The Self-esteem Project

Our culture seems to be obsessed with self-esteem.

It has been part of the western narrative for some time now and is producing a harvest that many people did not initially anticipate. One example of this was at an in-service I attended. One participant, a sociologist, commented that the self-esteem project was not working. It was her opinion that it produced children who were arrogant, lazy and had an over-inflated view of themselves. I heard some evidence that neatly fit her assessment from a student at the school I work at. She had poor ‘self-esteem’, and her psychologist instructed her that one way to deal with it was to look into the mirror every time she passed one, and tell herself ‘you are beautiful.’ This raises the question: Is the self-esteem problem about a poor view of oneself or is it symptomatic of a deeper and more destructive root cause?

The self-esteem issue is difficult to deal with.

Whenever someone is consistently negative about themselves the most common intuitive response is to try to instil some value in them by showering them with compliments. ‘You are wonderful, believe in yourself,’ we say. Unfortunately, the church seems to have adopted this type of thinking. A Pastor in a local church recently ended a Pastor’s Word article in the newspaper by stating that ‘God believes in you.’ Other times Christian authors and Pastors search out the scriptures in order to find verses where God speaks about us, about who we are, and why we are so valuable (an example of this is ‘Who I Am In Christ’ by Neil T Anderson). It’s not that the biblical truth is wrong; it’s the way we use it to serve our own idolatrous ends that is. These approaches to self-esteem tend to make God into a cosmic psychologist whose job it is to make us feel better about ourselves. Our problem is not that we think negative things but that we think about ourselves too much.

‘Humility is thinking less about yourself, not thinking less of yourself.’
(Kreeft, 1992 P100)

The issue of self-esteem needs to be grounded in how and why we were created.

Every creator and designer has exclusive rights over the objects they design (Romans 9:21). They define the following:

  • what the creation is,

  • its aesthetics,

  • its purpose, and,

  • in summary, the creation’s ultimate value.

Thus we find biblically that human beings have intrinsic value from an extrinsic source; namely, God. We are valuable because we are valuable to Him.

‘God created man in his own image’
Genesis 1:27

We were uniquely created to be like God and to be reflectors of God and His glory. The words ‘glory’ and ‘image’ are closely connected biblically (see 1 Corinthians 7:11) and the idea that imaging God brings Him glory can be seen throughout scripture. When humans reflect the glory of God they are filled with significance and worth, but when they worship themselves they are covered with shame and become worthless. It is when we are oriented toward God (Coram Deo) and orbiting around Him that we are filled with value; when we are not facing him and orbiting around Him we become worthless (Romans 3:12).

Humans never cease to be image bearers yet they become worthless because their imaging finds another ‘sun’ to orbit around.

Bill Clem states that the first false image we reflect is ourselves: “… when we don’t image Him, by default we image ourselves and elevate ourselves as god.” (Clem, 2011 P63) This is what occurs in Genesis 3. Mankind rejected God’s definition of reality, His rulership and decided to become self-referential. The result of this was that they lost their glorious covering, were covered with shame and were now trying to establish identity and value autonomously. (Forrey 1992 P34) Their first idolatry was the worship of themselves. The thorns that this produced were; a breakdown in relationship with God, a breakdown in interpersonal relationships, a sense of shame and nakedness, and a need to hide from each other and God (which surely involved anxiety, fear and intense insecurity – Genesis 3:10). Adam and Eve were not good enough, and they knew it. Guilt and shame had become a vicious circle that they were unable to extricate themselves from. As they saw it, they were on their own and they had to make it work somehow.

This is exactly what we see in the self-esteem project; humans not living ‘Coram Deo’ but turning their face away from God and living for their own glory.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines self-esteem as ‘Pride in oneself.’ (2009) This goes right to the heart of what the self-esteem project is all about: human pride trying to establish value apart from Him. It is no wonder that focussing on self-esteem creates proud people because it is built upon two principles of pride – independence from God and deification of self. Thus the person who is obsessed with themselves (and their own self-esteem) has, ironically, made themselves intrinsically bankrupt by their own pride.

In some ways the person who feels badly about themselves may actually be closer to the truth than they would want to think.

It may be that the operation of their conscience, their sense of shame and their failures, are working in their favour. If they were to see their situation clearly they would realise that they are, in reality, trapped in a prison of inadequacy (enduring, self-esteem based depression often reflects this). It is true that they are not good enough! No hiding of the truth or adoption of multiple personalities will ultimately cover their inadequacies. The deception of self-esteem follows, ‘If you focus on yourself in a more positive way, you can save yourself.’ The problem is, this is counterproductive in that it denies the root of the problem and then encourages it.

