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Self Esteem and Christian Belief

If our self-esteem is not rooted in reality, we are asking for trouble, for the human mind does not like to be told it must ignore reality.

By Merle Hertzler

 

I will never cease to be amazed at the marvels of the universe. In that entire universe there is one marvel that exceeds everything else, and that is the human mind. The mind can conceive of the smallest electron and of distant galaxies. It can understand and appreciate beauty and virtue. It has designed great bridges, cured dreaded diseases, and written great poetry. I love the human mind. You and I have human minds, and this gives us each an intrinsic worth.[1 ]

There is an essential goodness to human nature. [2 ] When we humans are exposed to a loving environment, and are encouraged to develop critical thinking skills, we almost always learn to respond in cooperative ways that are considered to be good.

Of course not everyone turns out good, but there is always that spark of humanness. There is always the human mind inside the worst criminal, a mind that wants to succeed, a mind that could perhaps somehow learn that it could best meet its goals when it lives in cooperation with others. And so, although we may hate what a person has done, we can still have high regard for the worth of the individual. There is indeed something good about being human.

And so many humanists, including Erich Fromm[3], Carl Rogers[4], and Abraham Maslow[5], have stressed the importance of high regard for all individuals including one's self.

Self Loathing

"Wherefore I abhor myself," says Job, "and repent in dust and ashes." (Job 42:6) Oh, excuse me, Job. Do you not realize what a wonderful thing it is to be human? "I abhor myself," says Job. Oh. And what does God think of this response? Job 42 indicates that God approved of Job's statement. But should we really abhor ourselves? Is not the human mind worthy of more respect than that?

"And there shall ye remember your ways, and all your doings, wherein ye have been defiled;" says Ezekiel, "and ye shall lothe yourselves in your own sight for all your evils that ye have committed." (Ezekiel 20:43) And Ezekiel writes as though this self-loathing is a good thing. Thanks for the help, Ezekiel. But this is not doing much for my self-esteem.

Perhaps Jesus can shed some light on this. Well, he said, "So likewise ye, when ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do." (Luke 17:10) We are unprofitable? We only do our assigned duty? That doesn't do much for our self esteem, does it?

"But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags;" says Isaiah, "and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away." (Isaiah 64:6) The best we can do is filthy rags? That's odd. I have seen people do some great things. Are we really that bad? Is the best that we as humans can accomplish nothing more than filthy rags?

Tell me, would you read the following verses to a depressed person?

 

  11  There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God. 12 They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one. 13 Their throat is an open sepulchre; with their tongues they have used deceit; the poison of asps is under their lips: 14 Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness: 15 Their feet are swift to shed blood:  16Destruction and misery are in their ways: 17 And the way of peace have they not known: 18 There is no fear of God before their eyes.
19 Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. (Romans 3:11-19)

And so we find a low view of humanity in the Bible. We find that we have become unprofitable, that our very throat is nothing more than an open sepulchre, and that the law was given so that we could be seen as guilty before God. Do we really need a book to make us feel guilty? These verses have nothing to do with recognizing the value of humanity. They have nothing to do with having esteem for people, and nothing to do with esteem for the self. They are the opposite of self-esteem.

It is no wonder that the church has historically rejected self-esteem teaching. John Calvin, for instance, said, "But I require only that, laying aside the disease of self-love and ambition, by which he is blinded and thinks more highly of himself than he ought, he rightly recognize himself in the faithful mirror of Scripture." [6] Self-love is a disease? Oh dear. I think that John Calvin might be the laughing stock of the church if he tried to preach that message today. But there was a time when Calvin's message of low self-esteem would have been well received. [7]

"For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing," says Paul, "for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not." (Romans 7:18) There is no good thing within you, Paul? I am sorry to hear that.

"Not I but Christ"

But wait, Paul's message does not end there. "I have been crucified with Christ," he states, "nevertheless I live. Yet not I but Christ liveth within me." (Gal. 2:20) This changes everything. Not only does Paul speak of his natural self (which has "no good thing" in it) but he also refers to something new--"Christ in me"--which is capable of almost everything. We have gone from a most depressing view of humanity, to a totally exuberant view. Christ himself inside of a person? If true, is there no limit to what this might mean?

