Yes, Self-Esteem is Our Problem!

I may as well admit it from the start: I do love myself. And I suspect that most other people love themselves, also, even those who complain about how terrible they are and who seem to have low self-esteem. Then what about the pop psychologists who tell me l need to love myself more, to improve my self-concept, become self-fulfilled, self-actualized?

Social critics tell us that narcissism is a central ingredient of our culture. Self-help publications and body-improvement magazines abound. Even Christian writers have joined the self-evaluation crusade.

Is having a poor self-image really the root of all evil? Should we be engrossed in building our self-esteem, feeling better about ourselves, convincing ourselves that we are O.K.? What about the modern-day proverb, “You must love yourself before you can really love others”?

I began to take a long look at the psychology of me-ism when counseling as a pastor and later as a teacher at a Christian college. Doug came to talk with me one day (as he had many times before). He was feeling down on himself again, overwhelmed with his own shortcomings. He was socially awkward. He seemed to be in his own world. On previous occasions I had tried to help him improve his self-concept. It would work for a while – then he would be in the pits again.

This time it struck me how self-absorbed Doug was. He didn’t need to be more preoccupied with himself. His real problem was that he was proud and unwilling to accept who he was (defects and all) and therefore was lost in self-pity.

“Doug,” I said, “I don’t think your problem is one of poor self-concept at all. I think you are actually quite proud. The reason you feel inadequate and wretched at times is that you are … just like the rest of us. Why don’t you accept who you are and get on with life? Forget yourself for a while and get interested in other people and their concerns.”

The look on Doug’s face changed from surprise to horror to unbelief … then to a smile. He had never heard advice like that. He certainly didn’t expect to hear it from me. But as we continued to talk, his eyes began to light up and a new freedom came over him – freedom from the slavery of self-concern, freedom that comes from taking an honest look at yourself for the first time.

How many people have been counseled down a road of introspection, seeking to feel better about themselves only to be caught (sometimes for months or years) in the dark web of self-absorption?

Paul Vitz examined this craze in Psychology as Religion: The Cult of Self-Worship (Eerdmans). He points out how it has permeated our culture, our language, and even our Christian institutions. We see it in the self-help seminars, in cultic groups like TM, in the inward gaze of the Eastern religions. We see it in the breakdown of marriages when one partner decides he or she can’t be fulfilled in this relationship and seeks another one which can offer satisfaction. After all, don’t we all have an inalienable right to be fulfilled?

Other research psychologists have re-examined the tenets of selfism. David G. Myers states, “New research reveals that the most common error in people’s self-image is not low self-esteem, but a ‘self-serving bias’; not the inferiority complex but the superiority complex. These experiments provide a fresh retelling of ancient Christian wisdom about the pervasiveness of pride.”

To support his conclusions, Myers points to studies which indicate that most people rate themselves better than average on almost any scale. Can we all be above average? “Yet,” Myers writes, “most business people see themselves as more ethical than the average business person. Most Americans perceive themselves as more intelligent than their average peer.”

People are more likely to accept responsibility for success than failure. People are prone to believe phony compliments about themselves. They tend to revise their past to be more favorable to their present attitudes. The evidence points to the conclusion that we have an unrealistic, inflated view of ourselves and our abilities.

“But,” you say, “most people I know (including me) seem to have a low self-image.” That may appear to be true on the surface because few of us are willing to reveal our self-centered thoughts – even to ourselves. It is more stylish to be modest in our society, but self-abasement is not necessarily the opposite of pride. It is usually just a different form of pride. If I am preoccupied with how terrible I am and you are preoccupied with how wonderful you are – we are both self-absorbed, whether it be self-pity or arrogance.

The Bible teaches that our basic problem is not poor self-esteem. It is not that we don’t love ourselves enough. Rather, we are predisposed to selfishness, pride, and self-worship.

