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Satan must be especially proud of some victories. Getting the wicked to sin is easy, of course—no big triumph. But any time he can get God’s people to march towards evil by defining it as good, he fills another page in his scrapbook of major achievements.
Are there obvious ways that Satan gets us to “call evil good, and good evil” (Isaiah 5:20)? I have a ready nomination for one of Satan’s modern victories.
In recent years popular culture has declared self-esteem to be a critical component of psychological well-being. Common wisdom proclaims that you must love yourself in order to be a healthy human. But how does such self-regard fit into a gospel perspective?
The idea can be tested in several ways. How does the idea fit with scripture? How does Jesus apply (or not apply) the principles in His own perfect life? What does the careful scrutiny of science—a messenger of experience—say on the subject?
Let’s check some scriptures to see what support self-esteem enjoys. The most popular scripture used in support of self-esteem is “thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” (See Matt 19:19, 22:39, etc.). This is commonly quoted in the New Testament as an expression of the ancient law (See Leviticus 19:18).
The modern logic is that we can only love others after (or as) we love ourselves. There is an alternative to that interpretation. It could be that the ancient prophets are saying: “You already spend the bulk of your attention and labor on yourself. Please direct as much concern to your neighbor as to yourself.”
Jesus Himself teaches a much higher law than loving our neighbor’s as ourselves.
A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another. (John 13:34-35)
Jesus’ standard for disciples is NOT that we love others as we love ourselves but that we love others as He loves. What a lofty goal!
Mark Leary, professor of psychology, concluded that “the self is an impediment—perhaps the chief impediment—to spiritual realization, religious practice, and moral behavior, and that a spiritual person must take steps to neutralize the self’s negative effects” (p. 147, 2004).
Consider the second way to test the idea of self-esteem: take Jesus as a test case. Did He have high self-esteem?
When called “Good Master,” He protested: “Why callest thou me good? There is none good but one, that is, God: but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments” (Matthew 19:17).
What does it mean for us that the most righteous person who lived on this Earth deflected all praise to His Father? “Verily, verily, I say unto you, The Son can do nothing of himself, but what he seeth the Father do: for what things soever he doeth, these also doeth the Son likewise” (John 5:19).
Consider the following antonyms of pride and their application to Jesus and his disciples in all ages: humble, lowly, meek, modest, plain, simple, submissive, unassuming, unpretentious. His own words were: “I can of mine own self do nothing: as I hear, I judge: and my judgment is just; because I seek not mine own will, but the will of the Father which hath sent me” (John 5:30).
Jesus simply fails as a model for the self-assured, modern man striving for self-esteem.
Countless times I have heard people say of struggling friends: “They’re having trouble because of poor self-esteem. We need to build them up.” But when we build them up, we are only distracting them from the Power that can change them, refine them, and perfect them. The person who told me that she was “continually keeping [her] thoughts centered upon her own great self-worth” is no better off than the egoist admiring his own image in his trophies.
The third test of self-esteem is scientific. Unknown to most people in the general population, the scientific community has had serious concerns about the self-esteem movement for more than thirty years. Research now verifies that improving children’s self-esteem does not motivate toward better school performance (Harter, 1983). Teens with high self-esteem may be so resentful of an attack on their self-regard that they are more likely to be violent in response to an insult (Bushman & Baumeister, 1998). In the massive California study of self-esteem and its effects, self-esteem was found to be as predictive of bad behavior as good behavior (Mecca, Smelser, & Vasconcellos, 1989). Very often self-esteem did not predict any of the good things that some expected it to predict.
Self-esteem has simply failed us in its promise to deliver us from self-hate and unproductivity and may create serious problems (Cudaback, 1992). In a thoughtful book by psychologist Roy Baumeister (1991), he observes that the modern American inclination to base the meaning of lives on the self has left us with a badly shrunken meaning for our lives.
