The Spiritual Quagmire of Self-Esteem

The Times of London once asked leading British intellectuals to write an essay answering this question, “What is wrong with the world?” G. K. Chesterton responded with a postcard,

     Dear Sirs,
     I am.
     Sincerely yours,
     G.K. Chesterton

I think that’s right. He is the problem. I mean, I am. (The former slips out so easily, doesn’t it? Isn’t the problem with the world everybody else?)

Chesterton’s response challenges our modern Self-esteem philosophy. We’re taught to build up our self-esteem, to feel we are worthwhile, to believe in our value.

Yet cracks are forming in the self-esteem movement. Loren Slater, a psychologist and writer, wrote a critique of self-esteem. In it she says,

There is enough evidence from 20 years of studies to conclude that people with high self-esteem pose a greater threat to people around them than people with low self-esteem, and low self-esteem is not the source of any of our country’s biggest problems. (The Problem With Self-Esteem)

I think Chesterton would agree with Slater’s observation, that “low self-esteem is not the source of any of our country’s biggest problems.”

Because we are.

Grasping for self-esteem (or self-worth) is a way of trying to get glory from something other than God, and it always, inevitably, fails miserably. Let’s look at two examples from scripture.

A tale of two kings

King Saul began his life as a hick boy from the farms. Then God made him king. But Saul wasn’t content with the kingship gift from God; he needed to earn it, to prove to God (and himself) that he was worth the gift. He rejected esteem that comes as a gift and grasped for esteem that comes from self-value.

In Saul’s need for personal self-esteem, he disobeyed God in a raid. Then he “set up a monument to himself” (1 Sam. 15:12), and finally he brought home the conquered king.

Saul is now a King of Kings. He is finally something. He feels pretty good about himself.

Samuel corrects Saul with, “Though you are little in your own eyes, are you not the head of the tribes of Israel? The Lord anointed you king over Israel” (vs. 17). Samuel commends Saul when he is “little in his own eyes.” He asks, why can’t you be satisfied with God’s undeserved affirmation?

Saul’s repentance is anything but heart change; “I have sinned; yet honor me now before the elders of my people and before Israel, and return with me” (vs. 30) He clings to the high self-esteem of kingship over the low self-esteem of, “It was just a gift,” and, “I am the problem.”

And then there’s David

King David also began life as a hick boy from the farms. Then God made him king. David’s sins are worse than Saul’s. He commits adultery with a close friend’s wife, his cover-up is worse than Watergate, and he arranges the murder of one of his top generals.

When Nathan corrects him, David’s response is Psalm 51, Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin!

David doesn’t say, “Have mercy on me because I deserve it,” or “blot out my transgressions because I feel really bad.” He doesn’t grasp for his kingship. There was no, “Honor me now before the elders.

He asks God to look at him solely on the basis of God’s “steadfast love and abundant mercy.” David says “I’m the problem with the world, and I need your help.”

Saul grasped for self-esteem. David grasped for God.

And isn’t that the gospel?

The gospel originally spread among the poor, the slaves, the outcast, and the socially marginalized. It spread not because these people were great or had high self-esteem.  It spread because they knew they weren’t and didn’t.

The gospel is not God affirming the greatness of the great; it is God pouring his greatness into the lowly. The gospel is not God crowning the virile prince; it is God turning the boyish shepherd into a king.

The gospel is not God saving the worthy (or those who think they are); it is God saving the unworthy and who know it. As C. S. Lewis paraphrased Paul, “To have died for valuable men would have been not divine but merely heroic; but God died for sinners.”

In the end, though, the gospel provides us with ultimate confidence. To be loved—not merely pitied, but loved—by the Most Beautiful; to be honored by the Most Honorable; to receive God’s love while in the midst of knowing we don’t deserve it; well, if that doesn’t help us lift our heads, no personal self-esteem ever will.

Self-esteem is fragile. We will fail. The gift of undeserved esteem from God is strong and eduring. We’ll always be unworthy of the gift. That can’t be taken away.

G. K. Chesterton described Christians this way, “We become taller when we bow.”

Sam

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26 thoughts on “The Spiritual Quagmire of Self-Esteem

  1. Self-esteem is one of the biggest lies to engulf the Church. The Bible doesn’t say, “Make sure you think highly enough of yourselves.” It says, “Don’t think too highly of yourselves.” Yes, God loves us, and we are made in His image, and that makes us valuable. Every life. But we have no reason to be confident in ourselves. We can’t do anything without Christ.

    • Hi Rachelle,

      Thanks for your comment. Scripture also asks us to look at ourselves “soberly,” that is, realistically. I think the whole self-esteem movement tries to ignore an honest self-appraisal; instead it looks for a “fake” or “made-up” appraisal.

