma 26:8). When accused of boasting, he replied:

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; yea, behold, many mighty miracles we have wrought in this land, for which we will praise his name forever. (Alma 26:11-12)

We can see in Ammon’s response the distinction between self-efficacy and Christ-efficacy, or the difference between self-confidence and confidence before God. Ammon knows that alone, he can do no miracles. But with God, he can do anything God wants him to do. And he knows that it is God who deserves the credit and the glory.

For this reason, we believe that Latter-day Saints will view any attempts to increase an individual’s sense of self-efficacy as, at best, incomplete — particularly in matters of personal salvation and Gospel service. Those who see their success  in their endeavors as due to planning and practice (rather than to forces outside of their control) will enjoy greater motivation, greater perseverance in the face of disappointment, and more long-term success. But this is only a mortal, secular approach to pursuing temporal goals. When pursuing the work of God — which can include missionary work, ministering in the course of our callings, raising a family in righteousness, and (with a consecrated heart) even our professional endeavors — we need more than self-efficacy. We need to learn to see the hand of God in our efforts and to attribute success to His grace and blessing. BYU Professor M. Catherine Thomas perhaps put it says it best when she said: “Self-confidence is a puny substitute for God-confidence.”((M. Catherin Thomas, “The Doer of Our Deeds and the Speaker of Our Words,” BYU Devotional, Dec. 7, 1993.))

Christ says,  “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” (Ether 12:27). Our weakness (note the use of the singular noun) can become our strength precisely because it is our weakness that reveals our need for Christ. Our weakness — and our powerlessness without God — become the means by which Christ draws us to Him. M. Catherine Thomas explains:

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.((M. Catherin Thomas, “The Doer of Our Deeds and the Speaker of Our Words,” BYU Devotional, Dec. 7, 1993.))

In fact, the Book of Mormon teaches that is in only because of God’s power in our lives that we can do lasting good at all. Mormon’s son Moroni wrote, “[I]f there be one among you that doeth good, he shall work by the power and gifts of God” (Moroni 10:25). We can strive to do good in the world on our own strength and ingenuity; but lasting, eternal good can only be accomplished with God’s power. We can’t “oomph,” by our own ungraced efforts, God’s kingdom forward. Dallin H. Oaks shares a story about his earlier years as an apostle that we believe illustrates this principle:

A few months after my calling to the Council of the Twelve, I expressed my feelings of inadequacy to one of the senior members of my quorum. He responded with this mild reproof and challenging insight: “I suppose your feelings are understandable. But you should work for a condition where you will not be preoccupied with yourself and your own feelings and can give your entire concern to others, to the work of the Lord in all the world.((Dallin H. Oaks, Pure in Heart (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1988).))

Whenever we focus on ourselves, even in our service to others, we fall short of the example of our Savior, who gave himself as a total and unqualified sacrifice for all mankind. Those who seek to follow his example must lose themselves in their service to others.

In this story, Elder Oaks confirms Faulconer’s suspicions (discussed in another installment in this series, Self-esteem vs. Christ-esteem) that a good self-image is no self-image, and that the solution to a poor self-image is not to think more highly of the self, but to cease thinking of the self at all. Further, when faced with feelings of inadequacy, the key is to use those experiences are catalysts for turning to Christ and relying on His grace and power instead of our own — and to thereby allow Him to work miracle through us.

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