WHAT’S BETTER THAN SELF-ESTEEM?
But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).
Self-esteem: all of us need it but too few of us have it. At least that’s what everybody seems to be saying. Psychologists and psychiatrists keep telling us that self-esteem is the one thing everybody needs to enjoy mental health. Teachers try to build self-esteem in their students, and many pastors also sing the praises of self-esteem. One prominent preacher wrote a book with the title, Self-Esteem: The New Reformation, in which he says, “Self-esteem is … the single, greatest need facing the human race today.” Even Gloria Steinem, the renowned feminist, recently wrote a book titled Revolution From Within: A Book of Self-Esteem. A host of voices keep telling us that self-esteem is what all of us need and what too many of us lack.
When we look at the facts, however, it’s not so obvious that there’s a shortage of self-esteem. If anything, there seems to be a surplus.
Just take a look at America’s high school seniors. Every year a million seniors take an aptitude test, and when they do, the College Board also invites them to indicate various things about themselves, including, “How do you feel you compare with other people your own age in certain areas of ability?”
In “leadership ability,” 70 percent rated themselves above average, 2 percent below average. Sixty percent view themselves as better than average in “athletic ability,” and only 6 percent below average. In “ability to get along with others,” zero percent of the 829,000 students who responded rated themselves below average, 60 percent rated themselves in the top 10 percent, and 25 percent rated themselves among the top 1 percent. If all these youth are as easy to get along with as they think, it’s hard to know how there could be any problems in relationships at all!
And lest you think that only the youth have an inflated opinion of themselves, take a look at their teachers. One study found that 94 percent of college faculty think themselves better than their average colleague. They can’t all be right.
When we move from students and teachers to the general population, a study by the Barna Research Group found that 83% of those surveyed consider themselves “successful,” 82% think of themselves as “well-informed,” and 76% picture themselves as “well-educated.” George Barna summarizes the situation this way: “Most of us feel we are a cut above average.”
After dealing with data like this, you can’t help wondering whether low self-esteem is really as widespread a problem as we’re told. Perhaps the problem isn’t that people don’t think of themselves highly enough; it appears to be far more common that they think they’re better than they really are. Could it be that most of us don’t need better self-esteem as much as we need a better self? If only people were as capable and as virtuous in reality as they are in their own minds, this would be a wonderful world indeed!
Now, I don’t want to dismiss too quickly the very real issues that lie behind the self-esteem movement. Some people during their childhood years were abused or neglected, or were constantly insulted and belittled. As a result, they often experience a deep sense of insecurity and a lack of dignity, even if they appear to be self-confident and important. Such people have a need that goes deeper than a lack of self-esteem, however. Their most basic problem is that they are starved for love. They need to come to terms with their painful past when they missed the love they craved, and they need to know that they are loved. That is their greatest need.
And that is the greatest need of every one of us: not so much to think that we are successful or important or intelligent or good-looking, but to know that we are loved. Our deepest, most basic need is not for self-esteem, but for love. I suspect that one reason self-esteem matters to so many people is that, deep down, they are trying to convince themselves that they are loveable enough to be loved. What we need most, however, is not a love that is based on how loveable we are, but a love that is unconditional, that embraces us even when we aren’t very loveable.
Once you know you are loved with an unconditional love, low self-esteem is no longer much of a problem. It’s not so much that you have more self-esteem; you simply don’t have to spend much time wondering about yourself at all. Love sets you free from that. When you know you are loved, there’s no need to worry about how loveable you are.
So what’s better than self-esteem? To be loved unconditionally. We learn about this kind of love on the pages of the Bible. God’s Word says some things about us that are far from flattering, that don’t appeal directly to a hunger for self-esteem. In fact, the Bible sometimes attacks our pride, it destroys any confidence we might have in ourselves, and that doesn’t always sit well with those who think that our greatest need is self-esteem. But God is just speaking to us realistically, and he does this in order to provide us with something even better than self-esteem: the good news of his unconditional love.
God shows his love most clearly at the cross of Jesus Christ. Because our sins and failures caused Jesus’ death, we won’t be able to get much self-esteem at the cross. However, the cross provides something even better: the boundless and unconditional love of God.
In Romans 5:6-8 the Bible says, “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
We think that someone is a hero if he is willing to die for someone else. Remember when a deranged young man tried to shoot President Reagan? Remember how a Secret Service agent quickly leaped between the gunman and the President and took a bullet in the stomach as a result? The agent didn’t die, but his willingness to sacrifice his life for that of the president was certainly heroic. We admire a man like that. It’s rare that one person is willing to die for another, though for someone extremely important or especially good, someone might possibly dare to die.