"I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me," Paul declares. (Philippians 4:13) All things? That is amazing! "For all things are yours", Paul says in another place, "Whether Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas, or the world, or life, or death, or things present, or things to come; all are yours; And ye are Christ's; and Christ is God's." (I Cor. 3:21-23) Oh, please stop Paul. All things are yours? Can it get any better?

Is it any wonder that Christians sometimes act in a way that others interpret as arrogance? For their power comes from Christ himself inside of them, or so they believe. There is virtually no limit to what this power can do, provided their claim is true. The outsider, however, looks at the actions and sees hubris. Bill Cooke describes his experiences when he came to America and saw the religious claims. He describes fundamentalist Christians saying,

Many accounts of pious converts tell of suffering low self-esteem that was then resolved by being told that they did indeed matter; that despite being one biped among millions on one planet among millions, the creator of this entire universe is interested in their welfare. The success of religious conversions and apologetic arguments consist of religion's ability to inject people with such quantities of anthropocentric conceit that it almost becomes plausible. [8]

Christians are told that the creator of the universe has them in mind. For the Christian that has this power--and not just the natural weakness we are supposedly born with--it is a thrill to bask in this grace. One has become intimate with the center of the universe.

The believer dare not think that this message might be wrong. For without this message, he is told that he would then be nothing but an open sepulchre with no good inside him, and that his works would be worth no more than filthy rags. The human mind will not allow itself to be pushed down to such a worthless state. And so the Christian dare not think that this salvation from his wretched state is a myth. He finds himself forced to believe that grace has worked this transformation, for that is the only source of self worth he can find.

But sometimes, when one faces reality, it is hard to maintain faith in this system of belief. That is the problem.

Reality Check

If we are all worthless unless we have this special work of grace--available only to believers--how is it that so many atheists have found such a worthy, fulfilling life? One could well make the case that informed atheists have a greater experience of living a worthy life then Christians do. Could it be that Christian beliefs are not necessary to have moral success? In moments of reality, when one realizes that the answers may not revolve around the "Christ in you," the whole tower threatens to topple.

Reality. Many a philosophy has been shipwrecked on the rocky shores of reality. "I can do all things through Christ," yes, but I can't understand the "easy assembly" instructions for my child's toy. "All things are yours," yes, but my checkbook doesn't reflect that. "Whosoever is born of God does not commit sin," (1 John 3:9) yes, but I struggle with wrong actions. Christ "always causes us to triumph,"(2 Corinthians 2:14) yes, but why is my career on a dead-end path? Reality doesn't always confirm the theory.

Paul seems to have experienced this. When describing his problems with the evil natural self, he writes, "I find then a law that when I would do good, evil is present with me." Now this is a most interesting comment. Paul had just claimed that the transformed man has victory over sin through grace, and yet here he writes that this transformation really doesn't work as it should! In fact the failure is so great that Paul finds a universal law that says grace really doesn't stop the evil inside.

Paul continues: "Oh wretched man that I am," he cries, "who shall deliver me from the body of this death?" (Romans 7:24) I am inclined to agree with you on this, Paul. For if your religion teaches you that there is nothing good in yourself except through God's grace, and you find a law that says, in reality, this transformation does not work that well, then, yes Paul, I agree--"Oh wretched man" that you are.

If our self-esteem depends on this theory of transforming grace, and that grace doesn't seem to work in reality the way it is claimed, we are setting ourselves up for discouragement. If our self-esteem is not rooted in reality, we are asking for trouble, for the human mind does not like to be told it must ignore reality.

Out of Control

There is another problem. For if your thoughts have really been transformed, if this "Christ in you" business is as great as has been claimed, then you would have the source of all wisdom inside of you. There would be something inside you--"Christ in you"--that is always right. The problem is, you will soon find others who claim to have Christ, and you will find that they do not always agree with you. Now you have a problem. You can insist that you--or rather, "Christ in you"--must be right, but you will soon be rejected as a conceited bore, and lose your social status. From the outside, the person who insists he is right because the "Christ in me" says so and the person who says he is right because he actually is Jesus Christ are hard to differentiate. Both make a claim for themselves that is far beyond reality.

