The opening theme song in Baby Steps (both this season and last) includes three English words: “Believe in yourself.” Last year, I didn’t pay close attention to those words. In this season, the phrase “Believe in yourself” becomes more important than it did before. It’s a trite phrase, one we often repeat to each other, but I think it’s worth reconsidering, especially as a Christian.
Last season, Maruo Eiichiro started playing tennis because he needed the exercise. By the end of the first 25 episodes, he decided that he loved tennis enough to become a pro player. His parents were a little uncertain about the decision, so he agreed that if he didn’t win the next All Japan Junior tournament, he’d give up the dream and focus on studies. To that end, his coaches arranged for him to train in America for two weeks. Baby Steps 2 begins with his first days at the training facility.
Ei-chan (as his crush and I both prefer to call him) has been playing tennis for less than two years, and he’s already training alongside new pros and players who have been aiming for pro since before he started playing. It’s not easy. As he starts playing against all these excellent players, he settles into a “losing habit” that he can’t seem to break. In the second episode, a young pro, Alex, gives him the advice “believe in yourself.”
Ei-chan’s game starts to improve after his chat with Alex. By the fourth episode, he’s expanded on the advice:
“Believe in myself. I’ve come this far.”
“Believe in myself. And trust my instincts!”
The idea is that his training and talent will yield results if he believes in himself. He’s not totally wrong. If he believes he’ll lose, he probably will. Believing in his ability to win is crucial. But that’s not telling the whole story.
Now, I don’t think Ei-chan has a stupid level of self-confidence; he’s teachable, humble enough to see his need to grow, and can gracefully admit defeat. Still, I think it’s worth it to step back and reconsider the true place of self-confidence in the big picture.
I appreciate what GK Chesterton says on the matter in “The Maniac,” a chapter from his essay collection Orthodoxy. In this chapter, he responds to the idea that a person can get along well if he believes in himself:
“It would be much truer to say that a man will certainly fail, because he believes in himself. Complete self-confidence is not merely a sin; complete self-confidence is a weakness.”
Again, I don’t think Chesterton is talking about Ei-chan’s level of self-confidence. But he makes a good point, and I’d like to break it down—or at least give my two cents.
First, complete self-confidence is a sin. That should be easy for a Christian to recognize. When we decide to follow Jesus, we recognize that we can’t escape sin, guilt, or eternal separation from God, except through Jesus. We are helpless to save ourselves from our sinful state. But it goes further than that. We’re weak creatures. No matter how much work we put toward our goals—material, athletic, mental, and even emotional or psychological—we can’t pull them off perfectly, and there will always be a couple areas where we’re lacking. If we think we are enough for ourselves, we’ll eventually be proven wrong. Only God is enough. Only he can perfectly balance every aspect of life.
Thus, complete self-confidence is a weakness. We are humans. We will fail if we try to rely on ourselves, and we need to be prepared for that. Even if we do succeed in our self-oriented goals, we’ll find those goals are too small or hollow, and we gave up something else more satisfying.
Now, Ei-chan does recognize that he can’t become a tennis pro purely by believing in himself. He trusts his coaches and other players to help further his training, and he works hard. His eyesight and quick processing skills help, too. Those are all important… and believing in his training is part of what it means for him to believe in himself as a tennis player. As a result, I have every confidence that he will eventually succeed. After all, this is an anime. If the main character believes in himself (usually in conjunction with belief in friends, teammates, and mentors), he will win.
But that’s not enough for real life.
So, where’s the balance? Should we abandon self-confidence? Is that what it means to put all our faith in God? Does believing in Jesus and following him mean we shouldn’t believe in ourselves? Not exactly. Believing the truth about ourselves is part of believing in God.
Here’s a sample of what frames my understanding of myself:
- God created each of us. Anything we have that is good—breath, athletic talent, intellectual ability, empathy, creativity—was given to us by him. We chose what to do with these gifts, whether or not to develop them, etc. But even that choice is from him.
- Every human being is created in God’s image. Two (of many) implications of this truth are:
- We are each valuable individuals, to be considered precious.
- We often see bits of who God is in each other. It’s distorted by sin and entangled in our daily struggles, but it’s present in what is good in relationships, in our desire to create, and more.
- God is awesome. In comparison, all human ability put together is nothing. Glorifying him, not ourselves, should be the natural response. I can’t impress God. I can please him, but impress him? Anything I do, I only do because he made me and gave me the ability. If I were to say, “Look, God! I ran three miles in less than 30 minutes!” it would be like an ant telling an elephant, “Look! I lifted a crumb!” So instead, I hope I say, “Whoa. God, that run was fun. Thank you for giving me a body that can work up to that. Your creation is really cool.”
