THE PROBLEM OF LOW SELF-ESTEEM


Some years ago, I was asked to recommend a topic for a seminar to be conducted by a fellowship group. When I broached the subject of “self-esteem,” a dear sister immediately exclaimed that it was an excellent suggestion. She was a teacher, and apparently she was having great difficulties encouraging some of her students who were having problems with low self-esteem. Her enthusiasm, however, very quickly fizzled out when I revealed to her that I did not believe that low self-esteem was a real problem.


At that time, I had not read much about the subject. It was just that the Bible condemns pride so strongly (e.g., Prov 6:16–17; 8:12–13; 16:5; 21:4), and urges humility in so many places (e.g., Ps 138:6; Prov 16:19; 22:4; Mt 5:3; Rom 12:3, 16; Phil 2:3; Col 3:12; 1 Pet 5:5; etc.), that it was hard to imagine how low self-esteem could be a problem.


Yet, amazingly, when I have had occasions to talk to parents and teachers about the issue of self-esteem, it appeared that many actually believe that one of the major problems faced by young people in Singapore, be it in school or in church, is that of low self-esteem.


Origin of Self-Esteem Culture


How did this idea of self-esteem become so widespread? In addition to the foundations set by anti-theistic and humanistic psychologists, such as Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) and Alfred Adler (1870–1937), it is most likely that self-esteem ideas are derived directly from teachings about self-love, which can be traced back to an atheistic German psychoanalyst by the name of Erich Fromm (1900–1980). In his book, Man for Himself: An Inquiry into Psychology of Ethics, written in 1947, Fromm declares that self-love is a virtue, and argues that it is implied in the Lord Jesus’ command to “Love thy neighbour as thyself” (Mt 22:39). In 1956, in the highly influential book (still being reprinted today), entitledThe Art of Loving, Fromm essentially repeats the statement, and teaches that one must love himself in order to reach his highest potential.


While most of us have not heard of Fromm, we would probably cringe at his statements concerning the Christian faith. For example, Fromm has this to say about faith in God:

Quite obviously, the majority of people have, in their personal development, not overcome this infantile stage, and hence the belief in God to most people is the belief of a helping father—a childish illusion (Art of Love [Bantam Books, 1963], 59; cited by Martin Bobgan & Deidre Bobgan, Prophets of Psychoheresy II, [EastGate, 1990], 56–57).


Yet his ideas about self-love have been spread unhindered among Christians, through the teachings of popular authors such as James Dobson, Robert Schuller, Charles Stanley, Lawrence Crabb, Charles Swindoll, H. Norman Wright, Zig Ziglar, Gary Collins, Paul Meier, Frank Minirth and even some reputably Reformed writers, such as Anthony A. Hoekema (see his The Christian Looks at Himself [Eerdmans, 1975], though his theory extends to the regenerate Christian, whom he believes no longer have to contend with the old man. Romans 7:14ff, according to him, refers to the unregenerate, despite the fact that it would make the unregenerate capable of desiring to do good. See Romans 7:22).


Now, we must be careful not to lump anyone who ever positively use the terms “self-esteem,” or “self-worth” or even “significance of man,” with those who promote anti-biblical self-esteem theory. There are some writers who would speak of the “self-esteem” which the elect in Christ may and ought have.


But listen to three of the most influential “prophets” of deliverance from the tyranny of low self-esteem and compare briefly with what the Scripture teaches.


James C. Dobson

Dr James C. Dobson, the famous “Christian psychologist,” wrote in the revision of his immensely popular book Hide or Seek:

In a real sense, the health of an entire society depends on the ease with which its individual members can gain personal acceptance [i.e. gain self-esteem]. Thus, whenever the keys to self-esteem are seemingly out of reach for a large percentage of the people, as in Western society at the turn of the twenty-first century, then widespread mental illness, neuroticism, hatred, alcoholism, drug abuse, violence, and social disorder will certainly occur [Dobson had written in the earlier edition: “An epidemic of inferiority is raging throughout our society.... inner force of inferiority is the most dominant force in life, even exceeding the power of sex and its influence.“] (The New Hide or Seek: How to Build Self-Esteem in Your Child [Baker, 1999], as excerpted on www.fotf.org/docstudy/bookshelf).


