Loving me: The hidden agenda of self-esteem
Thinking more about yourself is not the path to freedom. The self-esteem agenda demands that you turn your thoughts onto yourself. The Bible has a counter-intuitive message: The more God thoughts you have, the freer you will be.
I hate myself because I am so ugly. — Suzy
Now Suzy, if you really hated yourself, you would be glad you were ugly.
In fact, you may even seek out ways to become uglier…
…if you really hated yourself. — Counselor
Dr. John Street, my professor at The Master’s College, shared this story with me while taking one of his classes for their MA program in counseling. Whether or not it is true I do not know, but the logic is clear.
A fuller treatment on self-esteem?
- The fallacy and futility of self-esteem
- The mystery and misunderstanding of being called worthless
- A practical plan to break free from the opinions of others
Suzy fell into the cultural trap of trying to look good, as propagated by the self-esteem gurus who patrol the waters of pop-psychology spreading their teaching.
The real truth about Suzy is that she is so in love with herself that she hates the fact she is ugly. Personally, I do not grade people an “ugly scale” because we are made in the image of God.
Grading beauty is a cultural phenomenon that changes according to whatever the current social norms are. People like Suzy are managed by the “beauty gods” who give the proverbial thumbs up or down, depending on those norms.
- Suzy looks in the mirror.
- Suzy does not like what she sees.
- Suzy and the culture’s view of beauty are at odds.
- Suzy hates what she sees in the mirror.
Conclusion: Suzy does not hate herself. She loves herself so much that she hates what she is looking at in the mirror. Suzy is buying what the culture is selling. She wants to be well-received by her peers, which means she must meet their expectations for beauty.
The “culture gods” motivate her to push, press, trim, cut, and paint herself into a mold that she hopes will be acceptable. The people she created in her mind to pass judgment on her have the power over her. Suzy is a worshiper.
She is worshiping herself. She is more concerned about peoples’ opinion of her than God’s opinion. The fear of man has more power over her than the fear of God (Proverbs 29:25). Public opinion and God’s opinion are at war in her mind.
Her culture teaches the self-actualized person, a teaching that mandates a high view of herself. The self-esteem movement is one of the main planks in that platform. The counter-intuitive teaching of the Bible cuts across the grain of the culture’s platform.
Through a biblical lens
I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes. — Job 42:5–6 (ESV)
We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. — Isaiah 64:6 (ESV)
As it is written: None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one. — Romans 3:10–12 (ESV)
The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. — 1 Timothy 1:15 (ESV)
The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately sick; who can understand it? — Jeremiah 17:9 (ESV)
Self-esteem is a call to admire yourself. It is one of the most damaging concepts propagated in our culture. Many Christians are blinded by this unbiblical teaching, which they believe is the answer for people with problems, particularly those who struggle with guilt, shame, fear, or insecurity.
From a biblical perspective, the term low self-esteem has some inherent problems. For example, if low self-esteem were the problem with an individual like Suzy, then the solution would be for her to elevate her self-admiration.
Do you see anything wrong with this solution when compared to the verses you just read? Loving herself more would lead her to more painful self-consciousness or delusions of grandeur–thinking she is somebody, when in reality, she is not.
If not liking herself was the problem, then thinking more about herself would not set her free, but only further enslave her. One of the deceptions of self-esteem is to spend more time thinking about yourself when you’re already consumed by thoughts of yourself.
I must increase
Elevating your self-esteem will lead to individualism. Individualism leads to an ungodly competitiveness, which pits people against people. One of the ways Suzy could think better about herself is to compare herself to others.
If she could pick them apart and find their flaws, then she would feel better about herself. Self-esteem leads to loving God less while looking down on your neighbor with all of your heart, soul, mind, and strength.
You cannot love God and others more than yourself when you’re trying to elevate your self-admiration, which is accomplished by ungodly de-admiration of others. Suzy’s pursuit of high self-esteem will diminish the two greatest commandments (Matthew 22:36–40).
Self-esteem feeds on what others think of you. If people think well of you, then you feel better. If they criticize, ridicule, or make fun of you, then you do not feel better. To be a good self-esteemer, you allow others to control you by their good or bad opinion of you. This is why Suzy is paralyzed by her looks.
She needs positive feedback from others to convince her that she is acceptable. If others put her down, make fun of her, or say she’s ugly, then it would damage high self-esteem agenda. For self-esteem to be true to its theory, she needs others to go along with her by esteeming her the way she is trying to esteem herself.
If they do not esteem her the way she wants to be esteemed, then she will go back to the drawing board, doubling down on changing herself into something that others will find more appealing to entice them to accept her so she can feel better about herself. This is an exhausting feedback loop.
I must decrease
The fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the LORD is safe. — Proverbs 29:25 (ESV)
Biblically, self-esteem is called the fear of man (Proverbs 29:25). It is also known as shame. You may understand the term as insecurity, co-dependency, or peer-pressure. It is a person controlled or intimidated by the opinions, perspectives, or views that others have about them.
What others think of the self-esteemer has more controlling power over that person than what God thinks of them. Fear of man or insecurity elevates the opinion of man above the opinion of God.
Insecurity says, “I will feel better if you like me. If you reject me, then I will feel bad. I need you to like me.” If feeling good about yourself is dependent upon the attitude of others toward you, then your friends will control your thoughts and emotions as they let you know what they think about you.
If they tell you that you are cool, then you feel good. If they tell you that you’re uncool or they give you the thumbs down, then you feel bad. If you buy into the culture’s version of shame–low self-esteem–then you’re moving headlong into a trap.
The answer is not how people view you. The answer is an ever-increasing awareness that you are naked before God and must be clothed in the righteousness of Jesus Christ (Genesis 3:7).
