Back in the early 1980’s, the popular pastor of the Crystal Cathedral, Robert Schuller, called for a “new reformation” in his book Self-Esteem: The New Reformation
. Here are a few of the comments he made in that book:
Self-esteem then, or “pride in being a human being,” is the single greatest need facing the human race today. (p. 19)
It is precisely at this point that classical theology has erred in its insistence that theology be “God-centered,” not “man-centered.” (p. 64)
Once a person believes he is an “unworthy sinner” it is doubtful if he can honestly accept the saving grace God offers in Christ. (pp. 98-99)
The classical error of historical Christianity is that we have never started with the value of the person. Rather, we have started from the “unworthiness of the sinner” and that starting point has set the stage for the glorification of human shame in Christian theology. (p. 162)
Wow! This hardly squares with Biblical teaching! For example, our forefather, Jacob, had no problem at all recognizing that he was unworthy to receive God’s grace:
NKJ Genesis 32:9-10a Then Jacob said, “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, the LORD who said to me, ‘Return to your country and to your family, and I will deal well with you’: 10 I am not worthy of the least of all the mercies and of all the truth which You have shown Your servant ….”
Or what about John the Baptist, who certainly had no problem thinking of himself as unworthy when he spoke thus of Christ:
NKJ Luke 3:16 John answered, saying to all, “I indeed baptize you with water; but One mightier than I is coming, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to loose. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
Or what about Jesus’ Parable of the Lost Son, in which He provides a model of repentance in the wayward son when he comes to his senses and returns to his father:
NKJ Luke 15:21 And the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your son.”
According to Robert Schuller, these men were way off track! But we may easily see that it is actually Schuller himself that is wrong. And he certainly isn’t the only one affected by such an unbiblical view concerning the concept of self-esteem. Consider this comment from Bruce Narramore of the Narramore Christian Foundation, which is billed as “Your Resource for Christian Psychology”:
Under the influence of humanistic psychologists like Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow, many of us Christians have begun to see our need for self-love and self-esteem. (You’re Someone Special, p. 22)
Notice that Narramore concedes that a recognition of this supposed “need for self-love and self-esteem” actually comes from “the influence of humanistic psychologists like Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow” rather than from Scripture. Sadly, such thinking has filtered down into many churches and many professing Christians don’t realize just how much this mindset has affected them. They have imbibed it slowly from the culture without even realizing it. And this is one of the reasons we need to address this issue on a fairly regular basis. In fact, Gary Gilley, pastor at southern View Chapel in Springfield, Illinois, has stated very well what is at stake here:
How people think of themselves will to a large degree determine how they will think of others, how they will think of God, how they will obtain and maintain all their relationships, and how they will make decisions. There is no area of life that will not be directly or indirectly affected by the way we view ourselves. (The Biblical View of Self-Image
This is why it is so important that I periodically address this issue directly, although it is in some sense included in every teaching I give. In dealing with the subject today, I will follow a very basic outline, first considering how we ought not to think of ourselves and then how we ought to think of ourselves. Under these two basic headings, I hope to address in one way or another the primary issues involved.
I. How We Ought Not to Think of Ourselves
The overwhelming emphasis of Scripture regarding self-image is that it ought not be too high. Scripture never assumes that we have too low a view of ourselves but rather consistently assumes the opposite, namely that we all have a problem with sinful pride. For example:
NKJ Proverbs 8:13 The fear of the LORD is to hate evil; pride and arrogance and the evil way and the perverse mouth I hate.
NKJ Proverbs 16:18 Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.
NKJ Proverbs 29:23 A man’s pride will bring him low, but the humble in spirit will retain honor.
NKJ James 4:6 But He gives more grace. Therefore He says: “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” [Citing Prov. 3:34]
NKJ 1 John 2:16 For all that is in the world– the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life– is not of the Father but is of the world.
But the Apostle Paul gives specific direction to the Church about this as well, and I would like to focus special attention upon a couple of passages from his epistles:
NKJ Romans 12:3 For I say, through the grace given to me, to everyone who is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think soberly, as God has dealt to each one a measure of faith.
