How Christian is Modern Self-Esteem?

The Times of London once asked leading British intellectuals to write an article that answered this simple question: “What is the biggest problem with the world?” G. K. Chesterton submitted his essay on a postcard,

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

Chesterton I Am

Over the last thirty years, therapists have taught us to “like ourselves a lot” and to hold a “high opinion of our capacities.” They taught us that people with high self-esteem tend to be socially well-adjusted and those with low self-esteem tend toward social deviance. (Their teachings came in the form of proclamations not proofs.)

Yet cracks are forming in the self-esteem movement. Lauren Slater, a leading psychologist and writer, casts doubts on today’s self-esteem crusaders,

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).

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

Because we are.

The self of self-esteem

For centuries, men and women gained high self-esteem through great accomplishments. But achievement-based esteem came at a great cost: the snobbery of the talented (Thank you Lord that I’m not like this tax collector) accompanied by the stubborn fact that few of us ever achieve the success we desire. So many despaired.

Into the gap, modern self-esteem was born (as a quasi-religion) in the humanism of the Enlightenment; and the religion came of age during the Romantics. It was in this age that the “great thinkers” rejected the notion of original sin and (instead) embraced the non-Christian belief that human nature is essentially good.

Rather than looking to personal achievement, we simply pronounced —with the stroke of a pen—the goodness of human nature (contrary to all Christianity teaching). Instead of snobbish accomplishment-esteem, we “humbly” proclaimed, “I am a good person.”

But self-proclamation esteem (“I am a good person”) sounds an eerie echo of achievement-based esteem: self-conceit. Researcher Nicholas Emler said,

The fact is, we’ve put antisocial men through every self-esteem test we have, and there’s no evidence for the old psychodynamic concept that they secretly feel bad about themselves.

These men are racist or violent because they don’t feel bad enough about themselves.

The gospel tension of humility and esteem

The first sin recorded in human history occurred when Adam and Eve grasped for self-esteem. They listened to the temptation, “You will be like God.” We face the same trial.

There is a tension. We long to be appreciated … valued … or seen as heroic or important. Yet these heroic feelings slip from our grasp in the very moment we reach out to them. We either fall short of our aspirations, or we don’t believe our own propaganda, or the subsequent self-important conceit separates us from others.

The gospel has always been God lifting the lowly and never God affirming the highly. The gospel has always meant an honest self-evaluation; no mere self-publicity. When faced with public slander, Thomas a Kempis gave advice that baffles the modern mind:

Do not take it to heart if people think badly of you and say unpleasant things about you. You ought to think worse things of yourself and to believe that no one is weaker than yourself (emphasis added).

The growth of the gospel

The growth of the gospel did not happen among the high and noble; the gospel exploded among the poor, slaves, outcast, and socially marginalized. It increased not because these people were great or had high self-esteem; it spread because they knew they weren’t. And they 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; it is God saving the unworthy. Who know it. Jesus said, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor. Sick people do. I have not come to those who think they are righteous, but to those who know they aren’t.”

We need the ultimate confidence

The gospel is difficult yet the burden is light; the gate is narrow yet the invitation is wide. Christianity has never been about self-attainment (that would be a heavy burden); it has always been about self-denial (and thus the narrow gate).

It is only when we let go that we can receive. God wishes to pour out in abundance a stream of living water of God-esteem in our hearts. We simply must release self-esteem.

In the end, the gospel provides us with ultimate confidence. We are loved—not merely pitied, but loved—by the Most Beautiful; and honored by the Most Honorable; and gifted by the Most Gifted. We exchange our idols of self-esteem for the glory of son-ship. G. K. Chesterton described Christianity this way,

We become taller when we bow.”

Sam

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23 thoughts on “How Christian is Modern Self-Esteem?

  1. Another great essay, Sam. Very thought provoking and insightful. I now aspire to feeling worse about myself, and hope to attain true contempt. As you know, I work with horses every day. They are humbling enough on their own. However, I’ve found that approaching riding with humility makes for a much more satisfying ride. Those I teach learn best when they are humble as do I.

    • Hi Michael,

      Ha! You make me laugh. I don’t know if I want people to feel “worse” about themselves (including me about myself) as much as that we become honest in our self-appraisals. (Of course, that will probably make us feel bad about ourselves ….)

      I think the number one problem with the self-esteem movement is that it undermines our need for God. It creates a self-sufficiency.

      In the final analysis, all we really need is … need. God doesn’t want the high and mighty or those with self-esteem. God wants those who are needy. Those he will satisfy.

      [And I love your horse training analogy. Yup, it works there too. In most places really.]

      Sam

  2. Hey Sam, great read. The problem with a positive self-esteem is that it is built on a lie. The problem with a negative self-esteem is that it is built on a lie, not a worse lie, just a lie. Your point on our refusal to accept that there is no good about men, sums it up wonderful. The more we realize that the more we can appreciate and grow in the knowledge of our identity now. Then we can truly enjoy being passionately loved and the apple of a Holy Father’s eye

    • Right.

      We refuse to admit the depravity of our human nature (and try to cling to self-esteem) but we also refuse to admit to the glories of redemption (and just can’t fathom our adoption).

      Satan’s best weapons are his lies.

      And our best weapon is belief in what God promises.

  3. Sam,

    Another great essay… While I can appreciate the need to understand who I truly am (especially with relation to our great God)… I find I need to balance this against the Christian trope that “I am just a sinner saved by grace”…

    While basically true, this can lead me (and others) to deny the redemptive work of Christ; not just in the “sweet by and by”, but abundant life here and now. I appreciate that you ended your essay with an acknowledgment that we can have ultimate confidence because of who God is and that he loves, honors and gives us good gifts, thereby enabling us to show His glory as men and women fully alive.

