The fallacy and futility of self-esteem
The idea of self-esteem has been around for a long time. It’s one of the major planks in the culture’s gospel. Because we live in the world, it’s imperative to be careful about engaging the world, especially when it comes to their psychology.
Without biblical filters, it’s easy to take the world’s ways for a spin, especially if you’re not adept at applying God’s Word personally and practically. This is particularly tempting when it comes to psychology.
Psychology (psyche-logos) is the study of the soul. For the Christian, it’s the Bible (2 Timothy 3:16) applied practically and personally to your soul (Genesis 2:7). Biblical psychology takes your Bible study one step further. It is better than a Bible study alone because you can be transformed by God’s Word.
A lack of practical application of God’s Word to your life makes it easy for the culture to peddle their view of psychology. The temptation makes sense. It’s easier to embrace the culture’s ideas about soul care rather than doing the hard work of connecting the Bible to your personal life. Who doesn’t like easy?
Self-esteem is one of the culture’s ideas that many Christians accept without argument. The Bible does not teach the idea of self-esteem, which should be the biggest red flag of all. However, the silence of the Bible does not deter the Christian self-esteem advocate from trumpeting this dangerous doctrine.
God went to great lengths to free us from spending so much time thinking about ourselves. He even simplified the hundreds of laws in the Old Testament by stating them in four words: love God, love neighbor. (See Matthew 22:36–40.) From God’s perspective, human success and personal wholeness happen when you master those four words.
A better way
The self-esteem advocate says esteeming yourself is the opposite of self-loathing. It is…sorta. The self-esteem model was created by people who reject God. Self-loathing and self-esteem are designed to keep the person captured in a hermetically sealed universe of self.
The Bible presents a better way to think about yourself. It’s called being made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27), a profound way to think about all people, including yourself. Self-esteem perpetuates self-focus while “made in the image of God” turns your thoughts outward, encompassing all humanity.
As your thoughts are turned from you, toward God, you begin to see the world He made through His eyes rather than your own. You’re stunned that He would set you apart from the rest of His creation, and out of that humble God-awareness of what He did grows a respect for what He created.
Self-esteem does not open your thoughts about God and others to that degree because it was not designed to do that. This would not be such a problem if we didn’t hijack their word and bring it into our understanding of biblical psychology.
John Piper made a similar mistake when he tried to reinvent the word hedonism by teaching a new idea, Christian hedonism. He created an unnecessary tension in the mind that is confusing. Pulling an unnecessary word from the culture and inserting it into Christian theology is not helpful. The Bible has given us all we need to think rightly about God, self, and others.
Words have presuppositions, and if a word has such a strong hold on the mind, then trying to make it mean something it was never meant to be is not wise. Sometimes you have no choice because of our common language. An example of this is a woman abused by her father.
She was abused her entire childhood by her father. Later in life she became a Christian and is introduced to God the Father. She already knows what a father is so when you tell her about her heavenly Father, she struggles to get her mind around it.
You must carefully and compassionately redefine the word father for her. This is similar to what Paul was talking about in 1 Corinthians 8 about the Jews who became Christians and were struggling with what to do with the meat their new brothers and sisters were eating.
Sometimes you have no choice but to redefine a word (father) or an idea (meat) because the person is confused through their former associations with that word or idea (Ephesians 4:22). Self-esteem should not be part of a Christian’s vocabulary. When you meet a person who has been indoctrinated by the culture, you can show them a new and better way to understand the soul.
You can do this without becoming the word police. It is rare for me to say anything about a person’s use of the word self-esteem, in that I don’t go on the offensive by telling them it’s a bad word. The word should not be a point of contention, and you don’t want them to be paranoid if they are not speaking your language.
You can teach them the truth with the right language so their speech becomes biblically clear and their life becomes transformed. Too many biblical counselors shoot at words like targets while missing the opportunity to care for souls.
The path to freedom
“Made in the image of God” is the right language and it teaches a biblical respect for every person. You cannot hate yourself or anyone else if you know and practice what it means to be made in the image of God. What if you tested yourself about the image of God doctrine? Here are a few sample questions:
- Is there someone you are sinfully angry with and you refuse to repent to them?