      The gospel does two things: a) it says we are the problem (yikes!), and b) it says we are loved beyond anything we can imagine.

      I think I can live with that.

  2. Right on Sam. The scary thing is we do not see in our selves unless God shows us.

    On a related issue you could do a whole blog on how well meaning people teach children to feel good about themselves rather that know that they are unconditionally loved by God. They withhold discipline in fear of injuring their little egos rather that loving them enough to correct their behavior. Sadly I see far too many talented and otherwise capable 20 year old egotistical spoiled brats fail in the workplace because they have been taught to think too highly of themselves and are unteachable.

    • Bob,

      Great point. We can’t truly see ourselves unless God opens our eyes.

      I like your idea of an article on the “well meaning people who teach children ‘to feel good about themselves’ rather than teaching the unconditional love of God.”

      Thanks,

      Sam

  3. Don’t confuse ‘self-esteem’ with Humility and Identity.

    Nor ‘shame and guilt’ for humility. (which the church errors on all too often.)

    • Hi Rocco,

      I like your points, but I have a slight twist on them.

      CS Lewis talked about humility this way: “Humility is not thinking less of ourselves; it is thinking of ourselves less.” I think the problem with the “self-esteem” movement is that it asks people to think of themselves more. So, in that way, self-esteem and humility are similar: let’s just stop thinking of ourselves so much. Period!

      Also, I used to try to stop myself from feelings of shame. But now I think there may be a value. Let me explain.

      I once heard of five “classic” emotions: mad, glad, sad, scared, ashamed. Emotions are always a response or reaction to our deepest held belief of the heart and desires of the heart. If I’m angry (or sad, or scared…), it is because either a belief or desire of mine is being thwarted or challenged (someone said something bad about me, or I don’t get the job promotion I want).

      It is helpful for me to ask my heart, “Why am I angry (or sad, or scared…) because it will expose my deepest desires or beliefs. Once those are exposed, I can deal with them and purify them. If I’m mad (or sad) beyond-belief that I didn’t get the promotion, it is probably because I “believe” that promotion will prove my worth (or something like that). Once exposed, I can ask God to shape my heart into believing my worth comes from His love for me.

      Likewise, if I’m ashamed, I can follow the bread-crumb trail to my deepest beliefs. It’s probably that I deeply believe that the only way I’m worth something to God is if I’m perfect–and that of course leads to legalism or Pharisaism.

      So when I examine my “shame” I can let it lead me to God, and ask Him to purify my heart and accept His identity for me rather than having my identity apart from him.

      Great comments. Thanks.

      Sam

  4. Sam,

    Great post!!!

    I’ve struggled with these questions myself for years.  I really had a VERY low self-esteem growing up and even into adulthood.  I would say that hasn’t been healthy for me, but at LEAST I wasn’t the guy running over others around me, right???  haha  🙂

    Having been made fun of & bullied at times as a young kid there’s a sensitivity I carry that others who grew up in “high self-esteem homes” never got to taste. I would say in the past 4-5 years I have a lot more confidence, but perhaps it’s tempered with a humility that comes from knowing who I’ve been in the past?

    Anthony Robbins (the personal development guru) has really taught me a lot of great psychology the past few years (not personally, but by me watching his videos, etc.).  One of the things I talks about is the 6 human needs.  They are as follows:

    6 Human Needs:

    Certainty
    Variety
    Significance
    Love & Connection
    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
    Growth
    Contribution

    Bottom line about these needs:  The healthiest way for all of us to live is by placing “LOVE & CONNECTION” at the top of our needs list, plus tending daily to what he calls our “needs of the spirit”, “GROWTH” and “CONTRIBUTION.” (NOTE: We’re only able to tap into those needs of the spirit fully when we’re living out of “Love & Connection” as our first priority.)

    The people you and I meet who give “high self-esteem” a bad name are usually those people who are exalting their own “SIGNIFICANCE” above all.  These are the people who must “win” at all costs.  Because their own need for Significance trumps all other needs, they tend to walk all over people.  These are the people in Washington DC who are messing up our country right now, and the Hollywood lives that are so screwed up, and the people in the Church who exalt themselves and their latest book release or tv show in order to gain recognition… Not even money… just “Significance” or “validation”.

    Anyway…  Those of us who have our 6 human needs in the correct order (with Love & Connection at the top of our list) are usually very attracted to having close friendships because those friendships are “safe.”

    That’s not to mean that any one of us doesn’t get our needs out of order at times.  There are sometimes when my need for Certainty suddenly takes over, or even my own need for Significance at times. It especially rises up when I’m around people whose need for Significance is at the top, because suddenly… I FEEL so INSIGNIFICANT! And that makes me feel that “pull” to engage in a “significance battle”. (This is especially easy to do through email… Yikes!)