Most Christians do not want the "Christ in you" to ruin their social plans, so they incorporate one more thing into their philosophy--Christian humility. This virtue is simple. Although one may have unlimited capacity in Christ, one needs to remind himself constantly of his own weaknesses. With enough effort, one can keep the thrill of "Christ in me" from being viewed as arrogance.

The system of exuberant self-esteem because of "Christ in me", tempered with humility and recognition of one's evil nature is a workable system, but oh, the emotional energy that is consumed in making it work. It is like driving a car with two buttons--a "B" button that applies the brakes fully, and a "G" button that applies the gas pedal fully. With enough effort one can maintain the car near highway speed with those two buttons. And with enough effort one can temper this self-exaltation with humility, but the emotional effort is immense. The strain can wreck one's sense of inner peace.

It is no wonder that Paul ends his chapter on the two natures by saying, "Oh wretched man that I am, Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?" Paul proceeds to answer his own rhetorical question--"I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord". (Romans 7:24-25) As we are about to discover, "Our Lord" moves in mysterious ways this wonder to perform.

The "Shrinking" of Christianity

The stage is set for the modern heroes of the Christian faith. They arrive in the cloak of science, but they also carry a Bible. They are Christian psychologists and psychiatrists, and they have taken Christianity by storm, with a seemingly unending supply of therapy, seminars, and books. They take the best and worst of Christian teaching, mix it with the best and worst of secular psychology, to offer a variety of cures for the ailing soul.

What problem are these mental healers addressing? Dr. James Dobson, perhaps the best known representative, writes, "If I could write a prescription for the women of the world, I would provide each one of them with a healthy dose of self-esteem and personal worth (taken three times a day until the symptoms disappear). I have no doubt that this is their greatest need." [9] So we are told that the greatest need of women is self-esteem. These healers set out to heal that damaged sense of self worth.

Does it never occur to these professionals that part of the reason Christians struggle with self-esteem is related to Christian doctrine? In Christian doctrinal statements [10], I find wordings such as, "All mankind...is thus lost in sin and totally helpless" (Presbyterian) [11]; "all becoming dead in sin, and wholly defiled in all the faculties and parts of soul and body... we are utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil" (Baptist) [12]; "man is very far gone from original righteousness, and of his own nature inclined to evil, and that continually" (Methodist) [13]. There is not much room for self-esteem here.

So isn't it possible that these doctrines may be contributing to the low self-esteem that Dr. Dobson and others are attempting to fix? Tell me, why should you spend your money on Christian therapy to overcome something that may well be caused by your doctrine? Worse, why should I pay insurance premiums so that my insurer can pay for your therapy so that you can recover from the effects of your doctrine? Now I am no expert in church policy, but may I humbly make a suggestion? Wouldn't it be better simply to change your church doctrine?

A big theme in Christian therapy is that God's love for us gives us reason to have self-esteem. That does not seem like a very good justification for self-esteem to me. First, it is really nothing more than the argument from authority. They find an authority--God Almighty--who declares that people are worthy. Based on what this authority says, they assume it must be true, and that people must therefore be worthy. This reasoning has all of the fallacies of any argument from authority. What if that authority is just kidding? What if he is lying? What if he was quoted out of context? What if he was speaking out of his expertise? What if he was misunderstood? For these reasons, the argument from authority is generally counted as a logical fallacy. And so, even if you had God's direct word that you were a worthy person, you are still relying on a fallacious argument.

Second, we have no reliable way of knowing what God--if he exists--thinks of us. Self-esteem is a good case in point. For centuries Christians taught that we were worthless with no good inside us. Then, after humanist psychologists began to elaborate on self-esteem and to win a great acceptance, we suddenly find that God does not want us to abhor ourselves after all, but wants us to see ourselves as worthy. So which of these views accurately represents what God wants? Those who claim to know what God thinks on this subject will find many Christians who disagree with what they think. So with no accurate way of knowing what God thinks, we can't claim to know.

