Praying When You Have Low Self-Esteem

Praying When You Have Low Self-Esteem August 30, 2010

A thoughtful commenter to my post What Is Prayer? expressed his concern that he’s essentially not good enough to come to God with his problems and prayers.

“God’s focus is deserved so much more by the millions with bigger issues [than mine],” he wrote. “Can anyone recommend a good book on the topic of prayer for people with low self-esteem?”

So, a quick word on that.

It’s certainly understandable and even very touching for a person to feel that before they come before God they should in some way be more worthy than they are. But the bottom line is that if everyone waited until they were pure of spirit and/or body before they came to God in prayer, God would have so much free time on his hands he’d probably create a whole race of beings who are pure, just so he’d have someone to talk to. But until he does that, God is stuck for company with us humans. And the absolute purest amongst us (whomever that might be) is still, at their core, so craven, selfish, greedy, mean-spirited, egotistical, vain, envious, vengeful, etc., etc., that their only hope is the same as ours: to humbly come before God, beseeching him for his mercy and light.

No man is so pure of heart and spirit that he deserves to come before God. We turn to God for our salvation not because we are worth that salvation, but because God has freely offered it to us despite our being … well, us.

The point is: You can’t be “pure.” The word actually has no meaning relative to the state of the human soul or consciousness. Water can be pure. Heroin can be pure (evil). Gold can be pure. The only thing any of us can ever be is an impenetrable, undecipherable, ever-fluctuating mass of infinite contradictions.

No one achieves cleanliness; no one gains clarity. The only people whose vision never wavers are the blind.

Besides, God has no business with anyone who thinks they’re pure. (Because such a person is rarely if ever interested in God, since they find themselves in all ways satisfactory. If it ain’t broke, why fix it?) God wants those who are broken; who are lost, desperate, afraid, weak, sad, lonely. He wants deeply tweaked people to come before him, to believe in him, to present themselves to him, to finally ask him for the miraculous grace of his healing salvation. Even people who barely know anything at all about the Bible know that Jesus, the Great Healer, preferred the company of prostitutes, winos, and blood-sucking, vulture-like tax collectors over the company of those who in Jesus’ time were considered the purest people around: the righteously pious, the religiously scrupulous, the “wise” and knowing men of the church.

The self-declared guardians of the Right and Proper are the only people in the Bible toward whom Jesus ever showed out-and-out fury. Everyone else—all the normal, broken people—he loved. In fact, the less obviously lovable a person seemed to be, the more Jesus seemed to love them.

Never, ever fear that you’re too “impure” to, whenever you’re ready, fall on your knees before God. God loves everyone, at any time, exactly as they are. Period.


When the sun was setting, all those who had any sick with various diseases brought them to him; and he laid his hands on every one of them, and healed them.—Luke 4:40

A woman who had a flow of blood for twelve years, who had spent all her living on physicians, and could not be healed by any, came behind him, and touched the fringe of his cloak, and immediately the flow of her blood stopped. Jesus said, “Who touched me?” When all denied it, Peter and those with him said, “Master, the multitudes press and jostle you, and you say, ‘Who touched me?’”But Jesus said, “Someone did touch me, for I perceived that power has gone out of me.” When the woman saw that she was not hidden, she came trembling, and falling down before him declared to him in the presence of all the peoplethe reason why she had touched him, and how she was healed immediately. He said to her, “Daughter, cheer up. Your faith has made you well. Go in peace.”—Luke 8:43-48

After this, Jesus went out and saw a tax collector by the name of Levi sitting at his tax booth. “Follow me,” Jesus said to him, and Levi got up, left everything and followed him. Then Levi held a great banquet  for Jesus at his house, and a large crowd of tax collectors and others were eating with them. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who belonged to their sect complained to his disciples, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and ‘sinners’?”Jesus answered them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.”—Luke 5:27-31

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  • I would think that God would prefer the prayers of people with low self-esteem for the very reasons you mention. None of us is pure, and someone who esteems himself is just too proud or blind to see it. I'm sure God would much rather hear from someone is humble and knows that he is nothing compared to the person he's addressing.

