As promised in the previous issue, where I dealt with psychology, the Bible and the church, this is an article on self-esteem. As I said before, I am not anti-psychology per se, and I believe there is much to be gained from certain insights, provided we are careful to scrutinize them by God’s Word, rather than indiscriminately accept them just because our culture has. (The same culture that has experienced widespread moral decay over the same period it has embraced these concepts.)
My previous article was filled with disclaimers and qualifications reminding the reader that biblical counseling can be very helpful, and those getting help in that way are to be commended. Nevertheless, as I anticipated, some focused on my criticisms as if they were meant to invalidate everything having any connection with psychology. I said before and I emphasize again, this is not the case. For instance, there are certain aspects of encouraging good self-esteem that I commend—I simply want to point out the potential and actual abuses, even heresies, that can so easily dominate our thinking when we are enlightened first by psychology, and only second by the Scriptures.
Furthermore, if we are not free to critically evaluate psychological beliefs and practices in light of Scripture—as we are to do everything else—then psychology replaces Scripture as our authority. My intention is to shed the light of Scripture on these issues so we will know what is true and worth keeping, and be able to discard the rest.
I also want to emphasize there are many churches, including my own, that do in fact seek to continuously evaluate psychological and counseling models in light of God’s Word. For this I wholeheartedly commend them, and encourage them to do it all the more as biblical theology threatens to be eclipsed by psychological theory in today’s church. Please, then, understand this article not as a condemnation on anyone, but in the spirit of truth-seeking in which it is offered.
I was on the east coast speaking at one of the finest Christian camps in the country. There in the bookstore, surrounded by great books by J. I. Packer, John Stott and others, was a book called, Selling Yourself on You. It is endorsed on the back by a Christian leader who says, “This book will help thousands to realize they are the most important person in their lives.” (I hope I don’t need to point out the built-in heresy of this statement.)
Pastor and positive thinking pioneer Dr. Robert Schuller calls self-esteem “the new reformation.” He claims it has ushered in for the church a whole new era. I believe he is right. The question is whether this new era is taking us where God wants us to go.
I spoke at a Christian rally where the vocalist got up to sing one of my favorite songs, “Amazing Grace.” But I was taken aback when I heard the first line:
“Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a soul like me.”
Notice the revision? The word “soul” was substituted for the writer’s word “wretch.” Why? You’ve heard of political correctness? Well, “soul” was more psychologically correct. To use the word “wretch” was considered demeaning to human beings. I couldn’t help but think of John Newton, writer of the song. He was an immoral slave-trader, a man who knew he was a wretch, and because he understood that fact so profoundly, could then understand why God’s grace is truly so amazing.
If we were just morally neutral “souls,” or lovely worthy souls (which is the theology of self-esteem), then there was nothing amazing about God’s grace. And that’s the problem. When we elevate ourselves and our worthiness, we denigrate and undermine the wonder of God’s grace toward us.
William Carey, father of the modern missions movement and a champion for Christ, was used of God in a powerful way ministering the gospel to people of India. Among other things, he helped abolish the practices of baby-killing, widow-burning and exposing the elderly and handicapped to die. When Carey himself was about to die, he asked that these words be inscribed on his tombstone. You can rest assured he believed them:
Born August 17th, 1761
Died June 1834
A wretched, poor and helpless worm,
on Thy kind arms I fall.
Some people will conclude from this that Carey was way off base, that he was a victim of that embarrassing old “worm theology” that made people think they were less than wonderful, in fact that they were depraved. They might wish poor William had been born after Sigmund Freud and the rise of modern psychology, that he had read the endless evangelical books on self-esteem, so he would have known how mistaken he was. We might imagine if Carey would have learned to understand why he should have felt so much better about himself, he would have made a greater difference for Christ. (But since he made one of the greatest differences in church history, perhaps we need to reevaluate our position, not just his!)
An example of our easily skewed thinking is the way that Christ’s death on our behalf is now routinely used as a proof of our worthiness. (I have done this myself.) How do we reassure ourselves that we are really worthwhile people? “Christ died for us, and he wouldn’t have died for us unless we were worth dying for.”
The amazing truth is that Christ died for utterly unworthy people (Rom. 5:7-8). To minimize our unworthiness by emphasizing our value is to minimize the redemptive work of Christ on our behalf. The fact that Christ died for us is never given in Scripture as a proof of our value as wonderful people, but a demonstration of his unfathomable love. So unfathomable that he would die for rotten people, “wretches” like you and me.
