Our twenty-first century society has been educated in the importance of self-esteem.
We’ve been told how important and fragile it can be, how devastating the results are if it is damaged, and we are encouraged to be sensitive to it. As a result, we end up cuddling our criminals, excusing bad behavior from our children, and becoming tolerant of sin in our acquaintances.
Even religion has jumped on the self-esteem bandwagon. Robert Shuller, of the Crystal Cathedral fame, wrote his 1982 best seller Self-Esteem: The New Reformation in which he equated people with low self-esteem to be already suffering in their own hell.
The original idea of self-esteem and its importance to a person’s well being seemed to have originated from the writings and work of Austrian physician and socialist Alfred Adler. It was further developed by men liked Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow. Adler and Maslow saw human beings as having certain needs, and they placed those needs in a pyramid like order of priorities. Once the basic needs of food, water, shelter, security, and love have been met, the next basic need is one of self-esteem, or, as it is called in some circles, self-love. Maslow theorized in this pyramid theory that people are not motivated to meet the higher needs until the lower ones are first met.
The problem is: under the guise of meeting this need of self-love, sin is often overlooked, ignored, or excused. Under this theory, people who rape, rob, steal, cheat, and murder are nothing more than people with low self-esteem trying to meet their own basic needs. When this idea is applied to our criminal justice system, treatment moves away from punishment and closer to restoring their self-esteem.
But does the idea of self-esteem have a basis in the Bible?
Didn’t Jesus say, “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind…. You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mt. 22:37, 39 emphasis added), and doesn’t that suggest that we are to love ourselves? But the point of the Lord’s statement was not that we should love ourselves, He was merely pointing out that we do love ourselves.
Jesus’ teaching carried the idea that we are not to do anything to our neighbor that we wouldn’t do to ourselves. Would you starve yourself to death? Would you beat yourself senseless? The reference was made to emphasize the idea of the intensity that should be incorporated in our love for others. If you look at this passage carefully, you’ll notice that it is composed of only two commandments: we are to love God and we are to love our neighbors. There is no third commandment to love ourselves.
Some may argue that we are made in the image of God, and, therefore, we are people of great value. But that may well be a false conclusion. Images are seldom as valuable as the model they were made to resemble. Most of us have a self-image on a driver’s license, but the actual picture itself is valued at next to nothing, certainly much less than the person it represents.
How did the Bible writers assess self-esteem?
Paul wrote, “If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing” (I Cor. 13:2). What did Paul consider himself if he didn’t radiate love to others? A big fat zero!
The Bible teaches that in the last days a new generation will emerge that will be more rebellious to anything holy and godly than any other generation in the history of humanity. Notice how this coming wicked generation was described: “For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, revilers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, unloving, irreconcilable, malicious gossips, without self-control, brutal, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God; holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power…” (2 Tim. 3:1-5a). Notice the first item on this long list: lovers of self. Is that wicked generation already here?
Instead of imbibing the self-esteem of the world, the Christian has a much different calling. “He died for all, that they who live should no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf” (2 Cor. 5:15). We are not to live for ourselves, but for Him who came to earth and died for us.