This is the first post in a mini series on self-esteem. If you are a follower of Jesus, I hope you’ll read and prayerfully consider removing “self-esteem” from your vocabulary. I’m so dead serious about this my friends. We’ve been deceived that self-esteem is the cause and the answer to our body image issues, and through this series, I hope you’ll see the truth.
“What’s really become prevalent over the last two decades is the idea that being highly self-confident – loving yourself, believing in yourself – is the key to success. Now the interesting thing about that belief is it’s widely held, it’s very deeply held, and it’s also untrue.”
“There’s very little evidence that raising self-esteem has any real world benefits.”
This quote, from this interesting article on how the self-esteem of college students has steadily risen since the 1970s, speaks volumes on a topic that many of us were taught is crucial to our well-being. That is: high self-esteem.
In fact, if you Google “body image” and “solutions” and ninety percent of the entries will tell you this: Improve self-esteem, body image issues will fade.
But the data just doesn’t match up. College students have higher self-esteem than ever before but they aren’t free of eating disorders, anxiety, depression, and risky behaviors. In fact, a number of these social problems are on the rise, despite the fact that eighteen year olds generally think they are awesome.
Self-esteem is a hoax–a shallow well from which we are told to drink, yet it leaves us constantly unsatisfied and looking for more. More and more psychologists are coming to reveal this truth, that the data about self-esteem is over-blown and inaccurate. But, as Christ-followers especially, it’s time to change our language and our focus.
Here are four reasons you don’t need more self-esteem:
First: Self-Esteem Keeps Your Eyes on You.
For women who wrestle with their body image, the answer of “just think more about yourself” is frustratingly difficult. Self-esteem advocates say just find what you like about yourself and focus on that. Look in the mirror, decide what you love, ignore what you hate, and then fill up with the knowledge of how awesome you are in these particular areas.
Can I confess that I’ve tried this? And, it never lasts. I can determine myself to feel confident because I have a nice smile and straight teeth. I face the world confident that this attribute make me worthy and awesome. But, then I meet someone with a nicer smile. Uh, oh. Maybe mine isn’t all that great? My brain must riddle around how my greatness is affected by meeting someone with a better smile.
Or, what about when my teeth are no longer straight. What if I chip a front tooth or my bottom teeth start twisting and turning in weird ways (they have!). Or what if I get stung by a bee and my lip swells? All of these things will affect my smile. And, if that’s where my confidence was derived, I am sunk!
As Believers, we are called to “esteem” (make great, respect, admire) others and our Savior. We aren’t called to esteem ourselves. To spend countless hours thinking about what’s great about us. To fill up on our own laurels. We are called to rest in a Savior and meditate on his goodness and worthiness, not our own.
Second: Self-Esteem Leads to Narcissism
It’s not going out on a limb to say that Donald Trump likely has high self-esteem. As does Hilary Clinton. As do many world leaders. (I’m guessing Hitler would have scored high on a self-esteem test!)
Generally, what has self-focus ever solved in the history of the world? As people designed to thrive best in community, putting our own interests first never leads to unity, peace or anything productive. Instead, self-focus leads to narcissism.
Sadly, this is not just speculation, it’s fact. This “inflated view of self and relative indifference towards others” has been on the rise in the last three decades–a thirty percent increase since 1979.
Self-love can’t be the answer for the Christian. (I wrote more about that here.)
Third: Self-Esteem Has No Resources for Blind Spots.
According to the above cited article, “Coming from a good family might lead to both high self-esteem and personal success. . . ” But, “Self-control is much more powerful and well-supported as a cause of personal success. Despite my years invested in research on self-esteem, I reluctantly advise people to forget about it.”
This isn’t a Christian article! Yet, this traditional publication recognizes that self-control (a fruit of the spirit, Hello?) is a much higher predictor of success in young people!
One of the main flaws I see in self-esteem is that it leaves no room for blindspots. There are areas in each of our lives that are not pretty. God needs to do a sanctifying work in them. We need our yuckiness to be acknowledged and redeemed.
Self-esteem encourages us to ignore the bad and focus on just the good. “We are so great, why be bothered with that little sin issue. It’s not a ‘big’ deal.”
Yet, it is. God cares about our holiness. He wants good for us, and part of that good is the ability to recognize that we are sinful, fallen humans in need of His grace, forgiveness and redemption. Esteeming Christ reminds us of this. Esteeming ourselves allows us to slip into a place of pride.
Fourth: Self-Esteem Isn’t Biblical.
Yes, I know you know that one Bible verse in Mark that talks about loving others as yourself. For a long time that lone verse was called upon to justify our need for self-esteem.
A solid Bible teacher whom I respect a great deal, John Piper, writes about what Jesus is really saying in this verse. I’ve read other books and resources that have re-iterated the same sentiment that self-love is assumed and not commanded in the Bible. Paul says in Ephesians that no man hates his own flesh. But, there are no other commands throughout the Bible that indicate a necessity or a mandate for self-love. Instead, we find the opposite–more instruction to make sure we are loving our neighbors caring for them in the same meticulous way we care for ourselves. Plus, we find ample commands and reminders to love God, to not worship idols, to not follow our own hearts, and to not become vain.
We are to stamp down our pride–that tendency towards me first, self-love, personal-sense-of-awesomeness.
Encouraging Christians to increase their self-esteem is, I believe, counter to scripture. And, for the woman who wrestles her body image, I believe her way out of struggle will always be, what I call, “Tilting the mirror up.” Freedom comes when we stop trying to esteem ourselves and, instead, when we start esteeming our Savior.