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SELF-ESTEEM AND GOD’S WORD

 

By Phil Layton

 

            In recent decades, “low self-esteem” and a “bad self-image” have been blamed as the cause for just about every human problem, and the invariable solution prescribed is to boost and build up the view of self.   The prevailing assumption is that people are good, not bad, and will become dysfunctional if they think negative things about themselves.   One survey revealed that most people view self-esteem as the single most important motivator for hard work and success, ranking higher even than a sense of responsibility or fear of failure.  We are told that high self-esteem will help keep down amounts of crime, bad marriages, career and social problems, relational and academic problems, and that low self-esteem may be the biggest factor in all of these problems.  In this drive to pump up self-esteem, Americans are feeling better about themselves than ever.  A survey conducted in 1940 had only 11 percent of women and 20 percent of men agreeing with the statement, “I am an important person.”  In the 1990s, those figures jumped to 66 percent of women and 62 percent of men.  Gallup Polls indicate as much as 90 percent of people consider their own sense of self-esteem as robust and healthy.[1]               

While many Christians are hesitant to explicitly encourage self-centeredness or focusing on boosting your own self-esteem only, I have noticed an interesting trend in the growing Evangelical literature supporting self-esteem:  It is considered noble, if not a responsibility, to build the self-esteem and image of others, especially children or women.  Logically, of course, if psychologists are right about self-esteem and its relation to healthy living, then we should also pump up our own self-esteem to live fully for God.  Some even see strong self-esteem as essential in hiring a pastor.  Describing what to look for in leaders one author discusses the character of a minister.  “Self-esteem, while not strictly a matter of character, comes sharply into play at this point. To a degree, all of us have a fragile self-esteem … The healthier the self-esteem, the better the foundation upon which to build ministry. We’ve found that if we compromise here, we pay in the end.”[2]

One characteristic in many of these Christian writings is that either implicitly or explicitly, sinful behavior or “problems” (the preferred term for most) are traced to a self-esteem issue at its core.  One famous Christian preacher of a huge congregation and ministry goes so far as to redefine sin as “a fundamental lack of self-esteem that inhibits the full development of the human personality.”  On one of the most widely-listened-to Christian radio programs, I recently heard a Counselor discussing a particular behavioral sin, about which she asserted as fact that “The disorder is not really the problem – the real problem is self-esteem.”   At least one Study Bible for teens has a section describing how eating problems victimize adolescents because of low self-esteem.  The cure for all these problems is more self-esteem, or self-love, which is considered an obligation by many - “The true love of self is a duty”[3] and teaching Jesus gave a “command to love yourself.”[4]  During a graduation ceremony at a “Christian” college in recent years, an emotional speaker said confidently, “The greatest love is to love yourself.”  The auditorium clapped and cheered at what they apparently thought was an unquestionably true and intensely profound statement.  

            Where does this come from?  The Bible?  What verse in Scripture commands us to build self-esteem?  In the first eighteen centuries of church history, can we find any Christian writer saying these things?  If not, how did believers since the time of Genesis live fully for God before self-love/esteem psychology was “discovered” by modern non-Christians and later accepted in much of the church in the last century?

Most of my generation is too young to know much about Norman Vincent Peale’s “Positive Thinking” movement or the history of secular psychologists and the real roots of this recent teaching.[5]  But while I challenge any reader to identify where self-esteem or self-love is commanded by plain reading our Bible (or even found in old hymns of faith), we do find it in popular culture, as well exemplified by Whitney Houston’s hit song:

I believe the children are our future … I never found anyone to fulfill my needs, A lonely place to be, So I learned to depend on me  … Because the greatest love of all is happening to me, I found the greatest love of all inside of me, The greatest love of all is easy to achieve. Learning to love yourself, it is the greatest love of all

 

            Is it true, as the Christian college graduation speaker and Whitney Houston declared, that to love yourself is the greatest love of all?  Jesus saw it a little differently: “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends” (John 15:13, NKJV).  When Paul warned Timothy of a laundry list of sins and sinful people, self-lovers were at the top of the list.  “But realize this, that in the last days difficult times will come.  For men will be lovers of self …  Avoid such men as these” (2 Tim 3:1-5, NASB).  When people love self, it is a sign of terrible times, according to God’s Word.

