Well, this morning we are continuing our study of the intersection of Christ and our culture, and, today, our topic involves self-evaluation. Specifically, we need to think biblically about ourselves and the way we live our lives, but there is no way we can talk about this subject without dealing with the popular notion of “self-esteem.”
Our culture constantly proclaims the necessity of a healthy self-esteem. It’s a dominate theme in our educational system, from top to bottom. It permeates all state and federal governmental agencies. It has been incorporated into corporate business philosophies. And, it has been embraced by a large section of the Christian community. For example, consider these words from a woman who attends a Bible-believing church…and who recently went through the agony of a divorce:
“My self-esteem has been at an all-time low ever since the divorce. I’ll never be the same again because of all the hurt Fred has caused me. My feelings of inferiority have turned me into an emotional basket case. I’ve got to learn how to improve my poor self-image and feel good about myself again so I can get over this mess and get on with my life. I know I’ll never be able to grow as a Christian until I overcome my self-esteem issues.”
There are many Christians who would nod in agreement with this woman’s assessment of her situation. Many Christians would not see a red flag as big as Dallas waving in connection with this poor woman’s thinking. Yet, these are tragically misguided sentiments.
She has become entangled in the self-esteem game, which moves her from the solid ground of living for Christ onto the quicksand of culture’s emphasis on living for self.
Now, I know that just raising questions about the value of personal self-esteem can be controversial today. The reason being, as Jay Adams points out, “The self-esteem influence has so pervaded our society that it is no longer perceived as anything but the most familiar and acceptable way of thinking.”
However, in order to move toward an accurate (i.e., biblical) self-evaluation, believers will have to move away from being concerned about their self-esteem! This topic is worthy of an adult equipping class, but I only have a few minutes this morning to offer brief answers to some very important questions.
Here are the questions placed before us this morning:
What is “self-esteem?’
Where did the “self-esteem” movement originate?
Why does so much of the church embrace it as theologically correct?
What does the Bible say about evaluating ourselves?
What is self-esteem?
The American College Dictionary defines “self-esteem” as, “a favorable opinion of oneself; conceit.”
Our culture says that a “healthy” self-esteem is all about coming to “a high view of yourself,”…gaining “a sense of personal value and worth.” It’s “feeling good about yourself.”
Now, admittedly, this is a very appealing notion, because it allows us to focus on our favorite subject: US! It’s a place that is very easy for us to go, because it involves our favorite activity as fallen men and women: LOVING OURSELVES.
Yet, simply based on the definition and overall notion of self-esteem, Christians should immediately exercise a bit of discernment and realize that we are talking about pride here, about stoking/building up our self-worth.
You really don’t have to know much of the Bible to know that pride is not a good thing. It is the opposite of personal humility and pride is one of the most loathed sins in God’s sight.
Prov. 16:5… “Everyone who is proud in heart is an abomination to the Lord.”
Prov. 26:12… “Do you see a man wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him.”
James 4:6…”God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”
Throughout Scripture, we see warnings about man’s pride in the areas of position (Matt. 23:6), ability (2 Chron. 26:15-16), achievement (Dan. 4:22), wealth (1 Tim. 6:17), possessions (Matt. 6:19), knowledge (Isa. 47:10), learning (1 Cor. 8:1), spiritual attainment (Luke 22:24), self-righteousness (Rom. 10:3), being esteemed or liked (Gal. 1:10), and even pride of spiritual experiences (2 Cor. 12:7).
Our flesh has a bent toward manifesting pride, and Scripture makes it clear that pride is THE epidemic vice among mankind!
It is seen everywhere in many forms, and the question for each of us is not, “Do I have it?
The only question is “Where is it? How much pride do I have?”
So, while the call to love yourself more is an appealing one, it should give us cause to pause.
Actually, the Bible does speak directly to the modern notion of “self-esteem,” but it does so ONLY ONCE, and the mention of it is found in a list that you don’t want to be on!!
See 2 Timothy 3:1-5.
