The Great Self-Esteem Crisis

(This originally appeared in the Summer 2000 edition of the MCOI Journal)

whos the fairest graphic

“I am the fairest of them all!”

“Low self-esteem” is taking the blame for practically all the ills of our society today. Everything from criminality to poor performance in school is blamed on low self-esteem. It is running rampantly throughout society and the church though battalions of therapists have written countless books on the subject. The problem seems immune to all efforts to eradicate it and, in fact, seems to be worsening.

Just why our collective self-image is getting worse as time goes by is a mystery to me. In times and ages past, children’s psyches were not protected from emotional bumps and bruises as they are today. Yet today, they are considered so fragile. Maybe people need to face a little emotional hardship to grow. In fact, the Apostle James said:

“Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:2-4, NIV1).

Boy, was he out of touch! Imagine thinking life’s trials and hardships are used to develop character! He must’ve been a nasty conservative.

Yet, we can see trials and hardships have built great people for centuries. Winston Churchill, arguably one of the great leaders of the Twentieth Century, had an incredibly difficult early life and was often told he wouldn’t amount to anything. Abraham Lincoln was told he looked funny (one critic said Abe resembled a baboon), didn’t speak well, and lost most of the elections he ran in. Yet somehow, this miserable failure went on to become one of the greatest presidents in the history of this country. The very things today’s popular wisdom tells us leads inexorably to failure are what prepared Lincoln to stand firm against all the vicious attacks mounted against him in the dark days of the Civil War. The Apostle Paul, likewise, had to deal with trials in his life; trials that required incredible perseverance — perseverance that was created by those trials that came before. Paul suffered beatings, shipwrecks, scourging, dangers, hardships, and if those “little” problems were not trouble enough, he was compared unfavorably to false teachers — so called “super apostles.” What a put-down! Imagine the blow to Paul’s ego! Here he was, appointed by God to be the “apostle to the gentiles” rejected in favor of a First-Century Benny Hinn! Yet, Paul did not turn to a life of crime, but steadfastly continued on in the work he had been called to do, and put his concern for the Corinthian ingrates ahead of his interests and pride (2 Cor. 11:16-27).

How different is the conventional wisdom that holds Klebold and Harris (the Columbine killers) suffered from “bad self-image” because they had allegedly been “put down” by their classmates. Gang bangers who make our cities unlivable, likewise, are said to suffer from “low self-esteem.” According to our culture, the answer to the great self-esteem crisis is for cheerleading teachers, parents, and counselors to inculcate ever increasing self-love and pride into our young with no consequences for bad behavior or poor performance. As is the case with so many popular solutions to societal problems, these admittedly well-intentioned folks are hitting the wrong nail with the wrong hammer, and are guaranteed to exacerbate the problem, and create even more Klebold/Harris types to plague society.

Actually, studies indicate criminals have very high — not low — self-esteem. Common sense tells us the same thing. Why do thieves steal? They want what you have—they love themselves—they don’t love you—so they take what you have and generally feel completely justified in doing so. After all, isn’t self-gratification our highest cultural ideal? Why do people kill? Let’s take the example of Klebold and Harris; it is laughable to assume they hated themselves. They loved themselves so much that they were willing to murder innocent people to avenge their injured feelings and, while they were at it, make a big name for themselves. Unbridled self-love can be a dangerous thing.

Looking Out For Number One

A recent study by Rutger University’s National Marriage Project found today’s young adults, unlike past generations, aren’t seeking marriage or even romantic love, but are dating for sexual self-gratification more than to find a life partner. The study “Sex Without Strings, Relationships Without Rings” concluded that the young fear divorce and believe sex is just for fun. As a result, they reject the idea of lasting relationships in favor of focusing on themselves, their desires, and needs of the moment. Is this any wonder? We have taught them they are the center of the universe, and their “happiness” is paramount in all situations!

And why should “twenty-somethings” believe there is any value in raising children? No matter how much our politicians declare their fondness for “the children,” they can see, by society’s accounting, human offspring have no inherent value at all. Literally millions of their generation were murdered before they were even born.

It’s an amazing thing to me that the same people who constantly focus on “the children” and their “self-esteem” are the same folks who are all for killing “inconvenient” pre-born children by the millions! And the same people who understand name-calling on the playground is abhorrent, hold that no killing method is too barbaric to use on the unborn. (We would not execute the worst criminals in the heinous fashion used to snuff out little lives.) What about the self-esteem of the child in the womb? What about their self-interest? The way our society sees it, I guess the other person’s self-esteem and welfare leave off where my self-interest begins. Do the “crybaby boomers,” who got this whole “no-fault, free-sex, me-first” ball rolling, realize they have set the table for their own destruction when they become old, inconvenient, and costly?

