Loving Me: The Hidden Agenda of Self-Esteem

Loving Me The Hidden Agenda of Self-Esteem

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Thinking more about yourself is not the path to freedom. The self-esteem agenda demands that we turn our thoughts onto ourselves, spending even more time thinking about ourselves. The Bible has a counterintuitive message: The more thoughts about God we have, the freer we will be. The path to freedom is not by turning inward but upward and outward as we practice loving God and others as we love ourselves, a counterintuitive, anti-cultural worldview.

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The Beauty Gods

“I hate myself because I am so ugly.” – Mable

“Now, Mable, if you really hated yourself, you would be glad you were ugly. In fact, you may even seek ways to become uglier—if you really hated yourself.” – Counselor

This humorous illustration speaks about our friend, Mable, who fell into the cultural trap of trying to look good, as propagated by the self-esteem gurus who patrol the waters of pop psychology, spreading their soul-twisting teaching. The actual truth about Mable is that she is so in love with herself that she hates that she is ugly—according to her perspective. Grading beauty is a cultural phenomenon that changes according to current social norms. The beauty gods manage people like Mable, as she craves the proverbial thumbs up, according to those norms.

Mable looks in the mirror. Mable does not like what she sees. Mable and the culture’s view of beauty are at odds. Thus, Mable hates what she sees in the mirror. Conclusion: Mable does not hate herself. She loves herself so much that she hates what she sees in the mirror. Mable is buying what the culture is selling. She wants to be well-received by her peers, which means she must meet their expectations for beauty. The culture gods motivate Mable to push, press, trim, cut, and paint herself into a mold she hopes they will accept. The people she elevates in her mind to pass judgment on her have power over her.

Mable has fallen for self-worship. She is more concerned about peoples’ opinions of her than God’s thoughts about her. The fear of man has more power over her than the fear of God (Proverbs 29:25). Public opinion and God’s opinion are at war in her mind. Her culture teaches the self-actualized person, a teaching that mandates a high view of herself. The self-esteem movement is one of the central planks in that platform. The counterintuitive teaching of the Bible cuts across the grain of the culture’s platform.

Through a Biblical Lens

I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes (Job 42:5-6).

We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away (Isaiah 64:6).

As it is written: None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together, they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one (Romans 3:10-12).

The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost (1 Timothy 1:15).

The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it (Jeremiah 17:9)?

Self-esteem is a call to admire yourself—the person those Scriptures describe. This unbiblical teaching blinds many Christians because they believe it is the solution to their problems, particularly those who struggle with guilt, shame, fear, or insecurity. From a biblical perspective, the term low self-esteem has some inherent problems. For example, if low self-esteem were the problem with an individual like Mable, their solution would be for her to elevate her self-admiration.

Do you see anything wrong with this solution compared to the verses you read? Loving herself more would lead her to more painful self-consciousness or delusions of grandeur—thinking she is somebody when, in reality, she is not. If not liking herself was the problem, thinking more about herself would not set her free but only further enslave her. One of the deceptions of self-esteem is to spend more time thinking about ourselves when thoughts of ourselves will consume us.

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I Must Increase

Elevating our self-esteem leads to individualism. Individualism leads to an ungodly competitiveness, which pits people against people. One of the ways Mable thinks better about herself is to compare herself to others. She picks them apart to find their flaws. Self-esteem leads to loving God less while looking down on your neighbor with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.

We cannot love God and others more than ourselves when we’re trying to elevate ourselves through self-admiration, which can only happen by the ungodly de-admiration of others. Mable’s pursuit of high self-esteem diminishes the two greatest commandments (Matthew 22:36-40). To be a good self-esteemer, we must allow others to control us by their opinions of us.

This twisted inversion is why Mable’s appearance paralyzes her. She needs positive feedback from others to convince her that she is acceptable. If others put her down, make fun of her, or say she’s ugly, it would damage her high self-esteem agenda. She would have to go back to the drawing board, doubling down on changing herself into something that others would find more appealing to entice them to accept her. This process is an exhausting feedback loop.

I Must Decrease

The fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the LORD is safe (Proverbs 29:25).

Self-esteem is also known as shame. You may understand the term as insecurity, co-dependency, or peer pressure. It is a person controlled or intimidated by the opinions, perspectives, or views that others have about them. What others think of the self-esteemer has more controlling power over that person than what God thinks of them. Fear of man or insecurity elevates man’s opinion above the opinion of God.

Insecurity says, “I will feel better if you like me. If you reject me, I will feel bad. I need you to like me.” If feeling good about yourself is dependent upon the attitude of others toward you, your friends will control your thoughts and emotions as they let you know what they think about you. If they tell you that you are cool, you feel good. If they tell you you’re uncool or give you the thumbs down, you feel bad. If you buy into the culture’s version of shame—low self-esteem—you’re moving headlong into a trap.

The answer is not how people view us. The answer is an ever-increasing awareness that we are naked before God, and He must clothe us in the righteousness of Jesus Christ (Genesis 3:7). If our thoughts about ourselves consume us, our problem is not low self-esteem. It’s high self-esteem. A low estimation of ourselves implies thinking of ourselves less. Jesus is the most remarkable example of this (Philippians 2:5-11). Self-forgetfulness is the perfect mental attitude for serving others (Mark 10:45).