Notice: “Lovers of self” is the big umbrella under which all of the other characteristics mentioned here dwell. It is from the love of self that all the other inappropriate/sinful loves flow! And at the end of v. 4,…”lovers of self” is contrasted against “lovers of God.”
Andrew Murray: Pride is “the root of every sin and evil.”
Thomas Watson: “It is a spiritual drunkenness; it flies up like wine into the brain and intoxicates it. It is idolatry; a proud man is a self-worshipper.”
Yet, culture tells us to love ourselves more and has convinced many believers that:
~ Self-esteem is a vital element of human personality.
~ Self-esteem is a feeling (not a thought process of judgment/self-evaluation).
~ Being mistreated by others can cause a person’s self-esteem to deteriorate and/or not develop properly.
~ Self-love is a prerequisite to being loved by others and loving others, including God.
~ A person must fix his poor self-image or terrible things will happen to you…or your kids.
~ A healthy self-esteem is a prerequisite to success and happiness.
Now, bear in mind,…not one of these statements is supported in Scripture!
(I know what some of you are thinking: “But, pastor Herb, Dr. so and so says….”…..I know that,…but stay with me.)
If 2 Timothy 3 is the only verse that directly mentions the notion of the modern self-esteem movement, and Scripture roundly condemns prideful living,…Where did the self-esteem movement originate?
It’s the product of fallen man, of unregenerate minds, people who put forth theories and speculations about the nature of man without the aid of Scripture. The entire movement is rooted in an atheistic worldview, a view that tries to make sense out of life apart from God. We are not going to take time to look at its history this morning, but the foundation of the self-esteem movement can be traced back to the turn of the 20th century and prominent psychologists, such as Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Alfred Adler, Erich Fromm, and B. F. Skinner.
More specifically, current models of man’s “need” for self-esteem arise directly from what is known as “Third Force Psychology,” which rests on the premise that all people are inherently good; that through a conscious evolution of attitudes, values, and beliefs, one becomes a self actualized individual with the inner wisdom and confidence to guide their own life in a manner that is personally satisfying and socially constructive.
Direct architects the modern self-esteem movement include Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, William Glasser, and William Coulson.
I suspect that most of you at some point have seen a version Maslow’s “Hierarch of Needs.” In essence, Maslow thought that your underlying needs must be met before you could then become a self-actualized person. (E. g., basic physiological needs for air, water, and food;…basic safety and security needs such as not having to worry for your life;…basic needs to be loved and feel that you belong and the need to be esteemed.)
Now, Abraham Maslow lived from 1908 to 1970, and he is called the “Father of Modern Psychology.” As a hard-core atheist, he did not believe in God or that man is accountable to God. Instead, the ultimate goal in Maslow’s way of thinking is for a person to become “self-actualized.” A self-actualized person is confident in himself, feels good about himself, and, in turn, he is thus able to reach out to help others/contribute to society.
But, again, in order to develop this kind of “mature personality,” all of the person’s underlying “needs” must first be met.
If a person’s needs are not met, that person is likely to experience debilitating emotional damage/pain…and have severe problems for an entire lifetime. Of course, this whole notion is refuted in Scripture. Just think of the lives of the Apostle Paul, or Jesus.
How many times were their “underlying needs” obviously not met? Their lives were often in danger, men certainly did not love or esteem them, and they were both murdered. Even on the cross, Jesus, while undergoing the pain of crucifixion, made provisions for his mother’s care, forgave His tormentors, forgave and encouraged one of the criminals being crucified next to Him. It’s safe to assume that His physical needs were not being met at the time!
The sad thing for Christ’s church is that many Christians look outside of Scripture to find answers/solutions to life’s problems, even though God’s Word promises sufficiency to accomplish that.
See 2 Peter 1:2-3: “Grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord; seeing that His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence.”
For the last 50 years, Christians has been looking more and more to the man-centered philosophy of psychology as THE place to go for instruction and help. And psychology tells them to love themselves.
(“But, pastor Herb, Dr. so and so says the Bible tells us to love ourselves.” Hey, I know that. Just stay with me.)