Are You Proud Of Your Pride?

Self-esteem used to be called PRIDE, and it was generally thought of as a bad thing. Now, however, Black Pride, White Pride, Gay Pride, “everyone-born-on-a-Monday” pride, PRIDE — of all kinds — is in vogue these days. But God doesn’t like pride — He never did — and He still doesn’t. Pride works against gratitude. Pride goes before a fall. Pride invariably causes folks to put other folks in an inferior position. Is pride an acceptable antidote to oppression? Is it okay to be prideful if we deem ourselves or our little group to have been ill-used by someone in the past? No, two wrongs do not make a right just as we were taught as children. And, even from a practical standpoint, is ethnic pride making our world a better place for all of us? NOT AT ALL! It is just setting every racial and ethnic group against the others. Pride divides. Christians ought to reject such thinking.

I’m not speaking against having pride in accomplishment, or gaining satisfaction from a job well done. The Apostle Paul said, “each one should test his own actions” so that he or she can “take pride in himself, without comparing himself to somebody else” (Galatians 6:4). That’s the key — not to puff ourselves up with regard to others. Instead, we should enjoy our gifts — and those of others — given to us by God.

A Lose/Lose Proposition

What pride does to our culture in terms of disharmony and strife, it does to individuals on a smaller scale. One man’s pride is often the cause of another man’s belittlement. It is never a win/win situation when we are primarily looking out for number one. The Bible though, does offer a win/win situation concerning these issues. It tells us to have the attitude of Christ, Who put our interests above His own.

“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3).

Humility then, is to treat others as if they were better than ourselves. Notice it does not say they ARE better, but we are to treat them as if they were. If everyone were to treat others as more valuable than themselves, everyone would win! If I’m concerned for your benefit, and you are concerned for mine, everyone’s benefit is looked after.

Sign Of The Times

The Bible states the time would come when self-love and pride would characterize the populace and dominate culture. 2 Timothy 3:1-4 states:

“There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasures rather than lovers of God …”

I think we are already there, friends. We have been so indoctrinated with the self-love issue, that it is practically a sacrilege for me even to write an article such as this (disagreeing with the premise). But I believe that out-of-control self-love and self-interest has delivered a mortal wound to society and is the cause of much division in the church. It bears repeating—pride divides.

Self-Love In The Church

Of course, I am swimming against the tide on this one since many very prominent and popular Christian leaders espouse the self-esteem/self-love concept. But, popular acceptance of an idea does not make it true or Biblical. Last year, I heard a Christian speaker say to a huge group of Christian women that Christ commanded us to love ourselves! Did Christ really think we needed to be encouraged to love ourselves? I don’t think so. Those who wish to promote self-love/self-esteem interpret Mark 12:31, where Christ said to “Love your neighbor as yourself,” as teaching we cannot love others unless we first love ourselves. I don’t get that interpretation from this Scripture. The passage assumes self-love — we do love ourselves — and uses that natural self-love as a standard of how much we are to love others. And love of God is to come before all.

Insecurity’s False Label: Low Self-Esteem

What about people who have a low view of themselves—who think they are fat, dumb, or unattractive? Aren’t they suffering from low self-esteem? No. If they did not esteem themselves, such folks would not care if they were perceived by others or perceived themselves to be fat, dumb, or unattractive. We all struggle with such feelings at times, but it is because we love ourselves we react with such sadness when others reject us for our appearance, status, or what-have-you.

The feeling of not-measuring-up — popularly called “low self-esteem” — is really insecurity. Insecurity is defined as having doubts and fears, and as I have already said, we all have them. We doubt we will be able to succeed in our endeavors, and we fear failure and rejection. Neither one of these has one thing to do with true self-loathing. Again, we do not worry about the well- being of those we loathe. We would be highly unconcerned by the rejection of an object of our hatred. No, we care for ourselves. As Scripture makes abundantly clear,

“… no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it” (Ephesians 5:29).

Moses’ Self-Esteem Crisis

A good biblical example of insecurity is found in the story of Moses when God appeared to him in the burning bush. God informed Moses he was to go to Egypt where his brethren were enslaved and tell Pharaoh to let them go. Now, Pharaoh was the most powerful man in the world at the time; and Moses reacted, I think, like most of us would.

“Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” (Exodus 3:11).