Someone may counter, but doesn’t the Bible say the second greatest commandment is to "Love your neighbor as yourself?"  Many are sincerely confused and think some verses command to love yourself and that self-love means self-esteem.  But if you read the passages carefully, you’ll see that Moses (Lev. 19:18), Jesus (Matt. 23:36-40), and Paul (Eph. 5:28-29) all assume that all people love themselves; they don't command it. In fact, these verses affirm that self-love is already universal, they do not say we need more of it.  These are commands to take your powerful, natural, existing love of self and strive to love your spouse or others to the degree that you already love yourself.  The context of Ephesians defines this love as including “nourishing and cherishing” (what is natural for ourselves, v. 29) and makes it clear we don’t lack self-love, we lack selfless love for others.  Paul’s entire argument hinges on the fact that we do love ourselves, and this is the strongest human love we can be exhorted to redirect to others.  

            While some may think Matthew 22 includes a command to love self, Adams points out that Jesus explicitly said they were only “two commandments,” not three:

Comparing Luke 10:29 with Matthew 22:36-40, an important contextual addition appears.  “Wishing to justify himself, he [the lawyer whose words occasioned the discussion] said to Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’ “  Whereupon Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan … The parable of the Good Samaritan certainly was not designed to foster a higher self-interest, but just the opposite.  The very point of the parable is that one must love his neighbor-i.e. anyone in need-as himself.  He must look after the needs of others and even put himself out for others.  Jesus did not say that in order to engage in such high-level activity as the Samaritan did one must first come to a place where all his own needs at lower levels were satisfied.  What of the Priest and Levite?  Were they deprived?  Did they have low self-esteem?  Of course not.  They probably considered themselves far better than the Samaritan.  Their problem was the same as the lawyer’s: They loved themselves so much that they would not put themselves out for anyone else … When you are commanded to love your neighbor “as yourself,” it means to love him as wholeheartedly as you love yourself!  We already have a fervent, dedicated, genuine, and sincere love for ourselves.  With sinners, this love is almost always excessive. Now, says Jesus, extend the same amount of love toward your neighbor.[6]

Our love for our selves and our own interests is so strong that if we could love others even half as wholeheartedly as we love ourselves, our worlds might turn upside down.

Self-Esteem in Salvation and Sanctification

 

Robert Schuller is one of the most influential, extreme, and outspoken preachers of self-esteem theology.   To him self-esteem is at the core of the gospel and all its elements, and being born again means "to be changed from a negative to a positive self-image--from inferiority to self-esteem" (Schuller, Self-Esteem: The New Reformation, [Waco: Word, 1982], p. 68). Here are some other excerpts from that book:

“Classical theology has erred in its insistence that theology be ‘God-centered,’ not ‘man-centered’” (p. 64)

"The classical error of historical Christianity is that we have never started with the value of the person. Rather, we have started from the `unworthiness of the sinner,'" (p. 162). 

"I can offer still another answer: `Sin is any act or thought that robs myself or another human being of his or her self-esteem'" (p. 14).

“Reformation theology [also] failed to make clear that the core of sin is a lack of self-esteem” (p. 98).

“The most serious sin is the one that causes me to say, ‘I am unworthy. I may have no claim to divine sonship if you examine me at my worst.’ For once a person believes he is an ‘unworthy sinner,’ it is doubtful if he can really honestly accept the saving grace God offers in Jesus Christ.” (p. 98)

"And what is `hell'? It is the loss of pride that naturally follows separation from God … A person is in hell when he has lost his self-esteem" (pp. 14- 15, 93).

"Christ is the Ideal One, for he was Self-Esteem Incarnate" (p. 135).

“… the gospel message is not only faulty but potentially dangerous if it has to put a person down before it attempts to lift him up” (p.. 127).