And it’s an understandable concern. If the whole self-esteem dogma is unbiblical, why has it infiltrated the church so thoroughly?
Why does so much of the church embrace it as theologically correct?
The answer to that question in a nutshell is that the bulk of self-help publications in Christian bookstores are written by psychologists, some of whom happen to be Christians. They are trained in psychology (not theology/hermeneutics), and so most buy into the prevailing psychological theories. Believing these theories to be true, they then turn around and try to squeeze them into Scripture.
That’s why you will frequently hear versions Maslow’s hierarch of needs “Christianized” through books and even sermons that will say something along the lines of: “God loves you, you’re special, you’re worthy—your significance is in Christ. If you were the only one, Christ loved you so much He would have died for you. Once you understand that your identity is in Him, you will feel better about yourself.”
See, in this model, a self-actualized person would be described as a mature Christian, one who is confident of his/her worth in Christ or who loves himself/herself so that they can, in turn, love others. According to these proponents, the worse thing in your life is to have “low self-esteem.” Nice, well-meaning psychologists like James Dobson in his popular book, Hide and Seek, blame low self-esteem for nearly all of a person’s problems in life, including all kinds of sinful behavior.
Let me give you an example of how Scripture is twisted/perverted to accommodate a totally non-biblical notion.
Look at Matthew 22:36-40. In 22:39b, Jesus says, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” A well-known Christian self-esteemer (Walter Trobisch) claims that this a “a command to love yourself.” “Self-love,” he continues, “is the prerequisite and the criterion for our conduct towards our neighbor.” In other words, Jesus not only commands us to love ourselves, but to the degree which we love ourselves becomes the standard by which we determine how to love our neighbor!
It only gets worse!
He goes on to say the discovery by modern psychology that man must acquire a love for himself, ”sheds new light on the command which Jesus emphasized as ranking in importance next to loving God.” He thinks that until modern psychologists “unearthed” this remarkable insight, this important biblical command lay hidden and was never adequately understood. In short, for 2000 years, Christians were forced to stumble around in the dark!
You know, this is a great example of why we need to memorize and apply Colossians 2:8.
Col. 2:8…”See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ.”
Of course, there is no command in Matthew 22 (or anywhere else in the Bible) that commands us to love ourselves, even though to hear some self-esteem people talk, you might think the Bible contained little else!
In Matt. 22, Christ made it perfectly clear that He was talking about two—and only two—commandments. Those two commandments: love God, love your neighbor.
The claims of the self-esteem movement are similarly squeezed into other texts as well,…trying to force the text into a presupposed system. But, sadly, the result of this kind of thing is that Christians have been inundated with humanistic presuppositions, and many of them have come to believe these man-centered theories are theologically sound,…merely because a couple of Bible verses have been hung on them.
- I. Packer (Keep in Step with the Spirit, 1975): “Modern Christians…spread a thin layer of Bible teaching over the mixture of popular psychology and common sense they offer, but their overall approach clearly reflects the narcissism—the “selfism” or “meism” as it is sometimes called—that is the way of the world in the modern West.”
My point here is to illustrate how secular theories have been pawned off on the church as biblical truth. There are plenty of other examples like this one (see Adams’ book), but we need to move on the most important question.
What does the Bible say about evaluating ourselves?
Let’s begin by realizing that the construct of “self-image” does not exist in the Bible. Instead, Scripture addresses a person’s heart, mind, conscience, emotions, thoughts, and motives. From the Bible’s standpoint, we don’t have to learn to love ourselves—we already do!
You see, from Scripture, the problem in our lives is not that we think too little of ourselves, but that we think too highly of ourselves and too much about ourselves.
John Calvin: “We shall never love our neighbors with sincerity, according to our Lord’s intention, until we have corrected the love of ourselves. The two affections are opposite and contradictory; for the love of ourselves leads us to neglect and despise others—produces cruelty, covetousness, violence, deceit, and all kindred vices—drives us to impatience, and arms us with the desire of revenge.”