Third, the whole idea that we are so stupid that we cannot figure out if we are worthy or not unless God tells us is absolutely degrading. We are people, with all the wonders of the human mind. We can think for ourselves. And we can see that there is something worthy about being human. If you tell me that we are so stupid that we can't see that fact unless God tells us, you have reduced the worth of the human mind. Who would want a self-esteem that degrades us to the point where we cannot even see for ourselves if humans are worthy or not?

So I don't find the argument for basing self-esteem on God's love to be convincing. It seems to me that we can see for ourselves that there is something lovely about being human.

Since self-esteem is now universally regarded as important, how could the Bible have missed it? Romans 12:3 says, "For I say, through the grace given unto me, to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think soberly, according as God hath dealt to every man the measure of faith." Why does the Bible warn us not to think too highly of ourselves, but never warn us about thinking too lowly?Galatians 6:3 says, "For if a man think himself to be something, when he is nothing, he deceiveth himself." Why does the Bible not contain a similar warning for those who think they are nothing, when they are something?2 Timothy 3:2 warns us that the last days will be terrible, "For men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud..." Why does the Bible not tell us that in the last days men shall suffer from low self-esteem?
Let's face it. The Bible missed this one, didn't it? [14] Didn't God care that his people would go for centuries without this message? Why did God wait until self-esteem was promoted in secular psychology before introducing it into his church?

A Word of Caution

Let me mention here that self-esteem has often been overrated. Many Christians have turned from a religious loathing of the inner man, to a fervor for self-esteem. In the eighties self-esteem was taught as though it would solve all of our educational problems. That simply is not true. A good self-esteem brings you to the point where you can live a productive life. It does not live that life for you. Those that thought that high self-esteem was the cure for all problems were sadly mistaken.

Also, it seems to me that the self-esteem promoted in some of these exercises was little more than a bandage on the problem. Somehow people thought that continual exercises in "What I like about myself" would rid people of their poor self-image. It seems to me that this does not address the real problem.

Conclusion

I conclude that many of the problems that Christians report with self-esteem may well be rooted in the Christian religion itself. The Christian view that we are naturally sinful and depraved is very degrading. Attempts to balance this teaching with the teaching of a transforming grace needlessly complicate the efforts to reach a healthy self-image. Those attempts succeed only in proportion that the resulting self-image approximates reality. But if a self-image based on reality is our goal, should we not start our search by studying the reality of human nature?

There is a better way. In humanism you can simply look at the facts--at the intrinsic value of all humans including yourself--and then you can feel good.[15] Even if that feeling is slightly inflated, that is okay,[16] as long as your feet are firmly planted in reason. You can then move on and start living.

 

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Scripture quotations are from the King James Bible.

Notes

1. A preliminary version of this essay was posted in the Christian forums for public comment at http://www.christianforums.com/t88753&page=1.

2. Wheatley, Marjaret J.,  Relying on Human Goodness

3. See Erich Fromm .

4. Boeree, Dr. C. George Carl Rogers

5. Boeree, Dr. C. George Abraham Maslow

6. Calvin, John , as quoted in How John Calvin led me to repent of Christian Psychology

7. Cole, Steven J., How John Calvin led me to repent of Christian Psychology

8. Cooke, Bill, "Religion's Anthropocentric Conceit," Free Inquiry24, Dec 2003-Jan. 2004

9. Dobson, James, What Wives Wish Their Husbands Knew About Women.(Wheaton, Illinois:Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1975) p 35

10. Examples of Christian doctrinal statements can be found at http://www.tlogical.net/doctrinal.htm.

11. See A Synopsis of the Beliefs of the Presbyterian Church in America

12. See The Baptist Confession of Faith

13. See The Articles of Religion of the Methodist Church.

14. Questions about self-esteem led me to a deeper study of problems with the faith, which then led me to abandoning of faith. I tell the story at http://www.geocities.com/questioningpage/Mystory.

15. I do not mean to oversimplify the problems of low self-esteem and depression. If you are suffering from a depression that is beyond the help of your friends and family, you may need to see a professional. I would recommend a secular professional who practices Cognitive-Bahavioral Therapy.

16. Taylor, Shelly E., Positive Illusions: Creative Self-Deception and the Healthy Mind.(New York:Basic Books, 1991)

Copyright Merle Hertzler 2004, 2005. All rights reserved.

 

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