What do you think of when you hear the term “self-esteem”?
I tend to think of two different caricatures: On the one hand I think of Stuart Smalley. He was an old Saturday Night Live character that was supposed to be a motivational speaker type. So to cheer you up, he’d tell you to look in the mirror and say, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough and dog-gone-it, people like me.” I think of R. Kelly. flapping his arms out singing, “I believe I can fly.” I think of most college graduation speeches…. (except this one, the crown jewel of all commencement addresses)
On the other hand, I can’t help but think of any number of sermons I’ve heard from red faced preachers telling us about how sinful and rotten we all are. I remember one particular preacher yelling at the top of his lungs to his congregation, "You're nothing BUT DIRT!!!!!!”
If you turn on Christian T.V. or Radio there’s a good chance you’ll hear one or the other of these two messages. But what does the Bible actually tell you? Well, lucky for you I did a little research and I’m gonna tell you…
To Stuart Smalley, the Bible would say, "You're not good enough, you're not smart enough and dog gone it (although people may like you), it's not enough.”
Far from boosting your self-esteem, the Bible does everything it can to deflate it. With descriptive phrases about us like we’re “dead in trespasses and sins”, what we’re shown is that we’re naturally hostile towards God and selfish towards others. Romans 3:10-11 says it this way: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God.”
In fact, when we glory in “self”, we’re doing precisely the opposite of Jesus’ command to “die to self”. Recent research has even cautioned us against the modern self-esteem movement. In an article for The Atlantic entitled “Why self-compassion works better than self-esteem”, psychology professor Kristin Neff from the University of Texas in Austin says, “I think because of the big self-esteem movement, people just got it in their heads that the key to psychological health was self-esteem. But research has shown that because of this emphasis on self-esteem, we actually got a generation of narcissists.” Don’t believe her? Scroll through any social media feed for a bit and it won’t take long to be convinced.
So it turns out the red faced angry preacher is right? Well, no not really…
Pipe Down Preacher
To the red faced angry preacher God would say, "Yes they're dirt (quite literally that’s what Genesis says we’re made from folks), yes they’ve sinned and fallen short of my glory. However, don’t forget I did breathe life into them. They're the only part of my creation I actually did that for. I actually created them in my image.”
Listen to the intimate language Genesis uses to describe God’s relationship to us as human beings: Genesis 1 tells us God said it was “very good” only after he was done creating human beings. Genesis 2 presents Him coming down and literally blowing in our nostrils the breath of life.
“More importantly than that, even though they are sinners,” God would say, “I love them so much that I’m willing to come down there and spill my blood for them.”
Thus, Romans 5:6-8 says,
"For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us."
When I think of this, I’m always reminded of an imaginary story from J.B. Philips retold by Philip Yancey about a conversation that was had between a senior angel and a junior angel in training: They view whirling galaxies and blazing suns, and then flit across space til they arrive at our galaxy. As the two of them draw near to the star which we call our sun and to its circling planets, the senior angel pointed to a small and rather insignificant sphere turning very slowly on its axis. It looked as dull as a dirty tennis-ball to the little angel, whose mind was filled with the size and glory of what he had seen. “I want you to watch that one particularly,” said the senior angel, pointing with his finger. “Well, it looks very small and rather dirty to me,” said the little angel. “What’s special about that one?”
The little angel listened in stunned disbelief as the senior angel told him that this planet, small and insignificant and not overly clean, was the renowned Visited Planet.
“Do you mean that our great and glorious Prince…went down in Person to this fifth-rate little ball? Why should He do a thing like that?...
The little angel’s face wrinkled in disgust. “Do you mean to tell me, he said, “that He stooped so low as to become one of those creeping, crawling creatures of that floating ball?”
“I do, and I don’t think he would like you to call them’ creeping, crawling creatures’ in that tone of voice. For, strange as it may seem to us, He loves them. He went down to visit them to lift them up to become like Him.” The little angel looked blank. Such a thought was almost beyond his comprehension.”
So where does that leave us when it comes to the question of self-esteem? Well I'm gonna tell you that self-esteem nor self-loathing are the answer. I'm gonna tell you Christ-esteem is the answer.
Listen to the Apostle Paul from the third chapter of his letter to the Philippians. There he summarizes the esteem of the Christian perfectly:
"If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless."
In Paul’s time and place, you couldn’t get many more reasons for “self-esteem”. But he’s not done:
"Whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish (dung), in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith…."
There it is folks: “Christ-esteem”
You ought not put any confidence in your abilities, but in His abilities. Tim Keller puts Christianity’s message this way, “We are more flawed and sinful than we ever dared believe, yet we are more loved and accepted than we ever dared hope at the same time.” So yes, in one sense you’re a piece of dirt, you’re dead in sin and you can’t fix yourself. You’re way worse than you naturally think. But through faith in Christ you’re seen as beautiful, perfect, strong and good. Through Him you are more than conquerors, and you can do all things through Him who strengthens you. That’s your identity Christian and that’s where you’ll get all the esteem you’ll ever need.