How true! Just look around at the condition of our culture! Self-love is an easy excuse for all kinds of sin! Our desires become “needs,” and the more a desire/need is fed, the more it wants! Even secular studies continue to expose the folly of the self-esteem game.
Tim Keller (The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness) cites an article by psychologist Lauren Slater in the New York Times magazine in which she says, “People with high esteem pose a greater threat to those around them than people with a low self-esteem and feeling bad about yourself is not the source of our country’s biggest, most expensive social problems.”
Jay Adams cites a study of over 200 criminals in prison who had a high opinion of themselves. There was not a single criminal “who believed he was evil. Each criminal thought of himself as a basically good person…even when planning a crime.”
You see, Scripture reflects reality and assumes that you love yourself! Jesus actually presupposes a love of self in that Mat. 22 passage. His command is to love your neighbor as you already love yourself. A literal translation is “You must love your neighbor as you are loving yourself.”
The same self-love is likewise presupposed in Paul’s argument in Eph. 5:28-29, where he urges husbands to love their wives “as you love (are loving) your own body.” He goes on to say “No one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it…” Paul’s entire argument is based on the fact that we already exhibit love for ourselves.
So, you will never find the Scriptures saying, “Come on now, you’re thinking too poorly of yourself”….or “What you need…is to consider yourself more.”
Quite the opposite. The Bible tells us to stop focusing so much on ourselves and what we selfishly want for ourselves.
Remember, it was Satan’s sin of pride that led to his fall, and it was the mindset of pride when he questioned and denied God (Gen. 3:1-5). King Uzziah served God for many years, growing prosperous, famous, and strong, but “when he became strong, his heart was so proud that he acted corruptly and was unfaithful to the Lord his God” (2 Chron. 26:16). Nebuchadnezzar’s arrogance ruined his life until he humbled himself before God (Dan. 4:37). And there are plenty of other examples as well.
The point is that we have many warnings associated with the desire to lift up self and serve self. Pride and self-love causes us to forget about God, or to want to be above God, and leads us to our downfall!
Prov. 16:18…”Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before stumbling.”
Thomas Watson: “Pride seeks to ungod God.”
But “wait,” you say….What about people who exhibit what our culture calls “low self-esteem?”
What about the despondent person caught up in self-pity,…and self-absorbed with a sense of failure?
Ironically, this too is pride. It’s just on the flip/other side of the “self-love” coin!
People who are consumed with self-pity are also focusing on themselves too much. They are not concerned with the glory of God, or with being thankful for what good gifts and talents the Lord has given them. Instead, they are focused on how they think they have gotten a raw deal/short-changed, or are not “as good as” someone else.
Self-pitying people desperately want to be good, not for the glory of God, but for themselves. They want to do things for and by their own power and might for their personal recognition. They want others to serve them, to like them, and to approve of them.
And when their desires are not fulfilled, a prideful person will become even more inwardly focused and will continue in a vicious cycle.
NOTE: The self-focused person who bemoans the fact that he/she is not what they desperately want to be (elevated and esteemed) should not be deceived by thinking they are not proud. They are great lovers of themselves.
Even to the point of suicide, the prideful person is seeking what they think is best for themselves. To them, suicide offers “relief” from the indignity or suffering in life, which they deem to be intolerable or totally undeserved.
Stuart Scott: Pride = the mindset of self (a master’s mindset rather than that of a servant); a focus on self and the service of self, a pursuit of self-recognition and self-exaltation, and a desire to control and use all things for self.
That is not what the believer is to be all about.
Phil. 2:3-4: “ Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind, regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.”
Indeed, Jesus is our ultimate role model for living a life committed to the glory of God.
Stuart Scott: Humility = the mindset of Christ (a servant’s mindset); a focus on God and others, a pursuit of the recognition and the exaltation of God, and a desire to glorify and please God in all things and by all things He has given you.