In the following verses Paul goes on to address the many spiritual gifts the Lord has given to the various members of the body of Christ in accordance with His grace (vs. 6). So, when he says that we should avoid thinking more highly of ourselves that we ought to think, Paul means that we should never think that we are better than others in the Church, since we have all received faith from God and are all merely recipients of His grace. Yet Paul clearly assumes that we may all be tempted to be prideful, and he tells us the remedy, namely that we should remember that all we have is by God’s grace and not due to anything inherent in us.
NKJ Galatians 6:3 For if anyone thinks himself to be something, when he is nothing [μηδείς, mēdeís], he deceives himself.
When I considered this passage many years ago, I wondered what Paul meant when he used the word nothing. Did he mean …
1) that we are “nothing” in the sense that we are totally worthless as beings?
2) that we are “nothing” in comparison to God?
3) that we are “nothing” in comparison to what we are deceived into thinking we are?
I suspect Paul has in mind the latter of these three possibilities. He is speaking in the context of the need to bear one another’s burdens by helping one who is caught in some sin, and he warns us to be careful lest we too are tempted (read vss. 1-2). You see, if we are not careful, we can start to think that we are better than another who is struggling with some sin that we might not be dealing with ourselves. But a spiritual person (vs. 1) will realize that he too is capable of falling into sin and will be moved by compassion to help his brother rather than look down on him. The point here is really that we should be aware that a prideful attitude toward others in their struggle with sin necessarily means that we are self-deceived. In this sense we are tricked into thinking we are something when we are nothing. We must realize, however, that are no better than anyone else! We are all just sinners saved by grace!
Paul issued a similar warning to the Corinthian church as he did to the Roman and Galatian churches when he put a series of rhetorical questions to them: “For who makes you differ from another? And what do you have that you did not receive? Now if you did indeed receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?” (1 Cor. 4:7).
Ant any rate, it is clear that Scripture warns us repeatedly about our tendency toward sinful pride. It assumes that we all have this problem, and it expressly teaches us that we ought no think too highly of ourselves. With this in mind, let’s turn now to our next major heading.
II. How We Ought to Think of Ourselves
Here I would like to explain how we ought to think of ourselves, according to Scripture, by addressing three modern concepts communicated by three loaded and interrelated terms brought over primarily from pop psychology. The three concepts are 1) self-worth, 2) self-esteem, and 3) self-love. It is my hope that the Biblical view will become clear through interacting with these concepts on the basis of the Bible’s teaching.
1. The Concept of Self-Worth – Is it Biblical?
Whenever I teach on this issue, I am reminded of what a psychology professor I had in college once said to the class. He was decrying what he saw as a rampant problem in Christian circles, a problem he described as “worm theology.” I think he got this term “worm theology” from the old Isaac Watts hymn, “Alas! And Did My Savior Bleed?” The first verse of the song originally said:
Alas! and did my Savior bleed,
And did my Sovereign die?
Would He devote that sacred head
Anyway, in disagreeing with the way in which Christians had commonly spoken and sung about their own unworthiness, this professor essentially said, “God died for us because we are worth so much.” And he went on to say, “Many Christians feel they are not worthy, but we are worthy of God’s love.” I remembered so clearly what this professor said because when he said it I nearly had a conniption! But he did highlight the need for making some careful distinctions when we speak of the concept of self-worth. For example:
1) We must distinguish between what we are as God’s creatures, created in His image, and what we are as fallen sinners.
2) We must distinguish between having worth because of God’s love and being worthy for God’s love.
My professor had failed to make such important distinctions, and he ended up making it sound as though we are actually worthy of God’s love and that this is why He saves us. We do not wish to make the same mistake, however, so let’s take a look at a number of key Scripture passages in order to see the importance of theses distinctions. First, we must understand that we were created in God’s image:
NKJ Genesis 1:27 So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.
Then, however, we were corrupted because of the fall of Adam, which is recorded in Genesis 3. After this the Biblical description of man is quite grim:
NKJ Genesis 6:5 Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.
But the image of God remained in man, although distorted due to sin. This is clear from what God says to Noah after the flood:
NKJ Genesis 9:6 Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed; for in the image of God He made man.
This is also clear from what James says when speaking of the evil use of the tongue:
NKJ James 3:9 With it we bless our God and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the similitude [image] of God.
