In 1969, Nathaniel Branden wrote a book that sparked a national obsession. It was called The Psychology of Self Esteem, and by the 90s it had spawned a full-blown social movement. School districts were purchasing self-esteem curriculum, employers were hiring self-esteem consultants to boost morale, politicians were lobbying for self-esteem task forces, and entire corporations devoted to self-esteem training were cropping up across the nation. It’s estimated that by 2015, revenue from the self-esteem and self-help movements averaged $10 billion a year.
Despite increasing research about the negative impact of the self-esteem craze, it’s a movement that just won’t die. The reason is simple: we love loving ourselves. From self-esteem to the selfie stick, egoism is the nomenclature of our world.
The problem is, it’s radically anti-biblical.
Nearly two thousand years before Nathanial Branden wrote his book, Jesus sat on a mountain and preached the most famous sermon of all time. In it, He blessed the humble and brokenhearted, the pure, persecuted, righteous, and merciful. He linked these attributes with staggering rewards: comfort, satisfaction, sonship, the Kingdom of Heaven itself. Why? Because the meek and mourning look to God. The pure and righteous love God, and the persecuted live for God.
The first and greatest problem with the self-esteem movement is that when we esteem ourselves, we don’t esteem God. Biblically speaking, the esteem of self is pride, and there are two ways that it shows up in our lives. The first is obvious: self-exaltation. We all know people who like to make much of themselves. They name-drop. Vacation-brag. Snap a perfect picture and post it with a caption like #justwokeup. If we’re honest, we’re all guilty of self-exaltation from time to time.
But the opposite face of pride is subtler. It’s self-condemnation. When Kelly and I first got married, we lived in College Park overlooking a golf course. We watched these golfers with beautiful drives, who were terrible putters. They’d get so frustrated when it took them forever to finally sink the ball. At first glance they almost seemed “humble” because they were so hard on themselves. But consider why they were hard on themselves. Fundamentally, they were frustrated because they believed, “I should be better than this.” Their pride condemned them.
The same is true of the teenager who believes, “I should be more popular than this.” Or the forty-something who thinks, “I should be skinnier (or wealthier, or more accomplished, or better at parenting…) than this. We condemn ourselves not because we’re humble, but because we’re arrogant. If we are to become people who reflect the Sermon on the Mount, the conversation needs to change. We need to begin talking about self-image, not self-esteem.
The second greatest problem with the self-esteem movement is that it measures itself by itself. Imagine going to a counselor to confide that you have difficulty developing deep relationships. The counselor diagnoses your problem as low self-esteem. The solution is self-esteem therapy. Notice then, that self-esteem is both the problem and the solution. It’s inherently contradictory.
Self-image, on the other hand, measures itself by God. As people created in the image of God, from time to time we ought to examine ourselves in light of Him and ask, “Where do I see (and not see) alignment?” As we identify areas of misalignment—perhaps that we’re lacking patience or purity—we repent and seek to grow. In this way, we become more and more like Christ. When you copy a picture, your drawing will never look as perfect as the original, but the goal is to get as close as possible, becoming “imitators of God” (Ephesians 5:1). That’s sanctification. As we grow in Christlikeness, we can turn to others and say, as Paul once said, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (I Corinthians 11:1). That’s discipleship!
It all begins with looking at God, not ourselves. When we look at ourselves we will always fall into either exaltation or condemnation. But when we look at God, we’re able to properly diagnose ourselves. A true diagnosis, based on the image of God, doesn’t lead to condemnation, but freedom. If a doctor told me I had cancer, I wouldn’t say, “Why are you judging me?” I would say, “Thank goodness you caught it! Now, what do we do?”
Recognizing we are “sick” with sin liberates us to run to the Remedy. The Remedy isn’t self-help tapes. Or looking in the mirror and listing ten things you like about yourself. The Remedy is a Person; it’s the incomparable joy of becoming more like Him every day.