The cross of Christ is a demonstration of God’s utter goodness and grace, and our utter depravity and unworthiness. Indeed, the idea that God died for morally good or morally neutral “souls” is a heresy of the worst kind. It is “psychologically correct” (that is, popularly believed in psychological circles) but it is theologically as incorrect as it could possibly be.
Suppose a man murdered five children and his bail was set at ten million dollars. Would you look at the enormity of the price of his freedom and conclude, “Wow, this guy must really be worthy! I mean, he’s worth ten million dollars!” I doubt his lawyer or anyone else would point to the cost of his bail as an indication of his worth or a basis for his self-esteem!
Yet that’s exactly what we do when we say “we must be worthy—look at the price that had to be paid for our redemption.” No, the astronomical price of our redemption—the shed blood of God—is a testimony not to how good we are, but to how bad we really are! If we hadn’t been so bad, a lower price would have been sufficient. The higher the price, the greater testimony to our depravity, and the wondrous love of God.
The cross of Christ should make us feel worse about ourselves, and better about God. Indeed, part of the reason God’s grace is so much more “ho-hum” to most of us than it was to John Newton is that he believed the Bible’s portrayal of man as utterly depraved and unworthy, and we do not. We are dignified souls—how dare someone call us a wretch!
Please go to your Bible right now and read Romans 3:10-18. Ask yourself what God says here about man’s true nature, his accurate self-identity. Verse twelve says that apart from God we are “worthless”—obviously God doesn’t think our being created in his image or being died for by Christ is a sufficient basis for our self-worth. How is it that we seem to know something God doesn’t? Read Psalm 10 and Romans 1:18-32 to see if the human race’s problem is a lack of self-affirmation and a lack of confidence in self. Or is it not precisely the opposite?
A speaker at a children’s camp asked the children one reason why they should feel good about themselves. The answer was John 3:16. But the problem is that John 3:16 is not a basis for feeling good about ourselves. It is a basis for feeling good about God who loved unworthy perishing sinners such as ourselves.
I have heard statements in the Christian community that appear to ascribe every sin to lack of self-esteem. Should we attribute Hitler’s atrocities to his negative self-image? Was Satan’s rebellion against God rooted in poor self-esteem? Was God a dysfunctional father who failed to properly nurture Lucifer’s self-love? Was Satan a victim of a poor upbringing and lack of positive affirmation? Read Isaiah 14:12-15:
How you have fallen from heaven, O morning star, son of the dawn! You have been cast down to the earth, you who once laid low the nations! You said in your heart, “I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God; I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly, on the utmost heights of the sacred mountain. I will ascend above the tops of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.” But you are brought down to the grave, to the depths of the pit.”
If Satan came into a modern office for counseling (those of us who have counseled know he occasionally does), I wonder if he would first be assured he must have suffered abuse at the hands of an authority figure. Would he be sent to a recovery group to enhance his self-esteem and learn the importance of not putting others before himself, but being sure that his own needs are met first and foremost?
I often hear it said in evangelical circles that God’s Word teaches three kinds of love—love for self, others and God. The proof is Matthew 22:39, where “Love your God with all your heart,” is called the first and greatest commandment. Number two is its corollary “love your neighbor as yourself.” Clearly we are taught to love God above all and love our neighbor above all but God. So where does that leave love of self?
Take a closer look. Despite the common teaching that it does, Matthew 22 does not command us to love ourselves. When in Ephesians 5 God commands a husband to love his wife as he loves his own body, is God teaching a man to love his own body? Of course not. He is simply recognizing that a man does love his body, as demonstrated in the fact that he feeds and clothes it and takes actions for his own self-preservation. As we would jump out of the way of a speeding car (which comes naturally out of our inherent self love), so we are to risk our very lives to pull someone else out of the way of a speeding car (which does not come naturally as does our self-love, but actually violates our self-love because it is self-sacrifice out of love for others).
God recognizes the reality of self-love, but he certainly does not teach it as a Christian virtue to be cultivated. Rather it is an existing reality that is to be applied beyond ourselves, to others.
