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 Self Esteem and the Bible
By Tom Brown

This is a hotly debated issue in the body of Christ.

            On one side of the issue are those who feel that self esteem is the most important quality for success. They prize it above everything. They feel all could be solved—crime, unhappiness, poverty—if people just had self esteem. Famed TV pastor and best selling author, Dr. Robert Schuller felt so strongly about the benefits of self esteem he wrote a book entitled, “Self Esteem: The New Reformation.” He saw self esteem as the new battle ground for religion.

            Others have taken him up on this battle. There are those on the opposite side of the spectrum that see the movement of self esteem as simply humanism taking over the church. They believe self esteem is simply pride in another garb. Humility should be promoted, not self esteem, the opponents say. They feel so strongly against self esteem, they view those who believe in it as workers of the devil.

            Like most controversial issues, the truth is somewhere in the middle.

The Thermometer

            Your self image can be likened to a thermometer. What temperature should an outdoor thermometer read? It should read precisely the temperature outside. If it always read 72 degrees, would it be a good thermometer? No, even if you wanted the temperature to be 72, you do not want the thermometer to lie to you. You want it to be honest. Like me, you may hate 100-degree weather, but you want the thermometer to be accurate and tell you it is 100 degrees if that were the truth.

            I bring this up because the thermometer is your “self image.” Your self image should properly reflect who you are not necessary what you wish to be. On a scale of 1 to 10 what is your self image? We all have our opinion. If you say you are an 8 but really you are a 7, then you have exaggerated your importance. The goal is to accurately know yourself. The healthiest believer is one who can correctly evaluate who he or she is. Usually, you are not as great as you think or as bad as you think.

            We all get our self image from two things: words and actions. The words people have spoken over you and the things people have done for or against you have helped shape your self image. This is especially true when you were a young child and far more impressionable.

            If you had parents who spoke well of you and believed in you and did things to help make your life great, then you will likely have a high self image, which usually translates to happiness. On the other hand, if you had parents that put you down constantly and perhaps abused you, then you will likely have a low self image.

            My goal in this article is allow God to create within you the right self image based on the gospel. The gospel reveals what God did for us and what He says we are in Christ. Through the sacrifice of Christ and through the words God has spoken over our lives, we can create a right “in Christ” image of ourselves.

Back to the Bible

            When sincere and seemingly good Christians have different yet very dogmatic views on the subject of self esteem, the best thing to do is to go back to the Bible. See what it has to say. The scripture that speaks loudly on this is Romans 12:3:

For by the grace given 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 measure of faith God has given you.

            The Bible warns us not to think more highly than we ought. It does not forbid us to think highly of ourselves, but simply not to think more highly. The word “more” deals with quantity. The issue is not whether you should think well of yourself, but whether or not you have gone too far. Paul makes this clear in 2 Corinthians 10:14, “We are not going too far in our boasting.” The issue is only a matter of degree.

            To those who see self esteem as a new, great virtue, they can’t imagine it is possible to think too highly. They believe the only error is to think too lowly. Yet this is not the biblical warning.

            Paul explains that when it comes to viewing oneself that you must use sober judgment. The word sober means sobriety, the opposite of drunkenness. My dad was a bar owner, and one thing I saw plenty of was drunk people. There is a common denominator with drunken people, and that is their false belief in their greatness.

            I saw many men who thought they were the greatest lovers while they were drunk. They imagined every woman was after them. Little did they know they were actually abhorrent to them.

            I have also seen them stumble out of the bar almost falling over, and someone would actually commit to giving them a ride home, but their pride refused them. With slurred speech and a pointed finger, “I am alright. I can drive better drunk than sober.”

            I’ve tried witnessing to drunks and discovered that they think they are great theologians. They alone know the secrets of God. They are so full of themselves, but can’t see it.

            It is a funny thing what alcohol can do to someone’s sensibilities. They can’t reason right. This is what Paul attempted to teach us. By using the word sober he wanted to impress upon us the need to not exaggerate our prominence like drunks are so prone to do.

            Does this mean we should go to the other extreme and put ourselves down? No because the passage does not say to think “lower” of ourselves than we ought. It says to think of our self based on the measure of faith that God has given us. Again, the word “measure” speaks of quantitative and should relate to the word “more” highly. In other words, we should accurately base our self image on the truth of the real measure of our faith that is demonstrated through our gifts. We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man's gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith (v. 6).

Gifts

            Let me give an example: suppose you are a great Bible teacher. It is clear you have the gift to explain the scriptures. The pastor calls on you to teach, but with “false humility” you tell him that you are nothing. You suggest that someone else should teach, yet you know them to be less qualified than you. You do this because you do not want to be prideful. However, you are not prideful in recognizing your gifts. If you have the gift, then you should take your position and use the gift to help others. No need to pretend that you do not have the gift.

