Do children and adults really need self-esteem? Does low self-esteem lead to serious life problems? Should parents attempt to build self-esteem in their children? Does the Bible encourage self-esteem? Many Christians have assumptions about self-esteem. But, what does the Bible say? What does research say?
The Genesis of Self-Esteem
The self-esteem movement has its most recent roots in clinical psychology, namely in the personality theories of such men as William James, Alfred Adler, Erich Fromm, Abraham Maslow, and Carl Rogers. It became further popularized by their many followers. Nevertheless, the roots of the self-esteem movement reach further back into human history.
The self-esteem movement began in the third chapter of Genesis. Initially Adam and Eve were God-conscious and aware of one another and their surroundings rather than being self-conscious. Their awareness of themselves was incidental and peripheral to their focus on God and one another. Adam realized that Eve was bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh, but he was not self-aware in the same sense that his descendants would be. Self was not the issue until the Fall.
Partaking of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil did not bring godly wisdom. It brought guilt, fear, and separation from God. Thus, when Adam and Eve heard God approaching, they hid in the bushes. But God saw them and asked, “Who told thee that thou wast naked? Hast thou eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldest not eat?” (Genesis 3:11).
Adam and Eve answered with the first example of self-justification. First Adam blamed Eve and God, and then Eve blamed the serpent. The fruit of the knowledge of good and evil spawned the sinful self with all of its self-love, self-esteem, self-acceptance, self-justification, self-righteousness, self-actualization, self-denigration, self-pity and other forms of self-focus and self-centeredness.
The present Self-Etc. movement is thus rooted in Adam and Eve’s sin. Through the centuries mankind has continued to feast at the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which has spread its branches of worldly wisdom. It has branched out into the vain philosophies of men and, more recently, the “scientized” philosophies and metaphysics of modern psychology.
Religious incantations for self-worth, self-love, and self-acceptance ooze out of the TV tube, drift across radio waves, and entice through advertising. From the cradle to the grave, self-promoters promise to cure all of society’s ills through doses of self-esteem, self-worth, self-acceptance, and self-love. And everyone, or nearly everyone echoes the refrain: “You just need to love and accept yourself the way you are. You just need to forgive yourself” and “I just have to accept myself the way I am. I’m worth it. I am a lovable, valuable, forgivable person.”
Christian Response to the World
How is the Christian to combat the thinking of the world, which glorifies the self and places self at the center as the be-all and end-all of existence? How is the Christian to be faithful to our Lord’s command to be in the world, but not of the world? Can he adopt and adapt the popular philosophy/psychology of his culture, or must he stand apart as one who has been set apart by God and view his culture by the light of the Word? Jesus said:
Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light (Matthew 11:28-30).
Here is a call to give up one’s own way and to come under the yoke of humility and service – an emphasis on yoking – on a teaching and living relationship. Jesus described His call for followers in different words, but to the same relationship and with the same intent, when He said:
If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it (Matthew 16:24-25).
No Self-Love Commandment
Jesus does not command self-love, but rather love for God and love for one another. The Bible presents an entirely different basis for love than humanistic psychology preaches. Rather than promoting self-love as the basis for loving others, the Bible says that God’s love is the true source. Human love is mixed with self-love and may be ultimately self-serving. But God’s love is self-giving. Therefore, when Jesus calls His disciples to deny self and to take up His yoke and His cross, He is calling them to a self-giving love, not a self-satisfying love. Until the advent of humanistic psychology and its heavy influence in the church, Christians generally thought of self-esteem as a sinful attitude.
In Part Two of this series, we will look at what the Bible says about self-love, particularly the Second Great Commandment, and what research says about self-esteem.
Even though the Bible does not teach self-love, self-esteem, self-worth, or self-actualization as virtues, helps, or goals, a vast number of present-day Christians have been deceived by the self-teachings of humanistic psychology. Rather than resisting the enticement of the world they become culture-bound. Not only do they not resist the tidal wave of selfism; they are riding the crest of self-esteem, self- acceptance, and self-love. One can hardly tell the difference between the Christian and the non-Christian in the area of the self, except that the Christian adds God as the main source for his self-esteem, self-acceptance, self-worth, and self-love.
Through slogans, one-liners, and twisted Scripture, many Christians jump on the existential bandwagon of humanistic psychology and set up their own cheering section. Thus, any criticism voiced against the teachings of self-worth, self-love, and self-esteem is regarded as ipso facto proof that the speaker wants people to be miserable. Moreover, any criticism against the self-esteem movement is seen as dangerous to society, since self-esteem is considered to be the panacea for its ills. Then, in the church, if one does not wholly endorse a self-esteem theology, he is accused of promoting worm theology.
If there is one thing the world and many in the church have in common these days, it’s the psychology of self-esteem. Although Christians may disagree about some of the nuances of self-esteem, self-worth, and self-acceptance, and even on some of the finer points of definition and how it is attained, too many have joined forces against what they believe is a formidable enemy – low self-esteem. Yet, even the world cannot justify promoting high self-esteem through its own methods of research.