    Anyway… Once I started learning about these 6 human needs in the past 2 years, my own behavior and the behavior of those around me suddenly started to make so much sense to me.  It becomes so clear to figure out which of those needs any one of us is operating under just by observation.

    So…  I believe your article is right on about self-esteem when studying it as it plays out in people who have “Significance” as their #1 need.

    However, I believe those who have surrendered to their need for “Love & Connection” (with people and with Jesus) and the needs of the spirit (Growth & Contribution) aren’t going to be always operating out of and driven by “Significance”, even if they do have high self-esteem.  Their need for Love & Connection will cause them to lay down their life & their need for Significance for the sake of others, so you may not even recognize them as having high self-esteem to begin with.

    Anyway… That’s my $.02.  🙂

    Chad

    • Chad,

      I love what you say here. The truth is we all long for a sense of Significance, and that longing isn’t bad in itself. Significance is actually another translation of the Hebrew word for Glory. We are made in God’s image, and we are made for Glory. That’s why we long for it.

      The question we all need to ask ourselves is, “How are we going about getting it (significance or glory)?” Are we grasping for “it” or are we grasping for God?

      Saul grasped for “it” and David (and Jesus, by the way!) grasped for God.

      Thanks,

      Sam

  5. I believe self-hatered causes suicides. Disrespect of self, contributes to abuse and addiction. These poisons contribute to every sort of violent crime. If self esteem were the solution to these problems, then I’d take issue with Loren Slater, but self-esteem isn’t the radical solution we need. It’s the best the world has, but it’s just another poison.

    However, self-love is a byproduct of Christianity, and I think that gets overlooked. After all, if we are imitators of a God who loves us without condition, we’ll end up loving ourselves without condition too. If we’re to love our neighbor as ourself, then we really ought to love ourselves a bunch. That’s something I’ve had a hard time with. I’ve spent years of my Christian walk under the misapprehension that being Christian meant feeling lousy all the time. What a waste! Just as we can make an idol of our self-esteem, we can be equally prideful by insisting on self-hate. Apparently our eyes belong on Christ instead of on ourselves. Thanks for the word.

    • “However, self-love is a byproduct of Christianity, and I think that gets overlooked.” – Amen! Mark 12:28-31

    • Hi David,

      Thanks! Great words.

      I wonder, though, sometimes if we don’t confuse self-hatred with self-loathing. And I think there is a difference.

      I remember talking to a man once who was very near suicide. He said he hated himself (he had just failed to get a position in a university that he really wanted). But as he talked, I didn’t get the sense that he really hated himself. Instead, he loathed bits and pieces of himself.

      In fact, he was filled with a self-absorption. He seemed to think those bits and pieces weren’t worthy of being in himself. He rejected and hated those bits and pieces precisely because he loved himself so much.

      I think he needed to see God’s love for him EXACTLY AS HE WAS. He wanted to be loved for being something different; God loved him as he was.

      I wonder if we really need to learn self-acceptance. By that, I don’t mean we are satisfied with where we are (I’ve heard too many harsh, abrasive people who say, “That’s the way I am. If you don’t like it you can lump it.”) Instead, I mean that we accept the unique gifting and calling God has given us (not envying gifting and calling of others), and we even accept where we are on the journey.

      But we ask God for him to purify us; and we even ask God to help us be more effective in bringing his love, care, and kingdom to the world.

      If God wanted to, he could snap his fingers and our problems wold disappear. If he loves us where we are, we can too!

      Thanks.

  6. If my identity is based on what others think or perceive in me, then “self esteem” is something I desperately need. And I must l go through life frenetically “proving” my worth to the externals of the world (achieving, winning, affirmation, etc…) because my value is dependent on something outside of me. This is where the lies of the Accuser really take root.
    If my identity is based on internal truths about me, then I can rest. I do not have to work for my acceptance or value and a different way of moving through life takes form. There are a number of very significant internal truths in every human – imageness, dignity, value, etc… And faith in Christ even takes that further – Christ in you, adopted, temple, etc…
    Chesterton is right, I am the problem (Donald Miller talked about this as well). It is because we so easily forget who we really are, and then have to try to prove we are something. And when we try to prove our self-esteem things get really ugly, fast.

    • Hi Kenneth(eophilus),

      Great words. I agree, but I’d like to add a twist.

      I wonder if we ARE supposed to get our identity based on outside opinion. I think we are. Three reasons:

      1) If we reject the opinion of others, is it because their standards are too high? If so, I don’t think I’m going to feel good about myself simply because my standards are so low that I can live up to them.

      2) I’ve heard too many people say, “I don’t don’t care what other people think of me. I only care what I think of me.” And in these people I almost get a whiff of the sociopath. I do want to care what other people think; at least I don’t want to “not care.” It’s really a question of what controls us.