We tend to worship the creature rather than the Creator (Rom. 1:25). Of the seven most abominable sins, “haughty eyes” is the first on the list (Prov. 6:16-17). The way of the world is portrayed by the triplet: lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes, the boastful pride of life (1 Jn. 2:16). At the head of a list of sins which characterize the last days is that men will be “lovers of self” rather than lovers of God (2 Tim. 3:2-4). Paul argues that husbands should love their wives as their own bodies, “for no man ever hates his own flesh” (Eph. 5:28-29). This doesn’t indicate that we have a problem loving ourselves. Scripture calls us away from self to love God and others.

C. S. Lewis and the church fathers are right in identifying pride as the Great Sin. In Mere Christianity, Lewis writes: “Pride is spiritual cancer; it eats the very possibility of love, or contentment, or even common sense … Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind.”

John Stott and others have challenged the love-yourself surge. In Christianity Today, Stott writes, “A chorus of many voices is chanting in unison today that I must at all costs love myself: that self-love needs to be added to love for God and neighbor as a much neglected commandment; and dire consequences will overtake me if I refuse – frustration, depression, hostility, inertia, and much else besides.” It is not surprising today that many would take the command of Jesus to “love your neighbor as yourself” and totally reverse the focus so that it becomes a command to love oneself.

Jesus was simply recognizing a fact of humanity. We do love ourselves very much. That is our natural orientation. The problem is to love our neighbor.

Jesus made it clear that we are to deny ourselves. He has called us to lose our lives for His sake. It is in so doing that we truly find ourselves. We are also told by Paul to regard others as more important than ourselves (Phil. 2:3) and to give preference to one another (Rom. 12:10). This kind of teaching is called “worm theology” in some Christian circles because it seems to contradict the doctrine of self-love.

I am not advocating a return to the old Puritan preoccupation with what-a-disgusting-worm-I-am mentality. That is still self-absorption. We need to get outside ourselves, become less introspective, forget about ourselves, and lose our life that we may find it.

But what do we do with feelings of inferiority? Perhaps the solution is not more self-analysis. When God called Moses (Exodus 3) to go to Pharaoh and to lead the people of Israel out of Egypt, Moses responded very typically with, “Who am I? I couldn’t do anything like that.”

The Lord never answered that question; it was the wrong question. But He did begin to show Moses who was calling him to this task. We might have expected God to say, “Well, Moses, I see you have some problems with low self-esteem. We had better go to work on improving your self-concept.” Or he might have given him a pep talk: “Come on, Moses. You can do it. Don’t be so down on yourself!”

Instead, God sought to improve Moses’ God-concept. He was not interested in bolstering Moses’ self-confidence. He simply said, “I will be with you.” “But who is ‘I’?” said Moses. “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the great I AM, the God who performs miracles, the Holy One of Israel. I will be with you.” Isn’t that better therapy then trying to build one’s ego strength?

When Moses understood who God was and that God would be with him, his own fears and inadequacies faded into the background. If we are plagued with our own weaknesses, it is either because we are trying to do something God has not called us to do or because we don’t believe God when He says He will go with us.

How should we then view ourselves as Christians? The answer: realistically, as God sees us. It is true that we are created in the image of God and are the crown of His creation. We ought therefore to have a reverence for human life – our own and that of our fellow human beings. However, we are fallen creatures, and with our tendency to exalt ourselves, we can use a good dose of humility. Pride is self-deceit, ignorance of the truth about ourselves. Let us respond as the publican, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner”; not as the Pharisee, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people.”

We ought to view our special talents and abilities as gifts from God. “What have you that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?” (1 Cor. 4:7).

We should view ourselves as forgiven people. I am aware that there are some people who actually do hate themselves and are bent on self-destruction. This is rare and not the typical problem in our society. But the cure must be through a radical acceptance of God’s forgiveness and grace.

The goal is self-forgetfulness. As C. S. Lewis suggests in Mere Christianity, “If you meet a truly humble man, he won’t be thinking about humility; he won’t be thinking about himself at all.”

Dan Denk, The Christian Reader

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