Self-Esteem in Humility

Mr. Bekkering is a student at Biblical Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania.

I was pleased to see Pastor Key’s article on self-esteem in the December 1, 1992 issue of the Standard Bearer. Self-esteem is an extremely dangerous and unbiblical idea, and it is very prominent in our culture. This buzzword is heard in many areas of life, and is the focus of psychologists, counselors, teachers, and even ministers. Pastor Key succinctly points out the evil of this heresy, and he demonstrates that the idea of, self-esteem does not belong in Reformed teachings.

Using Pastor Key’s article as a backdrop, I will follow up on this subject; I am finishing my course work toward a Master’s degree in biblical counseling, and in my experience and, schooling this idea of self-esteem has come up again and again. This is a buzzword many people seize upon without looking at its implications. Pastor Key made the problem of self-esteem quite clear, so I will not need to deal with that here.

The fact that this heresy has permeated some Reformed churches necessitates the teaching of a biblical view. Our culture is telling us to look to ourselves and others; but we need to see ourselves in the light of God’s Word. After reading the article by Pastor Key, many Christians might feel they still have a bad “self-esteem.” They might believe self-esteem is wrong, but they still feel there is “a problem with their “self-esteem.” I would therefore like to comment on the process involved in a Christian’s acquiring a true biblical self-image.

Using the jargon of psychology I make the following assertion: People have a “bad self-image” because they have an extremely high view of their own self-worth. This statement seems contradictory, but it is true. I will spell this out in the rest of this article.

The Christian church teaches that man is a sinner, and everything he does is marred by sin. This is clearly not the teaching of the humanistic world. The humanistic approach is to concentrate on ourselves when we feel bad, and then to focus on improving our image. Accordingly, we need not change ourselves for the better, we need only to change our ideas. The self-esteem movement is very strong in the public school system. The teachers’ manual of one public school states: “In meditation we learn to contact our inner wisdom by quieting our bodies; our feelings; and our thoughts. It is only when we quiet these activities of our personality that go on most of the time and get them out of the way, that our Real Self can surface. Then we become very clear, and in that clarity the needed answers come.” This notion is already strong, and it will probably increase in strength as time progresses.

Reformed Christians understand that man is a sinner; this has been our instruction all our Christian lives. This idea of man’s sinfulness is the first point in the TULIP doctrine. But do we really see that everything we do is marred by sin? Having the knowledge of total depravity in our minds does not necessarily mean we feel it in our hearts. We need to understand this that, even when we purposefully set aside our desires and focus on helping another in love, we still sin.

It is difficult to do, but we need to see each of our sins as the sin which nailed Jesus to the cross. We need to stop comparing ourselves to others, and compare ourselves to Jesus. Only then can we see what sinners we truly are! Look at the sins of hatred, pride, and anger, in the light of the sinless Son of God. Jesus, who was perfect, died for our sins, and we need only to look to Him.

We will now examine what the Word of God declares concerning this issue. The Bible does not tell us to look to others for approval. Rather, it commands us to do the opposite. Colossians 3:1, 2: “If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God. Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth.”Philippians 2:3, 4: “Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves. Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others.” There are two possible outcomes when we disobey Scripture by focusing on approval from others. We might, in depending on such approval, see ourselves as respectable, decent persons. We will then commend ourselves in that we have not committed any exceptionally horrible sins, that we are active members of our church, and that we do some things much better than others. This is pride. The other possibility is that we see other people as more successful, better looking better husbands, and better students (“low self-esteem”). We then reflect upon how we do not measure up to others, and we turn to drinking, eating, or working ourselves into a state of depression. When we look to others for approval, the result is sin.

For instance, a popular athlete, who has good looks, good grades, and a beautiful girlfriend, might conclude that he is someone to be respected. He demeans others, whom he perceives as lesser individuals. He perceives himself as the person others want to be like. He has compared himself to others, and found himself to be excelling. These students, who examine others and feel above them in some way, are found in every school.

In a second case the student is a loner, or he feels very inferior to others. As he compares himself to others, he sees himself lacking in looks, lacking as an athlete, or lacking academically. He feels depressed, and may seek to relieve his frustration in ways which are not healthy. The student believes everyone is against him, and believes others do not see his potentiality, because the treatment he receives from others is inconsistent with his view of himself. What is this student’s sin? Pride! Just as the popular athlete is prideful, so the depressed loner is prideful. This is the “high self-esteem” I referred to above. Both students are prideful; and both have a faulty idea .of their own self-worth.