God recognizes that we do love ourselves, as shown by the fact that we “look out for number one.” It is perfectly natural to put ourselves first. Even the suicidal person is acting out of what he thinks is his own self-interest—”I would be better off dead.” But in today’s psychological model, even within the church, self-love has been elevated from a fact of life into a virtue to be cultivated. And it is being cultivated not as subordinate to but as a priority over love for God and love for others.
When self-love becomes a virtue to be cultivated it magnifies our commitment to acting only in our own best interests, not in the best interests of others. I have heard people say that to grow closer to God (God-love) and get involved in ministry (neighbor-love) they first have to learn to love themselves (self-love). Not only is this making a non-commandment into the first and greatest commandment, it is neglecting the fact that the proper sense of “feeling good about ourselves” develops precisely as we obey God and do what he has made us to do—love Him and love others. To wait till we stop feeling bad about ourselves before we go on to love God and others is like waiting till we stop being hungry before we go get something to eat.
We would do better to teach that to live for God’s glory will bring about our own ultimate good. We will experience eternal reward for loving God and loving our neighbor. To obey God is always in our ultimate self-interest, for God is the rewarder of those who diligently seek Him (Hebrews 11:6). In a universe where God sets up the rules, what is right is also smart.
Do we mean by self-love “willingness to sacrifice for the glory of God and the good of others, recognizing this is God’s desire for us and is therefore in our own ultimate interests as well”? If we do, fine. But too often it means exactly the opposite—putting ourselves first here and now for what we perceive to be our own good, neglecting the pursuit of God and neglecting to sacrifice for the good of our neighbor because, after all, in the words of the pastor who endorsed the “Christian” self-love book, “we are the most important person in our lives.”
Romans 12:3 warns us “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment.” By all means, for the Christian “sober judgment” includes seeing ourselves as dead to sin and alive to Christ, loved and transformed by God, members of a new kingdom, with a future of reigning with Christ in heaven. But notice the major warning is not “Don’t think less of yourself than you should,” but is exactly the opposite— Don’t think more of yourself than you should.” The psychological model says we don’t love ourselves enough. The biblical model suggests we love ourselves too much.
Read Luke 18:9-14 about the Pharisee with great self-esteem and the tax collector with zero self-esteem. Ask yourself which man was ready to experience and relish the grace of God. Read Luke 7:36-50, about a religious leader named Simon who was full of self-love and self-confidence, and about a woman who viewed herself as a miserable wretch. After her conversion, do you think her new focus was on how good she felt about herself? Or was it on how good she felt about Christ?
God isn’t looking for people preoccupied with their worth as human beings. He’s looking with people with “a broken and contrite heart” and who are “contrite in lowly and spirit” (Psalm 51:17; Isaiah 57:15).
But doesn’t Psalm 139, which is a centerpiece in all the Christian self-esteem books, tell us some wonderful things about ourselves? Yes it does, but let’s not miss the focus. The focus is on David’s wonder at the omniscience, omnipresence and omnipotence of God. Let’s not reduce that God-centered emphasis to a mere prescription for self-esteem.
As far as I can tell, Scripture makes a direct value judgment on “self-love” in only one place, 2 Timothy 3:1-5:
But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God—having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with them.
Often a long list begins with an overriding or summary attribute. For instance, Galatians 5 says “the fruit of the spirit is love,” which is followed by those familiar attributes that flow out of love. The 2 Timothy 3 passage suggests that when people are lovers of themselves the results are predictable. Read back through the list and ask yourself if these things have decreased or increased in society as a result of the modern concept that “putting myself first is a virtue.”
I find it interesting and disturbing that the single greatest sermon that impacted lives to bring about America’s single greatest spiritual revival (the Great Awakening) was a sermon that most evangelicals today would find offensive and almost universally inappropriate. I refer to Jonathan Edward’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Read that sermon through the eyes of Scripture and you’ll commend it. Read it through the eyes of modern psychology, even most “Christian” psychology, and you’re sure to condemn it. Jonathan Edwards was no Robert Schuller, that’s for sure. But, then, did a godless community and nation need to hear they were really lovable and wonderful, or did they need to hear they were desperate sinners in need of God?