- Do you view yourself as better than a gay person?
- Do you feel superior to people not of your race?
- Is there a people group or kind of person you look down on?
- Are you characterized as self-critical?
If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, then your understanding and practice of the “image of God” teaching needs to change. For the record, the self-esteem doctrine will not teach you how to answer “no” to any of these things, except for number five, which is the point of self-esteem: to love yourself.
Some will argue that you have to love yourself before you can love others. Of course, they will not give you any Scripture to support that idea. If you dislike yourself or anyone else, the solution is not a better self-esteem but a better understanding of what it means to be made in the image of God. You see this idea in James 3:9–10:
With [the tongue] we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness (image) of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. — (ESV)
If you have been abused, to the point where you are painfully insecure, it would be a mistake to turn your focus onto yourself, as though learning to love yourself is the cure. Learning to love God is your cure. Paul said it this way,
And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. — 2 Corinthians 3:18 (ESV)
Adoring, loving, worshiping, and learning God is the path to freedom. Because you were made in the image of God, then learning about your Creator God who made you into His image is the direction you should turn your thoughts. And that’s just the beginning of the good news.
Repairing the broken
Being made in the image of God puts you on the right path to how you are to think about yourself. It is not the end of what you have to do to be whole. You, like all humanity, are broken. The theological term is total depravity–a term that means there is nothing about you that is not affected by sin, physically and spiritually. This is another reason to run from self-esteem: there is nothing in you that is free from the marring of sin.
Paul said you have become worthless (Romans 3:12). There is no amount of secular, humanistic, psychological engineering that can fix that problem. You are fully corrupted from the inside out. The core of your very being has been decimated by sin.
Being made in the image of God points you in the right direction but that will not change you. Because our culture denies God, they have no choice but to create a self-focused doctrine like self-esteem. From there, they teach innate goodness and the ability to do all things “through me who strengthens me” psychological worldview. God teaches total depravity and how we’re a “dime of dozen” recyclable containers (2 Corinthians 1:8–9, 4:7).
The richest and most famous people in our culture have died while still chasing the holy grail of self-esteem. Many of them ended their lives more empty than when they began (Ecclesiastes 1:8). That is what self-esteem does to your soul. It’s an insatiable pursuit for self-worth sought outside the transforming power of Christ.
I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. — Galatians 2:20 (ESV)
Your worth will come as you are filled with Christ. You crucify yourself through the incremental process of putting away your former manner of life and putting on a new kind of person who is really different from you (Ephesians 2:24). That new person is like God. The more Christlike you become, the more you will experience wholeness (Colossians 1:28).
Put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. (ESV)
Tim Keller has the best quote on this idea of self-esteem when he said, “The essence of gospel-humility is not thinking more of myself or thinking less of myself, it is thinking of myself less.” His quote presents the Gospel irony you need to think rightly about how to be whole. This will be your stiffest challenge.
The temptation with soul problems is to turn inward not outward. It makes sense, humanly speaking. Self-esteem is the wisdom of the world. If you are struggling inwardly, then turn outward. Turn to God. Study Him, not yourself. Esteem Him more than anything else and you’ll begin to change inwardly. If you throw in a pinch of serving others, you’ll speed up the process to wholeness (Mark 10:45; Philippians 2:3–4).
It may sound foolish to look to God and others first but it’s actually the wisdom and power of God working in you (1Corinthians 1:25). Behold God. Learn God. Study God. When you are captivated by the character and attributes of our transcendent God who has come to dwell with you, your soul will begin to change.
Call to action
- Are you characterized by thinking more about yourself or more about God?
- Have you learned Paul’s lesson from Philippians 4:11–3, that no matter his condition, he was content because he could do all things through Christ who strengthened him?
- Has your understanding of “made in the image of God” trained you to respect all humanity–including yourself?
- Describe your pursuit of God. Is it more than just studying Him? Does it also include how you’re practically applying what you’re learning about Him to your life?
- A new person in Christ acts like Christ. Take the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22–23 and compare yourself to each element. How do you need to change? Write out a specific and practical plan to change.
Originally published at Rick Thomas.