In an article in Christianity Today, October 5, 1984, Schuller said, "I don't think anything has been done in the name of Christ and under the banner of Christianity that has proven more destructive to human personality and, hence, counterproductive to the evangelism enterprise than the often crude, uncouth, and unchristian strategy of attempting to make people aware of their lost and sinful condition." 

This is clearly another gospel and a frightening assault on the real gospel!  Most believers with respect for Scripture will not let self-love or self-esteem teaching run to its full extreme, but varying degrees of this thinking (usually in more moderate forms) are found beyond minority fringes of Evangelicalism, in many conservative and widely respected ministries, including one that argues that self-esteem is woman’s greatest need.   While I do not judge the motives of those who integrate psychological thinking into their ministry, I must look to the Bible as my authority to determine if self-esteem is really the greatest need.  If it is, wouldn’t we expect God’s Sufficient Word to address it?  Do we find God speaking from heaven to boost the self-esteem of Old Testament saints?  Do we find Jesus telling the Pharisees that their real problem was they needed to love themselves more?  Does the Bible even mention, support, or encourage the idea of high self-esteem? 

The word “self-esteem” itself is somewhat recent as far as common vernacular usage, and is not found in any major Bible version, except for one passage in the NRSV: “The lazy person is wiser in self-esteem than seven who can answer discreetly” (Proverbs 26:16).  Here the connotation is obviously negative, as other translations render this phrase as “own conceit” (KJV), “will think he is more intelligent” (TEV), “consider themselves smarter” (NLT), “thinks he is wiser” (NCV), “is wiser in his own eyes” (NASB, NIV), etc.  The general idea is that of an inflated view of self, and the Biblical writer is showing the folly of this “self-esteem.” 

Before the rise of humanistic psychology and diminished discernment in the church, Christians generally agreed that self-esteem was a sinful attitude. In the seventeenth century Stephen Charnock wrote: "Self-esteem, self- dependence, self-willedness, is denying affection and subjection to God."  In the same century, Richard Baxter classified self-esteem with pride and conceit.  A.W. Pink quoted Charnock when he wrote: "Well has it been said, `To dispossess a man, then, of his self-esteem and self-sufficiency [is] to make room for God … to make designs of self- advancement sink under a zeal for the glory of God and an overruling design for His honor…”  One theologian-hymnwriter from the past has said well, “In all unbelief there are two things – a good opinion of self and a bad opinion of God.  So long as these things exist, it is impossible for an inquirer to find rest … The object of the Holy Spirit’s work, in convicting of sin, is to alter the sinner’s opinion of himself, and so to reduce his estimate of his own character that he shall think of himself as God does …”   As recent as the nineteenth century, C.H. Spurgeon described the poor in spirit (of the beatitudes) as having "an absence of self-esteem."[7] 

Centuries earlier Martin Luther himself opened his historic 95 Theses with these words:  “The penalty of sin remains as long as the hatred of self (that is, true inner repentance), namely till our entrance into the kingdom of heaven” (Thesis 4).  This was penned before the word “self-esteem” existed, but it does show the theology that launched the reformation was a far cry from today’s self-esteem preaching.  

What Does the Bible Say About Self-Esteem?

 

Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 10th Edition, tells us the word “self-esteem” originated in 1657 (after the King James Bible was written) and means basically “1 : a confidence and satisfaction in oneself : self-respect; 2 : self-conceit (an exaggerated opinion of one’s own qualities or abilities).”  The closest Bible verse I can find including “self” and “esteem” is noteworthy:

“Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself.” (Philippians 2:3, NKJV, italics mine). 

            The Greek word translated “conceit” in this verse is kenodoxia (κενοδοξια) and is defined by Wuest here as “groundless self-esteem, empty pride.”[8]  Again this is something we should not pursue, or do anything with such a mindset, for that matter.  Instead we are to have a humility, a “lowliness of mind,” and to esteem others and be focused on them and their interests (v. 4).  Such a lowliness of mind or spirit is constantly commended in Scripture, which on the other hand never tells us to have higher thoughts about ourselves.  You’ll notice that even secular definitions associate self-esteem with conceit and an exaggerated opinion of self.  The Apostle Paul has other pertinent comments on this point: 

“For I say, through the grace given to me, to everyone who is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think soberly” (Romans 12:3).    