So, we definitely can say that we have worth as those created in God’s image, and that this worth is still real to the degree that His image remains in us after the fall. I think Jesus assumed as much, for example, when He admonished His disciples, “Are not two sparrows sold for a copper coin? And not one of them falls to the ground apart from your Father’s will. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Do not fear therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows” (Matt. 10:29-31). Now, we might say based on Jesus’ analogy that we aren’t worth much, but we cannot say that we are worthless. We all do have value as God’s creatures. Indeed, it seems to me that David was asserting what is in some sense still true of all men when he wrote of the greatness of man in Psalm 8:
NKJ Psalm 8:4-8 What is man that You are mindful of him, and the son of man that You visit him? 5 For You have made him a little lower than the angels, and You have crowned him with glory and honor. 6 You have made him to have dominion over the works of Your hands; You have put all things under his feet, 7 all sheep and oxen– even the beasts of the field, 8 the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea that pass through the paths of the seas.
But, although we all have great worth because we have been created by God, and as Christians we can say that we have great worth because God loves us, we are none of us worthy for His love or salvation. This is why Paul issues this important reminder to the Roman believers:
NKJ Romans 5:8-10 But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him. 10 For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life.
And Paul is also very clear in writing to the Ephesians believers:
NKJ Ephesians 2:1-5 And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins, 2 in which you once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience, 3 among whom also we all once conducted ourselves in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, just as the others. 4 But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, 5 even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved) ….
So, when we ask of what we are worthy, the answer must be the wrath of God. It is only by His grace that we have been saved and not because we are deserving in any way. May we all learn, then, more and more each day to say sincerely with Paul, “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not in vain …” (1 Cor. 15:10a).
You see, we are at one and the same time those who are of great worth as creatures of God, but yet who are not worthy of His love because of our sin. Both of these facts must shape how we view ourselves. As Augustine once wisely said:
Thus in a marvelous and divine way [God] loved us even when He hated us. For He hated us for what we were that He had not made; yet because our wickedness had not consumed His handiwork, He knew how, at the same time, to hate in each one of us what we had made, and to love what He had made. (As cited by John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Vol. 1, p. 507)
Do we have worth? Yes, but this should not be called self-worth, as though it were somehow derived from ourselves or as though we may arbitrarily assign worth to ourselves. Rather, any worth that man has comes from the fact that God attaches such worth to him as His creation. I call on all Christians, therefore, to reject outright the use of the term as one that confuses believers and even undermines the Gospel. With this in mind, let’s turn now to the second concept.
2. The Concept of Self-Esteem – Is it Biblical?
Based upon what we have seen thus far, in answer to the question concerning how we should regard ourselves, whether highly or lowly, two observations may be made:
1) Nowhere in Scripture are we told that we have a problem with esteeming ourselves too lowly. Our big problem is not low self-esteem, but sinful pride!
2) As Christians we must esteem ourselves both negatively and positively at the same time – negatively for who we are in and of ourselves, but positively for who we are in Christ.
I think that J.R. McQuilkin got it right when he said, “A ‘strong’ self-image is that perception of self which is true, which is most nearly aligned with the facts, including all the weakness that is mine by nature and all the glory that is mine by grace.”
But, is it in any way possible for Christians to view themselves too lowly? I don’t think so, even though I would agree that many Christians may have struggles which they may think are due to their viewing themselves too lowly. There are at least three ways this may happen:
1) We may allow ourselves to be trapped by false guilt. For example, this is the problem faced by the one Paul describes as having a “weak” conscience (1 Cor. 8:7). Such a person may think that he or she is unworthy in ways that are not true because they think of themselves as guilty in ways that they are not. The answer to their problem is to learn to distinguish between true and false guilt based upon Scripture.
2) We may wrongly focus solely upon the negative aspect of our self-image. That is, we may focus so much on who we are in and of ourselves that we lose sight of who we are in Christ. For example, this is the problem faced by the Christian who is – you might say – stuck in Romans 7 and can’t seem to make it into Romans 8. This person is good at seeing his own sin but not at seeing God’s grace. This person finds it easy to say with Paul:
NKJ Romans 7:18-24 For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find. 19 For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice. 20 Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. 21 I find then a law, that evil is present with me, the one who wills to do good. 22 For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man. 23 But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. 24 O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? [Notice the emphasis on first person pronouns with no mention of Christ.]
But such a person may find it difficult to go on to say with Paul in faith:
NKJ Romans 7:25-8:1 I thank God– through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with the mind I myself serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin. There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit.