But the love of God goes beyond even that. Jesus didn’t die for people who were powerful and virtuous and important. Look at what the Bible says: “when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly”; “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us”; and a few verses later: “when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son” (v. 10). In just a few sentences, the Bible uses four rather unflattering terms to describe us: “powerless,” “ungodly,” “sinners,” and “God’s enemies.” That’s hardly the kind of language to boost our self-esteem and make us feel better about ourselves.
But this is exactly where we see how amazing God’s love really is. Jesus didn’t just die for important people; he died for those who were “powerless.” He didn’t die for godly people; he died for the “ungodly.” He didn’t die for virtuous people; he died for “sinners.” He didn’t die for his friends; he died for “God’s enemies.” As long as we try to convince ourselves that Jesus died for us because we somehow deserve it, that God loves us so much because we are so loveable, we miss the point entirely. Real joy and security are based on the unconditional love of God, not on convincing ourselves that we are wonderful.
The Lord began to make this clear already very early in the history of his people. When he chose the Israelites as his own special people, his choice was not based on their qualifications. Did God choose them because they were such a large and powerful nation? Hardly. They were slaves, and not many in number. In Deuteronomy 7 the Bible says, “The Lord did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the Lord loved you …” (Deuteronomy 7:7-8). Why did God choose them? Love. Pure love. That was the only reason.
God didn’t choose them because of their power or prestige, and their goodness had nothing to do with it, either. Two chapters later, in Deuteronomy 9, the Bible says, “Understand, then, that it is not because of your righteousness that the Lord your God is giving you this good land to possess, for you are a stiff-necked people” (Deuteronomy 9:6). They were stubborn and rebellious. God didn’t give them the promised land because of their righteousness; he gave it to them in spite of their unrighteousness.
Later, they plunged so deeply into sin and idolatry that God punished them by allowing them to be conquered, and they were exiled from the land. However, the Lord promised that he would bring them back to their own land and that he would bring about a great spiritual revival. “I will give you a new heart,” said the Lord, “and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you ..” The people would worship the Lord and enjoy prosperity once again. And how would they feel about themselves when God had restored them? Listen to what the Bible says in Ezekiel 36:
Then you will remember your evil ways and wicked deeds, and you will loathe yourselves for your sins and detestable practices. I want you to know that I am not doing this for your sake, declares the Sovereign Lord. Be ashamed and disgraced for your conduct, O house of Israel” (Ezekiel 36:31-32).
After God’s people were rescued, they wouldn’t have a lot of self-esteem. They would have a new self, and they would feel a healthy sense of shame over their old self. They would realize that it was not their own goodness that had saved them, but only God’s faithfulness to his own character.
When we look at the teaching of Jesus himself, we see that he taught his followers to depend only on the love and mercy of God, not on themselves. “To some who were confident of their own righteousness,” he told a story about a very religious, respectable man who went to the temple and prayed to God. This man had plenty of self-esteem. In fact, he spent his whole prayer bragging about himself to God. But there was also another man who went to pray. This man was a sinner, and he knew it. He was too ashamed even to look up to heaven, and he cried out, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Jesus said, “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:9-14). That is the heart of the gospel: those who base their security on themselves are lost, while those who give up on their own qualifications and depend only on the merciful love of God find new life.
Our own unworthiness and God’s amazing love are seen most clearly in the light of the cross. According to the Bible, Jesus died for people who could only be described as “powerless,” “ungodly,” “sinners,” and “God’s enemies.” So if self-esteem is the thing you want more than anything else, then I’m sorry, but the cross is not the place to find it. However, if you’re interested in something even better than self-esteem, the cross is the place to discover an unlimited supply.
The cross shows us the staggering magnitude of God’s love–the Lord held back nothing, not even the life of his own Son. The apostle John says: “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us” (1 John 3:16). A little later John writes, “God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:8-10). That’s exactly what the apostle Paul says in Romans 5:8, the text I read earlier: “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). The Lord’s love is so great that he sacrificed his very life to turn his enemies into his friends.
And, reasons Paul, if Jesus died for us while we were his enemies, he’s certainly going to keep loving us after we become his friends, until our salvation is complete. That gives us a sense of peace and joy to which self-esteem can’t begin to compare.
