Self-Esteem, Pride, and Humility

“God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” – James 4:6

Most of us would not associate self-esteem with pride.  In a very real way, our culture has told us that self-love is the key to happiness, achievement, and worth.  Our children are often told that the problem is that they do not value themselves enough, and that their low self-esteem is the problem behind the problems.  The message this weekend was on humility, in which we also raised some ideas about the issue of self-esteem.  So I thought I would throw a few thoughts on the blog about this topic to give a little clarity.

Part of the problem is that the words “self-esteem” are thrown around but we don’t really define them.  So let me be clear about this first.  I am not saying that low self-esteem is a good thing.  Humility is not self-abasement and self-hate.  So, before I can address the true issue here, I need to throw out a definition of what we are talking about and demonstrate how prevalent these ideas are in our society.

It has been said that the new “Greatest Commandment” is, “Love yourself as you love your neighbor.”  Whitney Houston reminded us that, “To love yourself is the greatest love of all.”  At the center of much of the teaching on self-esteem is the idea that we have a great disconnect within the heart and that the solution is discovering and loving our true self.  That self is never really wrong, and never sinful.  Rather, unhappiness is the result of not rightly seeing ones self, and therefore not pursuing dreams and achievement.  The solution, then, is to look within yourself, love what you see, believe in your potential, and pursue your dreams.

So what is the problem there?  This is the very essence of what the Bible is speaking of when it talks of pride.  Pride is not just a chest-thumping arrogance that brags incessantly.  Pride is a self-reliance that leads a person to believes in his own goodness and ability.  When the Bible says that God opposes the proud, we can so easily cast off the idea as speaking of some NFL football player who struts into the end zone, spikes the ball, and then shows the world how great he is.  Of course this is pride, but it is so much more.  Any point where I look inward for the answers and believe in myself as the solution, I have put “me” at the center of my universe and am putting faith in my own abilities as the solution.  As I do this, I will live for my own glory and will also declare myself as the arbiter of all right and wrong.  “This is who I am, who God created me to be, and He would never ask me to live different from who I am inside.”  The essence of self-esteem is to base one’s hope and reality on the person within, hoping to find meaning and hope from the inner being.  Biblically, this is the essence of pride, and the very issue that causes the first sin in Genesis 3.

The reason the self-esteem message is problematic is that it promises things in our lives that really only come through a dependent relationship with God.  Here are a few thoughts on the self-esteem message and how the solution to what it seeks is found only in Christ.

*What it looks from – the essence of the self-esteem message is that you are essentially a good person of incredible worth, and that if a person would put their mind to it they could accomplish pretty much anything.  It sounds so great, and we want to believe it to be true.  The Bible does affirm our incredible worth, as people created in the image of God.  In fact, no self esteem message has a higher thing to say about people than what the Bible declares in the creation story about being created in God’s image.  Yet, we are sinners by nature and choice, and at the core of our being we are broken and dark.  The idea that if we just put our mind to it, we can accomplish anything is so incredibly limited and fundamentally untrue.  No matter how hard I put my mind behind it, I cannot become a 7-foot NBA star or a concert cellist.  Some people are born with gifts that surpass others.  Furthermore, I cannot solve the problem that lies within, no matter what emotional and mental energies I invest.  Humility is the answer to this because it calls me to see myself clearly, both as an image bearer of God, but also as a sinner in need of redemption. Ironically, much of the self-esteem message flows from a naturalistic world view that believes we were not created, but rather evolved, so essentially nothing more than an accident formed by random processes.  We send our kids to Biology class where they are told they are nothing more than a random set of amino acids, then we send them down the hall were the self-esteem message is that all you need is within yourself.  Interesting!

*What it looks for – Most self-esteem messages seek happiness that is found as one discovers the true self.  Salvation is found through self-actualization, affirmation, and achievement.  The problem is that as one discovers the true self honestly, he or she will find a flawed person who does not live up to expectations and dreams.  Most of the time the “If you dream it you can achieve it” message does not work, because we are so limited.  Believe it or not, the goal of Christianity is also the happiness of the individual.  But a different type of happiness, or joy, that is found when a person is confronted with their own inadequacy which leads them to see the beauty, wonder, and adequacy of God in Christ. We realize that salvation will never come from our efforts, abilities, and achievements.  Rather, salvation comes because God loved us, in spite of our sinful rebellion, and redeemed us from the slavery to sin (Mark 10:45).

*What it looks to – “The answers lie within.”  Self-esteem basically proclaims that the inner person is both the source of truth and the essence of hope.  When a person is successful, this gives them reason to boast and believe they are better than others who do not achieve that level of success.  For those of us who are followers of Jesus, hopefully we are learning that there is something so much better, faith and dependence on Christ.  Humility is the answer to self-esteem because it leads us to look to Christ for our hope.  We can never see ourselves as better than others, rather, we realize that we are in need of God’s grace for everything in life.

*What is looks like – Funny that the more we seek personal happiness in our culture and promote the message of self-esteem, the more we need counseling.  Self-esteem can have results as people pursue something greater, but the end of the self-esteem path is the glory of the seeker.  Even “bad self-esteem” ultimately puts the individual at the center, claiming that the cause of drug abuse, narcissism, anger, and other issues could be solved if the person only had a higher view of self.  Either way, the world ultimately revolves around us, and our accomplishments and power prove our worth.  The humble path also leads to accomplishments and great things.  But for completely different reasons.  Those who follow Jesus see their abilities as gifts from God to be used for His glory.  We work hard, and pursue great things, not because our dreams dictate the pursuit of our greatness, but because God created us in His image and calls us to do our work heartily as if doing it for Him (Colossians 3:17, 23).  But in the end, humility leads us to realize that service to God and others is the best test of greatness, and that no matter the accomplishment or ability, the praise belongs to God alone!  And He is the one who lifts us up!

This is why the Christian must always realize that the Gospel call is to realize that the way up is down.  Self-esteem is veiled pride, which God opposes.  The opposite is not low-self esteem and self-hate, which is really another form of self-centered living.  The Gospel leads us to humbly depending and submitting to God.

Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.  Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time He may exalt you. – 1 Peter 5:5-6

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