The Fallacy and Futility Of Self-Esteem

The Fallacy and Futility Of Self-Esteem

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Self-esteem teaching has been around for a long time. It’s one of the central planks of the culture’s gospel, which is their attempt to feel better about themselves. They, like us, realize they need help. As ambassadors for Christ, we must know how to engage cultural friends to help them while keeping an eye on their version of psychology to ensure we don’t fall for their traps. The fallacy and futility of the self-esteem gospel are everywhere, so learning to debunk it with competence and compassion is every believer’s responsibility.

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The Culture’s View

Without biblical filters, it’s easy to take the world’s ways for a spin, especially if the Christian is not adept at applying God’s Word personally or practically—what we call biblical psychology (psyche-logos), which means studying the soul. For the Christian, the Bible (2 Timothy 3:16) applied practically and personally to our souls (Genesis 2:7) is the purest form of psychology. A lack of practical application of God’s Word opens the way for the culture to peddle its view of psychology. The temptation is easier than one might think. Their way does not require the hard work of connecting the Bible to our personal lives. Who doesn’t like easy?

The Bible does not teach self-esteem, which should be the most significant red flag of all. However, the silence of the Bible on this post-modern doctrine does not deter the Christian self-esteem advocate from trumpeting this dangerous doctrine within the church. God went to great lengths to free us from spending so much time thinking about ourselves. He even simplified the hundreds of laws in the Old Testament by restating them in four words: love God, love neighbor. (See Matthew 22:36-40.) From God’s perspective, human success and personal wholeness happen when we master those four words, which have a distinct upward and outward focus.

A Better Way

The retort from self-esteem advocates says esteeming yourself is the opposite of self-loathing. It is. Sort of. But before refuting their doctrine, it might be helpful to understand why the world is groping for the walls like blind men, creating a doctrine that cannot hold water. Mainly, they need something besides biblical psychology because they reject God’s Word. It’s not as though they can sit in the corner with a dunce cap on. They have to devise a method to understand the soul. Hence, self-esteem fits the bill perfectly because it keeps the focus on the individual. The unwitting design of self-esteem and self-loathing is to ensure the capturing and incarcerating of the soul in a hermetically sealed universe of self.

The Bible presents a better way to think about ourselves. It’s called made in the image of God—the Imago Dei (Genesis 1:27), a profound way to think about God and His creation. Self-esteem perpetuates self-focus while the Imago Dei turns our thoughts upward and outward, encompassing our Creator and all humanity. As we turn our thoughts from ourselves toward God, we begin to see the world He made through His eyes rather than ours. It is stunning to the Christian that the Lord would set us apart from the rest of His creative order, and out of that humble God-awareness of what He did grows respect for what He created. We don’t value ourselves or others less, but we see the miraculous blessedness of the Imago Dei, which circumvents any desire for self-loathing and accentuates our admiration and respect for God and others.

Presuppositions and Words

Self-esteem does not enhance our thoughts about God and others to that degree because the culture word-smithers and label makers did not factor God and His Word into their psychology. Of course, none of this would matter if Christians were less in tune with the culture while more dialed into God’s Word. We like hijacking their words and ways into our understanding of biblical psychology, even twisting their language to suit our fads. Theologian John Piper made this mistake when he tried to reinvent the word hedonism by reframing it as Christian hedonism. He instilled unnecessary tension in the believer’s mind. Thankfully, it only caught on for a season.

Pulling an unnecessary word from the culture—hedonism or self-esteem—and inserting it into the Christian’s vocabulary is not helpful. The Bible has given us all we need to think rightly about God, ourselves, and others. Words have presuppositions—interpretive lens—and if a word has such a firm hold on the mind, i.e., hedonism, trying to make it mean something nobody ever expected is not wise. Sometimes, we can outsmart ourselves to our detriment. I’m not suggesting we should refrain from all everyday human language. Perhaps an example of a woman who went through horrible abuse from her father would be helpful.

Later in life, she became a Christian, and her friends introduced her to God the Father. She already knew what a father was, so when they told her about her new heavenly Father, she struggled to relate well with Him. The solution for her is not to refrain from using the everyday word, father, but to learn and apply the differences between an abusive father and a loving one. We live in the world; we use their language when appropriate, but when it comes to soul care, biblical precision is our call, and there is some language that we should never smuggle into how we speak about transformation. Self-esteem would be one of those terms.

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Choose Wise Battles

Every situation requires wisdom. With our abused friend, we would carefully and compassionately redefine the word father for her. Paul did this for his Jewish friends who were new to Christianity, as seen in 1 Corinthians 8:1-13. They were struggling with what to do with the meat their new brothers and sisters were eating. Sometimes, we have no choice but to redefine a word—father—or an idea—meat—because it confuses the person due to their former associations with that word or concept (Ephesians 4:22). However, self-esteem should not be part of a Christian’s vocabulary.

When you meet a Christian whose culture has indoctrinated, you can show them a new and better way to understand the soul. You can do this without becoming the word police. I rarely say anything about a person’s use of secular words like self-esteem. A lousy word is not my cue to go on the offensive by telling them it’s a bad word. The word is not their biggest problem, and we don’t want to exacerbate their fear of man by mandating they use the proper word. Using biblical methodologies, we can compassionately and patiently teach them the truth to help them toward transformation. Later, we can clean up their vocab. Too many biblical counselors shoot at people like targets because of their poor word choices while missing the opportunity to care for them.