Outside of his relationship to Jesus Christ, the apostle Paul had a very high degree of self-esteem and self-confidence. In Philippians 3:4 he says, “If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more.” Paul then describes how he was born with a prestigious pedigree. He says that he was extremely zealous in defending the cause he believed in, and he followed all the right rules.
But Paul goes on whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not have a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ–the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead (Philippians 3:7-9).
Paul considered all his qualifications to be garbage compared to the wonder of knowing Jesus. He had found something far better than self-esteem. He had discovered God’s love.
Like Paul, you may have some qualifications that you consider to be very important. You may feel good about your family background; you may be proud of your record of standing up for the causes you believe in and living by the principles you think are important. But if you discover the love of God revealed in the death and resurrection of Jesus, all these things begin to seem like rubbish by comparison. You’ve discovered something much better than self-esteem. You’ve discovered the amazing love of God.
And in the light of the cross, you understand that many of the things you were proud of are actually reasons to be ashamed. Paul was proud of his zeal for the causes he believed in, but his zeal had turned him into a persecutor of the church and an enemy of God. Once Paul met Jesus, he realized that he had not earned God’s approval by what he was doing. In fact, if God had given him what he deserved, it would have been hell.
The same is true of us. Let’s not kid ourselves about this. We can’t earn God’s approval on our own. We don’t deserve his love. Jesus suffered in our place and took the punishment we deserve for our sins. The cross of Jesus humbles us, showing that on our own, we face nothing but hell. If I’m okay and you’re okay, then why did Jesus have to die? If we could be right with God based on our own character and actions, “then Christ died for nothing!” (Galatians 2:21).
I recently saw a cartoon in which a patient is lying on a psychiatrist’s couch. The psychiatrist is saying, “Sure, robbery and rape and murder are evil. You’ve done some bad things, but that doesn’t make you a bad person.” The cartoonist was having a little fun with a favorite slogan of the self-esteem movement. The Bible takes a more realistic approach. The fact that we do bad things does mean that we are bad persons, that we have a sinful nature. We don’t just need new self-esteem; we need the new self that God in his love provides through Jesus.
I don’t want you to misunderstand at this point. The cross shows us that much of our self-confidence is misplaced and mistaken, but it doesn’t do this in order to insult us and demean us. God doesn’t remove our self-confidence simply to make us feel worthless and filthy; he removes our self-confidence to make room for something even better: confidence in him.
When God isn’t the center of your life, you will be the center. You will be the most important person in your life, and of course you want the most important person in your life to love you. You’ll be more preoccupied with loving and admiring yourself than with enjoying God’s love for you and loving him in return. But self-love is a poor substitute for God’s love.
God wants us to trust in his love. He want his people to be realistic about their own faults and shortcomings, and to know that we are loved in spite of the fact that we aren’t perfectly loveable. Our pride must give way to his love.
This may not do much for your self-esteem, but so what? Once you know that God loves you, self-esteem isn’t even an issue.
Many people are seeking self-esteem because their thirst for love remains unquenched. They’re not sure anyone else loves them, but maybe they can at least learn to love themselves.
However, when God’s love in Jesus becomes the source of your security and joy, you discover that you are loved with an everlasting, unconditional love. Through faith you learn that God chose you in Jesus from before the foundations of the world (Ephesians 1:3-4), and that through the cross God has adopted you as his child. Even if you’ve endured a painful past in which you were deprived of love, you can trust in Jesus and discover an even more distant past in which God has loved you from all eternity. Your security and joy don’t depend on your own qualifications, or even on how you were treated as a child, but on the unconditional, faithful love of God himself.
When you put your faith in the love of God and receive a new self through Jesus, you can say with Paul, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). And then your motto becomes: “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Galatians 6:14).
So if you want the greatest thing in the world, turn to the cross of Jesus Christ. Let your mind explore the wonder of God’s love. Think of the anguish Jesus suffered to remove the barrier between us and God. Think of the infinite love that moved Jesus to give his life for people who didn’t love him. Keep reminding yourself: “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
Father in heaven, we are humbled when at the cross when we see the horror of our sin and what it cost you. But we also rejoice in your boundless love. Lord, some listening to me still need to experience the wonder of your love. Where there is pride, remove it. Where there is a desperate longing for love, satisfy it with yourself.
Draw each one to the foot of the cross, Lord Jesus, that they may know the fullness of your love. Then shed your love abroad in their hearts, O Holy Spirit, that they may rejoice in you. Amen.
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.