If you’re consumed with thinking about yourself, then your problem is not low self-esteem. It’s high self-esteem. A low estimation of yourself implies thinking of yourself less. Jesus is the greatest example of this (Philippians 2:5–11). Self-forgetfulness is the perfect mental attitude for serving others (Mark 10:45).
A case study
Suzy’s thoughts about herself consumed her. All the time. Her mind was an endless feedback loop of self-thought that was fueled by how others thought about her or how she thought others thought about her.
- She wondered what people thought about her.
- She would tell you what people thought about her.
- She carefully measured her words so you would not reject her.
- She feared putting on the wrong clothes, hoping to never be out-of-step with her culture.
- You would never see her without make-up, always presenting herself perfectly.
And on and on and on into an entangling maze of painful self-awareness she went. Her preoccupation with how others reacted to her was all-consuming. Whenever she left a social gathering she went into her mind-reading routine: assuming the thoughts of others about her.
Her carefully constructed and often wrong interpretations led to more despair. Suzy would be mortified to know that people rarely gave her much thought at all. Her friends were far too busy thinking about themselves than thinking about her.
Her first counseling session
During her first counseling session, the counselor told Suzy that she suffered from low self-esteem. He attempted to motivate her to think more highly of herself but was unwittingly leading her into an inescapable trap. Suzy’s mind was already consumed with herself. The counselor pushed her back into her prison of self-preoccupation.
The more Suzy gazed into her inner conflict in an attempt to wrap a positive mental attitude around her self-loathing, the more inward and awkward she became.
Her social awkwardness only affirmed what she already believed about herself: She was exactly what she thought others thought of her. As the weeks went by, Suzy became exasperated, exhausted and more isolated from her world.
High self-esteem is an individualistic, self-centered worldview, not a communal one. Suzy withdrew from others. Christ-focused, other-centeredness leads people back to the community. Though Suzy lived in a real community, she mentally checked out.
The end of the road
Three months after her initial counseling session, Suzy committed suicide. The report in the local newspaper said Suzy suffered from low self-esteem. In reality, Suzy suffered from the blinding and penetrating force of high self-esteem.
Her thoughts about herself went off the high-end of the self-esteem chart. Mentally, she had isolated herself from her community and became a twisted, self-absorbed, irritable person, who found no reason to live.
She inevitably turned so far inward that there seemed to be no hope from her perspective. Unfortunately for Suzy, she was looking in the wrong direction. A person beholding to the high self-esteem mantra runs headlong into the trap of insatiable individualism as they elevate their thoughts to a dangerous level of self-awareness.
Look up, not in
Suzy needed to look outside of herself to rest in the reality of someone far superior from herself. Christ is the answer for inner contentment and outer significance. To be in Christ is to be all you can be, which is the best you can be.
Jesus came to rescue you from yourself, not to turn you into yourself. Looking inward to elevate your estimation of yourself will lead you to dizzying disappointment.
Suzy attempted to self-talk her way into attaining the unattainable height of all that she could be but was left empty. From her perspective, there was no reason to live. She thought she was heading for the light.
She was self-deceived, which led to self-enslavement. She walked headlong into the darkness of her inner turmoil. She did not know about the Savior who set captives free (Luke 4:18).
If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. — Matthew 16:24–25 (ESV)
Self-worth is a dangerous journey
- John the Baptist said, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” — John 3:30 (ESV)
- Paul the Apostle said, “I am the chief of sinners.” — 1 Timothy 1:15 (ESV)
Do you think John or Paul suffered or struggled with a lack of self-worth? If you asked them, what would they say? You would have to explain self-worth to them since that language became part of our vocabulary during the latter decades of the last century.
From a Christian historical perspective, self-worth was not a common consideration or a normal part of a Christian’s understanding and application of sanctification.
Any Christian who argues for a prominent place for self-worth in our understanding and practice of sanctification is making a mountain out of a molehill because the Bible does not speak to this issue in the way they are arguing. Their primary argumentation comes from the influence of psychology books written in the 20th century.
The closest you can come to self-worth in the bible is being made in the image of God. Everyone is made in God’s image (Genesis 1:27), though it is wrong to put the point-of-emphasis the “image” rather than God. The Bible writers did not do that.
Being made in the image of God would be of no value if God was not valuable. A painting finds its value from the artist who painted it. If the artist is famous, then the painting is valuable. The point of emphasis is primarily on the painter of a famous painting, not the painting. When you walk into a museum to adore a painting, you could say,
- I saw Self Portrait, Open-Mouthed.
- Or you could say ”I saw a Rembrandt.”
The first is a painting, circa 1629. The second is the painter who painted the painting. Rembrandt is what makes the painting famous. What makes you so valuable is that you were made in God’s image. To carve out a psychological doctrine that puts the emphasis on you is wrongheaded. The main point is always about the Creator, not the creation.
When the point of emphasis drifts from the artist who made the image to the image itself, then you are more psychological than theological. The worse case scenario of this is you will become like Suzy, a worshiper of the creature more than the Creator (Romans 1:21–25).
In my counseling experience with insecure people, I have never found a person work their way out of insecure thought patterns without taking John’s advice: “He must increase, but I must decrease.” — John 3:30 (ESV)
Call to action
If you are shy, insecure, co-dependent, or struggle with peer pressure–the biblical term for all of those issues is fear of man. If that is you, then I appeal to you to learn how to think of yourself less while thinking of God more. If thoughts about God consume your thinking, then you are on the path to freedom.
The painting feels good about itself when the painter walks into the room. Like the sheep looking at its shepherd, saying, “The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.” (Psalm 23:1).
- Are you controlled by the opinion of others?
- What effect does God’s opinion of you have on you?
- Are you characterized as a worshiper of the Painter or the painting?
Originally published at Rick Thomas.