*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.
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.”
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” and teaching Jesus gave a “command to love yourself.”
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?
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.
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.
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.
"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.
"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.
“Reformation theology [also] failed to make clear that the core of sin is a lack of self-esteem” (p.
“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.”
"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.
“… 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."