    (Can you tell I hate the term "self-esteem"? I wish everyone would stop talking about how to teach our kids self-esteem. I don't want a generation of people who think highly of themselves, especially when they spent so much time learning self-esteem that they didn't learn any skills they can be proud of. But that's a comment for a different post.)

  • Argy-bargy

    I have changing self-esteem like some people have wild mood swings. Sometimes it's good, many times bad. I've certainly prayed for better "self-esteem" but I'd love to know what that really means. Regardless, I'm still just as insecure as I was before, so I'm probably asking for the wrong thing 'cause I don't think I'm getting it from Him. 🙂

  • Argy-bargy

    I'm with you, Shannon. It's such an over-used term as to render it nearly meaningless, I think. If it means a healthy does of self love, confidence in oneself and especially one's worth, and an unwillingness to allow others to demean and dehumanize me, then I think I understand and accept the concept. (A wise priest I once spoke to said, "Pride is exaggerated self love." Love it.)

    If self-esteem means permissiveness, entitlement, egotism, overbearingness, and even arrogance, then no, there's no place for that concept in teaching our kids.

    Thanks for pointing this out.

  • Very well said, John.

  • Sushi

    There is a difference between having insecurities and being insecure. Everyone has insecurities, but there are people who are still "secure" in who they are overall, despite the parts of themselves or their lives to which they may be insecure. That's what I guess good self – esteem is…Being content with who one is, in the "overall" sense, not in a haughty or conceited way, but a sense of self that is steady – one's self perception isn't "good" or "bad" based on external factors – other people's views or the world's definition of success, attractiveness, etc. I can feel okay about myself, then feel like crap b/c of something I perceive of as rejection occurs.

    Healthy self-esteem is not based on what one has earned or has accomplished – that would be far to fleeting. Rather, it's a self-love that enables one to truly give and accept love. That's what I want and I think God would want that as well.

    But, like you Argy-Bargy, I haven't quite gotten it from Him, at least not in the way I've wanted to. I think it's a process of hard work. I didn't get insecure in a day, a week, a year or even a decade, so it's a journey. People will tell me, "just think positively" and that it's about attitude….but I say, look at people who try to quit smoking – NOT EASY, and smoking wasn't something that became ingrained in someone's formative years as do self-esteem issues (usually.)

    I just want to be gald I was born.

  • Sushi

    Disregard that last line…

  • Ace

    Yea, you aren't the only one who hates that term. I come from the "self-esteem" generation and I see a lot of straight-up narcissism in my peers now even as adults, and I think the 80's and 90's "self-esteem" fad has a lot to do with it.

    I think it's just better to teach children respect for both themselves and other people around them than "self-esteem" (compare the timeless Mister Rogers to the sugar-coated horridness that is Barney & Friends if you want to see the difference between the two). But then, what do I know.

  • Argy-bargy

    Very well put, and thank you.

  • Argy-bargy

    Another thing I've often heard: You should not suffer from lack of "self-esteem" because if God loves you, then you must have sufficient worth in His eyes because you are one of His children. No, we can never measure up to pure standards of holiness (as John states quite well above). Although I don't ascribe to bumper-sticker philosophy, the concept is embodied by the phrase "And God don't make no junk!"

    And yet, I still often feel that certain "God-shaped hole" inside, despite my prayers for Him to fill it. I was rebuked once for stating that I felt different because and somehow not deserving of His love and accused of being egotistical for thinking so. Yeah, I guess that's one way of looking at it.

    Like many, however, I constantly search and evaluate all the claims about God and what He wants for us, and find the explanations…wanting.

    Is it self-esteem to believe that I am entitled to the truth, and I just ain't seen it yet?

  • Jeanine

    In Matthew 5:8 in the Sermon on the mount Jesus said, "Blessed are the pure in heart, For they shall see God." If nobody can be pure, then why did he say this?

    I agree with you that none of us is pure from birth; we are all sinners and have no right to approach God. "There is none who does good, no, not one." Not one of us is more deserving than any other. I would not characterize this as 'low self-esteem'. I would say that this is a right understanding of who we are and who God is.