What God Recommends
The instinctive response to assaults on the self-esteem movement is shock: “So, does God want us to hate ourselves?” No. The opposite of self-love is not self-hate. Self-love and self-hate are startlingly similar to each other in their manifestations. They are both different forms of self-absorption.
At the opposite end of the spectrum from self-absorption is self-forgetfulness. He wants us to forget ourselves and follow Him. That is what God recommends. The remedy is to “be humble—delightedly humble, feeling the infinite relief of having for once got rid of all the silly nonsense about your own dignity which has made you restless and unhappy all your life” (C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, p. 114).
James Faulconer, philosophy faculty member at BYU, insightfully observed:
There is an irony concealed in the mutual incompatibility of good and bad self-images. Seeing them as incompatible is itself a way of hiding from God. For by making them mutually exclusive, we are able to think we can or must choose between them, that there are no other choices. Thinking that way, we are able to think we are doing something grand when we get over having a bad self-image by replacing it with a good one; we are able to persuade ourselves that we have genuinely changed and, thus, to make ourselves feel good without ever having given up the self-centeredness that was the problem in the first place. But change without repentance isn’t real. It’s just more of the same old thing, but covered in a more socially acceptable garb. Thus, working at changing our bad self-image instead of learning to trust the Lord is little more than a way of filling ourselves with activities and thought that allow us to avoid repentance. In its masquerade as confidence, self-esteem resulting from a good self-image may well be the thing that prevents us from seeing our own dependence upon God and the necessity of the Atonement.
Humility is not gloomy. It is lightened by faith and energized by God. It is both hopeful and peaceful. Ammon beautifully mixes humility with joy: “Yea, I know that I am nothing; as to my strength I am weak; therefore I will not boast of myself, but I will boast of my God, for in his strength I can do all things; yea, behold, many mighty miracles we have wrought in this land, for which we will praise his name forever” (Alma 26:12).
To be humble does not mean that we are despairing or despondent. Quite the contrary. When we are humble, we rejoice more! But we know where to attribute all credit. To claim credit for our triumphs is rank presumption; to acknowledge God is heavenly wisdom.
Consider the following contrasts:
The self-esteem dogma: You cannot love anyone until you love yourself.
God’s doctrine: You cannot love anyone (with full-blown charity) until you love 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.
Self-esteem is simply Satan’s attempt to clean up pride and make it respectable, even desirable. The spiritually mature recognize that the world’s version of self-esteem is dangerously close to narcissism, self-centeredness, self-righteousness, and arrogance.
I have previously written on Meridian Magazine about the many proven ways we can increase our happiness: savoring the present, cherishing the past, embracing the future, knowing and using our strengths, and choosing to serve. See the Meridian archives for more information.
Jesus’ program for personal well-being does not require that we love ourselves. He recommends that we love God and serve our neighbors. As we do, our lives will be filled with love, joy, and peace.
Try using Ammon’s words for yourself: “Yea, I know that I am nothing; as to my strength I am weak; therefore I will not boast of myself, but I will boast of my God, for in his strength I can do all things; yea, behold, many mighty miracles we have wrought in this land, for which we will praise his name forever” (Alma 26:12). Ponder on God’s goodness.
James Faulconer’s article, Self-Image, Self-Love, and Salvation, is excellent. I recommend it to you: http://jamesfaulconer.byu.edu/papers/self_image.pdf
If you suffer from continuing depression, you may have thought processes or chemical imbalances that hold you hostage. I recommend that you visit with a mental health professional to get relief.
Baumeister, R. (1991). Meanings of life. New York: Guilford Press.
Bushman, B. J., & Baumeister, R. F. (1998). Threatened egotism, narcissism, self-esteem, and direct and displaced aggression: does self-love or self-hate lead to violence? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, (1), 219–29.
Cudaback, D. (1992). Self-esteem: Rhetoric and research, Part III. Human Relations, XVII, (1), 1–6.
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.
Leary, M. R. (2004). The curse of the self. New York: Oxford University Press.
Seligman, M. E. P. (2002). Authentic happiness. New York: Free Press.