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I Don't Believe in Self-Esteem

Break free from the obsession about our worth

I’m kind of a strange psychologist because I don’t believe in “self-esteem.” Someone with a high self-esteem isn’t necessarily a happy, well-adjusted person. And low self-esteem isn’t a problem to be solved but is a symptom of a deeper, more significant issue.

The problem of self-worth isn’t truly a psychological one; it represents a spiritual symptom. Believing that we generate our own worth is a shaky proposition. Feelings about your value can be as fickle as how your favorite jeans happen to be fitting or whether some guy thinks you're worth dating. You become more or less valuable because you got a raise or your husband left you. When my self-worth is rooted in how I feel about myself, I can be prideful one day and despondent the next.

The problem of self-esteem began when we decided that what we think of ourselves is more reliable and valid than what God has said about us. This can go both ways: sometimes we inflate our worth, and at other times we dismiss our worth. Both conclusions are dangerous. Arrogance can be just as destructive as self-hatred!

Instead of helping someone with their “self-esteem,” I’d rather focus on helping them develop a healthy “self-concept.” You may think I’m splitting hairs with these terms, but there is a key difference. Self-esteem represents how I value myself; self-concept refers to how I see myself.

The healthiest self-concept is represented by seeing yourself based on what is actually true. The problem with many well-meaning counselors and motivational speakers is that they try to make you feel better by saying things that are not necessarily true. You are not in control of your life. You probably can’t be a millionaire and achieve all your dreams. You are not always beautiful and easy to love. There are times when you are not a good wife, mother, or friend. In order to live life based on truth, we need to be willing to embrace the good news as well as the bad.

The Good News

“Why do I matter?” The typical Christian response to this question is easy to recite: “Because you were created in God’s image. He loves you and he has a plan for you life.” Even Bob the Tomato from Veggie Tales got that one right.

While the average Christian woman knows this response, very few of them actually live as if it is true. In fact, during times of pain and doubt, these words of encouragement can feel like shallow platitudes. While we may believe in the concept of God’s love and design, it has very little power in our lives. What my mom or coworkers think of me usually feels much more meaningful than what God thinks of me.

God’s thoughts always represent truth. He knows you intimately. You can’t have a thought that didn’t already know (Psalm 139). However, the power of that truth in your life is directly proportionate to the value you place on him. A stranger’s thoughts about you have very little impact.

What you think about God has a much greater impact on your self-esteem than what you think about yourself.

Only through intimate contact with God does his love become real in your heart and soul. Only when you recognize his eternal purpose and sovereignty does his will for you become meaningful. And only in light of his holiness does Jesus’ sacrifice for you become a true expression of love. As long as God’s holiness, love, and majesty are abstract concepts, what he says about you bears very little influence on your thinking.

The good news is that God longs for an intimate relationship with you! Camp on that for a moment. The sovereign God of the universe has invited you to know him and to share in his kingdom work. The Bible says that you were created for a purpose and for a specific work that God has already determined.

If you want God’s truth to be a powerful reality in your life, don’t spend time getting to know yourself better. Spend time getting to know God!What you think about God has a much greater impact on your self-esteem than what you think about yourself.

The Bad News

Okay, here comes the bad news. We have every reason to have feelings of self-doubt and even self-contempt. We are mortal, weak, selfish, and sinful creatures. Isaiah 64:6 summarizes the bad news:

We are all infected and impure with sin.
When we display our righteous deeds,
they are nothing but filthy rags.
Like autumn leaves, we wither and fall,
and our sins sweep us away like the wind.

That truth won’t sell any tickets to a motivational conference, but it certainly represents reality. We feel self-contempt when we bump up against these truths. It doesn’t feel good to see our physical, emotional, and spiritual ugliness. Everything from cancer to bitterness reminds us that we are temporary and broken creatures.

Worldly advice tells us to cover up and ignore this bad news. Instead of accepting aging, we do everything possible to hide it. Rather than admitting to selfishness, we find a therapist to validate what we want. We redefine our sinful tendencies as normal and healthy rather than accepting our desperate need for God’s intervention. We can spend our entire lives running and hiding from “the bad news,” terrified that our sin and mortality will someday catch up with us. People will discover what we fear to be true.

God has another approach to the bad news. Only when we embrace our sin and weakness can we step toward freedom. In several places in the Bible, men expressed their self-contempt as they admitted the bad news. Here are a few examples:

Job: “I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.”

Paul: “Oh, what a miserable person I am!”

Isaiah: “Woe is me! I am undone, for I am a man of unclean lips!”

David: “I know my transgressions; my sin is always before me.”

While the typical psychologist would scold each of these men for their “negative self-talk,” it was their honesty with sin and weakness that led them to the freedom of redemption. You cannot truly accept the good news about God’s great love until you are willing to admit the bad news about yourself! Christ demonstrated his great love for you by dying while you were yet a sinner! (Romans 5:8).

Jesus said that a physician comes to heal the sick. As long as we deny the bad news, we will never embrace the healing and redemption offered by our loving Savior.

Living the Truth

Every single one of us has issues with self-esteem and self-concept—some expressed through insecurity and others expressed through arrogance. That is because every single one of us struggles to accept both the good news and the bad news. The world’s view of you, based on achievement and accomplishment, is far more convincing than the unchanging truths expressed in God’s Word.

A wise counselor will take your “self-esteem” issues and help you discover truth—not the world’s truth, but what has been spoken about you through God’s Word.

If you are depressed and shackled with doubt, have you accepted the love of God? Does it mean anything to you that Jesus gave his life as a ransom for yours? Do you believe what the Bible says that you are “God's masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago”? (Ephesians 2:10). Does God’s opinion of you mean more than what your father said about you so many years ago?

On the other hand, if your confidence comes through what you’ve accomplished or how you stack up to your peers, beware! That façade of strength is keeping you from the reality your vulnerability and dependence upon God.

This is what the LORD says:

“Don’t let the wise boast in their wisdom,

or the powerful boast in their power,

or the rich boast in their riches.

But those who wish to boast

should boast in this alone:

that they truly know me and understand that I am the LORD

who demonstrates unfailing love

and who brings justice and righteousness to the earth,

and that I delight in these things. (Jeremiah 9:23–24)

God desires for us to break free from this obsession about our worth. He sees his children scurrying around to prove themselves or hiding in corners in fear of failure. Do you long to be free from the tyranny of self-esteem? I do. Ask the Lord to help you embrace his truth about you.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

Juli Slattery

Juli Slattery is a TCW regular contributor and blogger. A widely known clinical psychologist, author, speaker, and broadcast media professional, she co-founded Authentic Intimacy and is the co-author of Passion Pursuit: What Kind of Love Are You Making?

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