    But the Bible talks about some who are righteous, and pure, who will inherit the kingdom and who can come boldly to the throne room of God with their prayers. These are the ones who have believed in the atonement of Jesus. His blood has paid the debt for sins and those who believe are made 'pure' in the eyes of the Lord. Not because of anything they have done, but because of what Christ has done for them.

    Hebrews 10: 17-27 then He adds, "Their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more." 18 Now where there is remission of these, there is no longer an offering for sin. 19 Therefore, brethren, having boldness to enter the Holiest by the blood of Jesus, 20 by a new and living way which He consecrated for us, through the veil, that is, His flesh, 21 and having a High Priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful.

  • Maybe to say you are "entitled" to the truth is self-esteem, but if you say you believe in truth and you're searching for it (which is what it sounds like you're saying), it's more an issue of hope. Incidentally, I believe that people who come to truth with a bit of a struggle on the way tend to have a deeper faith when they find it than those who believe without ever questioning.

    I also believe that we have worth in God's eyes — after all, He died to have a restored relationship with us — but nothing we do gives us that worth. He loves me despite who I am, not because of who I am. So even recognizing our worth in His eyes should encourage us to praise Him rather than esteeming ourselves.

  • Sushi

    Lovely, Shannon.

    Thanks for adding.

  • I love you, John Shore.


  • Argy-bargy

    Yes, *sigh* I am searching for the truth, and feel farther away from it for all the effort, sometimes. But this was beautifully put. Thank you.

  • Diana A.


    Self-esteem, self-respect, and prayer.

    Esteem and respect are actually synonyms, but I prefer the term self-respect because it's more down-to-earth.

    To me, self-respect does not mean placing oneself on a pedestal. Actually, I consider self-respect and humility (a down-to-earth attitude) to be different sides of the same coin–the coin of a realistic self-assessment. As people, we are neither the scum of the earth nor God on High, but someplace between those two extremes. It's good to respect ourselves enough to take thoughtful action in the world (and good, incidentally, to respect others enough to consider them when we are taking those thoughtful actions) and it is also good for us to be down-to-earth enough to know and accept that sometimes those thoughtful actions are going to result in abject failure despite our best efforts.

    As for how this relates to prayer, I believe that anything that stands in the way of coming to God in prayer needs to be jettisoned–including a low self-image. Part of faith is realizing that God loves us even if we are the scum of the earth. This means God welcomes our prayers.

  • Diana A.

    And once again I forgot to mark the box to get comments. Phooey!

  • I am not a Christian, and right now I'm very glad i am not.

    If I believed for one moment that humankind is *inherently* low-down and depraved — that moral badness (or goodness, for that matter) could be something that the bad (or good) person hadn't had any choice about being — during that moment I would kill myself.

  • So, despite yourself, you are never selfish, greedy, mean-spirited, egotistical, vain, envious, vengeful, covetous, self-destructive, depraved. You never lie; you never cheat; you never steal; you never take advantage. You are in full control of your moral condition. Nothing bests your will; no temptation compromises your thoughts or behavior. You are never "bad," for the simple reason that you choose not to be. Admirable person, you! Lucky!

  • Gail

    I'm reading this differently. By "not worthy," I think the original poster meant his concerns weren't significant enough to merit God's attention, not that he wasn't pure enough to pray to God. When you consider the needs and prayers of a person with terminal illness, loss of a loved one, etc., it seems almost silly to bother God about "trivial" matters like finding a job, finding a spouse, or money troubles.

  • I read it the same as you, Gail, and I was just talking about this with some friends yesterday, as we feel like we tend to do the same…feel like ungrateful brats, coming to God with problems and requests that seem measly compared to the millions of people who need food, shelter, or any number of things I barely have to think about. I think, though, that we forget that God doesn't have only a finite amount of "help" in him; it's not as if there's only so much to go around and we should let the hurtingest people go first and shut up & make do with what we have.