This is the closest Scriptural reference I can find regarding thinking higher thoughts about oneself, and again it is something we are not to do.  Nevertheless, when certain problems come our way, most modern counselors (Christian and non-Christian) will tell you that your problem is you need to think more highly of yourself.  But Paul says that your problem is the opposite - you think you are something when in fact you are nothing (Gal. 6:3) and need to think soberly and Biblically.  When Jesus launched his preaching ministry, his opening line crushed any assumption that lofty self-image is our need.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit … blessed are the meek [or humble]” (Matthew 5:3).  We start with recognizing our spiritual bankruptcy and unworthiness, and instead of thinking better thoughts about ourselves, we humbly come to God as a desperate beggar wanting to esteem Him if He will only graciously have mercy on a wretch like me. 

“And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:13-14).  

King David agreed there is only one kind of person that pleases God:

“The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit,

A broken and a contrite heart—These, O God, You will not despise.” (Psalm 51:17)

            It may be true that many people feel insecure, and may have a negative view of themselves, a diminished sense of worth, love, or value.  They may feel broken inside and their thinking can affect the way they live.  Such a broken spirit that does not turn to God will invariably encounter more problems.  But the solution is not to try and make yourself feel good, we need to fear God, experiencing His satisfying love instead of our unfulfilling self-love.  We must turn to God in such a broken and contrite state, recognizing that apart from Christ we are nothing.  It is said of gravity, that what goes up must come down.  From a Biblical standpoint, we could modify that statement to say whoever first goes down (and repents in humility) will be brought up.  And on the flip side, if you try and bring yourself up (through self-esteem or anything other than Christ), you will inevitably come crashing back down. 

“And whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Matthew 23:12)

“Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded. … Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up.” (James 4:8, 10)

“… and be clothed with humility, for ‘God resists the proud, But gives grace to the humble.’ Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time” (I Peter 5:5-6). 

Our Problem Is not Too Little Self-Esteem, but Too Much Self-Focus

            In the case of someone who has grown up with what’s diagnosed as a “bad self-image,” who is affected by criticism and unfairly comparing oneself to others, I’m not denying that there are issues that need to be dealt with.  But focusing on self more is not the answer, and rather than making things better, self-centeredness will actually make it worse in the long run.  The problem is that we have too much self-esteem and self-interest.  When we have bad thoughts of ourselves, the issue may be that we are thinking of ourselves excessively, or are overly obsessed with what other people think of us rather than what God thinks (c.f. John 14:23).  We may want the praise of man like the Pharisees.  Rather than focusing on God and His glory, we may think we deserve more than we receive, and therefore feel wronged when we don’t get our high expectations of what someone of our level should get.  God desires that we be less self-preoccupied, not more.  Our culture has already overloaded on self-preoccupation.  Bookstores have entire sections on Self-Help, not to mention the endless variety of books on self-improvement, self-worth, self-realization, self-empowerment, self-awareness, etc.  There is even a magazine called Self.

Jesus, however, did not come to increase self-image, but to rescue us from self. 

“Then He said to them all, ‘If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me.’” (Luke 9:23)

            This was no less than a call to die, a complete crucifixion of self.  While Schuller might consider self-esteem essential to the gospel, Jesus made it clear that you can’t even be His follower without saying no to self, dying to your self-interest and selfishness daily.      

Is There Even Any Secular Evidence That Self-Esteem Really Works?

 

            Almost like the religion of evolution, the previously mentioned assumptions about self-esteem are often touted as unquestionable and universal fact rather than a theory  lacking evidence.    Surely if such a sweeping consensus has overtaken our culture with little resistance, endless scientific studies must support it, right?  Interestingly, even secular sources and studies are debunking the presuppositions Christians now embrace. 

