Should you love yourself? If you would listen to the advice of many teachers, counselors, writers and ministers of religion, your answer would be: "Yes, I should love myself. I should love myself deeply, completely and without reservations. I should have an unconditional love for myself."
From many different sources, people are being encouraged to feel good about themselves. The term "self-esteem" has become more common than the word "sin." Self-esteem means having a positive self-image. It means that people value themselves highly. They see themselves as glorious and wonderful individuals.
But according to many present writers, this very desirable quality of self-esteem is actually extremely rare. Most people are said to have very low self-esteem. They don't think much of themselves. They harbor negative thoughts of their own worthlessness. And in case we should be inclined to see this situation as insignificant, many figures are brought to our attention to demonstrate that low self-esteem leads to violence, suicide, abuse, drug use, teenage pregnancy and other woeful plagues of modern life.
Since a lack of self-esteem is perceived to be the cause of most of our societal diseases, it has become public enemy number one. Nothing is seen as more crucial to modern life than to eradicate feelings of worthlessness. Through schools and counseling and preaching, everybody must be educated to realize that they are truly admirable and magnificent. All of us must learn to joyfully accept ourselves and to believe in ourselves.
Let's imagine that you believed this new philosophy of self-esteem. It is evening and time to update your diary. Instead of the traditional, "Dear Diary," today's entry might begin with this heading: "Dearly beloved self." Or: "Esteemed Me." Or: "To a Very Important Person." And it would continue with words like this: "How great it was to be Me today. I really enjoyed Myself. Instead of feeling down, I just celebrated Myself. How odd that it took so long for Me to realize just how admirable I am. Now I can hardly imagine being different than what I am. It doesn't matter what other people think about Me. I just feel in my heart that I am really Somebody. I like Me! How great I am!"
No doubt Gloria Steinem would applaud a notation like this. So would Robert Schuller. Oddly enough, so would Dr. Dobson. But at this point I would like to draw your attention to some familiar words from the language of the church. Think back to the last baptism in your local church. The minister read from the Form for Baptism which says that baptism "signifies the impurity of our souls, so that we may detest ourselves, humble ourselves before God and seek our cleansing and salvation outside of ourselves."
And, since it's the time of the year when we often witness public profession of faith, why not listen to the second question of the Form:
We find the same phrases in the Form for the Lord's Supper:
And if you look through the Prayers at the back of the Book of Praise you will find admissions that we are all "poor wretched sinners…born in sin and corruption." In the prayers "we accuse ourselves." We confess that we are not "worthy to be children of God." Undoubtedly you have heard similar language from your own minister.
It would seem, then, that Reformed thinking sends us into a violent head-on collision with trendy self-esteem philosophy. The exhortation to "love yourself" cannot be combined with the confession that we should "detest ourselves." Instead of bringing a toast to our own glory, we abominate ourselves and confess that we are worms before Him who is Holy.
According to Scripture, self-esteem is the very least of our human problems. In fact, the Bible takes it for granted that we have a strong tendency toward not low, but high self-esteem. It warns us not to think too highly of ourselves. It puts us on guard against the horrid but universally prevalent sin of pride. Instead of building up our self-esteem, the Scriptures spend considerable effort in destroying our natural egoism and self-centeredness. The Bible assumes that, by nature, we humans have a vastly-inflated sense of self-worth. We build ourselves up and tear others down. We honor ourselves but ignore the honor of Almighty God.
A prescription for self-love?
We all know that the Bible commands us to love God first of all and our neighbor as ourselves. We are called to esteem the Lord and the neighbor, but to deny ourselves. That is the way of the Kingdom of God. But many allege that the Bible also contains a prescription for self-love. It is their opinion that the summary of the Law as the Lord gives that to us in Matthew 22, also implies that we should love ourselves. After all, does not the second great commandment instruct us to "love your neighbor as yourself?"
In answer, it may be said that the summary of the Law in Matthew 22 contains only two commandments, not three! The Lord does not exhort us to love ourselves. Instead, He takes it for granted that we love ourselves in the sense that we look after our basic needs. Very few people forget about their hunger, their thirst, their need for warm clothing, shelter and so forth. They have a natural concern for the comfort of their own lives. In the same way, says the Lord Jesus, we must develop an abiding concern for the well-being of our neighbor. Are his needs being met? Can I help? Sadly, our natural selfishness makes it all too easy for us to forget about our neighbor!
Thus, throughout the Bible, we are admonished to humble ourselves. The Bible attacks our self-flattery; it destroys our self-confidence. God does not save us because we were so lovable. Sometimes, when you read the self-esteem literature, you get the impression that God's salvation is hardly surprising. Considering how wonderful we are, it was actually inevitable that God would save us! But Scripture says that Christ died for the ungodly. We were reconciled while we were yet enemies (Romans 5:6, 10).
Self-esteem or Christ-esteem?
The miracle of the Gospel is that despite our unworthiness, and regardless of our deep-seated pride, the Lord was pleased to save us. We are ugly sinners with many defects, but the Lord is going to make us beautiful saints. That's no credit to us, no reason for pride, but rather cause for praise!
Our identity, our self-image should be shaped not by what we naturally are, but by what God has made and is making of us. We live by grace. Our feelings about ourselves must be formed by God's grace. He makes us aware of His love for us in Christ Jesus. He wants us to know that even though we are vile in ourselves, yet He makes us His treasured possession. He tells us that His delight is in us.
So what do you do when you are constantly ambushed by feelings of worthlessness? First of all, you must see that you are, in fact, an unworthy sinner. But then you must also believe God's grace in Christ Jesus. You must know that in Christ, God is making you beautiful so that you can glorify Him and enjoy Him forever.
So we may say that the answer to what is called "low self-esteem" is high Christ-esteem! We think very highly of our Savior. We honor Him above all. To Him be all the praise and glory! He restores us and makes us new creatures.
The result of high Christ-esteem is that you will be able to accept the kind of person you are compared to other people. Even if others deride you, living a Christ-centered life will enable you to accept your talents, your gifts and your appearance. You will live for Christ and by the power of Christ's Spirit and so you will also desire to dedicate your whole existence with all you are and with all you have to the service of the Lord.
Can we feel content with ourselves? Certainly. But only if our feelings are the result of pursuing righteousness by the power of the Holy Spirit. Self-esteem is never a goal in itself. People who set out to find self-esteem are sure to find only pride. But people who set out to love the Lord above all and who serve their neighbor sacrificially will also discover the inner peace and contentment that goes with being a servant of the Lord.