    I think, too, it's easy to assume that we know what our biggest issues are, and need to filter them before we bring them to God, so as to help him help us best. The thing is, God knows us and all our issues–big, small, past, present, future, etc–and in the end what he really wants most is US. He wants to help us, yes, but he wants to be more than a vending machine that gives out treats when we press the right buttons. Relationship and all that.

    Good post, John.

  • Gina Powers

    Eeeeek….John, bro, sounding a weee little bit like "Way of the Master" there…just sayin'. But otherwise, I LOVED this and reposted on my FB. Outstanding post, as usual! 😉

  • Gina Powers

    Yeah, I thought that too, Gail and skerrib…..and I'm sorry, but I think God cares about ALL of our "stuff"…'cuz hey, God is IN the small stuff, ya know…;).

  • I never said that I didn't ever choose (even unconsciously) to do wrong.

    Why do you imagine that I said any such thing?

    If I could never choose to do wrong —

    like the imagined person you sarcastically describe,

    or like the "pure species" that John Shore imagines God might create —

    such choicelessness wouldn't be morally "pure": as it would not be moral in nature.

    Where there is no choice, and no possibility of choice, there is no morality.

    If we decide that all the bad things we do are things we could not have chosen to do, but are just a part of us that we cannot choose not to have, then we are (horrendously) saying that they are not bad things at all because we could not have done otherwise: we were just "born bad," or "born as mistakes," or some such thing.

    I can't buy into that — and I wouldn't buy into it, if I could.

  • Yeah, I did sort of veer off onto a tangent here…. Oh, well. Monday.

  • Of the great many Christian organizations with which I've had dealings, I hold none in regard so low as I do "Way of the Master." To me, they're the absolute, no-contest worst.

    I think that's the closest I've ever come to deleting a comment without actually doing it.

  • Gina Powers

    LOL!! Now, John, chill out…;). First of all I said it sounded a WEE bit like them because, well, it sorta did (but that's MY take), and second of all, note that I said I looooovvveed this blog and REPOSTED it on my FB. You're risking tossing out the baby with the bathwater, etc., etc. Was just taking note of that one comment you had there–and was REALLY hoping that you weren't into WOTM…which, thankfully, you are NOT. And you answered a question that I ended up not having to ask–so it's all good. YOU ARE LOVED!! 🙂

    By the way, if anyone here hasn't done so yet, you might like to stop by to see the insanity that is WOTM–because we all need a cheap laugh now and then. "Non-confrontational BARBEQUE"???? Oh pullleassseeee…..John is straight-on with his assessment of these loons…..

  • Gina Powers

    Yeah, I know, DR–and upon reflection, I should have given more thought to my initial post. Just a few things I caught from John's comment–and there was NOTHING wrong at all with John's comment, you were right; I "heard" something different–reminded me of some things I had seen on the WOTM site. Again, I was completely wrong, and my apologies to John. Can I plead temporary insanity? 😉 Heck, I must've had temporary insanity to have even REMEMBERED stuff from the WOTM clowns anyway! 🙂

  • Liz

    Thanks for sharing this. It helped me.

  • Gina Powers

    That is beautiful, Phil–thank you.

  • DR

    We all have our opinions, no worries. I've drawn some fairly extreme conclusions myself. Sometimes forums like these are places where we actually learn how and what we think. I've realized more than once here while I may have tried something on for size opinion-wise, I realize if it's a good fit or not.

  • Well put, Jeanine.

  • textjunkie

    Funny–I was reading an English version of the Ramayana the other day, and there’s a point where the king is dying, and his sons are really upset and angry and sad about the impending loss of their father. The sage says to them that they should go pray, and one of them angrily asks what good THAT will do, what’s the point of praying for their father, he’s dying and God isn’t going to change that–and the sage says: Pray for yourself. Pray that you will be able to handle what is coming, and what is demanded of you, that you will be in the right spiritual place. The best thing you can do is be in touch with God at this point and always.

    Which is kind of what I’ve thought was true about prayer–whether “you get what you ask for” or not, you’re in touch with God. Whether you’re worthy or not, you’re putting yourself in the presence of God and being actively aware of it.

