October 2012 - Vol.  63
The Spiritual Quagmire of Self-Esteem
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,
     G.K. Chesterton
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 Samuel 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 enduring. 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.”

© Copyright 2012, Beliefs of the Heart, Ltd. All rights reserved.

Sam Williamson grew up in Detroit, Michigan, USA. He is the son of a Presbyterian pastor and grandson of missionaries to China. He moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1975. He worked in London England from 1979 to 1982, helping to establish Antioch, a member community of the Sword of the Spirit. After about twenty-five years as an executive at a software company in Ann Arbor he sensed God call him to something new. He left the software company in 2008 and now speaks at men’s retreats, churches, and campus outreaches. His is married to Carla Williamson and they have four grown children and a grandson. He has a blog site, www.beliefsoftheheart.com, and can be reached at Sam@BeliefsoftheHeart.com. 
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