In our culture, the one who is lifted up/the one with “high self esteem”/ proud is the greatest. According to Jesus, however, it is the humble person who is the greatest in God’s eyes. Jesus’ life is just the opposite of what is valued today. God’s Word tells us that we must have the perspective of Christ, rather than that of the world.
Rom. 12:2: “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.”
And the most amazing demonstration of humility and service was the suffering and death that Jesus endured on behalf of sinners like you and me.
So, what is an appropriate view of self?
- We are so very far beneath God and totally unworthy before Him (Ps. 8:1-4).
- We are no better and no worse than others, because we all are desperately wicked and totally incapable of anything worthwhile in God’s sight on our own (John 15:5; Rom. 3:10-18).
- There is nothing that anyone has accomplished or possesses that they should take credit for themselves (1 Cor. 4:7).
- We basically have no worth in and of ourselves, but God has given us (believers) a place we do not deserve and has set His love on us anyway (Eph. 2:4-7).
- God has rightly, graciously, and wisely given every one of His children to be used for His glory and for the purposes He has planned (Eph. 2:10; 1 Peter 4:10).
As a Christian, you should have as your objective not a “good” or “positive” self-image, but rather an accurate self-image based on biblically correct perceptions and evaluations of ourselves.
As we move toward Christ-likeness/spiritual maturity in our journey with Christ, the way to escape the maze of prideful assessments in our lives is to move toward humility and to have a biblical standard for the self-evaluations you and I continually make.
To help us stay on track, as we continue to grow spiritually, Lou Priolo (noted biblical counselor/author, including Pleasing People—How Not to Be an “Approval Junkie”) suggests that we make it a habit to place our self-evaluations in one of three categories:
- The first category has to do with the accuracy of our perceptions.
The effects of sin on our minds hinder us from interpreting life from God’s point of view. That’s one reason we are so dependent on the Bible for perspective. What’s more, our sinful hearts are capable of seriously distorting our judgments. Self-evaluations are often wrong.
Ex: “ NO ONE cares for me!”
But a believer can learn how to change those perceptions, primarily with the assistance of Scripture and perhaps wise/objective friends.
- The second category has to do with a conscience or value system that has not been biblically programmed.
For example, sometimes people judge themselves to be inadequate in a particular area in which the Bible does not require adequacy.
Ex. If I wanted to be a pilot, ball player, and couldn’t do it. I don’t judge myself to be deficient, even though in those areas I am significantly inferior to others. If I do judge myself to be an inadequate person or deficient in character as a result of these inferiorities, my value system is askew. Either I am overvaluing something that God doesn’t value, or I am not valuing as much as I should remember that He values very highly.
- The third category involves accurate perceptions of sinful behavior patterns that have not yet been corrected.
Spot sinful patterns in your life. If you don’t in some way begin correcting those sinful thoughts, motives, patterns or speech, habits, and attitudes—if you don’t actively cooperate with the Holy Spirit’s sanctifying presence in your life—you will continue to be plagued by guilt/shame/consequences of those sinful actions.
You must learn how to change your behavior through the renewing of your mind, and the “putting off” the sinful patterns and the “putting on” Christ-honoring patterns/habits of behavior.
So, escape the quicksand of the self-esteem trap and think instead of BIBLICAL SELF-EVALUATION in terms of your life.
Get your focus off of yourself and onto God and others. In thanksgiving and joy, you and I have the freedom to serve Him, to be pleasing to Him and only Him.
You have His love, His forgiveness, His guidance and concern. You don’t need to “pad your resume” in order to feel good about yourself, nor do you have yearn for what you don’t have…or what others have.
As a man/woman in Christ, you are free to love God and love others. Stay faithful to that calling, and always guard your heart from pride….
Yes, Scripture tells us that God has “fearfully and wonderfully made us” (Ps. 139:14), that we have been created in God’s image, that we are “new creations” in Christ, but all of these things are points of praise to Him and His wonderful (amazing) grace, not occasions for pride/self-love for ourselves.
This game of low/high self-esteem is an ugly trap, a cheap and tawdry substitute for what you and I have been given in Christ.
Let’s live our lives accordingly!