The Self-Esteem Trap
The self-esteem movement, although not entirely a new concept, really began to surface in the late 1960's. American philosopher and psychologist William James first coined the term "self-esteem" as far back as 1890, defining it as "a ratio that is found by dividing one’s successes in areas of life that are important to a given individual by the failures in them." Currently, self-esteem is defined by Merriam-Webster's dictionary as "a confidence and satisfaction in oneself."
As believers, we should be very cautious of this movement and Christian counselors would do well to evaluate the validity of promoting self-esteem in clients before jumping on the self-esteem bandwagon. Let's take a look at a few verses and compare them to the idea that people need to "improve their self esteem."
"“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
After reading that passage in Romans, we should all be experiencing pretty low self esteem right about now! However, scripture goes even further by telling us that we should think less of ourselves.
"For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned." Romans 12:3
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves." Philippians 2:3
For the most part, if you walk into any secular counselor's office (and sadly many professing "Christian" counselors) and tell them that you think more highly of others than you do yourself...they most certainly will write the words, "low self-esteem" in your chart notes. This "diagnosis," by the way, will not be viewed as a good thing, but rather something that needs to be eradicated. The irony here is that when we encounter someone who actually does think highly of themselves, we refer to them as narcissistic. While we outwardly say we value humility, our culture undoubtedly promotes and upholds self-absorption. The concept of self-esteem flies in the face of God's word. It is God and Him alone that gives us any value and apart from Him, we are nothing.
"But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God." Ephesians 2: 4-9
According to Ephesians, we were "dead" and it is Christ who has raised us up, NOT us pulling ourselves up by our proverbial boot straps, but a sheer GIFT from God. I don't know about you, but I've never seen anything dead do anything. Scripture describing our condition as "dead" indicates how absolutely and utterly useless we are in improving our condition. How else is our condition described in scripture?
"The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can understand it?" Jeremiah 17:9
So, if we take an honest look into our own hearts, which according to this passage, is virtually impossible since it's deceitful, we will find depravity. Corrie ten Boom said, “If you look at the world, you'll be distressed. If you look within, you'll be depressed. If you look at God you'll be at rest.” So many New Age teachings and modern psychotherapies tell us to "look within" for strength, goodness, and peace. What a hopeless endeavor!
At the same time, it's important to note that this article is not advocating self-loathing, self-pity, or a mindset that brings self-defeat. Matter of fact, the entire point is that we step away from "self" altogether. As long as our eyes are on self, it's a recipe for disaster and deception. We are called to keep our eyes fixed on the One who is perfect and never fails.
"I keep my eyes always on the Lord. With him at my right hand, I will not be shaken." Psalm 16:8
"Looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God." Hebrews 12:2
When I look to myself and I am discouraged with what I see, I rejoice in the fact that He has rescued me from this flesh that fails, this heart wanders, and this body that is decaying day-by-day. When I resolve to die to self, I am no longer concerned with where my esteem falls on the scales, it becomes irrelevant.
"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
When I acknowledge that I am nothing, I have nothing, and I can do nothing apart from Christ, I am in a position to cast my cares on Him because He cares for me (1 Peter 5:7). It's no longer my burden to bear. He becomes my only hope and confidence. This is the essence of being "born again." There is a shift that occurs from living a life focused on self (inflated or degraded self-focus) to living a life that is focused on pleasing God.
"Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come." 2 Corinthians 5:17
We were not made to wallow in self pity, nor were we called to deceive ourselves with an inflated sense of self-worth. The best part is that Jesus tells us that His power is magnified in our weaknesses. When the Apostle Paul was struggling, he prayed and asked the Lord three times to take away a "thorn in the flesh," that he, no doubt, felt was a weakness that was bringing him down.
"But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me." 2 Corinthians 12:9
When we gloss over our weaknesses, only to superficially inflate them with our own sense of worth or value, we miss out on what God wants to do in and through us. Essentially, we become our own gods. If we're so great, we certainly don't have any need for a Savior, now do we?