The Bible and Self-Esteem
No person is one-dimensional. Actually, there are three views of every individual—the view that God has of us, the opinions that others hold concerning us, and the perception we have of ourselves. Each of these is quite important.
First, let us consider the divine vantage point. This is the assessment that is accurate in every detail. The Lord does not observe people merely outwardly, as humans tend to do; rather, “Jehovah looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). The Lord “knows the hearts of the children of men” (1 Kings 8:39). As the godly Hannah acknowledged in her prayer: “Jehovah is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed” (1 Samuel 2:3). Similarly, Christ once affirmed that He did not need to be educated regarding the inner workings of the human personality, because He Himself “knew what was in man” (John 2:25). If some of the world’s “beautiful people” were turned inside out, and revealed as God sees them, how grotesque they might appear.
Second, there are the sentiments that our peers entertain regarding us. Such assessments are only relatively accurate. Folks may hold an opinion of us that is greatly exaggerated. Those who are in the public eye are rather idealized at times. On the other hand, some, who are sterling in character, sometimes are maligned unjustly. Jesus certainly did not deserve the hateful reproaches that were heaped upon Him. And Paul, the apostle of Christ, suffered a good deal of unmerited character assassination.
Finally, there is that appraisal one makes of himself. Honesty demands that we concede that self-perception may be grossly inflated. That is why we are cautioned not to think more highly of ourselves than we ought (Romans 12:3). We must attempt not to be “high-minded” or “wise in [our] own conceits” (Romans 11:20; 12:16). If we really knew the impressions that others have of us, we might see ourselves in a totally different light, and thus alter our conduct. The Scottish poet Robert Burns produced a short composition titled: “To A Louse.” It pictured a snobbish lady in church, pompously looking down her nose at others, wholly unaware of the fact that a “louse” was upon her bonnet. The ditty contains these lines:
O wad [would] some Power the giftie gie [give] us
To see oursels as ithers [others] see us!
It is important, though, that one have a healthy view of oneself. Jesus said that we should love our neighbor as ourselves (Matthew 22:39). That implies a sound concept of self-esteem. Sadly, however, many appear to harbor a very meager appreciation of themselves—so much so that it hinders their effective service to God, and torments their lives with much unhappiness. We believe the Scriptures address this problem, and offer hope to those who are unnecessarily morose due to the malady of an impoverished self-esteem. In this discussion, I would like to reflect primarily upon three areas: the causes, the characteristics, and the cure for negative self-esteem.
CAUSES OF LOW SELF-ESTEEM
In a discussion of this nature one cannot be exhaustive. It is possible, however, to pinpoint certain known sources of deprived self-esteem. Let us consider the following factors.
Many people have personal esteem problems due to what they perceive as unattractive physical features. From their own viewpoint they may be too heavy, too thin, have a bad complexion, crooked teeth, etc. More likely than not, all of us have physical traits that we would like to alter if such were possible. But the truth is, while physical characteristics may make an initial impression upon others, they are subordinated rapidly to personality qualities. Some, who are quite attractive physically, are so obnoxious in disposition that folks are loath to be around them. Others, who are a bit “plainer,” have tons of friends because intelligent people are attracted to their charm, wit, compassion, or overall spiritual depth.
Some feel badly about themselves because of their limited formal education. But remember this: (a) Some of the wisest and most prominent people of history were not privileged with an abundance of formal schooling. Abraham Lincoln spent less that one year in the classroom, yet he was recognized as a brilliant leader. (b) Some of the stupidest folks of history have been laden with education. The expression “educated fool” did not arise in a vacuum. (c) It is never too late to learn. Some have acquired college degrees in their sunset years. (d) In the final analysis, a knowledge of God’s Word is the best depository of information that one can possess. The noted educator, William Lyon Phelps, once said: “...I thoroughly believe in a university education for both men and women; but I believe a knowledge of the Bible without a college education is more valuable than a college course without the Bible” (as quoted in Dehoff, 1956, p. 13)
Low self-esteem may result from the tragic circumstances in one’s past. For example, a person may have been conceived out of wedlock, or as the result of rape, and so harbor a self-disgust. The late Ethel Waters, a popular singer, was the offspring of a brutal rape, yet she overcame the knowledge of that horrible event and became a famous and gracious performer who sought to help others. Children frequently suffer from low self-esteem because of the vile deeds of their parents. I know a man who, in a drunken rage, murdered a popular city official. The killer’s youngsters languished for years under the humiliation of that brutality. A group of children, all of whom had parents who were divorced, was discussing common problems. Several were overheard reproaching themselves for the break-up of their families. We must learn that we are not responsible for the wicked actions of others. Self-reproach is unwarranted in such cases.