The consequence of persistent independence from God is that people become ‘infested with idols.’ (Powlison 1995 P43).

We follow and trust in false gods to identify us, save us, and shore up our self-esteem. We climb up ladders to nowhere that our culture has endorsed. The marketing industry promotes them as commodities that will make us truly valuable; clothing, hair styles, technological accessories, sporting achievement, music … etc. In reality, when we use them this way, they become false gods which we worship. Some seem to be able to make these false God’s work for them. They are the ones that reach the top of these ladders but many don’t and they are the ones we say have low self-esteem. Either way, whether someone is successful at climbing the ladders or not, we are all playing the same game of autonomous independence from God.

At this point, the person with poor self-esteem (those at the bottom of the ladder) and those with healthy self-esteem (those at the top of the ladder) have the opportunity to repent.

This is something that very few people would recommend to someone who is down on themselves. Unfortunately, what often occurs in the Christian world at this point is not repentance. We turn God into our servant and a continue feeding the bad root of self-obsession. An example of this is the way in which the following quote from Irenaeus has been used.

‘The glory of God is man fully alive, and the life of man is the vision of God … how much more will the manifestation of the Father by the Word bring life to those who see God’
— Delhaye 2012

Prior to this year I had only heard the first eight words quoted. Every time I have heard this quote it has been used in a way that implied that God’s central purpose is to make sure humans are self-fulfilled. This suggests that God is human centred. This is contrary to the Bible which bears witness to a God who is radically God centred (Isaiah 48:11). The second half of the quote connects fully alive to seeing God. This is similar to what Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 3:18:

And we … beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.

You will never be more you than when you are not in the centre. When Christ is central to you, you will be fully alive. This is counter intuitive. Who wants to tell someone that sees themselves poorly that there is something else wrong with them? But this is the truth. Their anxiety, depression, and fear of other’s opinion, all stem from the roots of independence from God; pride, and the desire to be glorious in themselves. God did not create us to be self-referential or self-obsessive but to be centred on Him; to image the way that He is centred on his own glory. This kind of repentance deals with the insatiable black hole of image, identity and value that we set up in the centre of our souls. When we repent of our self-obsession and enthrone Him as the supremely valuable one we will find, ironically, that we are significantly valuable (Matthew 6:26).

What if God’s gaze was not piercing or fear inspiring?

What if Adam and Eve didn’t make skins to cover their shame? What if they didn’t hide but moved toward God and saw the eyes of a loving father, not a fearsome judge? If we stubbornly maintain our independence and try to look after ourselves then we act just like the first Adam (Forrey 1992 P36), but when we approach the Father through the grace purchased us by the second Adam, then we see the eyes of a loving father that desires to cover our shame (Ezekiel 16:8) and free us of the cancerous addiction we have to ourselves.

His son Jesus, the perfect image of God (Hebrews 1:3), imaged us on the cross so that those who were worthless would take on His infinite value (2 Corinthians 5:21) and be renewed imagers of Him. He will break through the deception that human pride has set up and lead us to a place where there is no competition, no shame, no anxiety, and no fear but only complete dependence upon Him.

He will lead us to the real question, ‘How can I bring glory to God?’ not ‘How will I meet my longings?’ (Welch 1994 P33).

When we are focussed on imaging God and not on our own glory, we will love God and others because that is what He does.

References

Anderson, N.T. (2000) Victory Over the Darkness: Realizing the Power of Your Identity in Christ. Regal Books California USA

Clem, B (2011) Disciple: Getting Your Identity From Jesus. Wheaton, Illinois. Crossway

Delhaye P. Pope John Paul on the Contemporary Importance of St Irenaeus. Accessed 02/05/2012 from http://www.ewtn.com/library/theology/irenaeus.htm

Forrey, Jeffrey, “The Concept of 'Glory' as it Relates to the Christian's Self-Image,” The Journal of Pastoral Practice, Vol. X, No. 4, 1992, pp. 26-49.

Kreeft, P. (1992). Back to virtue: Traditional moral wisdom for modern moral confusion. SanFrancisco: Ignatius Press.

Powlison, D (1995) Idols of the Heart and Vanity Fair. . Journal of Biblical Counseling, Volume 13, Number 2, Page 35-50

Welch, E.T (1994) Who Are We? Needs, Longings, and the Image of God in Man. Journal of Biblical Counseling, Volume 13, Number 1, Page 25-38

Welch, E.T (1997) When People are Big and God is Small. Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, New Jersey

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition copyright 2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Updated in 2009. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. Retrieved from: http://www.thefreedictionary.com/self-esteem

The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, 2001, Wheaton, Illinois. Crossway