No Research Justification for Self-Esteem
A few years ago the California legislature passed a bill creating the California Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility. The legislature funded the bill with $245,000 a year for three years, for a total of $735,000. The twofold title of the Task Force was quite an assumption. No one has ever demonstrated that promoting self-esteem is in any way related to personal and social responsibility. Nor has anyone proved that all those who exhibit personal and social responsibility have high self-esteem. Self-esteem and social and personal responsibility actually appear to be negatively rather than positively related.
The Mission Statement of the Task Force is as follows:
Seek to determine whether self-esteem, and personal and social responsibility are the keys to unlocking the secrets of healthy human development so that we can get to the roots of and develop effective solutions for major social problems and to develop and provide for every Californian the latest knowledge and practices regarding the significance of self-esteem, and personal and social responsibility.1
The Task Force believed that esteeming oneself and growing in self-esteem would reduce “dramatically the epidemic levels of social problems we currently face.”2
Is There a Positive Relationship Between High or Low Self-Esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility?
In order to investigate this relationship the state Task Force hired eight professors from the University of California to look at the research on self-esteem as it relates to the six following areas:
1. Crime, violence and recidivism.
2. Alcohol and drug abuse.
3. Welfare dependency.
4. Teenage pregnancy.
5. Child and spousal abuse.
6. Children failing to learn in school.
Seven of the professors researched the above areas and the eighth professor summarized the results. The results were then published in a book titled The Social Importance of Self-Esteem.3 Has the relationship been established between self-esteem and social problems? David L. Kirk, syndicated writer for the San Francisco Examiner,4said it bluntly:
That . . . scholarly tome, The Social Importance of Self-Esteem, summarizes all the research on the subject in the stultifyingly boring prose of wannabe scientists. Save yourself the 40 bucks the book costs and head straight for the conclusion: There is precious little evidence that self-esteem is the cause of our social ills.
Even though they searched for a connection between low self-esteem and problematic behavior, they could not find a cause and effect link. However, more recent studies indicate a definite relationship between violent behavior and high self-esteem. Nevertheless, faith in self-esteem dies hard and schools continue to work on building high self-esteem.
Worse than the continuance of self-esteem teachings in the world is the faith that Christians continue to place in self-esteem and self-worth teachings. Thus, the secular self-esteem movement is not a frontal attack against the Bible with the battle-lines clearly displayed. Instead it is skillfully subversive and is truly the work, not of flesh and blood, but of principalities, powers, the rulers of darkness of this world, and spiritual wickedness in high places, just as delineated by Paul near the end of Ephesians. The sad thing is that many Christians are not alert to the dangers. More than we can number are being subtly deceived into another gospel: the gospel of self.
Jesus calls His own into a love relationship with Himself and with one another. Their joy is to be found in Him, not in self. Their love comes from His love for them. Thus, their love for one another does not come from self-love or self-esteem, nor does it enhance self-esteem. The emphasis is on relationship, fruitfulness, and readiness to be rejected by the world. A believer’s identification is in Jesus to the point of suffering and following Him to the cross. Only through strained semantics, labored logic and exploited exegesis can one even attempt to demonstrate that self-esteem is biblical or even a part of the church tradition or teaching.
The focus of love in the Bible is upward and outward instead of inward. Love is both an attitude and action to one another. And while love may include sentiment and emotional affection, it is primarily volitional action for the glory of God and the good of others. Thus when Jesus said, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength” (Mark 12:30), He was saying that all of our being is to be committed to loving and, therefore, pleasing God. Love for God is expressed with a thankful heart committed to doing what pleases God according to what has been revealed in the Bible. It is not a grudging kind of obedience, but an eagerness to conform to His gracious will and to agree with God that He is the source and standard for all that is right and good.
The Second commandment is an extension or expression of the First Commandment: “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” (Mark 12:31). John elaborates on this. He describes the sequence of love. In contrast to the teachers of self-love, who say that people cannot love God and others until they love themselves, John says that love originates with God and then extends to others:
We love Him because He first loved us. If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen? And this commandment have we from Him, that he who loveth God love his brother also (1 John 4:19-21).
God loved us first, which enables us to love Him, which then expresses itself in love for one another.
From Adam’s first breath, mankind was designed to live in relationship with God, not as autonomous selves. The entire Bible rests on that relationship, for after Jesus answered the Pharisee by saying that the Greatest Commandment is to love God and the second is to love neighbor as oneself, He said: “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:40). Jesus came to save us from self and to reestablish that love relationship for which we were created. Through the centuries books have been written about loving God and loving one another. However, today the church is increasingly inundated with books telling us how to love ourselves better, esteem ourselves more, accept ourselves no matter what, and build our own self-worth.
1 California Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility. “1987 Annual Report to the Governor and the Legislature,” p. V.
2 Andrew M. Mecca, “Chairman’s Report.” Esteem, Vol. 2, No. 1, February 1988, p. 1.
3 Andrew M. Mecca, Neil J. Smelser, and John Vasconcellos, eds. The Social Importance of Self-Esteem. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.
4 David L. Kirk, “Lack of Self Esteem is Not the Root of All Ills.” Santa Barbara News-Press, 15 January 1990.