Does the Bible Teach Self Esteem?
The subject of self esteem continues to be debated at length and breadth from all sides, the most recent contributions being "The Myth of Lisa Simpson's Self Esteem" and "Self Esteem – A Biblical Necessity", published in Trowel and Sword earlier this year. I don't want to go into an in-depth appraisal of the recent views put forward but rather make some comments about the use of the term self esteem.
Perhaps proponents of self esteem are motivated by compassion for those individuals who struggle with what it means to be a redeemed image bearer of God. That's fine, but then why go on to say that such people need more self esteem? It's one thing to have a proper understanding of ourselves as image bearers of God; created to be like God in that there is some resemblance in man of God's attributes of knowledge, wisdom, goodness, holiness; restored by God through Christ in order to be conformed more closely to the kind of person God wants us to be; "beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord ... being transformed into the same image from glory to glory."1
However, there is a marked difference between the understanding of ourselves as restored image bearers and the concept of self esteem. Who we are in Christ is no cause for self esteem, but chiefly a cause for thankfulness. It is really a reason to esteem God who made us; "for thou didst form my inward parts; thou didst weave me in my mother's womb. I will give thanks to thee for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are thy works and my soul knows it very well."2 It's also a reason to esteem Christ who redeemed us and saved us from a fate worse than death; "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ... In Him we have redemption through His blood" 3That should be glaringly obvious to those in Reformed circles who know the Heidelberg Catechism. The third section is about gratitude, or esteeming and thanking God for what he has made of us!
It seems those who advocate "self esteem" have, wittingly or otherwise, married the idea of man as image bearer with an old Sophist 4 teaching that says we need to be able to love ourselves before we can love our neighbour. Of course there is nothing new under the sun, this heresy has been around since the ancient Greeks.
It is just another cunning ploy that Satan uses to relentlessly attack the church and he is currently using it to great effect. Self esteem or self love is really a contradiction in terms for the Christian because the Biblical word for love is agape, and agape is love that is directed away from self and toward one's neighbour. It is a self-sacrificial, serving love. How can we sacrifice ourselves to serve ourselves? The idea doesn't make sense, love cannot be self directed. The love that Jesus talks about in Luke 10:27 "you shall love your neighbour as yourself" doesn't command self love because as Ephesians 5:29 states "for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it." It simply assumes that all men naturally seek their own good. The command is to love God and neighbour. Moreover, in terms of the consistent witness of scripture, self esteem or self love is not a virtue but a sin.
2 Timothy 3:1-4 says: But realize this, that in the last days difficult times will come. For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful arrogant ... disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy ... rather than lovers of God.
Paul Vitz in his book "Psychology as religion" (p. 93) regards self love as "simple idolatry operating from the usual motive of unconscious egotism" When it is analysed self esteem is really an anti-Christian idea. It causes man to worship the creature rather than the Creator. The true answer to our trials with self is to be "self forgetful". What joy we experience when we crucify self and live to serve God and neighbour. Hence the large number of exhortations in Scripture to do exactly that, for they are designed to free us from that monster called self.
As Jesus said whoever wishes to save his life shall lose it and whoever loses his life for my sake and the Gospel's shall save it.Mark 8:35
The point is that when dealing with troubled people or people with so called "low self esteem", taking care with terminology will go a long way towards really helping such people. Why borrow the world's language which is ambiguous at best and is likely to be erroneous? Even Anthony Hoekema in his book "Created in God's Image" prefers the term self image rather than self love or self esteem because of the "ambiguity of the latter and the fact that the idea of self love or self esteem seems to emphasise one's satisfaction with oneself as he or she is by nature, apart from the grace of God." (p. 103) Yes, let us be truly compassionate towards those who struggle with who they are, who struggle with their image so that we help them realize that they are fearfully and wonderfully made and amazingly redeemed and also that their gratitude and esteem is directed toward the only One to whom it is due. But let us also remember that to view oneself correctly as image bearers of God is only half the story. No amount of assurance as to our "natural worth" can take away a deep rooted knowledge of our imperfections. Most people concentrate on outward, shallow concerns such as imperfect appearance or a lack of ability and prowess. But these things are often merely symptoms of a greater need. The moral, ethical and spiritual imperfections are the ones that really trouble us and there is one answer and one alone that will deal adequately with that dilemma. That is that we gratefully accept Christ's forgiveness, leave the past behind and then completely give our lives up for Christ, for it is Christ and Christ alone who can offer us life and life in abundance. Sola Dei Gloria!