The Lord Offers Something Better than Self-Esteem
By H. Wallace Goddard

It is cause for serious reflection that Latter-day Saints have been as gullible with respect to self-esteem as the world in general. It has been taught by well-meaning teachers in Primary, Sunday School, Aaronic Priesthood, Young Women and Relief Society. The latter-day exception may be Melchizedek Priesthood Quorums which seem to have been relatively uninterested in self-esteem.

Did we ever wonder how to reconcile the dogmas of self-esteem with such clear messages from Jesus as:

If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it. Matthew 16:24-25

The instinctive response to assaults on the self-esteem movement is commonly shock: “So, does God want us to hate ourselves?” No. He wants us to forget ourselves and follow Him.

Consider the following contrasts:

The self-esteem dogma: You cannot love anyone until you love yourself.

God’s doctrine: You cannot love anyone (with heavenly charity) until you love & are filled with God.

The self-esteem dogma: When you love yourself, then you can be of service.

God’s doctrine: When you forget yourself, then you can be of service.

The self-esteem dogma: Remember your great worth.

God’s doctrine: Remember God’s goodness and the great worth of all souls to the Father of All.

God has not left us in a self-system vacuum. He has given us a program of gifts. Tucked away in the Doctrine and Covenants are profound lessons on spiritual gifts. We have failed to appreciate these psychological gems. As we study section 46 for Father’s program of “self-esteem,” it becomes immediately clear that Father understands healthy human development. He provides at least five points:

1. “…to every [person] is given a gift by the Spirit of God.” (v.11)

I take the statement so literally as to believe that even God’s most handicapped children still have remarkable and God-given gifts. Everyone has a gift.

Our society has tended to be narrowly focused on IQ, attractiveness, and sociability. Recent psychologists challenge us to think more broadly. Gardner (1983) and Sternberg (1988) have written persuasively about multiple intelligences. Cal Taylor (1986) has argued for multiple talent orientations for decades. He believes that everyone excels in at least one gift.

It is worth noting that God uses here the term “gift” rather than “talent.” Behind every gift is a gracious Giver. “For what doth it profit a man if a gift is bestowed upon him, and he receive not the gift? Behold, he rejoices not in that which is given unto him, neither rejoices in him who is the giver of the gift” (D&C 88:33, emphasis added). We should always remember that our gifts, our opportunities to use them—even life itself!—are all gifts from Him.

How do we cultivate an awareness of gifts in those around us? Jesus’ sets the example as He regularly provides supportive hints about our divine gifts. We should do the same for others. That is part of the commandment to love one another as He loves us. Under inspiration of heaven we might reflect: “I love your cheerful spirit.” “Your sensitivity has touched my heart.” “Surely your determination is a gift from God.” “I warm my hands by the glow of your testimony.”

In homes and classrooms we uniquely honor our baptismal covenant when we speak without guile of the divine that we see in others: “comfort those that stand in need of comfort, and to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places that ye may be in” (Mosiah 18:9, emphasis added). We testify of the Divine we see in each other.

2. “To some is given one, and to some is given another…” (v.12)

The human tendency to try to be all things to all people may be a subtle form of idolatry. God insists that no one has every gift. Joseph Smith had different gifts from Brigham Young. Peter had different gifts from Paul.

. . . deny not the gifts of God, for they are many; and they come from the same God. And there are different ways that these gifts are administered; but it is the same God who worketh all in all; and they are given by the manifestations of the Spirit of God unto men, to profit them. Moroni 10:8

Susan Harter, a psychologist who has intensely studied self-esteem, recognized years ago (1983) that one of the faults of traditional self-esteem was the assumption that it is global. The idea that you feel good about yourself or you don’t has been discredited. People need to have a more articulated sense of specific strengths.  “For there are many gifts, and to every man is given a gift by the Spirit of God” (D&C 46:11).

When I talk with groups of teenagers about gifts, I invite each of them to name his or her favorite food. Then I ask them to picture a big mixer with all the favorite foods mixed together. How many would be delighted with the resulting mix of pizza, ice cream, nachos, lasagna, and cookies? If God has designed us to be cookies, we should be great cookies. If God, has designed us to be pizza, we should fill the measure of that spicy creation. “Now, seeing that I know these things, why should I desire more than to perform the work to which I have been called?” (Alma 29:6).

Rather than envy each other’s gifts, we should celebrate the gift we are given and rejoice in the gifts that are given to others. If we fail to use our gifts because we consider them inferior to someone else’s gifts then we are unwise servants. When we pit our gifts against others’ gifts in anxious competition, we challenge the wisdom and goodness of God. There is really only one reason for us to have gifts:

3. “And all these gifts come from God, for the benefit of the children of God.” (26)

God has not given us gifts so that we may win trophies and impress our neighbors. He has given us gifts so “that all may be profited thereby” (v.12).

A team of researchers (Allen, Philliber, Herrling, & Kuperminc, 1997) discovered that when they involved high-risk teens in community service, their rates of pregnancy and dropping out of school declined in spite of the fact that there was no part of the intervention that was targeted at those outcomes. The researchers were mystified. They concluded that when people are involved in service they are growing in healthy ways. They are less vulnerable to psychological sickness.

God has always recommended the growth-promoting and soul-healing benefits of serving and loving. When our gifts are woven together in a tapestry of caring, we are filling the measure of our creation. We are becoming more like Him.

Prophets of every era have counseled us to serve and bless one another. It is essential to our growth. When we draw family members or ward members into gladly delivering cookies, picking up litter, or praying for the struggling then we are ministering to their eternal well-being and joining God’s divine work.

4. “Seek ye earnestly the best gifts, always remembering for what they are given;” (v.8)

The Lord counsels us to keep growing. Carol Ryff’s (1989) definition of psychological well-being identifies personal growth as a vital dimension. Latter-day Saints believe in eternal progress. That can apply to things as diverse as looking up answers to questions in the encyclopedia, cultivating charity, and praying for greater patience.

5. “ye must give thanks unto God in the Spirit for whatsoever blessing ye are blessed with.” (v.32)

Gratitude opens the windows of heaven. “O how you ought to thank your heavenly King!” (Mosiah 2:19). The appreciation that all gifts are a divine bestowal intended to bless all of our brothers and sisters makes the Lord’s program of gifts very different from the world’s self-esteem programs.

The Lord’s program of gifts, nestled in an under-appreciated section of the Doctrine and Covenants, offers us a remarkable program of growth. It points us toward becoming new creatures in Christ. Assuredly, that is good.


Allen, J. P., Philliber, S., Herrling, S., & Kuperminc, G. P. (1997). Preventing teen pregnancy and academia failure: Experimental evaluation of a developmentally based approach. Child Development, 64, 729-742.

Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. New York: Basic Books.

Harter, S. (1983). Developmental perspectives on the self-system. In E. M. Hetherington (Ed.), P. H. Mussen (Series Ed.), Handbook of child psychology, Vol. 4, Socialization, personality and social development (pp. 275-385). New York: Wiley.

Ryff, C. D. (1989). Happiness is everything, or is it?  Explorations on the meaning of psychological well-being.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57(6), 1069-1081

Sternberg, R. J. (1988). The triarchic mind: A new theory of human intelligence. New York: Viking Press.

Taylor, C. W. (1986). The growing importance of creativity and leadership in spreading gifted and talented programs world-wide. Roeper Review, VIII,(4), 256-263.