[R]esearch indicates that children are skillful at maintaining strong self-esteem from a very early age. In fact, they seem to be born with it. Even under the most adverse circumstances, children will value themselves and even build positive illusions to protect themselves from feelings of inferiority.  After examining the research on self-perception, Dr. Shelley Taylor, a professor of psychology at UCLA, wrote the book Positive Illusions: Creative Self-Deception and the Healthy Mind. She says:

"Before the exigencies of the world impinge upon the child's self-concept, the child is his or her own hero. With few exceptions, most children think very well of themselves. They believe they are capable at many tasks and abilities, including those they have never tried.  They see themselves as popular. Most kindergartners and first-graders say they are at or near the top of the class. They have great expectations for their future success. Moreover, these grandiose assessments are quite unresponsive to negative feedback, at least until approximately age seven."

Though slightly dampened with reality, positive self-regard continues into adulthood. Here are some of the results of Taylor's investigations:

"Most adults hold very positive views of themselves. When asked to describe themselves, most people mention many positive qualities and few, if any, negative ones. Even when people acknowledge that they have faults, they tend to down-play those weaknesses as unimportant or dismiss them as inconsequential. ... Thus, far from being balanced between positive and negative conceptions, the image that most people hold of themselves is heavily weighted in a positive direction. Most people, for example, see themselves as better than others and as above average on most of their qualities. When asked to describe themselves and other people, most people provide more positive descriptions of themselves than they do of friends. Most people even believe that they drive better than others. For example, in one survey, 90 percent of automobile drivers considered themselves to be better than average drivers."[9]

John MacArthur adds the following helpful comments on this issue:

But does self-esteem really work? Does it, for example, promote higher achievement? There is plenty of evidence to suggest it does not. In a recent study, a standardized math test was given to teenagers from six different nations. Besides the math questions, the test asked the youngsters to respond yes or no to the question, “I am good at mathematics.” American students scored lowest on the math questions, far behind Korean students, who had the top scores. Ironically, more than three-fourths of the Korean students had answered no to the “I am good at math” question. In stark contrast, however, 68 percent   of the American students believed their math skills were just fine.  Our kids may be failing math, but they obviously feel pretty good about how they are doing.

Morally, our culture is in precisely the same boat. Empirical evidence strongly suggests, as we have seen, that society is at an all-time moral low. We might expect people’s self-esteem to be suffering as well. But statistics show Americans are feeling better about themselves than ever … Incredibly, while the moral fabric of society continues to unravel, self-esteem is thriving. All the positive thinking about ourselves seems not to be doing anything to elevate the culture or motivate people to live better lives.

Can it really be that low self-esteem is what is wrong with people today? Does anyone seriously believe that making people feel better about themselves has helped the problems of crime, moral decay, divorce, child abuse, juvenile delinquency, drug addiction, and all the other evils that have dragged society down? Could so much still be wrong in our culture if the assumptions of self-esteem theory were true? Do we really imagine that more self-esteem will finally solve society’s problems? Is there even a shred of evidence that would support such a belief?

Absolutely none. A report in Newsweek suggested that “the case for self-esteem … is a matter less of scientific pedagogy than of faith—faith that positive thoughts can make manifest the inherent goodness in anyone.” In other words, the notion that self-esteem makes people better is simply a matter of blind religious faith. Not only that, it is a religion that is antithetical to Christianity, because it is predicated on the unbiblical presupposition that people are basically good and need to recognize their own goodness.[10]

What Makes Men Great and Have a True Sense of Purpose and Usefulness?

 

Consider Missionary William Carey’s Tombstone Enscription:

 

Born August 17the, 1761, Died June 9the, 1834
A wretched, poor, and helpless worm, On Thy kind arms I fall.

            What was William Carey's secret, John Piper asks? How could he persevere for 40 years over all obstacles -- as a homely man, suffering from recurrent fever, limping for years from an injury in 1817, and yet putting the entire Bible into six languages and parts of it into 29 other languages -- what was the secret of this man's usefulness and productivity for the kingdom? The secret for William Carey was not self esteem, Piper says in his sermon on the first Beatitude. Carey was poor in spirit to the very end.  Let’s join him on a stroll through the lives of the “super saints” in the past:

Abraham:

In dealing with the Lord about Sodom and Gomorrah he said, "Behold, I have taken upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes" (Genesis 18:27).

