What does the Bible say about self-loathing?

Hi everyone,

As part of the D.Min program at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, I am taking a Spiritual Formation class. One assigned reading is Thomas à Kempis’ classic book The Imitation of Christ.

According to The Catholic Encyclopedia, " With the exception of the Bible, it is perhaps the most widely read spiritual book in the world."

However, one surprising theme in the book is what I would consider to be self-loathing. For instance, à Kempis writes:

I praise you, my God, and I will exalt you forever. I despise myself and cast myself down before you in the depths of my own unworthiness.

Lest you think this is only part of the Catholic tradition, here’s part of a prayer from The Valley of Vision. (This is a popular collection of Puritan prayers).

Lowest abasement is my due place, for I am less than nothing before thee.

To my mind, these statements take a strand of Biblical truth (e.g., “God is greater than us”), but then exaggerate it to the point that it becomes aberrant.

These teachings need the correction of a broader Biblical vision. For instance, that God calls us his beloved. That Jesus saw fit to be Incarnate as a human being. That the Holy Spirit dwells within us. That God gives us a new identity as his royal children. And so on.

At the same time, perhaps if we read these as rhetorical flourishes, but do not take them literally, they can serve as a corrective to a cultural moment that is unrelenting in its self-affirmation?

I welcome your thoughts on the ways in which self-loathing is woven into significant parts of Christian formational practices.


Are you talking about the idea of self-loathing/self-abnegation historically or in the here and now? And I am correct in linking self-loathing and self-denial, i.e., Job 10:1 on one end and a 3rd-century “stylite” on the other end?


Hi Jimmy,

Great questions!

First off, I had to look up ‘stylite’! In case it helps anyone else, it is “an ascetic living on top of a pillar, especially in ancient or medieval Syria, Turkey, and Greece in the 5th century AD.”

To me, that’s the epitome of self-denial. (Besides voluntary martyrdom).

As part of the course, there is exposure to how self-loathing has been practiced throughout the history of the church as a means of spiritual formation. This is by no means central to the course content, but it comes up often enough that it’s caught my attention.

Ironically, my concern is rather self-absorbed. In what ways can this practice be helpful for us to draw near to God as we imitate Christ? And in what ways is it an aberrant deviation from true spirituality?


So many things to think about here!

First off, I think your use of the word “self-absorbed” is key. For, self-loathing, in the effort to not be self-absorbed, can easily become nothing but self-absorption.

In the psychological world, the word “narcissistic” gets thrown around a lot. In it’s most general sense, it is tied to the notions of the grandiose…delusions of grandeur and what not. Though people often think of it as grandeur in the “positive” sense (“goodness”, “righteousness”, “I am the greatest”), it can also be preoccupation with grandeur in the “negative” sense (“badness”, “evil”, “toxicity”).

I have found it to be true in my own life that constant preoccupation with and/or emphasis on sin and guilt (such as found in Reformed, evangelical, Protestant spirituality) led to a life characterized by negative narcissism and a deep cynicism. I, along with the rest of humanity, quite simply were “the worst”.

Though I cannot point to a specific point in time it came about, the question began to dawn on me: Who am I to loathe what God loves? I realize this is from where the axiom comes – Love the sinner; hate the sin. – but I hadn’t realized the extent to which I loathed myself because I couldn’t see myself apart from my sin. I lived and loathed in my identity as a “sinner”.

Furthermore, it began to dawn on me: Can I truly love others if I loathe myself? For I was finding that my loathing kept me closed to receiving any love on offer…which is a vital part of participation in love. It was holding me back from meaningful relationship with Love Itself…with God.

The Christian is called to life of, among other things, humility. But this was not humility; it was negative narcissism. However, part of humility is recognizing our “less-ness” than God. It is recognizing that we are not God. But it is also not being entrapped by despair. Yes, we are dust (and to dust we shall return), but we are dust that is formed into something. And if God is forming us through the relationship of love, then that something will be beautiful and glorious…even in spite of the presence of our imperfect humanity.

So, I agree that a spirituality with self-loathing as it’s core “needs correction of a broader Biblical vision”. For if there are things to loathe (or despise or hate), then the Gospel is that there also will be things to affirm!


I think Kathleen has worded it very well. Self loathing outside of the biblical context can often lead to narcissism. Focusing too much on the sins and lack of humanity and oneself creates a worldview of cynicism. Putting oneself down in the name of humility doesn’t do justice to God’s creation (which in this case is us).

I do have to admit, it’a honestly really difficult to seperate one’s sin and lack from one’s identity as a child of God. I think it takes faith to believe that God’s plan for us is good and therefore it is ok to be lacking or humanly speaking not good enough. Opposingly, it takes faith to also see the positive side of the good traits that God has given each and everyone of us, which supposedly balances out what we lack.

More so than the phrase self loathing, self denial would perhaps work better in helping people to have a more balanced view of God and themselves. Both the good and the bad, ultimately are still under the sovereignty of God.


I’m so glad you raised this. Just a few days ago, I was reading the letter that Martin Luther wrote to Albert of Mainz when he posted the 95 theses on the church door in Wittenberg. There were phrases in his letter that really grated on me, because I couldn’t understand why he’d write them. Some examples:

Father in Christ and Most Illustrious Prince, forgive me that I, the scum of the earth, should dare to approach your Sublimity…

Scum of the earth!!

May Your Highness look upon this speck of dust and hear my plea…

He packs a punch with some very powerful theology through the letter, but I felt uneasy at this language that seemed to me, grovelling, false, and cringe worthy. But this is me coming from my 21st century cultural worldview where these words could be interpreted thus. I suppose it wasn’t the same back then.

The question I have with this though is that whilst it could be explained as following a Biblical precedent, like:

Martin Luther isn’t addressing God, he’s addressing a man, and therefore doesn’t sit well with me. I don’t think it fits the modern negative narcissism that @kathleen mentioned, so I must put it down to cultural literary style applicable for people of different social statuses. I wonder if Martin Luther recognised the issues around this?! His words are certainly reminiscent of Biblical phraseology but in a different application.


Ahhhhh, Lutherrrrrr. :laughing: That man had such a way with words.

I am by no means an expert on his life and theology, but from what I have understood in my studies of him is that he tended toward the extreme ranges of emotional expression. What you have been reading reflects his initial sense of deeply felt unworthiness to challenge the religious structures (and the theology that underpins them) of his day. That’s not all that surprising to me given the hierarchical nature of the medieval church in Western Europe, where challenging church leaders was akin to challenging God himself.

Perhaps not initially, but I do think that his growing boldness in the wake of the 95 Theses points to a his growing recognition of how not-right things had become!

P.S. Have you seen the film Luther, where Joseph Feinnes plays him? It’s fascinating! Feinnes, to me, is able to capture a sense of Luther’s emotional dynamism.