            On the other hand, if you wanted so desperately to teach but did not have the gift to teach, you would be in pride to try to usurp the pastor’s authority and teach without his approval. It would also be wrong if your ego were hurt because the pastor never called on you to teach.

            There are many egotistical people who think they have gifts when they do not. Have you ever seen the TV show “American Idol”? Then you know what I mean. Many young men and women try out for the show. They sing their hearts out to the judges, only to receive a rude awakening.

            Simon, the judge, might say, “You are the worse singer I have ever heard!”

            I’ve seen many contestants get angry. With tears they yell back, “Simon, you don’t know talent if it handed you a card. I’m going to be star without you, and then you will regret turning me down!”

            My family laughs at such outrages behavior. Simon was right. They were horrible singers, but they don’t want to soberly acknowledge it. They are drunk with pride and now can’t be honest with themselves.

            When you get down to defining mental illness you realize one word describes it: delusional. They have lost reality. Basically they have lost the truth about who they really are. I have met many in mental hospitals and they all seem to have one thing in common: they are all deluded in some way about who they are. Many think they are Jesus Christ, or John the Baptist or some great prophet. Or they think they are some great person who has discovered a lost truth. They rarely acknowledge that they are a typical human being with normal importance.

            One of the cases of insanity in the Bible involved King Nebuchadnezzar. How did he lose his mind? His mind became exalted. He thought he was God! Wow! The moment he bragged on his so called accomplishments, He was driven away from people and ate grass like cattle. His body was drenched with the dew of heaven until his hair grew like the feathers of an eagle and his nails like the claws of a bird” (Dan 4:33).

            It was only until he acknowledged that God was above him that his sanity was restored. Here is his testimony: “At the end of that time, I, Nebuchadnezzar, raised my eyes toward heaven, and my sanity was restored. Then I praised the Most High; I honored and glorified him who lives forever.” (v 34)

I’m the Anti Christ

            I have also seen the other side of delusion. Not only have I met people in institutions who thought way too highly of themselves, but I have met those who believed that they were the anti-Christ. They thought they were the son of Satan. One man believed he had only half of a soul. Others believed that they committed the unpardonable sin. Many have told me that they were beyond redemption. One lady told me she had sex with demons. (It wasn’t enough to battle lustful thoughts like most of us; she had to make her sin even worse than it was.) Others thought they committed gross sins that even the blood of Christ could not cleanse them. They were beyond the ability for God to forgive.

            You see if the devil cannot get you into pride; he will get you into false humility. If he cannot make you believe you are super great, he will make you believe you are awfully wicked. A sick mind is produced by either extreme.

Grasshopper Image

            Let's look at how to develop a positive self esteem based on our faith in the Word of God. Here's a great story that will help us to do it: The twelve spies had arrived back to the camp. They had hoped to find some weakness in the enemies to allow them to conquer the land, but no such luck. The enemies were strong and powerful. Ten spies shrunk from God’s promises. They believed more in what they saw than what God had spoken. Yet, Caleb and Joshua refused to doubt God’s promises.

Then Caleb silenced the people before Moses and said, “We should go up and take possession of the land, for we can certainly do it.” But the men who had gone up with him said, “We can't attack those people; they are stronger than we are.” And they spread among the Israelites a bad report about the land they had explored. They said, “The land we explored devours those living in it. All the people we saw there are of great size. We saw the Nephilim there (the descendants of Anak come from the Nephilim). We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them.” (Num 13:30-14:1)

            Notice their problem! They seemed like grasshoppers in their own eyes. They had no confidence in themselves to defeat the enemy. There is something positive to be said about self esteem. There is nothing wrong to have self confidence if the confidence is rooted in God’s word. Pride is when you think you can accomplish great things on your own without God.

            Caleb was self confident! He boldly declared, “We can certainly do it!” Of course he knew it was with God’s help, but what is the point of saying that God can do anything if you won’t let God use you!? Caleb knew that God would not defeat the enemies without their putting forth the effort. This is where self esteem comes in. You must believe that God can use you to obtain victory in life.

            It is a copout to say God can do anything, but then you put yourself down and say you are nothing. No! You must say that “I can do all things through Christ who gives me the strength!” (Phil 4:13). You must break out of your grasshopper image.

            Psychologist calls it “inferiority”. The word is a psychological term and thus is not in the Bible. Some people think if it is not in the Bible it is not true. Well, the word “cancer” is not the Bible, but I assume people had the disease. Some terms are modern medical terms and so you will not find them in the Bible, yet the Bible speaks of them in other ways.