One of the questions we will have to ask Dr Dobson if we get to meet him is whether he believes that low self-esteem is sin; for it appears to me that the Scripture speaks of sin as being the chief cause of problems in the world (Gen 3:16–19). And besides, instead of telling us that there will be a problem of low self-esteem, the Apostle Paul tells us that in the last days, “men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud,… highminded, lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God” (2 Tim 3:2–4). Paul’s prophecy concerning the last days (and we are in the last days) appears to be totally different from Dobson’s assessment. Did Paul make a mistake? Paul was writing under inspiration of the Holy Spirit. And furthermore, nowhere does the Scripture urge us to seek after self-esteem, but the Scriptures does teach us to seek humility as we noted earlier.


Robert Schuller

While Dobson seems to be play hide and seek when it comes to the relationship between sin and low self-esteem, Robert Schuller, an ordained preacher in the Reformed Church in America (which is neither Reformed nor Christian in the historic sense of the words), is much more open and daring. He exclaims in his equally popular book that was distributed free to more than 250,000 pastors, seminaries and Christian colleges: “Sin is any act or thought that robs myself or another human being of his or her self-esteem” (Self-Esteem: The New Reformation [Word Book, 1982], 14). Therefore any preacher who tell sinners that that sin makes us hateful to God (cf. Ps 11:5; Prov 15:9; etc.) is in fact “committing an insulting sin” (p. 154), for as Schuller puts it: “The core of sin is a lack of self-esteem… Once a person believes he is an ‘unworthy sinner,’ it is doubtful if he can honestly accept the saving grace God offers in Christ” (p. 98).


With such a doctrine, it is no wonder that Schuller was calling for a new reformation, that is a reformation of the church by which he hoped would remove all vestiges of the doctrine of sin as taught in the Scripture and preached by the Church for 2,000 years (for as he says: “the doctrine of sin is the reason why Christians have behaved so badly for the past two thousand years”):

Where the 16th century Reformation returned our focus to sacred scripture as the only infallible rule for faith and practice, the new reformation [which he was advocating], will return our focus to the sacred right of every person to self-esteem (p. 19).


The new reformation of Schuller would have no connection with the 16th century Reformation because it would make anyone caught in it, who is still focusing on the “sacred scripture as the only infallible rule for faith and practice,” a grotesque hypocrite.


Lawrence J. Crabb, Jr.

Consider lastly Lawrence (Larry) J. Crabb, Jr. We choose him as an example because his book Effective Biblical Counselling (Zondervan, 1977) was published in Singapore by the S+U Publishers (1983), and was for quite a while a popular guide book amongst the parachurch groups, and churches which had connections with the parachurch groups.


Crabb openly admits that he believes Christianity should be integrated with popular psychology. He believes his method, known as “Spoiling the Egyptians” (p. 47), is biblical and best. But the name of his method is already revealing of the way he handles Scripture. The Israelites were to spoil the Egyptians of clothes, silver and gold, not values, beliefs and methodologies of living. In fact, they were explicitly forbidden from doing so (see Leviticus 18:3), and were rebuked when they did so (Jer 2:18).


What did Crabb spoil from the Egyptians? Among many other things, he spoiled Abraham Maslow of his Hierarchy of Needs (see p. 79ff). Maslow’s hierarchy implies that man cannot be held responsible to love God and his neighbour if he has been deprived of lower level needs that are requisite for obedience, one of which is the need for significance or self-esteem (level 4). Crabb may not hold to all the implications of Maslow’s theory, but it is clear that he sold to the idea that the primary and immediate need of fallen man is not so much deliverance from sin and reconciliation to God, but self-love or self-esteem. He announces: “People have one basic personal need which requires two kinds of input for its satisfaction. The most basic need is a sense of personal worth, an acceptance of oneself as a whole, real person” (p.61).


What is the implication of such a doctrine, but that a dulling of the conscience concerning the sinfulness of sin and the priority which should be given to seeking after righteousness rather than after self? The Lord instructs: “But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you” (Mt 6:33); and he tells us that only “one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her” (Lk 10:42). Crabb, no doubt, emphasises that only Christians can have all the needs, as listed by Maslow, met (p. 83). But in spoiling the Egyptians, he is forced in some ways to preach a gospel of salvation in terms of meeting selfish needs rather than of rescue from sin and wrath of God. This is the subtle effect of self-esteem culture that exalts man to a level of worthiness such that the Gospel centres around him rather than around God.


Love Thyself!