  • DR

    Gina with all due respect, saying this sounds like Way of the Master is saying Russian sounds a wee bit like Pig Latin.

  • DR

    (Though in fairness, we all *hear* things differently).

  • Let me offer my own “insider’s perspective” on the self-esteem issue. Growing up as an overly sensitive child in an evangelical home, here’s what Christianity meant to me: 1) Eternal insecurity. I sang “Be careful little hands, what you do,” not because I really thought God was “looking down in love,” but because I knew He was watching my every move, ready to either slap my hand, or set off the trumpet blast that would send me to hell for eternity. 2) Self-denial. Always put yourself last. Never express a desire for anything that might be fun or cost money, because this is selfish and sinful. 3) Lack of affirmation: Be quick to criticize (to protect those you love from ever making mistakes) and avoid positive affirmations, which inevitably lead to pride.

    The result? I lived my life in continual awareness of critical, disapproving eyes following me everywhere I went. If I heard someone laugh, I assumed they were laughing at me. If they whispered, I knew they were whispering about me. If someone glanced in my direction, the blood rushed to my head, and I felt as if I were standing naked at center stage, with a spotlight on me, exposing all my deficiencies and failures for everyone to see. My whole life revolved around avoiding risk, and hiding my shameful self from everyone else. With this mindset, prayer was almost non-existent. As far as I was concerned, God was either too busy with other more “spiritual people” to have any time for me, or He was so disgusted with my deficiencies that He could barely stand to look at me.

    Mercifully, all that began to change when I had what I can only describe as a “God encounter”. One evening while I was alone with my thoughts, I had an overwhelming sensation that God was in the room – not in the sense that an omnipresent God is always everywhere – but in the sense that He had just dropped everything else in the universe so that he could give me, and only me, a few minutes of his 100% personal, undivided attention. The momentary rush of fear-induced adrenaline quickly gave way to an overwhelming sense of love and peace, and 29 years later, my life has never been the same.

    Two things happened in that moment. First, my fear of having my deficiencies exposed began to melt away, as I realized that I was being loved by the One who knew me at my worst. Instead of avoiding prayer because I feared God’s reaction to my latest failure, I realized His omniscience meant that whatever I had done couldn’t possibly have surprised Him, and therefore couldn’t change how He felt towards me. Amazingly, God’s omniscience became a source of comfort, rather than fear.

    Second, I came to recognize that in spite of how insignificant I may think I am, I have God’s complete, undivided attention every time I pray. Impossible from our perspective, but I’m convinced that an infinite God who operates outside of time doesn’t ever have to divide His attention. He isn’t distracted by crashing galaxies, or checking his text messages, or even 6 billion other people praying at the same time. He’s able to focus, and when I’m praying, He’s making unbroken eye contact with me.

    I don’t know if my story is of any help to the person who asked the question, but I pray that he’ll have his own unique “God encounter” as I did. For me, the book “Enjoying Intimacy with God” by J. Oswald Sanders was an affirmation of the new understanding that came out of my experience. For others who may relate to some of the Christianity-induced self-esteem issues I’ve discussed, the book “The Dangers of Growing Up in a Christian Home” by Donald Sloat was tremendously healing.

  • Diana A.

    Beautiful. Thank you for sharing this.

  • John,

    I originally typed "low prayer-esteem". That got changed somehow. Maybe in my sleep. I once caught myself "sleep-eating", waking-up with a mouth full of fried chicken, so it's not beyond belief.

    But your point is dead-on.

    For the last 24 hours, I've tried to pray. Got off to a rough start. It helped to focus on a single subject: my 86 yr old father and his struggles with aging, his 70 year ongoing struggles reconciling his (bad) relationship with his long-dead father and his current fight against cancer. I spent part of this weekend with him and he was wobbly and sad, though still mobile. Aging's a bitch.

    So training wheels are on – pray about one topic at a time.

    Thanks for the beautiful piece.