    God’s blessings to you.

    Brad

    • Hi Brad,

      Like the previous commentor, you point out the double lies of Satan: that a) we are better than we really are, or b) that God’s redemption is weaker than it really is.

      I think our biggest need is to continue to cling to our need of Christ. I’ve heard some Christians who talk about their redemption almost as if they deserved it. I think we need to remember what Jesus said to the Pharisees, “God could turn these stones into sons of Abraham.”

      Our continued life is found in Christ’s continued love for us; not just that God made us new creations but that God’s love for us overcomes any and all our weaknesses.

      It is he that gets glory; and in that glory, somehow he lets us share.

      Thanks

  4. Hi Sam,
    Thank you! Honestly and intentionally learning to position ourselves in God’s strength..that is trust. You really helped me face today!
    Steve

    • Hi Steven,

      Yes, great point. In the end, it comes down to trust: WHERE WILL WE PLACE OURS?

      It means some kind of intentional, personal leaning into and onto God. Period. If he won’t come through, we have no backup plan.

      Which is fine. His is the only plan that brings life.

      Thanks,

  5. In the past I have struggled greatly with this issue. I was constantly told that my “problem” was my low or lack of self-esteem.
    I finally have, through many self-struggles, come to see that my problem was rooted in not believing in God’s love for me.
    Now, I remind myself often to say, “God I believe you love me, I need you.”
    Anytime I say “God’s grace alone is not sufficient, I discount His payment for my sin and say, my “self-esteem” or my belief in my own works is sufficient.
    I have Christ-esteem (my worth in him) because of what he did for me, not by what I do for him.
    I will never again believe the lie (that many Christians unfortunately still believe) that it is not ONLY by GRACE that I am saved.
    Thanks for another encouraging post.

    • Hi Annie,

      You nailed it. We think we need “X” but that “X” always fails us.

      There is only one thing that we need–only one thing!–and that is the love of God for us.

      All other pursuits are chasing after the wind.

      Thanks

      • Thank you again, Sam, for blowing some holes in another of the world’s big clots of delusion… Also, I think it is so interesting how great a difference there can be in knowing that God loves me, from knowing His love for me….

  6. Excellent post. There is a reason “humble yourselves” is listed at the top of God’s list of things people need to do to get God back on their side in 2 Chron. 7:14. All 4 items are critical, but if the 1st can’t be done,the rest may make no difference.

    • Hi Jim,

      Another reason that “humble yourself” is at the top of the list is … it is so darn hard!

      Tell me to love others, and I’ll feel good about myself as I try it; tell me to give away all to the poor, and I’ll see myself as a pretty good chap.

      It is only when I give myself away that I finally get what I’ve always wanted.

      The gospel is always counter-intuitive, and always better than we dreamed.

  7. Your words: “Tell me to love others, and I’ll feel good about myself as I try it; tell me to give away all to the poor, and I’ll see myself as a pretty good chap.”
    Humbleness is hard to achieve. Yes, you can achieve this when you loose yourself. For example by forgiving someone something big, admitting to others something signifficant about yourself a.s.o. It is when we do good while we feel uncomfortable ourselves…have I got it right?

    • Hi Chris,

      I always love how you look at things. Great words.

      I think C. S. Lewis once described humility like this: “It is not thinking less of ourselves as much as thinking of ourselves less.”

      Jesus emptied himself so we can be full; we need to learn how to empty ourselves (of ourselves) so we can be filled with HIM.

      It all comes down to seeing God as a person–not just a monarch or lawmaker–but a person who is sitting next to you, loving you, conversing with you, holding your handing, and lifting you up.

      That is all we ever need.

      • Christian humility can be a 2-edged sword for many of us, but the best way I have found to explain it to myself and others is to understand my value to God, and understand that same value as related to Him. Our value was established in His sending our Savior and in our Savior dying for our sins. That is huge value. But, we know when we compare ourselves to God, we are ZIP. The world tries to “value” is in terms of money, intelligence, talent or skill, or many other criterion. We cannot allow the world to obscure our value to Him by their foolishness, nor can we, as we sit next to Him, fail to see His Glory.

  8. Hi Sam…I want to thank you for this article. I have been beating the drum of this lie of “self-esteem”. I have been saying this for years and years. People have looked at me like I’m speaking some weird language and when I hear this phrase from he pulpit, my head almost spins around.
    My new church I have been at for 5 years, I have never heard my Pastor ever use this phrase. If I ever heard him use it, I would be making an appointment with him.
    I feel this mindset of the world has crept into our Body of Christ and it has caused us within “the church” to take on the belief that it’s me on top, me on the throne, me needs to be happy, me needs to be esteemed, me minded not others minded first.
    I like what you said at the end. “We become taller when we bow”. Jesus took off His garment and took a wash Basin and washed all their horrilbe, bloody, cracked stinky feet and today, that would not happen because their ‘self-esteem’ would be rattled and they would crumble and expect to be lifted up by others to feel tall and good with themself.
    The Word of God says deny yourself and follow Me.
    Never do you see anywhere in the Word to raise oneself above another… They all gave up their lives for the message of the Gospel.

    • Hi Michelle,

      I’m so glad to find a like-minded believer. As you say, “this mindset of the world has crept into the church.”

      It’s weird, we think of the worldly creep being sexual sins (etc.) but those are obvious. The real creep is when it takes over our deepest beliefs about reality. And that always has to do with being self-sufficient and self-centered.

      Remember Adam and Eve? One could argue that Satan basically said, “God will never give you the esteem you need; instead you have to grab for self-esteem, so … grab for that apple!”

      Thanks for your comment.

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