Raising our self-esteem. Is it the answer to our society’s problems? If we just started thinking better about ourselves, would that cure our depression, anxiety, feeling of failure and lack of love? While the world operates by its own standards, the question I want to ask and am trying to answer is: Should the church focus more on self-esteem in order to help people deal with the daily problems they face, especially mental problems that control their lives?
What do we as people need? Do we need to feel loved? Do we need to feel successful? Do we need to feel accepted? Do we need to feel important? Is that the message that we as the church need to be sharing? Is this how the Bible describes what we need? It sounds good. I mean, I like feeling loved, successful, accepted, and important? But, is there a subtle message here that is evil? I think so. I am open to being corrected here. But, I find hidden in this message the foundation of Narcissism that if we are not careful could cause us to exchange the truth of God for a lie (Romans 1:25).
Here is what I mean:
The fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the LORD is safe.
– Proverbs 29:25
If our pursuit is to feel loved, then we will do whatever we can to get people to love us. We will do nice things for them. Write them nice notes. Do the things they want to do. Etc. Some might ask, “What is wrong with that? I mean, that means we will be others focused, just like Jesus said” But we must be careful here. Think about this for just a minute. If our goal is to get love from people then how they respond to our actions becomes what controls us. We become their slave doing whatever they want so that our love cup is filled. So in actuality, we are not loving the person, we are using them for our own benefits, which in reality, is hate not love. Ed Welch calls it the “the cult of self”[i]
What about success? Everyone wants to be successful in what they do. No one wants to feel like a loser. But I think the real questions for a follower of Christ are: what is success and how do we measure it? Is our goal to impress our spouse, boss, friends, children, neighbors, co-workers, ourselves? Is it wrong to try to impress them and/or us? The reason I think the answer to that last question is yes is because if we live to impress people, then they become our idols, our gods, the people we live for. Also, if we live simply to empress people, we will live in fear of their opinion. What they think of us controls us. How they want us to live begins to determine how we direct our lives and make choices.
Does this mean success is wrong? I do not think so. I just think it means we need to properly and biblically define success. God told Joshua:
Just as I was with Moses, so I will be with you. I will not leave you or forsake you. 6 Be strong and courageous, for you shall cause this people to inherit the land that I swore to their fathers to give them. 7 Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to do according to all the law that Moses my servant commanded you. Do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good success wherever you go. 8 This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success. 9 Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”
Joshua 1:5-9 ESV
Looking at these verses, success is directly linked to faith and obedience to God, as well as not being scared of circumstances and people that one faces that oppose faith and obedience. Even more important is to see that faith in God and fear of people are complete opposites. So, to live for success according to what other people think is fear, the opposite of faith, and not success according to Joshua 1:5-9. Joshua`s success was determined on his complete trust in the Lord and living only for God`s pleasure.
In the New Testament, Jesus says something very similar. Jesus teaches on giving to the needy, prayer, and fasting.[ii] Without going through each detail of the passage, the main point for us to understand is that we are not to live for the applause and attention of people, for solely for God. If we do this, Jesus says, God will reward us. In other words, we will be successful.
What about feeling accepted and important? Is that such an awful thing to pursue? Again, I do not think so if it is sought after biblically. If our goal in life to be accepted by others or be important to others, then yes, I think it is very wrong and can drive a person to live in anxiety, fear, which if not changed, results in depression. Why do I say that? Simple. When self-esteem is the goal, and when we are not fed constantly with words of affirmation from others, and when others forget to call us, spend time with us, and invite us over, it drives us down the road of self-pity because other people did not give us what we wanted in order to fill up our cup of self-pity that many in our world label self-esteem.
But what does God say about this? He says that He loves us (John 3:16), and that if we will place our faith in His Son Jesus, then He will accept us as His child (Ephesians 1:3-6), and that He will never leave or forsake us (Joshua 1:5, Hebrews 13:5). So while people might accept us for a time, God, through our faith in Jesus, accepts us forever. Therefore, to live for the acceptance of others is to live for a temporary and fading goal, and when we take this kind of living down to its foundational reasoning, it is ultimately selfish and self-centered. When people`s acceptance is what we pursue in order to feel important loved, or successful, and they do not give is what we want, we often do one of two things: become depressed and through a pity party trying to get their attention or we flush those people out of our lives and begin looking for others who will give us what we want. Both are selfish and sinful.
So, what is the conclusion of all this? Well, here is what I think. I think the problem is a worship problem. We are not content in God so we seek contentment in other things or people. This is not because God has not given us all we need, but because we want our lives to be about us and not about Him. We want to be the center of attention. We want others to talk, think, and live for us and our agendas. But this is the opposite of the Christian life. And that is one of the main reasons I think that so many professing believers struggle with anxiety, fear, and depression. The answer is not for the pulpits in our churches to feed the people with the message: God wants to build your self-esteem. This narcissist message is a major contributor to the problem. No, the answer is to stick to the message of the gospel. Admit our sin. Repent of sin. Place our faith in Christ alone. Receive His forgiveness. Love God above all things. Love others like God loves us (not to get something from them, but simply to love them regardless of how they respond or think of us). Jesus said that if we will live this way, we will have joy.[iii] The joy many seek through building self-esteem is fear based and foundationally disappointing. The joy that comes in obeying God, regardless of how others respond or think, is liberating and fulfilling.
So going back to my questions above:
“What do people need? Do we need to feel loved? Do we need to feel successful? Do we need to feel accepted? Do we need to feel important? Is that the message that we as the church needs to be sharing?”
The answer is simple, yet requires self-denial and faith. What do we need? Answer: God. Do we need to be loved? Answer: yes, by God. Do we need to be successful? Answer: Yes, in obedience to God. Do we need to be accepted? Yes, by God through faith in His Son. Do we need to be important? Yes, as citizen of heaven. What is the message the church needs to be sharing? Not building self-esteem, but building hearts that seek to exalt God everywhere and in everything. The message we must share is what John Piper has been saying for years:
“God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.”[iv]
It is amazingly fulfilling to be able to worship God freely, unbound by other people`s opinions. It is also incredibly awesome to be able to serve others without expecting something personally in return, because all that we need is found in the grace of God through faith in Christ.
[i] Ed Welch, When People Are Big And God Is Small. P&R Publishing, 1997. P.76
[ii] Matthew 6:1-21
[iii] Read John 15 (Notice in verses 10-11 that joy is linked with obeying God)