- As a side note, this is part of why I get annoyed when someone thinks a disability is a horrible strike against someone’s quality of life. I can’t offer God any more than someone with Down’s Syndrome (of any severity), paralysis (of any level), etc. And someone who has my IQ without my ADD can’t offer God much more than I can (same goes for anyone who is “smarter” or “less smart” than me, with or without ADD). We glorify God in unique ways, not because he needs us to, but because he deserves it. All of us are precious because of him, and all of us are pathetic apart from him. And life on earth is relatively sucky for all of us, compared to the kingdom that’s coming. I won’t deny that some have it harder than others, but I insist we put the struggle in context of God and eternity.
- All have sinned. First, Adam, as our representative, brought us into original sin. On top of that, we each mess up regularly—no exceptions except for Jesus. Again, if we’re to objectively measure our sin, we can’t measure against each other. We have to compare to God’s righteousness… and we all fall terribly short.
- Jesus lived, died, and rose again to redeem us from our sinful lives, to justify us in God’s court, to restore our relationship with him. Those of us who confess Jesus is Lord and believe God raised him from the dead have eternal life (Rom 10:9-10)—and that doesn’t just mean he’s secured our eternal home address. Our new life begins when we become Christians, because we have died to sin and are raised to new life with Jesus Christ. Not that we’ve already arrived at perfection, but we are different.
- And we are being renewed and molded in his image (Rom 8:28-30, Col 3:10).
That is just a fraction of what I believe about myself and others. In my experience, right understanding of one’s identity in Christ is crucial to spiritual and emotional health. I could write a book about it, and others already have. (As a side note, I recommend Life of the Beloved by Henri Nouwen—while I disagreed with one or two things he said, that book influenced my perception of identity as a Christian more than any book besides the Bible.)
Right belief about yourself and about God relieves some pressure. Ei-chan’s answer to pressure on the court is to trust the instincts he’s honed in the past two years of training. He relies on his past to help him adapt to his present conflict. Through his example, he teaches pro player Alex to do the same—and that’s important, because Alex has bent under the pressure of playing tennis as a career (he needs money, which means he needs to win). That’s nice… but what happens when their instincts fail? When their bodies fail?
My court is in academia, not tennis. By God’s grace, I’m fairly successful. At the beginning of high school, I met my goals easily. Then, I didn’t. And as graduation approached, the pressure started to weigh on me. Since then, I’ve tried to strike a balance between trusting my mind and hard work (which I know from experience aren’t enough) and trusting God. Here’s what “believe in yourself” and “believe in God” have meant for me, applied to school and writing:
- Academic success doesn’t define me. My identity is as God’s child, heir with Christ, ambassador of the Gospel. I don’t need a 4.0 or my professors’ esteem to affirm my identity in Christ. In fact, academic glory could hold me back.
- When I fail to reach some standard, God is glorified as the One who does not fail, and the One who can use failures.
- When I succeed, God is glorified as the One who designed that success.
- Basically, God wins no matter what, and since I’m with him, I ultimately can’t lose (though I might feel like it for a bit).
- I don’t panic about exams, or even about assignments. I pay attention and do as much assigned reading as I can throughout the semester. I study. I show up. I take the test (or turn in the paper). I know my mind and my training, by God’s grace, will probably serve me well. If they fail, it will hurt, but it won’t matter in the grand scheme of things. So pressure can’t overwhelm me and make me freeze.
- I am free from the slavery of perfectionism, and from the anxiety that comes with it. Sure, perfectionist tendencies get the better of me every now and then. I have to keep an eye on it, and I occasionally avoid perfectionism too well, dipping into sloppiness.
Unlike with Ei-chan and many other anime heroes, I needed more than a couple chats with my mentors to reach the place I’m at now. I still need constant reminders of who God is and who I am, and I’ve been wrestling with it for a long time—you can see how desperately I held onto these truths four years ago, when I participated in the Aniblogger Testimonies series as a guest blogger. Believing too much in myself brings perfectionism and darkness. Believing more and more in God and who I am because of him—that brings freedom and light.
So I encourage you, when you hear “believe in yourself” from anime or from a well-meaning friend—or even from yourself—that you stop and consider what that means. Who do you really believe in? And is that person really enough?