You’re kidding me, right, LORD? Do you know who you are talking to? Look again. I’m just a guy, doin’ the best I can. An old guy, at that — way past retirement age. I’m not up to a fight with a man like Pharaoh. And not to nit-pick, but you said YOU were going to rescue your people — remember when you said that three verses ago??? Of course, I believe with all my heart you can do it — cause you’re doin’ the bush thing there, but you don’t need my help for that, do you? I’ll wait here. Okay, LORD??? What did God answer to reassure Moses? He simply said,

“I will be with you.” (Exodus 3:12)

Now, when you read the text, you see (from Moses’ point of view) that answer was not the one he wanted to hear. Oooookaaay, let’s see if I have this straight. You are going to be with me, but nobody even knows who YOU are — much less who I am. Besides, I really don’t talk very well either, and I just know that NO ONE is going to believe I’m there on a mission from God. No, I really don’t think this is a good idea. I like the bush, though. Keep my number — and if you ever need someone to take care of sheep for you, I’m your man.

God didn’t buy it. He insisted Moses was just the man for the job, although He graciously granted Moses permission to take baby brother Aaron along with him to do the talking. But God told Moses he could trust Him to make it a successful venture! God uses ordinary people to accomplish extraordinary things.

The first time Don and I were interviewed on a radio show, I was very insecure and had knots in my stomach. I informed my husband he was going to have to do all the talking; but I needed to learn the same lesson Moses learned — that God would be with me. At the studio, after we prayed, I just took a deep breath and jumped in and, lo and behold, He was there to help me. Don teased me afterwards that I never let him get a word in edgewise!

Trust In God, Not Self

Like Moses, we will have times of self-doubt and insecurities. And like Moses, God is the one we must learn to trust, not ourselves. The fact God is with us carries more weight than whatever it is that we bring along. The Apostle Paul’s perspective was that he was:

“well content with weakness, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10, NASB).

Humility vs. False Humility

I’m not advocating that people go and join convents or monasteries in order to adequately deny themselves or show proper humility. It is quite possible to go off-the-track in the other direction and seek to humble oneself artificially through extreme self-denial or self-condemnation. But, self-flagellation is no more righteous than unseemly self-promotion. Paul comments on false humility in Colossians 2:23. Apparently, people then, as now, thought God would be pleased with their “humility” if they were self-abusive. Self-abuse doesn’t have to be physical, either. Many people abuse themselves emotionally and think they are being quite humble, but it is actually false humility. God doesn’t want us to wallow in feelings of worthlessness in order to convince Him of our worthiness to join the “Humility Hall of Fame.” It is unnecessary, a waste of time, and certainly does not make Christianity attractive to outsiders.

Have you ever read David Copperfield by Charles Dickens? Uriah Heep was a memorable and nasty character who was outwardly a very lowly man — chock full of humility. He was always putting himself down to others, but all the while Heep harbored terrible resentments against people he felt treated him with disrespect. So all the disrespect he showed for himself was merely a ruse. Try this on yourself the next time you get disgusted with yourself and are tempted to wallow in your supposed worthlessness. Imagine someone agreeing with your self-deprecating comments. Would you defend yourself and, perhaps get angry at the jerk who would say such a thing to you? I think most of us would.

What is Biblical Humility?

Biblical humility is to see yourself as God sees you. It is not thinking more of yourself than you ought to think.

“For by the grace given to me, I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has given you. Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given us … honor one another above yourselves … do not be proud …do not be conceited” (Romans 12:3-6,10,16).

It is a balance — you’re not a bug nor are you the best thing to come down the pike. You have strengths and weaknesses, and you should have a good grasp of both. If you do not evaluate your strengths, you will waste the gifts God has given you; and if you do not recognize your weaknesses, you will be derailed by them. At the same time, you evaluate, appreciate, and honor the strengths and gifts of others without jealousy. We were all given our gifts to share them with the group, not for the sake of our pride!

Please note that in this passage, Paul tells us not to think more highly of ourselves than we ought, and he doesn’t seem to worry that we will think too little of ourselves. It is natural to think of ourselves first; it is spiritual to put others above ourselves.

Does It Work?

On the practical side, does self-esteem chasing work? Does it make people happy? That is, after all, what all of us supposedly need high self-esteem for? Oprah Winfrey, arguably one of the primo self-esteem moguls of our time, tells us she looks in the mirror every day and says, “You are a beautiful woman!” This is a self-esteem exercise she recommends to her groupies.