      3) I think the real issue is this: We should care what someone outside us thinks of us–but we have to choose WHO that “someone” is. In the end, our greatest hope is to chose what God thinks of us. His standards are the highest possible, and yet he loves us exactly where we are. In fact, he loves us enough to adopt us, to pay the ultimate price for us, to pour his own life into us, and to watch over us every moment of every day.

      Now THAT outside opinion of me is something I can live with!

  7. Sam,

    One dictionary definition of self is: -:The essential qualities distinguishing one person from another individual.

    Attempting this first divorces the relationship we have to all humanity.

    Second it is the beginning of viewing ourselves apart from God to detrmine worh. We forget we are but dust without the breath of God’s Spirit.

    2 Corinthians 5:15 comes to mind. …”.that those who live should no longer live for themselves”

    I need the reminder daily to battle the whisper of the enemy to conisder myself ahead of others.

    • Hi Jim,

      Someone once said, “The most important thing about us is what we think of God.” And I like that. I really do. It challenges me to examine what I really think and believe about God.

      But I don’t think it is the most important thing about us.

      The most important thing about us is what God thinks of us!!

      Sam

  8. Tom,

    I look forward to your further reflections.

    My concern with the modern self-esteem movement (and some would say it’s not so modern) is the grasping for self-validation.

    That is EXACTLY what Satan did with Eve. His message was, God isn’t looking out for your good; God is holding you back; you’ve got to grasp (for that fruit) by yourself.

    I don’t think the enemies main desire is to have us believe we are worthless (etc.), though he certainly uses that tool when it benefits him.

    But most of us turn to God precisely when we feel the most worthless or clueless; we turn to Him for His affirmation.

    Sam

  9. Hi Randy,

    Yes, isn’t that line from Chesterton great? He says in a sentence–a short sentence–what I tried to say in an entire blog.

    I still love it, “We become taller when we bow.”

    Love it,

    Sam

  10. I could not agree more. Self esteem can be good, or bad. How about the “ME” movement in public schools a few years ago. I believe that if we, I, understand the great love that God has for us, Me, and we truly believed it,…. self esteem would not be an issue. Remember who we are in Jesus Christ, the beloved. Lyle

  11. Self Esteem – oxymoron if I ever heard one! The old Funk and Wagnalls has two definitions for us 1. a good opinion of oneself – 2. an overestimate of oneself. Even old F&W in 1964 knew that we probably couldn’t help but over value ourselves.

    But why should we never put these two words together – first the word self (F&W: an individual known as the subject of his own consciousness) is usually not good. Try self words like “selfish,” you know that’s not a good trait. How about “selfless,” which we all say is a good trait, because it means LESS OF SELF!

    Now, esteem : to have a high opinion of; to value greatly. We know that man is flawed, and what he values greatly is seldom God – so add to that flawed judgment the problem of objectivity in looking at oneself, and it boils down to – someone that is full of self esteem is probably full of something else.

    So why is society pushing self esteem for all. Because we’ve gone so far down the road of valuing man’s opinion instead of God’s as to our worth, we’re lost. Society doesn’t give a hoot how I feel about myself, let alone my little Johnny and Peggy. What’s the answer, certainly not explaining and accepting our value as God’s children. No, we’ll pass a law, everyone gets a trophy, we all get a cheer – and we’re all fine and dandy until we hit the real world – Oh, wait – my boss says I’m a lousy worker, we’ll that can’t be, I feel good about myself, – this must be one of those hostile work environments.

    POGO said it best – “I’ve seen the enemy, and it is us”

  12. We shouldn’t think “too highly” or ourselves, but we also shouldn’t think we are worthless. I used to think it was “pride” to tell people I was good at something, to volunteer for a math-related task (because I’m not allowed to say I’m good at math- that’s pride), to have goals and be competitive and WANT to win. I thought if I won an award, I had to pretend I didn’t want it, that it just kind of happened when I wasn’t interested- because that would be PRIDE and SELFISHNESS to want to win. Instead, I’m supposed to misrepresent my abilities and desires- pretend I’m not good at things and I don’t have any ambitions.

    That’s totally wrong. Instead we should have a REALISTIC picture of who we are and what our worth is. For example, God gave me abilities, and that’s just a FACT- it’s not “evil” to just state a fact. I should pursue my interests and use them for good. But my abilities and awesomeness DO NOT make me better than everyone else, and they MUST NOT be the basis for my worth and identity.

    So I think the focus should not be on whether it’s “good” or “bad” to have “high self-esteem” or “low self-esteem.” Instead, as Christians, we are valuable because our identity is in Christ, and our focus should be on serving him and loving people.

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