The Spiritual Quagmire of Self-Esteem

Posted by on Sep 5, 2012 in Sam | 12 comments

Written by Sam Williamson

The Times of London once asked leading British intellectuals to write an essay answering this question, “What is wrong with the world?” G. K. Chesterton responded with a postcard,

     Dear Sirs,

     I am.

     Sincerely yours,

I think that’s right. He is the problem. I mean, I am. (The former slips out so easily, doesn’t it? Isn’t the problem with the world everybody else?)

Chesterton’s response challenges our modern Self-esteem philosophy. We’re taught to build up our self-esteem, to feel we are worthwhile, to believe in our value.

Yet cracks are forming in the self-esteem movement. Loren Slater, a psychologist and writer, wrote a critique of self-esteem. In it she says,

There is enough evidence from 20 years of studies to conclude that people with high self-esteem pose a greater threat to people around them than people with low self-esteem, and low self-esteem is not the source of any of our country’s biggest problems. (The Problem With Self-Esteem)

I think Chesterton would agree with Slater’s observation, that “low self-esteem is not the source of any of our country’s biggest problems.”

Because we are.

Grasping for self-esteem (or self-worth) is a way of trying to get glory from something other than God, and it always, inevitably, fails miserably. Let’s look at two examples from scripture.

A tale of two kings

King Saul began his life as a hick boy from the farms. Then God made him king. But Saul wasn’t content with the kingship gift from God; he needed to earn it, to prove to God (and himself) that he was worth the gift. He rejected esteem that comes as a gift and grasped for esteem that comes from self-value.

In Saul’s need for personal self-esteem, he disobeyed God in a raid. Then he “set up a monument to himself” (1 Sam. 15:12), and finally he brought home the conquered king.

Saul is now a King of Kings. He is finally something. He feels pretty good about himself.

Samuel corrects Saul with, “Though you are little in your own eyes, are you not the head of the tribes of Israel? The Lord anointed you king over Israel” (vs. 17). Samuel commends Saul when he is “little in his own eyes.” He asks, why can’t you be satisfied with God’s undeserved affirmation?

Saul’s repentance is anything but heart change; “I have sinned; yet honor me now before the elders of my people and before Israel, and return with me” (vs. 30) He clings to the high self-esteem of kingship over the low self-esteem of, “It was just a gift,” and, “I am the problem.”

And then there’s David

King David also began life as a hick boy from the farms. Then God made him king. David’s sins are worse than Saul’s. He commits adultery with a close friend’s wife, his cover-up is worse than Watergate, and he arranges the murder of one of his top generals.

When Nathan corrects him, David’s response is Psalm 51, Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin!

David doesn’t say, “Have mercy on me because I deserve it,” or “blot out my transgressions because I feel really bad.” He doesn’t grasp for his kingship. There was no, “Honor me now before the elders.

He asks God to look at him solely on the basis of God’s “steadfast love and abundant mercy.” David says “I’m the problem with the world, and I need your help.”

Saul grasped for self-esteem. David grasped for God.

And isn’t that the gospel?

The gospel originally spread among the poor, the slaves, the outcast, and the socially marginalized. It spread not because these people were great or had high self-esteem.  It spread because they knew they weren’t and didn’t.

The gospel is not God affirming the greatness of the great; it is God pouring his greatness into the lowly. The gospel is not God crowning the virile prince; it is God turning the boyish shepherd into a king.

The gospel is not God saving the worthy (or those who think they are); it is God saving the unworthy and who know it. As C. S. Lewis paraphrased Paul, “To have died for valuable men would have been not divine but merely heroic; but God died for sinners.”

In the end, though, the gospel provides us with ultimate confidence. To be loved—not merely pitied, but loved—by the Most Beautiful; to be honored by the Most Honorable; to receive God’s love while in the midst of knowing we don’t deserve it; well, if that doesn’t help us lift our heads, no personal self-esteem ever will.

Self-esteem is fragile. We will fail. The gift of undeserved esteem from God is strong and eduring. We’ll always be unworthy of the gift. That can’t be taken away.

G. K. Chesterton described Christians this way, “We become taller when we bow.”


© 2013 Beliefs of the Heart

12 Responses to “The Spiritual Quagmire of Self-Esteem”

  1. ahh.. wonderful. Thanks, Sam. I have never been a person to be considered as having “great self-esteem” and would probably be considered pretty deficient now if there was a meter. I knew my pastor of my early days as a Christian was onto something when he’d tell us “forget self-esteem… get Jesus-esteem.” I now understand the truth of that more fully after reading this. I have had the privilege of the experiences of being publicly loved, and publicly hated. To base my identity on either is truly undependable… and at times, downright destructive. I am now learning to base my identity on what God – and only God – says about me; not what circumstances say, not what others say that don’t know me deeply or love me, but what God says, as my “reality” of who I am is broken at best, but His Reality is the bottom line Truth. It is powerful, fruitful, and amazing. And yes, I can say I am one of those low enough to say “God, I need You. I can’t do life without You.”

    A recent prayer went like this… “Tell me the Truth, tell me the Truth, tell me the Truth of who I am…”

    His answer back has been, “I will, I will, I will…”

    And He is. 🙂

    • Hi Linda,

      I like your line, ” I have had the privilege of the experiences of being publicly loved, and publicly hated. To base my identity on either is truly undependable… and at times, downright destructive.”

      Exactly. Any “self-esteem” we get other than from God (that includes getting it for ourselves or from others) is transitory and fragile. It just won’t last.

      But! If we receive the love of the Father, if we hear, “Beloved,” then we have something–a lasting identity.



  2. Sam,

    A wonderful reminder, and apropos to my comment on esteem in the mailroom. My compass needle can steer me wrong when I am not referencing true north. Thanks.

  3. Sam –
    Just this morning I came to the realization that I had gotten off track
    and I had to repent, ask for forgiveness and pray for the rescue
    of my Savior’s great love for me. My sin was the very thing you
    have so aptly described. It came thru pride and now that Jesus
    has removed the scales from my eyes, I see my self esteem
    issue for what it was. Thank you for turning on the lightbulb!

    • Hi Robert,

      I love your prayer, “for the rescue of my Savior’s great love for me.”

      THAT is what we need most. Not to feel a self-justification of self-esteem, but to feel His love of us.

      I love how you said that. Thanks,


  4. Thomas Eric Herrington says:

    Perfect timing…I was just crying out to God and He lead me to this.

  5. Self esteem is so much nonsense. It doesn’t breed a healthy view of self, it breeds an unnecessarily inflated view of self. California had to slow in places, stop in others, their teaching of self esteem because students were beating up and occasionally killing teachers who gave them C’s or B’s when they were clearly the kind of people who deserved A’s. (Note, they did not think of themselves as doing “A” work, they were the kind of people who deserved “A’s.”
    Look up Narcissistic personality disorder, Narcissism and “Malignant Self Love” a phrase popularized by Sam Vaknin. I happen to think that Obama is a malignant narcissist as was Bill Clinton, though Clinton not nearly to the extent that Obama is.
    Be aware of the major bad fruit that comes from “self-esteem”. Okay, I’ll stop now.

    • Hi Kyle,

      It is interesting you reference “malignant self-love.” I like that phrase. This self-esteem addiction is malignant, a type of cancer that infects us. And like addiction, it promises something that it fails to keep.



  6. Timely, Sam. God recently confronted/lovingly disciplined me on this subject. There is a sneaky search for significance in my flesh that is always desiring to be fed. I don’t like it.

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