What, though, about the person who is not beautiful by the world’s current exacting standards? Will the mirror trick work for them? Mirror, mirror on the wall — I’m the fairest of them all? It didn’t work for Snow White’s evil stepmother, and it won’t work for the vast majority of us, for the same reason. Mirrors are notoriously honest and can be quite unkind. And doesn’t it just reinforce society’s shallow standards when we tie our worth to our looks, talents, and/or possessions? A “bad self-image” is often a realistic appraisal of the fact we do not measure up to the fickle societal ideal we are measured against, and indeed, one we often unfairly measure others against.

Take a typical childhood self-esteem problem. An 11-year-old, sixth-grade girl is dying to be accepted by the clique of “popular girls” but has as much of a chance of being accepted by them as I have of being the new king of Syria. Now understand, there is nothing quite so torturous as being rejected by your peers in sixth grade; and there are no more exquisite tormentors on the planet than the “popular girls” in sixth grade. Vlad, the impaler, was kinder to his victims than these sharks are to some poor girl they have decided to disdain.

Can we pump up her self-esteem to the point where she can cope with the situation? I don’t really think we can. We can tell her she’s beautiful until we are blue-in-the-face, but we’ll be unable to convince her that THEY (the “in-crowd”) find her acceptable, and their approval is what she thinks she needs. Our job, as I see it, is to convince her, over time and with kind patience, to reject the worldly standard by which she is being judged! We must endeavor to teach her we are NOT the sum total of what we own, what we look like and how popular we are.

One thing I know for sure, though, the problem is not the “low self-esteem” of the tormented child, but rather the extraordinarily inflated self-esteem of her tormentors!

Is Oprah Happy?

Oprah constantly preaches the gospel of self-love and self-esteem, and she has also chased self-esteem relentlessly. But is she happy? Oprah appears on the cover of US Weekly, (June 12, 2000, issue 278) with the question, “Is Oprah Happy?” By golly, she should be! If the self-esteem gospel is true, Oprah has every reason for extreme happiness and “personal fulfillment” even without talking back to her mirror. She is extremely rich, quite beautiful, powerfully influential, and beloved of millions. Yet, the article points out:

“She (Oprah) tends to talk about self-esteem issues as having been a thing of the past; at other times, the past seems awfully recent. ‘Oprah is still struggling with the same things as her viewers,’ says one of her ex-producers. ‘She’s not perfect, but she wants to be.’”

Do I begrudge Oprah her pursuit for happiness? No, not at all. In our land, the pursuit of happiness is an absolute right and a favorite pastime! But I can say with certainty, if she hasn’t found it yet, she needs to look for it in a different place. And maybe “happiness” isn’t the best thing to look for, since it is so elusive. Security, love, and acceptance are what we need, but they can only be found in God — specifically, the God of the Bible. Sadly, Oprah’s god is in her mind. She seeks god within, and like looking for a catfish in a closet, she’s bound to be disappointed.

Now, for the million-dollar question: If Oprah is still struggling with “low self-esteem” considering all she has going for her, what hope for the rest of us? The whole self-esteem venture is a cracked pot — by the time you carry your fragile image across the room in it, all the “good feelings about yourself” you have carefully hoarded will have leaked out all over the floor! Where there is physical beauty, it will fade; where there are possessions, they will not satisfy. The old adage, “you can never be too rich or too thin” implies a constant struggle to achieve what is ultimately unattainable. It’s a recipe for despair.

What’s more important, by convincing people the issue of first importance is to measure up to the world’s standard of success, we set them up for failure in God’s Kingdom. God’s standard of greatness is pretty much the opposite of the world’s standard. God is not going to judge us by our skin color, our ethnicity, our gender, our money, or looks. We will be judged by our character, not our demographic.

A person who is busily chasing the illusory targets of worldly beauty and achievement will not be able to succeed in the race that matters for eternity. That race cannot be run by looking in the mirror. It can only be won by keeping our eyes on God.

The message of the Christian faith is that we are born sinners, and none of us has any real reason for arrogance. Jesus is the only person who has good reason to be proud and haughty — being God Almighty. Nonetheless, out of love He humbled Himself to be born as a man so He could die for us, and pay the price for our sins, including our pride and selfishness. Yet, many people suffer from an inflated self-image that will not allow them to admit their need for salvation. They are too proud to accept the gift of forgiveness and eternal life that Jesus offers to those who know they cannot save themselves and call upon Him. Friends, that’s the real self-esteem crisis.Ω

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  1. All Bible quotes are from the Holy Bible, New International Version (NIV) unless otherwise noted.

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