Path To Freedom

Made in the image of God is the correct language. For starters, it teaches biblical respect for every person—saved or lost. When a person understands the value of the person because of who created them, it becomes a challenge to hate themselves. We cannot hate ourselves or others when the Imago Dei correctly calibrates and aligns our thinking. Perhaps it would help to take a self-assessment to see how the Imago Dei manages your thoughts, creating an attitude toward others, especially those with whom you disagree. Here are a few sample questions to assess yourself.

  • Is there someone you are sinfully angry with currently, and you refuse to repent to them, though you know you should?
  • Do you view yourself as better than a [cultural] person?
  • Do you feel superior to people not of your demographic?
  • Are you characterized as self-critical?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, your understanding and practice of the Imago Dei needs recalibrating. For the record, the self-esteem doctrine will not teach you how to answer no to any of these questions, except for the last one, which is the point of self-esteem: to love yourself more than others. Some will argue that you must love yourself before you can love others. Of course, they will not give you any Scripture to support that idea, though they try to shoehorn their perspective into Matthew 22:36-40. It’s a weird argument that does not consider what I just said about the Imago Dei.

If you dislike yourself (or anyone else), the solution is not better self-esteem but a better understanding of what it means for God to make you in His image. You see this idea in James 3:9-10:

With (the tongue) we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness (image) of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so.

If someone has harassed you to the point where you are painfully insecure, or you’re tempted to self-loathing, it would be a mistake to turn your focus onto yourself, as though learning to love yourself is the cure. Learning to love God is your cure. Paul said it this way,

And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:18).

Repair the Broken

Learning, loving, adoring, and worshiping God is the path to freedom. And that’s just the beginning of the good news. Being made in the image of God puts us on the right path to how we must think about ourselves, but it’s not the end of our journey to wholeness. We, like all humanity, are under the unrelenting challenges of total depravity—a concept that means there is nothing about us that is unaffected by sin, physically and spiritually. This teaching is one more reason to run from self-esteem: nothing in us is exempt from the marring of sin, including our thoughts about ourselves. Looking into the inner darkness of a depraved soul draws the searcher deeper into the cave of hopelessness.

Paul said we have become worthless (Romans 3:12). No amount of secular, humanistic, or psychological engineering can fix our problems with God and each other. We are thoroughly corrupted from the inside out. Sin has decimated the core of our very being. Because our culture denies God, they have no choice but to create a self-focused doctrine like self-esteem. From there, they teach innate human goodness and an ability to do all things “through themselves who strengthens themselves” psychological worldview. God teaches total depravity, how we’re a dime of dozen, recyclable containers who will never save ourselves from ourselves (2 Corinthians 1:8-9, 4:7).

The wealthiest and most famous people in our culture have died while still chasing the holy grail of self-esteem. Many finished their journeys as empty as when they began (Job 1:21; Ecclesiastes 1:8). Pursuing self-esteem will drive the soul into the ground. It’s an insatiable pursuit of self-worth sought outside the transforming power of Christ. Our worth will come as Christ fills us with His righteousness. We crucify ourselves through the incremental process of putting away our former manner of life, with all its self-esteem and putting on a new kind of person radically different from who we were (Ephesians 4:24). That new person is like God. The more Christlike we become, the more we will experience wholeness (Colossians 1:28).

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me (Galatians 2:20).

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Thinking Less

Put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness (Ephesians 4:22-24).

Tim Keller had the best quote about self-esteem when he said, “The essence of gospel-humility is not thinking more of myself or thinking less of myself; it is thinking of myself less.” Keller presents us with the gospel irony we need to think rightly about how to be whole, a concept that will be the Christian’s stiffest challenge. The temptation with all of our soul problems is to turn inward, not outward. It makes sense, humanly speaking. Self-esteem is the wisdom of the world.

If you are struggling inwardly, then turn outward. Turn to God. Study Him, not yourself. Esteem Him more than anything else, and you’ll begin to change internally. If you throw in a pinch of serving others, you’ll speed up the process to wholeness (Mark 10:45; Philippians 2:3-4). It may sound foolish to look to God and others first, but it’s the wisdom and power of God working in you (1 Corinthians 1:25). When you are captivated by the character and attributes of our transcendent God who has come to dwell in you, your soul will begin to change, and you will begin thinking of yourself less.

Call to Action

  1. Describe your pursuit of God. Is it more than just studying Him? Does it also include how you practically apply what you’re learning about Him to your life?
  2. Are you characterized by thinking more about yourself or more about God? Please explain your answer.
  3. Has your understanding of the Imago Dei trained you to respect all humanity—including yourself? Please explain your answer.
  4. Have you learned Paul’s lesson from Philippians 4:11-13, that no matter his condition, he was content because he could do everything through Christ who strengthened him? Please explain your answer.
  5. A new person in Christ acts like Christ. Will you take the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23 and compare yourself to each element? How do you need to change? Write out a specific and practical plan to transform.

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