3) We may think we are worthless as a being rather than as a sinful being. But this is false, since we are beings made in the image of God. As beings created by God we are worth a great deal, but as sinful beings we are complete unworthy of God’s love.
So, in all these ways one might say that we could view ourselves wrongly in the sense that we do not take into account the whole truth about ourselves. But we are not faced with low self-esteem. For the answer to each of these dilemmas is not to view ourselves more highly, but rather to view ourselves more accurately. So, again, I call upon all Christians to reject the use of the term self-esteem, especially since it is so often preceded by the word low and thus feeds into the self-deception that leads so many people to mask their sinful pride as some psychological problem and in this way to excuse it. With this in mind, let’s turn now to the third concept.
3. The Concept of Self-Love – Is it Biblical?
It must be said at the outset that nowhere in the Bible are we commanded to love ourselves. The Bible simply regards men as already loving themselves. For example:
NKJ Proverbs 19:8 He who gets wisdom loves his own soul; he who keeps understanding will find good.
This proverb does not see this kind of love toward oneself in a negative light. But, then, this self-love is oriented on seeking wisdom from the Lord, thus seeking the glory of the Lord as one’s highest good. It is acknowledging that the best thing one could ever do for oneself is to seek such God-given wisdom.
NKJ Matthew 22:35-39 Then one of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, and saying, 36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” 37 Jesus said to him, “’You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and great commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”
Notice that our Lord Jesus does not command love for oneself here. He simply assumes it. Those who see a command implied here to love ourselves before we can love God or others are simply reading into the text. Gary Gilley correctly responds to these kinds of self-love advocates when he declares:
[W]e are told that what Jesus meant to say is that we have to learn to love ourselves first, before we can love others. In other words, there are really three commandments given here (even though Jesus said that there are “two”). We are commanded to love God and our neighbor; then, Jesus concludes by saying, “On these two commandments depend the whole Law. . .” If Jesus says that there are two commandments here how dare we claim that there are three! (The Biblical View of Self-Image
So, there is a sense it which we can say that it is proper to love oneself, if by that we mean doing what is best for oneself by seeking wisdom from the Lord and thus actually loving Him first. After all, our Lord Jesus did say that the greatest command is to love God! In this sense we might say rather paradoxically that we love ourselves by denying ourselves. Surely this kind of motivation was in Jesus’ mind when He said:
NKJ Matthew 16:24-26 Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. 25 For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. 26 For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?”
So, it is not possible to love God first without doing the best and most loving thing for ourselves in the process. If we love God first, then our lives will be saved. If we seek His wisdom above the wisdom of this world, then we do the most loving thing we can do for ourselves. If we love God first, then we will also love what He loves, and we will seek His glory first in our lives. You see, God’s glory and our good are really not two separate ends; they are inseparably linked, so that, when we seek His glory first, we also seek our own ultimate good.
I think Anthony Hoekema probably hit the nail on the head when he wrote, “I believe a proper self-love is possible for the Christian, when he loves the new person God by His grace is creating within him, thus praising God” (Created in God’s Image, p. 103). However, although we cannot love God first without at the same time loving ourselves in this sense, we certainly can love ourselves without loving God at all, and this is sinful. This seems to me to be the Biblical perspective, but I must reemphasize that self-love is nowhere directly commanded. In fact, we are warned about the danger of an improper self-love:
NKJ 2 Timothy 3:1-4 But know this, that in the last days perilous times will come: 2 For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, 3 unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, 4 traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God ….
Again one might say, then, that we cannot love God without loving ourselves in so doing, but we can certainly love ourselves without loving God at all! Thus love for oneself, even in a proper Biblical sense, is not the focus of the Christian life. The Christian’s focus is not to be love toward self, but love toward God and others! As Paul told the Corinthian believers, Christ died for us “that those who live should live no longer for themselves, but for Him who died for them and rose again” (2 Cor. 5:15).
Conclusion: I will conclude with a summary of what we can take away from this teaching. First, the Christian life is a life of declaring God’s worth, not self-worth. Second, it is a life of self-denial, not self esteem. And, third, it is a life of selflessness, not self-love. May God grant us the grace to seek His glory above all else, and may He protect us from the self-serving lies of this wicked generation.