But does not the Bible command us to love ourselves? The Lord commands: “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” (Mt 22:39b). Is this a command to love ourselves? Of course not! The fact is that our Lord simply assumes that we already love ourselves, and now we need to love our neighbour similarly. Paul makes it explicit when he says: “For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the church” (Eph 5:29, emphasis mine). Those who complain that they hate themselves are really unhappy with the circumstances they are in, their feelings, abilities, etc. If they truly hate themselves, then they would be happy to be miserable. All human beings love themselves. This is why rather than calling us to love ourselves, Christ instead commands us to deny ourselves:

If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it (Mt 16:24–25).


In fact, if think about it carefully, we will realise that the problem of low self-esteem is really a problem of pride in many instances. How so? Consider the case of Lee Harvey Oswald, the assassin of President Kennedy. Dobson paints him as a victim of circumstances, who was unloved as a child, rejected by the army and abandoned by his wife. “No one wanted him. No one had ever wanted him. He was perhaps the most rejected man of our time. His ego lay shattered in a fragmented dust!” (ibid). Accordingly, he had no sense of worthiness. And accordingly, this low self-esteem was the primary reason why he finally fired the shots at the president, who “more than any other man on earth, embodied all the success, beauty, wealth, and family affection which he lacked.” Was it really a sense of low self-esteem that led Oswald to do what he did? Could it not be rather a sense of pride that says: “I deserve to be treated better than I am being treated now. I will do something that everyone will notice.”


It appears to me that every case of low self-esteem amongst unbelievers is in fact a case of pride, which resulted in unfulfilled desires. The Fall has made man sinners and children of wrath. Any feeling of worth is therefore a failure to recognise the severity of sin and the offence against God.


How, then, can low self-esteem in an unbeliever, which is a more accurate self-assessment, be regarded as a problem? And how can low self-esteem then be treated with the technique of compensation (assigning something to do that will perk up the ego) as suggested by Dobson? Should not the person who experiences low self-esteem rather be told that indeed we are worthless because of sin, but despite our unworthiness, Christ commands all sinners to repent and believe in Him for salvation.


The Christian and his Self-Esteem


We have noted that such as are out of Christ have no reason to have any self-esteem at all. But what about Christians? Is there room for self-esteem amongst such as are united with Christ? I believe so. David J. Engelsma, the professor of Protestant Reformed Seminary, puts it well when he gives us seven reasons why we ought to have a healthy ‘self-esteem.’


First, as a believer, I may and must know myself to be chosen by God and, therefore, as precious to God. God has loved me from eternity.


Second, as a believer, I may and must know myself as redeemed, not with silver or gold, but with the precious blood of God’s own Son in our flesh, and, therefore, as precious to the Lord Jesus Christ.


Third, as a believer, I know myself as regenerated and indwelt by the Holy Spirit. I am, therefore, a new creature in Christ. I possess the life of the risen Jesus Christ Himself. I am the temple of God.


The image of God has been restored in me. Nothing less than this belongs to the proper Christian self-image.


Fourth, as a believer, I am justified by faith and, therefore, am accepted of God. I am not guilty; and I am not worthy of hell or of any condemnation.


Fifth, as a believer, I have been adopted by God and, therefore, am a son of the God of heaven and earth and am heir of all things. I am no child of the devil.


Sixth, as a believer, I am sanctified and, therefore, am actually good with the pure, spotless goodness of the Holy Spirit. And my walk, my life, as the apostle says so plainly in the first couple of chapters of 1 Peter, is an excellent, noble walk and life in the world.


Seventh, as a believer, I am destined for glory, soul, but also body. A proper self-esteem extends to the body of a Christian as well as the soul. Besides that, as a believer, I know that God in His sovereignty has so arranged my life in all its circumstances that all that I am and everything that belongs to my place and circumstances has been determined in that love of God for me so that I need not be discontented about any aspect of my circumstances (“Is Good Self-Esteem Important for a Christian, and How Is It Developed?” inPerspectives in Covenant Education [Fall 1990]).


In other words, the Christian, since he is individually elected, justified, regenerated, adopted, sanctified, and preserved unto glory, may and ought to have a healthy ‘self-esteem.’ He may take comfort in the love of God for him despite his unworthiness. But we must be careful not to confound this Christian ‘self-esteem’ with the self-esteem that secular psychologists and pseudo-Christian psycho-logists talk about. The Christian ‘self-esteem’ is not based on our personal worth, but faith in Christ. Indeed, we may more properly call it Christ-esteem rather than self-esteem.