Let me make this next point very clear. Even though I used the example of students, this does not mean older Christians do not deal with this issue also. For older Christians, who focus on the approval of others, still deal with the sin of pride. They are able, of course, to hide these sins better than young people. Adults have figured out how to cover up the issues, and their strategies are much more complex.

Our humanistic culture would say the outwardly proud student is an excellent example of what we should all be like. Our culture would also relate to us that the depressed student needs to get in touch with the good aspects of his life. Scripture, however, teaches that all people have the sin of pride, whether they appear arrogant or whether they appear humble. The “high self-esteem” in our human nature, causes us to feel we have a “bad self-image” when things go contrary to our desires.

So what is the solution? How do we get to the point where we have a true biblical understanding of ourself worth? We have seen that sin is the result of comparison with others. Therefore, we need to look to Jesus on the cross, not only as our example, but as a reminder of the result of our sins. When we understand our inherent wickedness, and are honest about our sin, then there is no room for pride. When we can say, “Oh, how wicked I am!” then we are at the point where we need to be. Then we can see Jesus as Redeemer, and we can see the wonderful gift of Jesus’ death. Salvation is not something we somehow earned. We are not worthy of it. Our “self-esteem” must be such that we see ourselves as the lowest of men, and only then can we look to Jesus and see the great gift He gives us. By doing this we should be of all men most humbled.

Repentance is not a one-time activity. In fact, we need to repent daily. Every day we need to see our great sins. And repentance does not get easier as time goes by. Rather, it gets harder and harder, because we ask again and again for forgiveness, and we see ourselves as sinners who sin over and over. In Matthew 18:21-22 Peter asks Jesus how often we need to forgive others. Jesus answers, “I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven.” We know how difficult it is to forgive someone many times, so, imagine how much more difficult it is to ask forgiveness from a friend many times. This humility should be a small example of the humility we need to feel when we sin against God.

Have we truly seen the reality of the sins in our lives? Or has asking forgiveness for our sins become habitual, and effortless? Have we paused and examined our sins? Can we see the pain we caused Jesus on the cross? We need to remember that Jesus did not suffer for the unrepentant of the world, but for those who are Christians. If we can truly see our sin and be humbled, we will not be as likely to compare ourselves to others and elevate ourselves.

The continual asking of forgiveness is very difficult. It brings us to the depths of pain and humility. This is where we can indisputably see the true significance of our salvation. I believe many of us feel we sin less than others. We know it is not true; nevertheless, deep down we feel we have less sin. This is hardly a biblical notion. Being saved in Jesus Christ does not mean we have ceased to sin. Nor does it even decrease our sinning. Being saved by Jesus Christ means our eyes are opened to see our sin as the cause of Jesus’ suffering and painful death on the cross, and to understand that the cross is our forgiveness and eternal life.

As Christians we must never stop looking at our sins, and never stop feeling humility for the sins we commit. When we minimize our sins, or when we feel pride for what we have done, then we are not going to feel the true gift of salvation. We will feel we have deserved salvation, and we will expect God to give us salvation. We will fill our lives with depression, anxiety, overeating, bulimia, drinking, etc. because we feel we ought to be treated better (a “bad self-image”), and because we do not see the Gift we have in our lives.

The ideas that lead to the conception of “self-esteem” are not new. The roots of “self-esteem” go back to the heresy of Pelagianism, the denial that man is born with original sin. We need to see this movement for what it really is, the covering up of the hideousness of sin.

Christian “self-esteem” is humility. Even when things are not going the way we desire, we need to look to Jesus and to the Word of God, and to see that all we deserve is eternal hell. Then thoughts of whether or not people see us as great men will not be the focus of our lives. I ask all young people and adults who are dealing with the “problem of self-esteem” to examine where they are putting their focus. The problems that accompany pride are an indication from God that we are not looking to Jesus. The change to a biblical self-image is not an instantaneous happening, and this change is not something that comes through our human nature. Our human nature urges us to see how wonderful we are. We can only change by the help of God. We need to ask the Holy Spirit for the strength to look at our sins as they really are. We need to praise the God of heaven and earth, who sent His Son to feel our temptations and sorrows. We need to praise God that Christ died for us poor sinners. “But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (I Cor. 15:57).