Jacob:

When Jacob returned to the promised land after spending 20 years in exile, he wrestled with God in prayer and said, "I am not worthy of the least of all the steadfast love and all the faithfulness which thou hast shown to thy servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan; and now I have become two companies" (Genesis 32:10).

Moses:

When God came to him with a mission to lead his people out of Israel, he said, "Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the sons of Israel out of Egypt? ... Oh, my Lord, I am not eloquent, either heretofore or since thou hast spoken to thy servant; but I am slow of speech and of tongue" (Exodus 3;11; 4:10).

John Piper writes: ‘What is the Biblical solution when a person is paralyzed by a sense of guilt or unworthiness or uselessness? I believe with all my heart that the solution is not self-esteem. God did not say to Moses, "Stop putting yourself down. You are somebody. You are eloquent." That is not the Biblical way. What God said was, "Stop looking at your own unworthiness and uselessness and look at me. I made the mouth. I will be with you. I will help you. I will teach you what to say. Look to me and live!" [Exodus 4]

The Biblical answer to the paralysis of low self-esteem is not high self-esteem; it is sovereign grace. You can test whether you agree with this by whether you can gladly repeat the words of Isaiah 41:13, "Fear not, you worm Jacob...I will help you, says the Lord; your Redeemer is the Holy One of Israel." In other words, God's way of freeing and mobilizing people who see themselves as worms is not to tell them that they are beautiful butterflies but rather to say, "I will help you. I am your redeemer... Go to Egypt now, and I will be with you."’[11]

Job:

"I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees thee; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes" (Job 42:5-6).

Isaiah:

"Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!" (Isaiah 6:5).

The Canaanite woman:

When Jesus at first refused her request for help, since she was not a Jew, she said, "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master's table." To which Jesus responds, "O woman, great is your faith!"

Poverty of spirit is right at the very heart of what true faith is.

Peter:

When he saw the power of Jesus on the Lake of Gennesaret, "Simon Peter fell down at Jesus' knees, saying, 'Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord'" (Luke 5:8).

Paul:

"I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is , in my flesh... O wretched man that I am!  Who will deliver me from this body of death?" (Roman 7:18, 24). 

It has been humorously pointed out that if Paul said this at the desk of many Christian Counselors, you can almost hear the rebukes.  “Don’t say that Paul, you are a good person, an Apostle for crying out loud.  What I’m hearing is that you are having thoughts of low self-esteem, but you are special – you’re a somebody, Jesus died for you!  That negative self-defeating talk will not do you any good.” 

Paul would respond: "It is a trustworthy statement, deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am I am the foremost of all … for an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life" (1 Timothy 1:15-16). 

To think any higher of ourselves than the Apostle Paul himself did is supreme arrogance.   Notice in 1 Timothy that Paul’s mindset and gracious testimony was an example for all of us!  Adams points out that today’s Self-Image counselor focuses so much on our “need” to get love, feel love, and be loved, that he or she doesn’t consider what someone who fails to love others is like.  According to Paul in I Corinthians 13:1-2, such a loved person even with all the world’s best is no more pleasing to God than an annoying gong or clashing cymbal.  “If I [have everything imaginable] … but do not have [self-less agape] love, I am nothing.”  Come on, Paul, don’t call yourself a nothing, you’re being too hard on yourself, someone might say.  But in reality, it’s hard not to wonder if the reason some people feel like a “nobody” is because God’s Word says we actually are, in some sense, without His love and a God-wrought liberation to love others with divine agape.  Adams concludes, “This creates an insuperable problem for the self-worth proponent. Think about it for a moment.  According to standard self-worth teaching, a person must be somebody of worth to himself in order to love others.  But God declares that he is ‘nothing’ unless and until he loves others!”[12]    

John the Baptist:

"A man can receive nothing unless it has been given him from heaven ... He must increase, I must decrease" (John 3:27, 30).