The Christian needs not and should not suffer the kind of self-defeat, doldrums and frustration that non-Christians claiming low self-esteem may experience. When we feel insufficient, we may find our sufficiency in Christ (2 Cor 3:5). When we feel inability overwhelming us, we have the confidence that, as we trust in Christ, we can do all things through Him who strengthens us (Phil 4:13). When we feel weak we know that His grace is sufficient for us, and His power is made perfect in weakness (2 Cor 12:9–10). When we are at our wits end, we know that we can ask the Lord for wisdom (Jas 1:5), and have the confidence that the foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of man (1 Cor 1:25). When we feel lonely, we may take comfort that Christ promises to be with us even unto the end of the world (Mt 28:20). When we feel unloved, we may know that Christ loves us so much He died for us (1 Jn 4:10). When we feel inferior because of how we look, we must realise that Christ has redeemed our bodies and will restore it to perfection one day.


A Christian, to put it in another way, needs never to suffer the symptoms of low self-esteem. But we must not assume that having symptoms of low self-esteem is always bad for the Christian. In fact, if we search the Scriptures we will not find any instance where we are commanded to have a higher estimation of ourselves. Moses was not chided for looking down upon himself, he was chided for not trusting in the Lord. Timothy was encouraged not to let anyone despise his youth, but he was not told to think of himself more highly than he was already. On the contrary, everywhere in the Scriptures we are warned against having too high an estimation of ourselves. The fact is that in the final analysis most of us have too high an estimation, rather than too low an estimation, of self.


Moreover, a low estimation of self, when it comes to our righteousness, is really a safe-guard against spiritual pride and apostasy. The portrait of a true saint, painted by our Lord in His beatitudes, is one who is poor in spirit, who mourns for his own sin, and is most meek and humble, knowing that he does not deserve any of God’s gracious blessings upon him. He knows that he falls short of the glory of God because of the remnant of the sin nature, and so he hates and abhors himself because of his sin against God. And because of his sin, he daily cries out as Paul did, “O wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” (Rom 7:24). And so he is constantly fleeing to Christ. If all these are symptomatic of having a low self-esteem, then let us covet after low self-esteem, for these symptoms are indicative of a healthy Christian. It is healthy because it causes us to despair of ourselves and to turn to Christ constantly to rely on Him, and to exalt His name so that we may indeed say with John the Baptist that Christ is increasing as we decrease, and with Paul: “For me to live is Christ”!


How then should we counsel someone who appears to us to have low self-esteem? I believe, in the first place, we must be careful not to be too quick to point a finger at low self-esteem. Remember that pride, paradoxically, can also manifest itself in the way of low self-esteem. Take the case of a Christian who manifests symptoms of low self-esteem because of his perception of what others think of him? In such a case, it may really be the sin of having too high an estimation of self, which demands that others have the same estimation of him. Such a person should be brought to see his problem clearly and counselled to repent of his pride. In the second place, we ought to realise that every manifestation of low self-esteem, which is not due to the sight of sin, is really due to failure to understand our privileges as children of God. Therefore proper counsel must include a reminder of what Christ has done for us and what He can and will do for us and an exhortation to trust in the Lord.


Conclusion


We have seen that low self-esteem is not really a universal problem, which must always be dealt with by increasing self-esteem by artificial means? Low self-esteem, if it truly exists amongst men, may be the best thing to happen to one who is out of Christ, if he is thereby driven to Christ. Low self-esteem in the case of a Christian is healthy if it is brought about by the knowledge of indwelling sin, which shuts him up to Christ. Then also, manifestations of low self-esteem could be brought about by lack of faith or knowledge, in which case the corrections required is not compensation but exhortation.


I am convinced that one of the reasons why the “problem of low self-esteem” is given so much emphasis today is that we live in a day when men are “lovers of… self” (2 Tim 3:2), when even professing Christians think much more about self than about Christ. I am further convinced that if we would live according to the principles and patterns laid down in the Word of God, we would not be concentrating much on our own worth and dignity, but on the magnification of Christ (Phil 1:20–21) and on esteeming others better than ourselves (Phil 2:3). May the Lord increase while we decrease.


J.J. Lim
6 May, 2001