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Problems with Self-Esteem

By Dennis Pollock


For a long time I have been concerned about a teaching which has grown more and more prevalent in the body of Christ.  This teaching centered around a buzzword which is often held to be a panacea for every person's problems.  Man or woman, boy or girl, saint, or sinner... all our troubles would be over if only we had more "self-esteem."  The psychologists have sounded the cry, the liberal ministers followed close behind, and now evangelical and conservative ministers are chiming in to herald this new savior of the world.  From the primitive "every day and in every way I'm growing better and better" to sophisticated creeds and study books, psychologists, ministers, and various "experts" are doing everything in their power to convince us how wonderful we are.  Let a child bring home a poor report card, and it is obviously a case of low self-esteem.  If a boy is a bully and is always getting into fights, it must be because he does not love himself enough.  And on and on ad nauseam.




Any serious student of the Bible should realize the Bible is strangely silent about the problem of low self-esteem.  Isn't it interesting that while the psychologists are virtually silent about people having too much self-esteem, but constantly refer to the problem of having too little, the Bible says almost nothing about us thinking too little of ourselves, but has a great deal to say about us thinking too highly of ourselves?  This, in itself, ought to set off some alarm bells in the church.


Let us consider Satan's downfall.  Isaiah 14 gives us a vivid description of his heart attitude as he tried to wrest the universe from God's control:


"How you are fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! ... For you have said in your heart: 'I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God; I will also sit on the mount of the congregation...I will ascend above the heights of the clouds, I will be like the Most High'" (Isaiah 14:12-14).


Notice all the "I will's."  Satan sure wasn't suffering from low self-esteem.  In fact he had such a "healthy" sense of self-esteem, he was prepared to take over the universe!


I saw a television piece on bullies some years ago.  Much of the information had come from a psychologist who had studied school bullies for twenty years.  He had traveled to schools all over the country, interviewing  and testing boys identified as bullies.  After recording the results of hundreds of bullies, he found that the average bully has a high sense of self-esteem!  That runs directly contrary to what the experts would have predicted, but it doesn't surprise me a bit.  The ultimate bully of the cosmos, Satan himself, thinks very highly of himself.  It's small wonder, then, that those who faithfully serve him should reflect their master's attitude.


Was World War II caused by Adolf Hitler's lack of self-esteem?  Could the whole war have been avoided if only some psychologist could have been there to tell him that he was wonderful and lovable?  Mr. Hitler already knew he was wonderful, so wonderful that it was of the utmost importance that he rule the world as quickly as possible!


Of course, most sinners are not Hitlers.  There are millions of ordinary, everyday sinners who are decent, hard-working, tax-paying, P.T.A.-attending individuals.  Could it be that they would quickly come to Christ if the church could only meet their need for a heightened sense of self-worth?  Yet what is it that keeps the ordinary person away from Jesus Christ?  It is surely the faulty notion that he can handle his own life apart from intimate fellowship with and dependence upon God.  This is the ultimate in self-esteem, the very attitude Satan tempted Eve with when he said, "Ye shall be as gods."  Any person who truly believes he has what it takes to manage his own life irrespective of the will and purpose of God is surely suffering from delusions of grandeur.  Our Lord Jesus tell us, "Without Me you can do nothing." 





Considering that the Bible has so little to say about the problem of low self-esteem, and so much to say about the sin of overvaluing ourselves (pride), how do today's heralds of this "gospel of self" justify their position scripturally?  Of course, many don't even bother.  Self-esteem has attained such status by this point, few folks seem to require Scriptural verification.  


But some pastors do attempt to find Biblical evidence for the belief that man must love and think highly of himself.  They do not have an easy time of it.  There are very few Scriptures that even hint of such a doctrine.  Nevertheless, two basic arguments have emerged which men use to try to prove, by the Bible, that man's greatest need is to love and value himself.


The first argument comes from Jesus' command, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Mat 22:39). "There it is," they tell us.  Jesus is clearly commanding us to love ourselves.  Not content with that, they usually go on to insist that it is not even possible to love anyone else until we first love ourselves.  We can easily see the answer to this when we compare it to a similar passage in Ephesians.  Paul writes:


"So husbands ought to love their own wives as their own bodies..."  (Ephesians 5:28).


Using the same reasoning given for the previous passage, I suppose Paul must be here commanding us to love our own bodies.  Furthermore, he must also be saying that until we men can truly love our bodies, until we have come to have great and high thoughts about our bodies, it will be impossible for us to love our wives!


Here is a man whose marriage is nearly gone.  He comes to his pastor for counsel, and frankly admits, "Pastor, the truth is I just don't love my wife anymore.  I don't care a thing about her and I'm always treating her like dirt.  The love is gone, the thrill is gone, there's just nothing left."