Perhaps there is no better transition to the final section of this paper.  We have seen just a few examples of how some of the greatest saints in the past saw themselves.  But according to Jesus, John the Baptist was the greatest man born of woman (Luke 7:28).  The fact that John wanted to decrease himself, and increase Christ is not only instructive of his humility; I believe it is actually the key to his great impact and the statement Jesus made about him.  His ministry was all about paving the way for the Messiah, humbling self and sinners in repentance, then magnifying Christ and getting self out of the way.  And in reading the lives of the Hall of Faith, this common thread seems evident.  The lesser their view of self, and the greater their view of God, the greater impact they had for His Kingdom.     

Is the Universe About Us?

 

            When you read the Psalmist, you will be hard-pressed to find any language that boosts self. Instead, you find constant amazement that God even gives us the time of day.

Lord, what is man, that You take knowledge of him?

Or the son of man, that You are mindful of him?

Man is like a breath;

His days are like a passing shadow. (Psalm 144:3-4)

When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers,

The moon and the stars, which You have ordained,

What is man that You are mindful of him,

And the son of man that You visit him? (Psalm 8:3-4)

            King David knew far less about the heavens and universe than modern man.  But what he did know staggered him and led him to praise, and should impact us infinitely more with our infinitely greater scientific knowledge of creation and God’s immense universe and genius handiwork.  As majestic as the created heavens were, David opens the Psalm with:

O LORD, our Lord,

How excellent is Your name in all the earth,

Who have set Your glory above the heavens!

Like bookends, the praise song begins and ends again with “O LORD, our Lord, How excellent is Your name in all the earth” (v. 1 and 9).  Some might think that contemplating our how puny and insignificant we are in the big scheme of things would be depressing, but when God-saturated, it’s actually refreshing!  One pastor has pointed out that about 99.85% of all the matter in our solar system is found in our Sun.  All of the planets, moons, asteroids, and energy combined barely makes a fraction of that Sun.  The pastor went on to talk about having a view of God so awesome and so massive that everything in your life revolves around it in perfect harmony.  What the church needs desperately is not a better view of ourselves – we must take our man-focused thinking and put our every thought in orbit around a God who is so much more bigger than all of us combined can think or even imagine.  How can we have that view of such an immense and great God, that all our problems put together seem so tiny in comparison, and every thing else in our life (work, family, finances, marriage, sex, worry, relationships) revolves around HIM at just the right distance, balance, and in perfect harmony?  

Isaiah 40 is our solution.  Along with Job 38-42, it’s one of the most majestic expositions of the Supremacy and Sovereignty of God.  At the time, Israel was in a terrible wallowing in self and sin.  The first 39 chapters of the book speak of woes, judgment, and calamity for people who were man-centered, rather than God-lovers. 

Lift up your eyes on high, And see who has created these things,

Who brings out their host by number; He calls them all by name,

By the greatness of His might And the strength of His power;

Not one is missing. (Isaiah 40:26)

Like a good counselor, Isaiah calls attention to something far greater than ourselves – the Creator of the Universe.  He tells us take our eyes off ourselves and look up at his creation, and see the bigger picture.  We must encourage others to lift up their eyes and thoughts about God, instead of focusing on what’s going in our world.  We are but microscopic dots on a continent, which is relatively small compared to the rest of this globe with over 6 billion people.  All the world’s superpowers put together are like a “drop in a bucket, and are regarded as a speck of dust on the scales … All the nations are as nothing before him” (40:15, 17). And our whole “big” planet is one of the smaller ones in a massive solar system.  And our whole galaxy is just a tiny fraction of a HUGE universe.  I don’t think God created this enormous universe to make a statement about how important and special we are, but to make a statement about who HE is and how important he is.  God could have created a small universe.  After all, man is never going to be able to travel outside our solar system (in fact God created it thousands of years before we could even see most of it).  But the greatness and immensity of this universe gives us at least a glimpse of the infinite greatness and immensity of God.  

Scientists tell us there are at least 500 billion stars out there that we know of so far, and most of them are billions or trillions of light years away.  Well verse 26 says that God keeps track of them all, and he knows them all by name.  God not only sustains everything in the universe, but he keeps track of the tiny planet called Earth – not a single sparrow can fall to the ground apart from His will, He knows the numbers of hairs on our head, He cares about His children personally and listens to our prayers (!); he knows every word before it’s even on our lips. 