Physical and/or emotional abuse can ravage one’s self-esteem. Not infrequently a parent and/or spouse will berate a child or a companion persistently and viciously, so that the feeling of personal worth in the victim becomes almost nil. An uncaring husband may tell his wife that she is ugly, fat, stupid, or lazy. A good “beating” with words can be as devastating as physical brutality. Some children’s psyches are damaged enormously by sexual abuse. Constant, harsh criticism also can wound a youngster’s sense of personal pride. Victims of abuse must learn that they can get past these horrible experiences and find true happiness in living.
One of the most prominent causes of low self-esteem is an involvement in personal sin. Sin scars terribly. It is sometimes the case that one who loves God deeply, and who strives for spiritual maturity, will, in a moment of weakness, fall into some dreadful form of wickedness. The crushing blow of such a transgression may have lasting effects that so debilitate the person that he/she has a very difficult time regaining a sense of Christian dignity, particularly if others have been privy to the transgression. One cannot but be reminded of the agony of David’s soul following his tragic moral lapse with Bathsheba. His body “wasted away” and he “groaned” throughout the day. There was no relief to his troubled spirit either day or night, until he acknowledged his sin and allowed God to take away his pain (see Psalm 32:3-5). Yielding to evil can rob the conscience of that sense of well-being God intended us to have. But there is a remedy for sin that allows one the opportunity to recapture his sense of joy and purpose. I will discuss that presently.
CHARACTERISTICS OF LOW SELF-ESTEEM
The attitudes that dwell within the mind frequently are reflected in the conduct of a person. An inspired writer affirmed that, as one “thinks within himself, so is he” (Proverbs 23:7). Jesus Himself taught that the state of one’s mind is the fountain of his activity. “For from within, out of the heart of men, evil thoughts proceed” (Mark 7:21). If an individual harbors an unhealthy view of himself/herself, such can be manifested in a variety of distressing ways.
It is no secret that many who are suffering from esteem problems have become victims of substance abuse. Self-depreciation has driven some to immerse their woes in alcohol, hard drugs, or the daily pill-popping routine. Drugs are so deceptive; they promise much but deliver nothing—except carnage. Drug abuse is one of the major problems of our nation, much of which stems from a self-perceived lack of worth and a void of purpose for human existence. Other forms of aberrant behavior also follow in the wake of unhealthy personal attitudes.
A professional counselor recently dropped by my office for a friendly chat. As we discussed the many problems that seem to rob modern society of reasonable mental health, the conversation turned to the phenomenon of accelerated sexual promiscuity among the nation’s citizenry. The counselor confidently affirmed that many youngsters are growing up with no sense of personal value. In thousands of instances they have been neglected and feel quite worthless. Many are casualties of broken homes. Others suffer because their parents are materialistic and so busy working long hours, and at multiple jobs (in order to have more “things”), that they do not have the time to give their children the loving care they so desperately need and want. Accordingly, many young folks, starving for affection, surrender themselves (without reservation) to anyone who is there to provide a warm hug and an understanding heart. And the fact is, what is true for youngsters also is the case for many adults as well. A lack of personal esteem is a prime cause of sexual immorality. Sexual compromise itself then frequently produces additional humiliation. It thus becomes a vicious circle.
