We are told everyday by all kinds of voices in our society (particularly Doctors in various psycho-analysis fields, Oprah, Dr. Phil, commercials, and yes, Joel Osteen, amongst others) that our main goal and desire in life is and should be to make ourselves happy, through our own means, for our own self-esteem, to build ourselves up emotionally. Does this square with the scriptures though? I just looked up the word esteem, by itself, to see what the definition was before defining self-esteem. The consensus I came to from several definitions was that to esteem something means to highly regard, make much of, honor, take pride in, etc. So if I esteem someone, that basically means I honor them, find something good in them above others, etc. I realize that in and of itself that is not a bad thing to esteem someone else. We esteem other people all the time. If you esteem someone more than Christ, then obviously that’s idolatry. But what about self-esteem in light that definition of esteem? What does it mean? It would be one honoring, highly regarding, or thinking very highly of oneself.
It is that very thinking that has permeated Western thought on a massive scale, to where it is an assumed idea that we need good self-esteem, i.e. make ourselves feel good by what we do. Now hear me out. That idea of personal fulfillment and deep heart-satisfaction is not apart from the Scriptures. But what does the world say we need to meet this end? Exalt self and you will find the greatest joy. God says exalt Him and you will find the greatest joy in that. The lie of Satan in the Garden was that we can find joy, happiness, peace, fulfillment outside of what God provides in Himself, that we need to create our own happiness and joy apart from Him, hence the taking of the fruit. So the world, by default, thinks that esteeming yourself in a high regard, i.e. making much of yourself outside of God, is the answer. However, what happens when you fail? You get depressed, beat yourself up, and your whole world crumbles, especially if it is a giant mess up. Why? Because you are basing your worth on your performance.
But what do the Scriptures say about esteeming ourselves, or building up our own value and worth? First, here’s a verse from Romans 12:3:
“For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment.” – Romans 12:3
Let’s look at Paul and his ideology concerning himself.
“The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.” – 1 Timothy 1:15
Next, let’s view what Isaiah says in chapter 6, the well known vision of God, which I have used on several occasions to illustrate someone broken by their sin before a holy God:
“And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” – Isaiah 6:4-5
The list could go on. In Romans 12:3 we are told to think of ourselves with sound judgment. What does this mean? It means we analyze ourselves in light of Scripture, God’s law, and His perfections stated therein. What does God say about our state before Him? What would be the sober(ing) response? Scripture is needed:
“The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” – Genesis 6:5
Youch. What else?
“And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God’s decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.” – Romans 1:28-32
“None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” “Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.” “The venom of asps is under their lips.” “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.” “Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known.” “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” – Romans 3:10-18
I’ll just stop there. What an indictment against us! What is there to esteem in myself if I’m this awful before God? First of all, it is important to note we are not comparing ourselves to other people out in the world, because in all reality, many of us can look morally good compared to some of the nut cases out there. But we’re not comparing ourselves to other fallible sinners, but to an infinitely holy God. That is important to note the context of which we’re speaking. These verses very poetically and forcefully expose what is in each and every one of us: vile and poison that infinitely offends God. What good can come out of a heart that is poisoned like a water well diluted with cyanide? What is there in man to esteem at all? I have no self-esteem! I am a ruined sinner before God with evil intentions, apart from the saving grace of God in Christ. We must come to terms with this. This is one of the reasons the Gospel is so offensive to the world: because in order to be saved, we must admit our condition as being this bad. We are morally bankrupt, depraved in our heart of hearts. Neglecting to see the radical depravity of our souls is to miss the cross altogether. For on the cross, we are shown how awful we are: we killed the Lord of Glory from all eternity. But also how much mercy there is in God for that radical wickedness. Praise Him that He rose from the grave to give us hope!
What about Paul’s view of himself in 1 Timothy 1:15? “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.” Paul had such a vision of God, much like Isaiah, that when looking out upon other men even, he viewed himself as the worst sinner. Paul was not a man who esteemed himself at all. Based on that verse, do you think he thought very highly of himself? He claimed to be the foremost sinner of all. In other texts he even boasted in his weaknesses in order to display the power of God in his messages when preaching.
And Isaiah? He was one of the most righteous men in all Israel. And yet when confronted with the infinite power, holiness, might, majesty, frightening, all-encompassing glory of God, he was nothing, a sinner of sinners. Why? Because he saw himself, not in relation to other men, but to God. And even then when comparing himself to others, he saw himself in the same camp: a ruined sinner, broken to pieces before the throne of God.
So after this analysis, what is there left to esteem in ourselves? After reading the accounts of Paul and Isaiah, I cannot imagine them seeking to build up their self-esteem, but rather to be found in Christ alone and the perfect righteousness He provides.
Praise God He did not leave us without any hope though! If this was the end of the story, we would despair of ourselves even to death. But we do have hope!
“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” – 2 Corinthians 5:21
In great mercy, Christ came to save us from the utter ruin of our souls. The point of the bad news within the Gospel in tearing us down spiritually is so that we quit trusting in our own works and what we do and finding ultimate value, satisfaction, joy, peace, and fulfillment in that/ourselves. To esteem yourself is to make much of, highly regard, boast in yourself and your accomplishments. But is this not the antithesis of the Gospel itself, that we become poor in spirit, confess our wickedness, repent and believe the Gospel so as to be saved? What else does this mean to be poor in spirit but to despair of any hope in yourself so that you find your all-sufficient joy in Christ alone? The worlds’ answer to good mental health and good “self-esteem” is to build yourself up by what you do. This is purely moralism, that I make myself right in my own eyes.
But the answer of the Gospel to all areas of life where we are so utterly deficient, as shown in the passages above, is that we expose what wicked people we really are to God, soberly come to terms with that reality, and then turn to see that Christ succeeded in every area where we have failed. We then look to the forgiveness that is in Christ and see we are accepted with finality and completeness. There is nothing more we can do for God to be found right in His eyes than what Christ has already done. Christ perfectly fulfilled every law of God’s you have broken. Christ, even now, has perfect standing with the Father on behalf of those who believe, because of His life’s perfect work, His substitutionary sacrifice on the cross in the place of sinners, and His triumphant resurrection. The answer to man’s plight is not gaining better self-esteem, but rather looking to the Scriptures, having our self-esteem torn down by the sobering reality of who we really are, and built from the foundation upward by the power of Christ, and finding our worth and value in Him. We esteem Him, not ourselves. Augustine said, “Christ is not valued at all unless He is valued above all.” And that includes yourself. In Him alone will you find true joy, true life, in the midst of whatever suffering, sin struggle, etc, because Christ’s powerful work in the cross transcends all situations and He provides supernatural power and strength in time of need. Praise Jesus for His active obedience on behalf of those who believe in Him. As J. Gresham Machen said, “I thank God for the active obedience of Christ. No hope without it.” Esteem the Lord of glory who was slain from the foundation of the world on behalf of His people! He is our all in all!