            Reading through Isaiah will not pump up your view of yourself.  You’re compared to dying grass, grasshoppers (40:5-8), a worm (41:14), inanimate clay (29:16, 45:9), you’re nothing, you amount to nothing (41:24), all the nations put together are less than nothing and meaningless (40:17), we’re all just a little drip in a bucket or a weightless insignificant speck of dirt (40:15), the best things we do are filthy rags (64:6), and on and on it goes.  You might think, wow, this doesn’t do a whole lot for my self-esteem.  And that’s exactly the point!   Isaiah doesn’t want to give us a more positive view of ourselves, but a more powerful view of God.  We don’t need to esteem ourselves more, we need to esteem Christ more.  We don’t need a better view of ourself, we need a bigger view of God.  And right in the middle of this God-Centered discourse, is the real key to living for significance, purpose, and value.  Isaiah 43:7 says we are created to glorify God.  Anything less will never satisfy.  God did not create us in His Image to boost our self-image, but to focus on His glory.  He did not save us because we’re great but because He is infinitely greater and more fulfilling than self.     

John Piper writes: “This is shocking. The love of God is not God's making much of us, but God's saving us from self-centeredness so that we can enjoy making much of him forever. And our love to others is not our making much of them, but helping them to find satisfaction in making much of God. True love aims at satisfying people in the glory of God. Any love that terminates on man is eventually destructive.”[13]

He concludes much better than I can: “Nobody in this room would go to the Grand Canyon to increase your sense of self-esteem. Nobody stands on the edge of the Alps or the Rockies or the Grand Canyon in order to go there to feel better about ourselves. Do you know why you go there? Because you were written to be satisfied with splendor, not self. You were created and a law written on your heart to be infinitely, eternally, fully, joyfully satisfied in a grand splendor not a great self. I plead with you lay it down. Lay down your quest for the applause of men, the approval of men, and begin to get on a quest for the one thing that will satisfy your soul -- the splendor of Jesus Christ and all that God is for you in him. I just plead with you for your own soul's infinite happiness that you will stop pursuing it in the wrong place … We have an invincibly triumphant savior - Jesus Christ. Don't turn away from him to yourself. Don't want praise for you; give praise to him. Know him; he'll satisfy you.”[14]


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[1]Most of this introduction is adapted from John MacArthur, F., Jr, The Vanishing Conscience, (Dallas: Word Pub., 1994), 80-87.  Articles cited include “Hey, I’m Terrific,” Newsweek (17 February 1992), 50, and Charles Krauthammer, “Education: Doing Bad and Feeling Good,” TIME (5 February  1990), 70. 

[2]Don Cousins, Mastering Church Management, "Mastering Ministry"--Jacket. (Portland, Or.: Multnomah; Christianity Today, 1990).

[3] James Moffatt, Love in the New Testament (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1932) 98.

[4] Walter Trobisch, Love Yourself (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1976), p. 11, quoted by Adams

[5] See Jay Adams, The Biblical View of Self-Esteem, Self-Love, Self-Image (Eugene: Harvest House Publishers, 1986).  The reader is referred to this resource for further study.

[6] Adams, p. 70-71.

[7] These quotes as cited by Bobgan, p. 3 (on-line article). 

[8]Kenneth S. Wuest, Wuest's Word Studies from the Greek New Testament.

[9] Bobgan, p. 5 (on-line article)

[10]MacArthur (see page 1 footnote).

[11] John Piper, Blessed Are the Poor in Spirit Who Mourn, sermon dated February 2, 1986, available in text or audio form through Desiring God Ministries, www.desiringgod.org

[12] Adams, p. 98.

[13] “The Goal of God’s Love May Not Be What You Think It Is,” Dallas Morning News, October 14, 2000. 

[14] Piper, “Thankful for the Love of God! Why?” November 18, 2001. Both articles available from Desiring God Ministries, www.desiringgod.org

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