  • I'm bipolar. "Bipolar mixed state" actually, so instead of the cyclic moods that many bipolars go through, I've got the more dangerous type where my mood swings on the turn of a dime. The self-esteem stuff is a part of that. Some days I feel like "I am who I am, I believe what I believe, I like what I like and if the world doesn't like it, it can kiss my bum." Other days, I wonder if I really *am* holding the progress of the world back, and/or being a useless burden on my loved ones and society and wonder if I should die. I *have* been suicidal at points in my life and often think about death when I'm in depression.

    There are ways to cope with the depressed moods – seeking out someone who cares about me and makes me laugh is good. Trying to remember that it's a temporary state and will pass if I just hold on is good, too. I also take my medication every day – it doesn't get rid of the moodswings by a long shot, but it keeps me from hurting people/myself.

    I tend to wonder why God allows us these ailments in the first place. Call it the whole "atheist argument" doubt. I am not an atheist and do not want to be – fine for those who want to be, but I actually like being a part of the "Evil Empire" of Christianity. Still, I get to wonder why He allows us to suffer so much – such as being born with flawed brain chemistry. Then, I start to think things like, "maybe there's a good reason for this" and "Maybe some of us aren't as flawed as the world wants us to think." Although I'm so far failed finanically at it, I am an artist and a writer. I do some unusual painting, unusual mediums and subjects, was born to a blue collar family so I couldn't afford to go to the "right" schools, and I like to write fantasy novels and the publishing market is tough and I haven't broken through…. (right now, I work part time mucking horse stables, but I actually enjoy my job). I still do the artistic stuff and I think that my illness helps sometimes. The depressive moods give me some beautifully melcholic ideas about the world, and the "manic" moods give me the energy to paint or type away to do the work and be prolific (even if most of the world doesn't actually care about my work yet). I enjoy the work itself, and, in my better moods (I seem to be in a good mood today), I think that maybe what the world calls an illness in me, a weakness, a flaw (and that which keeps me from holding any kind of "normal" job) – is actually a trade-off for the creativity I experience, or, at least something I can harness (and ride like a wild horse).

    So, I don't even know if, in my case, it's even appropriate to pray for my disorder to go away or be healed. I wonder if I was meant to have it.

  • cat rennolds

    as a parent and educator: self-esteem is what you give kids under 3. Unconditional love, absolute affirmation. acknowlegement of their uniqueness and talents. It's totally crucial to developing self-respect, which is what you give kids by praising hard work, persistence, determination and effort even in the face of failure. Courtesy and consideration for others are in there too.

    Self-esteem without self-respect is false pride. Kids who get praised all the time whether they do well or not have this problem…and they will rarely try or admit to anything they might fail at, because praise is all.

    self-respect without self-esteem is what you struggle for when you never got that soul-deep affirmation from the people who raised you. that you were wonderful or even okay. And you end up, no matter how hard you work or how much you accomplish, feeling that it's never good enough.

    God prefers the prayers of anyone who will pray.

  • I believe there is a God and he listerns to everything and everyone. I had low self-esteem but my life has changed. I was raped when I was a teenager and doctors stated to me I would never be able to have a child. And at 17 I met a wonderful young man who was 19 (in 1972) When I got engaged to my husband, we ran away and got married,we tried very hard to have a child,but no luck, so I told a close family friend that was a nun at the time (she has past on) that was a friend of my dad( my dad, who is past on also).she told me that if I got married in church,God said,that I would give birth to a baby boy and sure enough I got married in church an a few month later I was pregnect and I had a beautiful baby boy and four years lady a beautiful baby girl was born. I have been married 40 wonderful years and have two fantastic kids in there 30 who also know the Lord and believe me Life is hard, But, I believe God does not give you more than you can handle. God is good and you must leave things in his hands because our life has been written his book of life. And only we can change to do whats right. I wish everyone the best and just keep the faith and trust in the Lord. God be with you all

  • JenellYB

    How easily pride lures us into forgetting the ONLY way we can come into God’ presence is broken, humbled, without one plea. Even at the worst points when we would think we are really broken and humbled, still we ever are determined we must find some acceptable fig leaf to cover ourselves before we are fit to approach God.