A Case Study

Mable’s mind was an endless feedback loop of self-thought. She wondered what people thought about her. She would tell you what people thought about her. She carefully measured her words so others would accept her. She feared wearing the wrong clothes, hoping never to be out of step with her culture. You would never see her without makeup, always presenting herself perfectly to her culture.

Mable lived in an entangling maze of painful self-awareness. Whenever she left a social gathering, she went into her mind-reading routine, assuming the thoughts of others about her. Her carefully constructed and often wrong interpretations led to more despair. It would mortify Mable to know that people rarely gave her much thought at all. Her friends were far too busy thinking about themselves than thinking about her, the ultimate irony of the self-esteem movement.

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Secular Counseling

During her first counseling session, the secular counselor told Mable that she suffered from low self-esteem. He attempted to motivate her to think more highly of herself but was unwittingly leading her into an inescapable trap. Mable was already consumed with herself. The counselor pushed her back into her prison of self-preoccupation. The more Mable gazed into her inner conflict in an attempt to wrap a positive mental attitude around her self-loathing, the more inward and awkward she became. Her social awkwardness only affirmed what she already believed about herself: She was exactly what she thought others thought of her. It’s confirmation bias.

As the weeks passed, Mable became exasperated, exhausted, and isolated from her world. High self-esteem is an individualistic, self-centered worldview, not a communal one. Mable withdrew from others. Christ-focused, other-centeredness leads people back to the community. Though Mable lived in a real community, she mentally checked out, hiding in plain sight. Three months after her initial counseling session, Mable committed suicide. The report in the local newspaper said Mable suffered from low self-esteem.

Mable suffered from the blinding and penetrating force of high self-esteem. Her thoughts about herself went off the high end of the self-esteem chart. While hiding from others, she became a twisted, self-absorbed, irritable person who found no reason to live. She inevitably turned so inward that there seemed to be no hope from her perspective. Unfortunately for Mable, she was looking in the wrong direction. A person beholding to the high self-esteem mantra runs headlong into the trap of insatiable individualism as they elevate their thoughts to dangerous levels of self-awareness.

Look Up, Not In

Mable needed to look outside herself to rest in the reality of someone far superior to herself. Christ is the answer for inner contentment and outer significance. To be in Christ is to be all you can be, which is your best life now. Jesus came to rescue us from ourselves, not to turn us into ourselves. Looking inward to elevate our estimation of ourselves will lead anyone to dizzying disappointment.

Mable attempted to self-talk her way into attaining the unattainable height of all she could be but was left empty. From her perspective, there was no reason to live. She thought she was heading for the light. She was self-deceived, which led to self-enslavement, which led to self-harm. She walked headlong into the darkness of her inner turmoil, never knowing about the Savior who frees captives (Luke 4:18).

If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it (Matthew 16:24-25).

Try Self-Worth

  • John the Baptist said, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).
  • Paul the Apostle said, “I am the chief of sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15).

Do you think John or Paul struggled with a lack of self-worth? If you asked them, what would they say? You would have to explain self-worth to them since that language became part of our vocabulary during the latter decades of the last century. From a Christian historical perspective, self-worth was not a common consideration or a regular part of a Christian’s understanding and application of sanctification. Any Christian who argues for a prominent place for self-worth in our understanding and practice of sanctification is making a mountain out of a molehill because the Bible does not speak to this issue in the way they are arguing.

Their primary argumentation comes from the influence of psychology books written in the 20th century. The closest you can find self-worth in the Bible is God making us in His image. Everyone is made in God’s image (Genesis 1:27), though it is wrong to put the point of emphasis on the word image rather than God. Being made in the image of God would be of no value if God was not valuable. For example, a painting finds its value from the artist who painted it. If the artist is famous, the painting is valuable. The point of emphasis is primarily on the painter of a famous painting, not the painting. When you walk into a museum to adore a painting, you could say,

The first is a painting circa 1630. The second is the painter who painted the portrait. Rembrandt is what makes the painting famous. What makes us so valuable is that God made us in His image. To carve out a psychological doctrine that emphasizes us is wrongheaded. The main point is always about the Creator, not the creation. When the point of emphasis drifts from the artist who made the image to the image itself, we are more psychological than theological. The more sinister possibility is that we will become like Mable, a worshiper of the creature more than the Creator (Romans 1:21-25).

Call to Action

In my counseling experience with insecure people, I have never found a person work their way out of insecure thought patterns without taking John’s advice: “He must increase, but I must decrease (John 3:30).” If you are shy, insecure, co-dependent, or struggle with peer pressure–the biblical term for all of those issues is fear of man.

If that is you, I appeal to you to learn how to think of yourself less while thinking of God more. If thoughts about God consume you, you are on the path to freedom. The painting feels good about itself when the painter walks into the room. Like the sheep looking at its shepherd, saying, “The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want” (Psalm 23:1).

  1. Do the opinions of other people control you? Why or why not?
  2. If they do, who is the person that has that kind of control over you? Who is it that you’re trying to impress or hoping they will like you enough not to reject you?
  3. Why do you give them the power to manage you?
  4. How does God think about you?
  5. What effect does God’s opinion of you have on you?
  6. Are you characterized as a worshiper of the Painter or the painting? Please explain your answer.

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