            Instead of using the modern psychological term “inferiority” the Bible uses other terms which mean the same. Here are some of those terms:

1.   False humility.

            Colossians 2:18 says, “Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you for the prize.” If there is such a thing as false humility there must also be true humility. Titus 3:2 says to show true humility to all men. The reason the Bible mentions humility in terms of “true” or “false” is because many are confused as to the real meaning of humility. Some think they are humble if they think badly of themselves, when in reality it may be false humility.

2.   Fear of man.

            Proverbs 29:25 says, “Fear of man will prove to be a snare.” We fear only those who we believe to be greater than us. This is what the ten spies clearly did. They feared the enemies more than trusting in God.

3.   Guilt.

            Clearly the gospel deals with guilt. Guilt is another aspect of inferiority.

4.   Condemnation.

            1 John 3:20 says, “Whenever our hearts condemn us. For God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.” John urged us not to believe everything our hearts tell us. The word “heart” speaks here of our emotions. Even when we feel condemned, John reminds us that God is greater than our critical spirit. God may forgive us, yet we still hold sins against ourselves. We should learn to accept God’s forgiveness instead of beating ourselves because of our past.

5.   Shame

            Surely shame is universal. When one is shamed, he blushes. Blushing is a sign of inferiority. Who does not feel bad about himself when he is shamed?

            As you can see, inferiority is a real condition, even if the Bible uses different terminology.

            So how can we correct an inferiority complex?

A Mirror

Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it—he will be blessed in what he does. (James 1:23-25)

            What is the purpose of a mirror? It is to show you what you look like. James likens God’s Word to a mirror. You remember Snow White? The wicked step mother said to the mirror, “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?” A mirror talks back to us. The mirror tells us who we are! God tells us who we are!

            Many have voices echoing through their minds, like a repeated tape player, constantly telling them who they are. Unfortunately, many of those voices are not of God. They came from authority figures—parents, teachers, ministers—or from peers. They often spoke lies to them.

            Our goal is to differentiate between the lies we have accepted and the truth of the gospel. Many still hold to the lies of the enemy. They allow the devil to destroy any sense of self esteem and thus any hope for happiness.

            Notice that James says when we do the Word we will be blessed in what we do. It is not simply hearing the Word that changes our image, but doing it. We feel good about ourselves when we have acted on the Word of God.

            I always feel good about myself when I forgive, when I love others and do them good. Yet, I feel rotten when I am embittered or mean to others. There is no point to try to develop a positive self image without practicing the Word.

            The Word—like a mirror—will point out changes you need to make. You look in a mirror and notice your hair is messed up. The mirror will help you comb it and make yourself look better, and thus you will feel better about yourself.

            The Bible often points out the changes you need to make, not so God can condemn you, but that you can change, and thus by changing feel good about yourself.

I Look Good in Christ

            When I was young, every year I would go to our city’s amusement park. The one thing I remember is the funny mirror. On one side of the mirror, I looked short and fat; the other side made me appear tall and skinny. Because of my short stature, I preferred to look at myself in the tall side.

            A mirror does not necessarily reflect exactly what you look like, but what the maker of the mirror wants you to see. The mirror of God’s Word does not only reflect what you look like to you and others, but it shows how God sees you in Christ.

            God does not look at us from a natural standpoint—such as how well we behave—but He sees us through redemption. He sees that we are complete in Christ.

            Too many times instead of looking at ourselves from the standpoint of what the Bible says about us, we look at ourselves through the eyes of our own natural understanding. When we do we can’t see the reality of what God has done for us because we are not seeing ourselves in Christ.

            Just like some people look good “in red”, we look a whole lot better "in Christ".

            The phrase "In Christ" unlocks the mystery of the Bible and is the key that opens up to the believer all the treasures of heaven. I challenge you to do something I learned years ago: Read through the New Testament and mark phrases such as…

1.      In Christ

2.      In Him

3.      In the beloved

4.      In whom

5.      through Christ

6.      because of Christ

7.      with Christ

8.      or simply expressions that reveal who you are, what you can do and what you have because you are a believer.

            After marking those verses, turn them into a positive self proclamation.

            For example: Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! (2 Cor 5:17-18) Take this scripture and say out loud about yourself, “I am a new creation, the old has gone, and the new has come!”

            Now do this every day. Find many other verses like this and make them into a positive confession. Saying these scriptures over your life for the rest of your life will change your self image into an “in Christ” positive image. No matter what words people have spoken over your life, the Word of God can break any grasshopper image and bring you victory in Christ.

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