The pastor, trained and steeped in humanism, opens his Bible.  "My brother, I have the answer for you.  The Bible says right here that men ought to love their wives as they do their bodies.  Your problem is simple -- you don't love your body enough.  How can you ever expect to love your wife if you do not first love your own body?  From now on I want you to start admiring your body and thinking very loving thoughts about it.  It is only as you come to love and highly value your body that love for your wife will be possible."


Who would dare defend such nonsense?  And yet that reasoning is exactly what is being used in pulpits all over America as modernist ministers zealously tell us that we will never be able to love others until we can first love ourselves. What do they really mean when they tell us to love ourselves?  Do they want us to think high, exaggerated thoughts about ourselves?  The Bible says:


"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).


Or do they want us to think of ourselves as superior to others?  The Scriptures say the opposite:


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


Perhaps these gurus of self-esteem would have us to congratulate ourselves on our great insight and wisdom.  The Bible tells us:


"Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes, and prudent in their own sight!"  (Isaiah 5:21).


Actually, they never really tell us specifically what they mean by their commandment to love ourselves.  They just leave it up to us to enforce it in whatever way we can.  For most, this means a futile attempt to pretend that they are beautiful and lovely, all the while knowing in their hearts that they most definitely are not. Has Christianity been reduced to this? 


Jesus' Death & Our Value


The other argument given by the advocates of self-worth involves Jesus' death on the cross.  "How can we doubt our value when we consider the cross," they say.  "Since Jesus gave His life for us, we must be worth a great deal."


There is both truth and error in this line of reasoning.  No one can deny that Christ's death on the cross emphatically declares that our God loves us and has shown a powerful interest in all of humanity.  But shall we view the cross as a revelation of our intrinsic worth or of God's amazing grace?  I do not know about you, but I still believe in amazing grace that saved a "wretch" like me.  Shall we look at the cross and say, "Jesus died for me; how wonderful I must be?"  Shall we not rather say, "Jesus died for me; how wonderful He is!"


Imagine two teddy bears, one made of pure gold and the other of cloth.  The gold bear has intrinsic value within itself.  You can take it to any nation in the world and people would desire it.  If you were to give it as a gift, there would be few persons on earth who would not eagerly accept it.  The cloth bear, however, has no such intrinsic value.  It is well worn, one eye is missing, and its stuffing has begun to come out.  It is stained and smelly and has obviously seen better days.  No matter where you take it or to whom you show it, no one has any interest in it at all.  Just as you are about to throw it in the trash, a voice screams at you: "Don't you dare!"  A four-year-old little boy comes up to you and with great indignation takes it out of your hands.  "That's my teddy bear and I love him." 


Does the cloth bear have value? Yes and no.  It has no intrinsic value, yet because it is loved, it is indeed valuable.  Is that not the case with us?  The great reformer Martin Luther said, "God does not love us because we are valuable; we are valuable because God loves us."  Yes, the awesome and holy Creator of all things has set His love upon us, polluted by sin as we are, selfish to the core, and apart from God's grace possessing no good thing within ourselves. 


Isn't that enough?  Must we waste our time going around trying to convince ourselves how great we are, when we can instead be looking to our wonderful Savior and praising Him for how great He is?  Faith never looks within; it always looks to Him.  As long as our eyes are on ourselves, vainly trying to puff ourselves up in our thinking, we'll never know real faith or real power. 


It is amazing how a revelation of the awesome holiness and majesty of God can change one's view of himself.  Isaiah was no doubt one of the most upright men of his generation, and yet when God granted him a vision of His glorious throne, Isaiah's self-esteem plummeted rapidly, and all he could say was, "Woe is me... I am a man of unclean lips and I live in the midst of a people of unclean lips, for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts" (Isaiah 6:5).  One day we will all have that opportunity to stand before our King and Savior.  At that day there will be no arrogant boasting of things accomplished or levels attained, for we shall know of a truth that all the good that has ever been done in the earth has been His doing, the powerful working of the One who said, "I am the vine, you are the branches... Without Me you can do nothing" (John 15:5).


In the end it is not self-esteem that we need; it is Christ-esteem. That plus knowing that our God loves us immeasurably, despite our flaws, despite our foolishness, despite our blunders, we are loved, thoroughly loved by God, being convinced that nothing can separate us from the love of God.


    NOTE: In my early days as a minister, I watched a sermon on television and later read a pamphlet, both by Dr. James Kennedy on this subject, and they left a powerful impression on me. Although I have not deliberately copied his exact words, I have no doubt that some of the concepts I have shared in this article have sprung from seeds planted in my heart through his powerful message.



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