It is said that up to 85% of people struggle with low self-esteem.1
That’s a lot of people. And it’s not just a problem for those outside the church, it affects those inside too, which raises the question: how do we help Christians with low self-esteem?
Consider Jenny, a young professional who is struggling with low self-esteem. She admits the problem to her small group and someone replies sweetly that God loves her and cares for her. That’s nice, she thinks, but it doesn’t seem to get to the issue. She goes to one of her friends instead and her friend tells her she’s being self-centred, and she needs to look to Christ instead. She gives it a go, but her problems continue.
She is stumbling into the general confusion in evangelical Christianity of what to think about self-esteem. Some argue, from the second commandment, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’, that we ought to love ourselves more – ‘as you love yourself’, it is emphasised. But is this approach taking sin seriously enough?
Calvin and Adams
Others conclude that self-esteem is wrong and a term we shouldn’t use – we could quote Calvin: ‘That person has profited well in the knowledge of himself when he is crushed and frightened by understanding his wretchedness, poverty, nakedness, and disgrace. For there is no danger that a person will lower himself too much.’2 Jay Adams follows suit.3 It’s easy to see our problem as being fundamentally too self-centred and we need to be more focussed on Christ.
And it seems difficult to argue against any of this. After all, self is essentially the problem and who can have enough of Christ anyway?
However, this seems to me like the person who says you can never read the Bible enough. It sounds good in theory, but in practice you can read the Bible too much. If you spend all your waking hours reading the Bible and don’t work (therefore not put the Bible into practice), something would be wrong. Well, in the same way, are we in danger of swaying off to one extreme?
I think so. And before pointing to an answer, I’d like to pose another problem.
Love or hate ourselves?
Should we love ourselves or hate ourselves? Biblically, we could happily open up Mark 8.34 and talk of the importance of denying self or Luke 14.26 about hating even his own life, and the answer would seem to be in front of us, would it not? Let us hate ourselves! Hmmm.
It doesn’t seem quite right, but at the same time we know we shouldn’t be teaching that we should love ourselves either. We sense we’re not getting the whole truth here. What is missing?
I think a more rounded view of humanity is what we need and while Christ adds much to this issue, I want to concentrate instead on the fundamental biblical truths of humanity that we sometimes overlook.
Biblically, all people were made in God’s image and so all people have value because we reflect God’s image. Then the Fall came and everything was ruined by sin. Yet sin did not completely efface God’s image in people. Humanity continues to display dignity and depravity, excellence and evil, virtue and vice.
Every human reflects God’s image in some way and every human is rotten. So in every person we meet we should be able to see the positive aspects of God’s image, just as we should be able to see the negative ways in which sin has ruined that. For example, King Saul was courageous, a good leader of his people and generous to his enemies – a great king it would have seemed. And yet this great potential was ruined by his sin.
A balanced approach
How do we balance the positive and negative when thinking about self-esteem?
To answer, let me borrow the following simple psychological model of personality:
personality = temperament + character4
This assumes that our personalities are made up of two components:
1. temperament – essentially, how we are when we are born: extroverted, talkative, rational, abstract, etc.
2. character – how we react to life and develop, what we do with our talkativeness, rationality, or whatever.
In terms of character, we regularly need to repent. We need to repent of being too talkative at the wrong times or not being quick to listen, of being too rational or not being sensitive to someone’s emotions, etc. However, issues related to temperament often don’t need to be repented of, but accepted. You are talkative, praise God. You are rational, praise God. They are aspects of his image in us and should generally (not always!) be accepted to form a healthy view of self. We need self-acceptance in our temperament/the image of God in us and self-denial in our character/our sinful reactions.
And this model points to our future. One day, if we trust in Christ, we will go to heaven cleansed of sin and freed to be who we were meant to be, ‘a restoration of the life you always wanted,’ as Keller puts it.5 There we will be perfect, but not identical. We don’t lose our personality being swallowed up into the cosmic whole – that’s Eastern religion. No, we find ourselves in God. C. S. Lewis saw how Christ renews personality and so commented: ‘How monotonously alike all the great tyrants and conquerors have been: how gloriously different are the saints.’6 Or Francis Schaeffer writes about how in comparison to other worldviews ‘every place we turn in Christianity we find that we are brought face to face with the wonder of personality.’7 They both knew being a Christian was not about all becoming identical, but being united in Christ whilst being different. Unity in diversity.
So then, on the earth, let us work with our temperaments, let us work with the bodies entrusted to us, let us work with the natural and spiritual talents we have or don’t have, with self-acceptance. And when we sin, when we sow bad habits, when we misuse our bodies or when we get frustrated with our limitations, let us repent and turn back to Christ. So that, in self-acceptance and self-denial, we might serve him as we were always meant to.
I want to leave you with a question to see if you are keeping these truths in balance, and it is this: Do you enjoy the person God is making you to be?
I answered ‘no’ a year ago, thinking that to do so was to be proud, but if we truly recognise that we are made in God’s image and are part of God’s workmanship, it is sinful to complain as to how he is moulding you and me and sinful to reject his good work in us. Instead, we need to arrive at the sober judgment of ourselves of Romans 12.3, regularly repenting of our sins and also accepting God’s image in us.
1. Joe Rubino, The Self-Esteem Book, cf http://www. huffingtonpost.com.au/2016/08/01/four-in-five-austral-ian-women-have-low-self-esteem_a_21443099/ for 80% of women having low body self-esteem. 2. John Calvin, Institutes, 2.2.10. 3. For example Adams, Christian Counselor’s Manual, 143-7 or Adams, The Biblical View of Self-Esteem, Self-Love and Self-Image (Eugene, Oregon: Harvest House Pubs, 1986), pp. 82-4. For a more modern author, defending a similar view see Lou Priolo, Note #6 –Does God Want To Build Up Man’s Self-Esteem? The Journal of Modern Ministry 3, no. 1 (2006). 4. David Keirsey, http://www.keirsey.com/temper-ament_vs_character.aspx. 5. Tim Keller, The Reason for God, p. 32 6. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, p. 190. 7. Francis A. Schaeffer, The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer: A Christian Worldview (vol. 1; Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1982), p. 169. The God Who is There.