Self esteem: not as the world gives

Why are there so many books, magazine articles, TV programs, seminars and what not about boosting self esteem? Lack of self-esteem seems rampant nowadays. Everyone rushes to this year’s new book or program. Why? Didn’t last year’s do any good? Maybe we need to take a closer look at the problem. Maybe God will have something to say to us that the various leaders in the self-esteem movement don’t.

I took physics my senior year of high school, and the teacher assigned pairs of students to be lab partners. Mine promptly announced that he didn’t want to work with me and went off to work with someone else. The teacher did not assign someone else to work with me, so I worked on the labs all by myself until they became too complicated and needed two sets of hands. Until I finally had to ask for a lab partner, the teacher just called me the lone wolf. I never felt like it was an admiring label. Poor me. No one understood or respected or liked me. Not even my physics teacher.

I didn’t date in high school. I lacked the nerve to ask anyone out. Even before junior high, fear of rejection absolutely ruled me. I was an outsider. After all, everyone said I was an outsider. I believed I was an outsider because I believed what I heard from other people. After a while, if anyone said anything any different, I would have had trouble believing that, because I had accepted the judgment I heard all around me as my own.

That dreary mindset lasted far past high school, through college, graduate school, and until far too late in my adulthood. In fact, I’d be lying if I said I’ve gotten through to the other side of it even now. I don’t mind confessing that, because I know that everyone of us buys into some kind of negative thought pattern based on what others tell us, or at least what we hear and notice from what others tell us.

Popular psychology

Maybe before psychology became popular, people didn’t recognize how much of how they saw themselves came not from within, but from other people. But now, pop psychology tells us that criticism is bad and gives us low self-esteem.

And so now we have some people advocating with all seriousness that we do away with any kind of competition in school gym classes. After all, someone will lose. That will damage their self-esteem. We can’t have high, middle, and low reading groups. Being in a low group will damage their self-esteem, and no one can ever accomplish anything with low self-esteem. We can call them robins, bluebirds, and cardinals, maybe. But don’t let anyone suggest that one group is more or less accomplished than the others.

Self-esteem book for idiots

Does this look helpful?

Somehow, enough people’s fragile self-esteem has been damaged that publishers have churned out all that material devoted to helping people boost theirs. I have read a lot more about developing self-esteem than I have gotten any benefit from.

Part of the problem is that this literature posits that poor self-esteem comes from what everyone else says, and we have to find our real self and stand up against all of those alien thoughts. But how are we supposed to distinguish between a self-concept based of what everyone has always told us and some real self we don’t really know very well?

To put it another way, we’re supposed to learn to think that we’re as good as anyone else. But what does it mean for someone with low self-esteem to try to proclaim to the world, “I’m as good as you?” If we have a life time of suspecting that we’re not as good as everyone else, how can we persuade them that we are? Really, how can we even persuade ourselves? It feels like a lie, and instead of learning to believe it, we just learn to feel worse.

A biblical self-concept

Psalm 139 suggests another way. We need to listen to what God has to say about us and learn to believe that. The opening of the psalm shows the familiar pattern I have been describing. David begins by saying, “You have searched me and you know me.” God not only knows where David has been and what he’s done, he even knows every word David will speak before he gets it out of his mouth. And so the next part of the psalm (v.7)begins, “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?

Long before pop psychology came along, here’s King David–who certainly exudes self-confidence to all appearances–expressing the feeling that he can’t stand for anyone to know who he really is. “If anyone really knows who I am, they surely won’t like me any more. Not even God. I gotta go.”

But when David recognizes that there’s nowhere to go, and that God has the goods on him, he turns from fear to praise. To paraphrase verses 13-16, he says, “God, you made me. You put my body together in my mother’s womb. And you did a good job. Not only that, but all of that bad stuff you know about now, you knew from the beginning.”

Whatever good and whatever bad we have ever done or will ever do in our lives, God knows. Contrary to our expectations, he knows all of that even more clearly than we do, and he loves us anyway. If we can allow ourselves to believe that God loves us, it begins to matter less whether other people do. We can relax and bask in God’s love and gather strength and inner peace from it no matter what troubles we’re going through.

Romans 3:21-24 says, “But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.”

Did you hear that? We are all sinners, but the holy God who must judge sin also freely gives righteousness. God judges anyone who places faith in Jesus as righteous. He doesn’t count all of our screw-ups against us if we trust Jesus to salvage our lives.

All that trash we believe about ourselves because of thoughts that come into our hearts from the words of other people might be true to an extent, but it doesn’t matter. God has forgiven our sin and redeemed us.

So David, who had plenty to repent of even before he ever lusted after another man’s wife, could testify that God knew everything about him and still praise God for making him fearfully and wonderfully . He went on to declare that God’s thoughts are precious and vast.

Ephesians 2:10 continues the thought in the psalm: For we are God’s workmanship–God’s masterpiece in another translation–created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

We have all heard these verses many times, and we probably nod in agreement. Now, think what it would mean if we really believed them. What if we considered them true to the point that it transformed our viewpoint, renewed our minds, and radically influenced our behavior! We’d never have to fret about tiny issues like self esteem ever again.


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