A damaged self-view can result in a haughty or critical demeanor. There are two ways some people deal with their perception of a diminutive self-image. They may elevate themselves above others artificially. Or, they may attempt to cut down their associates. The net result is the same. The perpetrator ends up above his peers. For instance, a lack of self-esteem sometimes is reflected in a person’s exaggeration of his accomplishments. A constant tendency to boast of one’s abilities—even to the point of lying about achievements—is a red flag signal. “Let another man praise you, and not your own mouth” (Proverbs 27:2). Correspondingly, the tendency to work continually at tearing down others tells more about the character assassin than anything else. An emotionally healthy person has no need to feed his ego at the expense of others.
A poor self-image sometimes manifests itself in materialism. Some folks feel that if they can surround themselves with an abundance of nice things, it will overcome the feeling of insecurity that seems ever to be with them. We are not suggesting that hard-working people cannot enjoy a quality life as good stewards of the manifold blessings of God. What we are saying is this: The accumulation of material things will not provide the sense of genuine well-being for which each of us longs. Feeling good about oneself, and feeling good about possessions, are entirely different matters. Allan Cohen is professor of management at Babson College in Wellesley, Massachusetts. He is consultant to many large corporations, including Chase Manhattan, Xerox, Polaroid, etc. Professor Cohen contends: “Young people are free to conquer the world—and they don’t want it. Material prosperity has not made life meaningful. The hunger for love and real meaning are the forces behind the psychedelic revolution” (as quoted in Zacharias, 1990, p. 70). Jesus taught: “Take heed, and keep yourselves from all covetousness: for a man’s life consists not in the abundance of the things which he possesses” (Luke 12:15). Riches of the soul will provide you with a sense of excellence that no bank account, home, or automobile ever can.
THE DESPAIR OF SECULARISM
Before we discuss the remedy for poor self-esteem, as set forth in the Sacred Writings, we must observe that the world of philosophy and/or secular psychology has utterly nothing to offer the person of low esteem. The ideology of unbelief cannot generate any true and lasting sense of personal dignity.
The believer may survey the wonders of God’s creation and gasp in contemplation of the fact that all of this was made for humankind. This was David’s sentiment in the eighth Psalm. “When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, The moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; What is man, that thou art mindful of him? And the son of man that thou visiteth him?” (3-4, emp. added). In contrast, skepticism offers nothing but the void of the material world.
In his powerful book, Therefore Stand, the late Wilbur M. Smith had a chapter titled: “The Pessimism of Our Contemporary Skeptics,” in which he cited the testimony of numerous unbelievers relative to their perceptions of human existence and worth. And what a distressing array of complainers it was. Voltaire (the French deist, 1694-1778) said, for example, that except for a “few sages,” the whole “crowd of human beings is nothing but a horrible assemblage of unfortunate criminals.” He further suggested that “the globe contains nothing but corpses.” He concluded: “I wish I had never been born” (as quoted in Smith, 1945, p. 189). Some disposition!
David Hume (1711-1776), the Scottish philosopher who did more to destroy faith in miracles than any other man who has ever lived, wrote:
Where am I, or what? From what causes do I derive my existence, and to what condition shall I return?... I am confounded with all these quotations, and begin to fancy myself in the most deplorable condition imaginable, environed with the deepest darkness, and utterly deprived of the use of every member and faculty (as quoted in Smith, 1945, p. 553).
Little wonder that such a dismal ideology prevails, when one entertains the notion that he serves no real purpose upon this planet; rather, he is merely the unfortunate offspring of the blind and bloody forces of nature.
The English poet Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) was a militant critic of the Bible. In spite of his hostility toward Christianity, Arnold recognized that human existence without a sense of God is bleak indeed. In 1867, he wrote the poem “Dover Beach,” in which he described an environment void of an awareness of divine benevolence. Part of that composition reads as follows:
...the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, not help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkening plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night. (1961, pp. 211-212)
Bertrand Russell, the British agnostic who did so much to oppose biblical religion, once wrote: “...I do know the despair of my soul. I know the great loneliness, as I wander through the world like a ghost, speaking in tones that are not heard, lost as if I had fallen from some other planet” (1968, p. 145). One of Russell’s biographers, in a chapter titled, “The Religion of Sorrow,” quoted the philosopher, in a rare moment of candor: “...the loneliness of the human soul is unendurable; nothing can penetrate it except the highest intensity of the sort of love that religious teachers have preached; whatever does not spring from this motive is harmful, or at best useless” (Monk, 1996, p. 135).
