Rev. Key is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Randolph, Wisconsin.
Do you, my younger brother or sister, have a proper view of yourself? That is a question that is biblically based. The Bible often speaks to you personally, calling you to self-examination. Obviously, then, there is a way in which you must consider your own life, your own nature, your own gifts, your own behavior, and your relationships with others and with God.
But when I ask, Do you have a proper view of yourself, it is with purpose that I phrase the question that way. Because whether or not you have a proper view of yourself is determined by only one standard – and you are not the standard. God is the Standard. More concretely, He is that Standard as He sets Himself before you in the Bible.
Self-esteem is an important subject for young people, also for many church youth. Several times-in my pastoral labors I have observed a preoccupation with self-esteem. When I have asked a question such as, “What do you view as one of the most difficult problems you face,” or, “What do you think is the problem,” I have heard young people lament, “I guess I have a low self-esteem.”
It is no wonder that self-esteem would be such an important subject. The society in which we live has put great emphasis on self-esteem in recent years. Books on the subject abound. Articles on the subject have been written for publication in magazines of every sort. Politicians speak of the concept. Educators have applied their ideas of self-esteem in the areas of school curricula and principles of teaching. Psychologists evaluate the self-esteem of their clients as a prime indicator of psychological stability. And many preachers mold their sermons around this key concept. And all of this emphasis is rather recent.
But it is because of the recent nature of all this emphasis on self-esteem that I want to caution you to be careful how you evaluate yourself. It seems that sometimes we accept the ideas of modern psychology, and of such prominent men as James Dobson and Robert Schuller, without evaluating these ideas in the light of Scripture.
The concept of self-esteem is not new. It is in fact much older than is formal education, such as we have it today. The concept has been discussed for many years prior to the introduction of the field of psychology, and it is certainly older than modem medicine. It is true that the emphasis that modern psychology has placed on self-esteem is of recent origin. And the emphasis on this idea in the church world has been largely increased by such men as Dobson and Schuller. But self-esteem is dealt with quite extensively in the Bible.
I was first intrigued by the subject personally more than a decade ago. Before entering the ministry, and during my seminary days, an elderly saint from First Protestant Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, gave me a few books from her small library. She was moving into a retirement home and kindly offered me most of her books. I took the books home, and later was browsing through one of them when I came across an old church bulletin. The date was from some time in the 1930s. It was long before self-esteem became the well-known topic of discussion it has become today. The Reverend Herman Hoeksema, the bulletin’s noted, was to preach a sermon that day fromRomans 6:11: “Likewise reckon ye also yourselves to be dead, indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” The title of his sermon was “Proper Christian Self-Esteem.”
I found it fascinating that Rev. Hoeksema, at that time pastor of one of the largest Reformed congregations in America, would be using such a theme back in the 1930s. To me the concept of self-esteem had not been so much a biblical concept, as a theory developed by our modern-day educators and psychologists. That church bulletin, therefore, called my attention to the subject of self-esteem as a biblical concept.
If self-esteem is a biblical concept, we need to examine that concept in Scripture. God’s Word alone is authoritative for doctrine and life (II Tim. 3:16, 17). That being established – and I trust it is established in you, my Christian brother or sister – our interest becomes more focused. I am; interested in what ministers and educators, psychologists and physicians are saying about this subject, only to compare their views with the instruction God gives in His Word. If the modern perspective on this subject is correct, we must not hold on to views from the past simply because we are comfortable with them. If what the Dobsons and Schullers – as well as the unbelieving psychologists and educators, etc. – are saying about self-esteem can be demonstrated as correct biblically, then we must change our old conception of things and begin anew. The question is: How does the modern self-esteem movement hold up to Scripture’s view of man of sin, of self-love and self-esteem.
You should know that the modern theory of self-esteem differs substantially and drastically from that view of self that has been taught in the church historically. Whereas the modem idea of self-esteem is to promote a feeling of positive self-worth, a feel-good-about-yourself attitude, that idea runs contrary to the historical view of the human condition. In the past, were one to say, “I’m OK,” the response would be, “No, you are not OK; you are a sinner.” Historically, the church has presented the human condition as one most humiliating. Man is sinful through and through, incapable of doing any good and inclined to, all wickedness. You and I are born dead in trespasses and sins, spiritually dead and dying day by day. We stand before a holy and righteous God, who hates all sin and destroys the wicked.
Man, being spiritually dead, cannot save himself. He must be born again by the Spirit and made one with Christ by faith. For Christ is the Son of God, God become flesh, who went to the cross to die as satisfaction to God for the sins of His own people, those chosen by God from eternity. And seeing oneself in Christ, we may know that we are saved, that we are of great worth in the sight of God, that we are loved by Him and created to serve Him with whatever gifts He has given us, no matter how few or small those gifts may be. Thus, you and I must humble ourselves, confessing our sinfulness before God, and must find our salvation in Jesus Christ alone. That, very briefly stated, is the church’s historical presentation of man’s condition and the way to proper Christian self-esteem.
This view can be found in many of the writings of the Puritans of old. In my study of this subject, I ran across some striking quotations from churchmen of old. I will quote one, Horatius Bonar, a 19th century preacher in Scotland. He said,
In all unbelief there are these two things: a good opinion of self and a bad opinion of God. So long as these things exist, it is impossible for an inquirer to find rest. His good opinion of himself makes him think it quite possible to win God’s favor by his own religious performances…. The object of the Holy Spirit’s work, in convicting of sin, is to alter the sinner’s opinion of himself, and so to reduce his estimate of his own character that he shall think of himself as God does….
Now, I emphasize, that has been the historical position of the church as a whole. In our day you will find very few churches maintaining and proclaiming such a presentation of man and salvation.
The prevalent emphasis on self-esteem in our day has taken a very different approach. How often is not the root of all problems thought to be found in “a negative self-image.” New Age, thinking, becoming more and more prevalent in today’s society, teaches that you can consciously choose to cleanse your mind of any negative self-images. If you have a problem, or if you do not like your circumstances, you can make them go away by clearing them out of your mind, and consciously replacing those negative images with images of what you would like reality to be. Reality is, then, what you create in your own mind. New Age thinking thus totally ignores the problem of sin and rejects the church’s long-standing remedy for sin.
But such teachings as contrast with the church’s historical position are not confined to philosophical movements, nor to the field of psychology. There is today a different presentation right within the church itself. That becomes a matter even more dangerous for you young people. You must be conscious of the fact that there is a right way and a wrong way of viewing yourself. For your sake, and for your spiritual health, I long for you to view yourself and evaluate yourself in the right way – God’s way.