The leap from “we’re really good people” to “we have a right to happiness” is a short one. But as a Christian, we have no rights. God has a title to our bodies. We are not our own, we were bought with a price. (1 Cor. 6:19-21). If God calls us to obey him and suffer for his name (1 Peter 3:17), and that results in blocking our personal desires and goals in life, then Scripture has this to say—”It comes with the territory.” “He who would live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution” (2 Tim. 3:12). That’s counting the cost.
To retain the right to do whatever we feel like carries a price—eternity in hell. (And a taste of hell in this life too, since we’ll never be fulfilled.) I am convinced that the self-esteem movement and the right to happiness movement that has so permeated the modern church is leaving us woefully unprepared to suffer for the name of Christ.
Paul set aside as “rubbish” even the most prestigious parts of his past, not to mention the bad parts, saying “I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ . . . I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings” (Phil. 3:7-11). We would have to change this to “I want to know myself, get in touch with who I am, so I can avoid suffering at any cost.”
Don’t get me wrong. I do not dismiss every inward look as fruitless navel-gazing. David invites God to search him and know his heart, to see if there was any offensive way in him (Psalm 139:23-24). But he doesn’t trust himself, he relies on God to help him see what is in him. The acid-test of therapy is whether or not you come away from it more or less dedicated to following Christ wholeheartedly.
“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus, who . . . made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant.” (Philippians 2:4-7).
In the self-worth preoccupied society to be called a servant, literally a slave, is a grave insult. Because a slave doesn’t have rights, he just has responsibilities. Husbands don’t want to hear about their responsibilities, they want to hear about their rights. So do wives. So do children. So does everybody. Let’s face it, we’re selfish. That’s part of the problem—let’s not kid ourselves and think it’s part of the solution.
Where have we gone in the church? The old emphasis was on “dying to self,” the new emphasis is on affirming self, and getting in touch with all the ways we can be made healthy and wealthy and successful. The key word in self-esteem, self-worth, self-image is the word “self.” It’s interesting that the Bible puts a great deal of stress on focusing on “God” and our “neighbor.” When it comes to self, it speaks of dying to ourselves rather than affirming and getting in touch with ourselves.
Yes, I believe it is critically important to focus on our new and righteous identity in Christ (Romans 6). But Paul coupled this with an ongoing awareness of his sinfulness—”I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature” (Romans 7:18). For those who argue that Paul is here recalling his sinful condition before coming to know Christ, how do you explain his statement that, in the midst of his sinful desires, “in my inner being I delight in God’s law”? Obviously the unbeliever doesn’t delight in God’s law. Paul is acknowledging that the Christian is both sinner (who he is in himself) and saint (who he is in Christ) and that there is indeed an ongoing battle between the two natures.
Near the end of his life, thirty years after he had become a Christian, Paul says “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst” (1 Timothy 1:15). Notice Paul doesn’t merely say he was the worst of sinners, but that he is the worst of sinners. Like William Carey, he still thinks of himself as a terrible sinner, but also as a spirit-filled saint, and does not hesitate to acknowledge these two facets of his being. In fact, we are most godly when we recognize our sinfulness, not when we deny it. In confessing our sinfulness, we should simultaneously look to Christ and draw upon his righteousness with which he has covered us.
Yes, I believe there is a proper biblical basis for what could be called, in the right context, positive self-esteem. (Indeed, ultimately it is much more positive than the atheistic evolutionary view of man with which society has indoctrinated our young people.) When it comes to affirming and encouraging our children, and building up their “self-esteem,” I believe in and practice this. But I also try not to communicate to them that they are inherently good (the Bible says otherwise). I want them to understand that because of their moral vulnerabilities they must depend on God to empower them to live good and pure lives. I constantly commend them for the good they do, and express my unconditional love for them. But I want more than anything for them to develop a fundamental God-consciousness, leading to others-consciousness.
If we follow the modern path of making self-love, rather than God-love and others-love, the engine or driving force of our Christian lives; if we make self-love an ideal to be focused on and cultivated rather than an already existing reality to be directed away from ourselves and toward God and others, it is bound to do nothing more than propel us down the ancient and tragic path of selfishness.
The Bible and Psychology, by Randy Alcorn
Two Sources of Self-Esteem: Secular and Christian, by Randy Alcorn
Psychology: Servant or Master?, by Randy Alcorn (concise, with biblical references)
Integrating Psychology and the Bible, by David Powlison
Photo by Laura Chouette on Unsplash
Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries.