A Conversation with Paul on Self Esteem12 min read
Over the past century self esteem has become a tremendous emphasis in Christendom, due to a number of factors, which won’t be discussed here. In a society that makes emotion the basis for everything, the idea that all our problems can be solved by a simple refocusing on the commendability of “number one” is massively accepted. And in Christian circles, with messages like “You’re Beautiful” and “You’re an Overcomer,” we are all urged to accept self-esteem as a chief emphasis of the Christian life. What are we to think of this emphasis? Is it wholly wrong? Is it wholly right? If we examine the matter Biblically, society won’t like the conclusion; and if we examine the matter logically, this generation will bring accusations of insensitivity and bigotry (or in Evangelical circles, the accusation will be formalism and old-fashioned ideas). Nevertheless, God has spoken much on our self image; should we ignore His Word for fear that it contradicts our preconceived notions? Obviously not. Our goal in looking at this is to find the conclusion that will most glorify God. So then, we will take Scripture as it comes, in its context, the way it was meant to be interpreted. Any implications that one may see will have to be left aside until true Biblical interpretation has been met. This is as legitimate of an approach as we can get.
Real Issues, Bad Diagnosis and Solution
God’s people are not free of emotional issues. We live in a fallen world, with fallen faculties and many legitimate disorders. These are things we need to be sensitive to. Aside from disorders, many people do have real struggles with confidence and significance. It isn’t far from Scripture at all to acknowledge this. For instance, Moses in Exodus 3-4 constantly objected to the call of God on account of his slow speech; he felt he couldn’t fulfill the task. It was amazing how God came alongside and said “But Moses, don’t you know who you are? You are my special man. Don’t put yourself down like that.” Is that really what God did? No, actually the Scriptures say “The anger of the LORD was kindled against Moses.” Moses’ lack of confidence wasn’t humility nor low self esteem: it was the sin of unbelief. It was a real issue, but the right approach is polar opposite to the approach taken with today’s lack of self-confidence. There will be more on this later. Or consider the issue of feeling insignificant; no doubt we all struggle with this. Is the answer to look for a more prominent place? Is the answer to seek to “prove ourselves” and show that we can do anything? Not according to 1 Corinthians 12. It asks concerning the less noticeable parts of the body “If the ear shall say, Because I am not the eye, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body?” The obvious answer is no, because “Now hath God set the members every one of them in the body, as it hath pleased him.” The same applies to our place in the local assembly. We may feel insignificant at times – and that is a very real feeling! There is no question about it. But is the answer to puff self up and say “I can do whatever I set my mind to” or to humbly submit by faith to God’s promise that every member has a place set up sovereignly by His own hand? Again, the issue is one of faith and a love for others (1 Cor. 13), not of self esteem: “Love sufferers long, and is kind; charity envies not; charity vaunts not itself, is not puffed up.”
Again, these are real issues with Biblical solutions; but how do evangelicals approach the issue today? An article entitled “Need a Confidence Boost?” may serve as an example. The author begins by giving an illustration of a time when she asked her friend this question “What do you like about yourself?” When her friend replied “I can’t think of anything” she was shocked. Proceeding to give a list of good attributes about her friend, she wondered “yet she couldn’t see any of that.” (One would wonder how the article would have sounded if her friend actually commended herself on those attributes). From that illustration she went on to say “Low self esteem has become the number one issue plaguing Christian women” (Emphasis mine). It’s not sanctification. It’s not love. It’s not knowing one’s Bible. The number one issue is lacking ability to list what people like about themselves. Job sure couldn’t find anything he liked about himself when he said “My eye has seen [the Lord]; therefore, I abhor myself and repent in dust and ashes.” Isaiah sure couldn’t find anything he liked about himself when he said “Woe is me, for I am undone!” As we will see with Paul in our “interview” he will say similar things. The author continues in her article by saying “People respect us as much as we respect ourselves.” What is her conclusion? “Celebrate You!” Why? Because you are “somebody worth the sacrifice of what was most precious to God – His only Son.” Again, we will see why there are issues with this statement in our “interview.” Throughout the article, only two verses were quoted for support, both of which were from very paraphrased Bible versions, both of which were actually quoted out of context – a context that contradicted her point. Read Romans 12:2-3 for yourself, and see what they have to say about the issue; these were the two quoted verses. This kind of solution is commonplace today. Instead of going to Scripture in its context, concepts are read into it that just don’t belong. And so, we are left with three main concepts that are being promoted today: self-esteem, as if self should be the center of our thought life; self-love, as if self is the love of our life; self-worth, as if self was entitled to all good things, even the cross. Let’s test these concepts.
INTERVIEWER: Welcome, Paul. Thank you for joining us. I just want to say, I think you are one of the most commendable persons that has ever existed…
PAUL: Most commendable? This Paul who is less than the least of all saints? This Paul who is even presently the chief of sinners? Oh, I cry nearly every day “O wretched man that I am!”
INTERVIEWER: Paul, you mustn’t put yourself down like that! You are beautiful just the way you are. You should like yourself rather than wishing you were like other people.
PAUL: Oh, I’m not concerned about this physical body: someday it will be changed in the twinkling of an eye. So, I shouldn’t focus on the beauty of this present body; in fact, I rarely think about it. But as to the real me, I can’t believe you would suggest I should like myself. God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ! And as to my service, I labor to be accepted of him; for we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ. Knowing therefore the terror of the Lord, we persuade men. God has taught me many lessons, and one has chiefly been that self should be constantly suppressed. We had the sentence of death in ourselves, that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God which raises the dead. He has taught me not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think any thing as of ourselves; but that our sufficiency is of God. And if I should ever boast in myself, it would be in my weaknesses: it is only then that the power of Christ can rest fully upon me. When I am weak, then I am strong. Other than acknowledging my weaknesses and my ministry given of God, I really can’t say anything to commend myself. I judge not mine own self, for I know nothing by myself. Yet am I not hereby justified: but he that judges me is the Lord. He and He alone can hold a true estimate of me, which I must leave with Him. As for what I see of myself, I’m always striving for higher things. I’m not there yet, but I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. I’m just not happy with where I am now; I want so much to be more like Christ. Let Paul be out of sight; let Christ come to the fore!
INTERVIEWER: But Paul, you’re forgetting something, aren’t you? You’re forgetting that you were worth dying for!
PAUL: Have you ever read my letter to the Ephesians? Especially in chapters 1 and 2, the theme is the unmerited grace of God. I don’t see how someone dead in trespasses and sins is “worth dying for.” That is the whole point of grace. It wasn’t because we were rich in worth; God was rich in mercy. I wasn’t valuable because of who I was, but because of Who He is. You see the difference? The only thing I was worthy of was death. You make it sound like Christ was obligated to die for me, as if I was entitled to it. I wasn’t entitled to it: it was grace. I was an abomination in the sight of God. I was one who had become unprofitable. I marvel every day that Jesus died for me! That’s what makes the gospel shine in all its beauty. Now I find my worth in Christ alone. My life is hid with Christ in God. Christ is my life. Self drops out of the picture when the cross is considered. Christ is all. And I wouldn’t want it any other way; that is why life has true meaning. Now I’m worth something, not because I am me, but because I am His. All glory goes to Him.
What is the Solution?
You say “This is quite unhelpful. All I’ve gotten was reasons why the emphasis on self esteem isn’t a Biblical one. How then do we deal with things like depression, confidence issues, significance issues, etc.?” The way we deal with these issues is to focus our all on the Lord. God never called us to have confidence in ourselves, joy in ourselves, or significance in ourselves. We derive everything from Him. And the sad thing is when we think self-esteem will solve all our problems, we will only create more; that’s what happens when self is focused on, whether in self-pity or self-exaltation. There is no middle ground between pride and humility. Humility casts itself all on God. Pride, in many different ways, says self can be the answer. Many claim trying to gain self esteem is not pride, but is it really humility? Let’s see what Scripture says in terms of where our focus should be:
“Thus saith the LORD, Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, neither let the mighty man glory in his might, let not the rich man glory in his riches: But let him that glorieth glory in this, that he understandeth and knoweth me, that I am the LORD which exercise lovingkindness, judgment, and righteousness, in the earth: for in these things I delight, saith the LORD.” (Jer. 9:23-24)
What a wonderful alternative! Our answer is simply to cast ourselves without reserve upon the Lord and rejoice in knowing Him. When Christ is all, we forget to think about ourselves for the most part. It is when this happens that what many would call good self-esteem develops, but unconsciously. When the glory of God by the power of God is our goal, we acknowledge our insufficiency and unworthiness. But that’s okay. We were never meant to be worthy or sufficient or have any reason for good self-esteem. And in reality, the idea that a low estimation of self is an enemy must begin with the false assumption that we were sufficient in the first place. However, when our “God-esteem” is high and we acknowledge His sufficiency, all of these reasons for self-pity simply drop out of sight. We can be confident in Christ. We can be significant in Christ. We can be righteous in Christ. But we can only come into the fullness of what these things mean if we focus on the “Christ” part of these statements, not the “We” part unless it is considered in awe and wonder at grace. Thus, our real issue is lack of faith and worship, not lack of focusing on ourselves.
So then, in closing, we really don’t have to boost our self-esteem to solve the problems in our lives. We really don’t have to be afraid of coming to God in the dust of humility confessing “I am nothing without You.” When the Lord said “Without Me you can do nothing” he really meant nothing. To some that would be a cause for self pity and despair. To the Christian with faith, this is a wonderful opportunity to give God the glory for His power and ability through us. We are just clay vessels, nothing special in ourselves. But we are inseparably linked to God in Whom is all worth and significance. That makes all the difference in the world. Paul said “We preach not ourselves, but Jesus Christ the Lord.” This concept applies mainly to His ministry, but it is a motto for all of the Christian’s life too. Who are we preaching? What are we glorying in? That we overcome, or that we overcome through Christ alone? That we are beautiful, or that Christ is beautiful? That we are worthy, or that Christ is worthy? Coming to grips with God’s centrality will radically change any struggles that apparent “low self esteem” presents. Yet we must understand, if we get in touch with the glory of God we will find our own glory fading. But that’s the way we want it, right?
 Today’s Christian Women magazine, May, 2000 by Verla Wallace