There is, therefore, no need to consult the skeptic for any sense of intrinsic human worth. His philosophy robs us of much and leaves nothing in return. One’s self-perception certainly is not enhanced by entertaining the notion that he is nothing more than a “naked ape”—to borrow from the title of English zoologist Desmond Morris’ book, The Naked Ape: A Zoologist’s Study of the Human Animal (1967).
CURE FOR DIMINISHED SELF-ESTEEM
In marked contrast to the stagnant world of secularism, biblical revelation presents two thrilling facts which, if embraced, can provide one with an exhilarating sense of individual excellence. The first fact is this: Man possesses dignity by virtue of his divine generation. The second is: Though blemished by sin, man can regain his self-esteem through the process of spiritual regeneration. Let us probe these two points more deeply.
Man was made in the very image of God Himself. On the sixth day of the creation week, God said: “Let us make man in our image and after our likeness.... And God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them” (Genesis 1:26-27; cf. 9:6). Woman, having been fashioned from man (Genesis 2:7), also reflects the glory of God indirectly (1 Corinthians 11:7). This circumstance, of course, has no reference to our physical constitution, for God is a spirit Being (John 4:24), not a physical one (Luke 24:39; cf. Matthew 16:17). That “image” then consists of “spiritual qualities, in man’s mental and moral attributes as a self-conscious, rational, personal agent, capable of self-determination and obedience to moral law” (Orr, 1939). Another writer noted that the personality is unique, “linking us to what is above, and separating us from what is below.” (Marais, 1939, 1:146). We are intellectual, self-conscious, volitional creatures—designed by our Maker for fellowship with Him. Even the ancient pagans seem to have retained a vestige of this concept. Aratus, a Greek poet, affirmed: “We are also his offspring” (cf. Acts 17:28). Marais thus concluded: “Psychologically and historically therefore the Bible view [of humankind—WJ] is justified.” Can we actually fathom the unique honor that the Creator has bestowed upon us by endowing us with certain qualities that are intrinsic to His nature? The very contemplation of such is enough to both humble and thrill us.
A second fact that breathtakingly crowns human beings with a wonderful feeling of value is the fact that God bestowed His Son as a gracious, free gift, so that every accountable person has the potential for redemption. All that is necessary to achieve such is to surrender to the Lord’s will (Hebrews 5:8-9). That mankind has strayed from the Creator, and become so flawed religiously and morally, is an indisputable fact. If humanity were reprised according to what it deserves, eternal separation from Jehovah (a horror unimaginable) would be its dismal lot. The wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). There is, however, a way of escape (Hebrews 2:3-4).
Throughout the New Testament, there are repeated affirmations of the universal love of God for fallen man. God so loved the world that He gave His only Son in order to initiate a system of forgiveness (see John 3:16). The Lord would have all men to be saved by means of coming to a knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4). Hear the testimony of John the apostle: “Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed upon us that we should be called the children of God; and such we are” (1 John 3:1). Do we really realize the value of this offer of a child-to-Father relationship with God, as a consequence of Christ’s mission (see Galatians 4:4-5)? Again: “Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10). Can anyone bask in that sort of love and not feel a sense of surpassing value?
It would be superfluous to pile up passages that announce Heaven’s concern for the teeming masses of sinful creatures. They are found in abundance. While we are profoundly grateful for those benevolent declarations, one is taken to a new level of gratitude when he reflects upon the fact that the Scriptures consistently assert the message of God’s love for the individual soul. In that trio of parables given by the Lord in Luke 15—the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost boy—the value of the individual person is underscored forcefully. Heaven is not willing that anyone should perish (2 Peter 3:9). And why not? Because the value of a single soul is worth more than the entire world (Matthew 16:26). The apostle Paul, in discussing why we should respect the tender consciences of our kinsmen in Christ, spoke of “the brother for whose sake Christ died” (1 Corinthians 8:11). Had there been but one sinner in all the world’s history, Christ would have died for him. How can one savor these marvelous truths without feeling a sense of profound awe in the divine order of things? When this concept sinks in and takes root, all of the negative influences in the world—which tend to generate self-deprecation—will fade, leaving us with an appreciation of how very special we are.
There is another factor in the divine scheme of things that has long intrigued me. I first addressed it in the autumn of 1973 at the Lubbock Christian College Lectureship. Here are the interesting details: Prior to His coming to Earth, the eternal, personal Word, identified in the New Testament as Christ (John 1:1), was equal to the First Person of the Godhead (Philippians 2:6). However, as a component of implementing this plan, the Word became flesh (John 1:14), thus emptying Himself of the “independent exercise” of the divine attributes (cf. Thiessen, 1949, p. 296). In this subordinated capacity, the Son could say: “[T]he Father is greater than I” (John 14:28), and Paul could affirm: “[T]he head of Christ is God” (1 Corinthians 11:3). The incarnation did not involve a forfeiture of Jesus’ deity, as some have alleged (see Barclay, 1959, p. 45), but it did entail a subordination of role, and an identification with humanity.
This brings us to an important point. When Christ assumed His submission-role as God-man, was that a temporary status, or was the identity-connection with us permanent? Again, we must express our disagreement with Barclay, who asserted: “[T]he manhood of Jesus was not permanent; He became man, but only for a time...” (1959, p. 46). We believe there is clear evidence that, somehow or another, the voluntary subordination of Christ had permanent ramifications. Consider the following: (1) Even though the Lord already had ascended back into heaven, Paul still was proclaiming that He “is [present tense verb] the Son of God” (Acts 9:20). (2) Again, thirty years or so after the Lord’s ascension, the apostle refers to the Savior, our Mediator before God, as the man, Christ Jesus (1 Timothy 2:5). (3) The writer of Hebrews affirmed: “For both he [Christ] that sanctifies [present participle] and they that are sanctified [present participle] are all of one [nature]: for which cause he is not ashamed [present tense] to call them brothers” (Hebrews 2:11). (4) Even in the final order of things, following “the end,” Christ will deliver all things back to God, and He Himself be subject to the Father (see 1 Corinthians 15:24-28). What is the significance of this? If it is the case that the mission of the Son of God involved an eternal surrender of certain privileges, all for our benefit, it reveals a depth of divine love for us that is utterly staggering. If that does not enhance one’s appreciation for his worth, then nothing will.
Our hearts truly go out to those who labor under the burden of a diminished self-image. I am not suggesting that the healing of such will be easy or immediate. However, I confidently can offer the promise that the solution to such an impoverished disposition does lie with the pages of Holy Scripture. Pore over the Sacred Writings and imbibe the messages of joy and hope found therein. It can be a life-changing experience.
Arnold, Matthew (1961 reprint), The Poetical Works of Matthew Arnold (London: Oxford University Press).
Barclay, William (1959), The Letters to the Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster).
Dehoff, George W. (1956), Why We Believe the Bible (Murfreesboro, TN: Dehoff Publications).
Marais, J.I. (1939), “Anthropology,” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, ed. James Orr (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans), 1:144-152.
Monk, Ray (1996), Bertrand Russell—The Spirit of Solitude (New York: The Free Press).
Morris, Desmond (1967), The Naked Ape: A Zoologist’s Study of the Human Animal (New York: McGraw-Hill).
Orr, James (1939), “God, Image of,” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, ed. James Orr (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans), 2:1264.
Russell, Bertrand (1968), The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell (Boston, MA: Little, Brown).
Smith, Wilbur (1945), Therefore Stand (Boston, MA: W.A. Wilde).
Theissen, Henry C. (1949), Introductory Lectures in Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans).
Zacharias, Ravi (1990), A Shattered Visage (Brentwood, TN: Wolgemuth & Hyatt).