The Biblical View of Self-Image
(September 1996 – Volume 2, Issue 11)
The fact is that the self-image movement is neither Biblical nor scientific. It is a fad that will eventually pass away after doing incredible damage in our society and unfortunately in all too many churches. By God’s grace and the truth of His Word, believers need not be taken in by Satan’s lies. We can choose to live by the infallible, never changing Word of God!
Few would disagree with the following statement: How people think of themselves will to a large degree determine how they will think of others, how they will think of God, how they will obtain and maintain all their relationships, and how they will make decisions. There is no area of life that will not be directly or indirectly affected by the way we view ourselves. However, there are two vastly different views on the subject of self-image:
The UnBiblical View of Self-Image, Self-Worth, Self-Esteem and Self-Love
The basic teaching in pop-psychology today is that people in general have a low self-image, self-esteem, self-worth, self-love, etc. They do not think that they are very good, they do not love themselves, they do not accept themselves the way they are, they lack self-confidence, etc. People behave poorly because they view themselves in this manner. If people could improve their self-image, then they would feel better about themselves and perform better in life. Everyone, of course, has a bad self-image, there are however, varying degrees. Also, since people do not want others to know how badly they perceive themselves, they tend to cover up their poor self-image with different methods: some with shyness — so that people will not catch on to how bad they really are. Others may show-off trying to prove that they are really okay.
In order to get a feel for what is actually being taught, let’s look at what some of today’s self-image proponents, both in secular and Christian circles, are saying:
“If I could write a prescription for the women of the world, I would provide each of them with a healthy dose of self-esteem and personal worth. …I have no doubt that this is their greatest need” (James Dobson, What Wives Wish Their Husbands Knew About Women, p35).
“Feeling good about ourselves may in fact, be the cornerstone of our total well being” (Barnett, Baruch and Rivers, “The Secret of Self Esteem,” The Ladies Home Journal, Feb. 1984, p54).
“Mothers who choose to obtain abortions do so because of too little self-esteem, not too much” (Philip A. Captain, Eight Stages of Christian Growth).
“Lack of self-esteem can actually extinguish the desire to go on living” (James Dobson, High or Seek, p80).
“Once a person believes he is an ‘unworthy sinner’ it is doubtful if he can honestly accept the saving grace God offers in Christ” (Robert Schuller, Self Esteem, p98).
“Depression always has a loss of self-esteem in the foreground. …Be slow to direct a depressed person to the Scriptures. . . no preaching. I would recommend a recess from church if there is preaching done in the church” (Jeff Boer, “Is Self-Esteem Proper for a Christian?” The Journal of Pastoral Practice, Vol 5, #4, p78).
“Under the influence of humanistic psychologists like Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow, many of us Christians have begun to see our need for for self-love and self-esteem” (Bruce Narramore, You’re Someone Special, p22).
“Self-love is the prerequisite and the criterion for our conduct towards our neighbor. …Without self-love there can be no love for others. …You cannot love your neighbor, you cannot love God unless you first love yourself” (Walter Trobishch, Love Yourself, p11).
“Actually,our ability to love God and to love our neighbor is limited by our ability to love ourselves. We cannot love God more than we love our neighbor and we cannot love our neighbor more than we love ourselves” (Captain, Eight Stages of Christian Growth, p157).
“Low self-esteem can lead to depression and other emotional and physical illness, substance abuse, sexual promiscuity, and even suicide” (Shirley Sherrif, Contact, Vol. II #1; Jan. 1991).
“You have to think that you are somebody if you want to maintain good mental health” (Arthur Rounder, You Can Learn To Like Yourself, p3).
“Self-esteem or pride in being a human being is the single greatest need facing the human race today” (Robert Schuller, Self-Esteem, p19).
“People have one basic personal need which requires two kinds of impute for its satisfaction. The most basic need is a sense of personal worth, and acceptance of oneself as a whole, real person” (Lawrence Crabb, Effective Biblical Counseling, p80).
According to the self-image proponents: sexual promiscuity, suicide, crime, abortion, depression, poor mental health, stress, unhappiness, lack of success in life, the inability to love God and to accept His free gift of salvation, the inability to love others, and the inability to love self, are all the results of a poor self-image or low self-esteem.
What is the cure then for all of these problems? According to the self-image advocates, it is to build a good self-image (and a strong sense of self-worth) into the lives of all people. If what they are saying is true, then we as Christians had better jump on the self-image bandwagon. As a matter of fact, if people are unable to love God and others because of a poor self-image, then building self-esteem in our children, our spouses, our unsaved friends, ourselves and the entire world should become a primary goal of the church.
The Biblical View of Self-Image, Self-Worth, Self-Esteem and Self-Love
The power of the human mind to deceive itself seems infinite. We need to pray Psalms 139:23,24: “Search me, O God, and know my heart: Try me and know my anxious thoughts; And see if there be any hurtful way in me, And lead me in the everlasting way” often! One study of two-hundred criminals revealed that not one of those criminals believed he was evil. Each criminal thought of himself as basically a good person even when planning a crime (The Washington Star, Aug. 15, 1976).
One of the Bible’s major aims is to correct man’s high view of himself; yet, it is now interpreted by Christian leaders to intend just the opposite. How can creatures who are constantly told (in the Word of God) that they think too highly of themselves, be convinced that their problem is in fact low self-esteem? Left to our own observations and imaginations such a thing is possible (Jer. 17:9,10: “The heart is more deceitful than all else. . .”), but the Bible does not cater to our self-deception, it seeks to correct it.
C.S. Lewis, writing before the self-esteem fad took off, made this interesting observation, “The child who is patted on the back for doing a lesson well, the woman whose beauty is praised by her lover, the saved soul to whom Christ says, ‘well done,’ is pleased and ought to be. For here the pleasure lies not in what you are but in the fact that you have pleased someone you wanted (and rightly wanted) to please. The trouble begins when you pass from thinking, ‘I have pleased him; all is well,’ to thinking, ‘what a fine person I must be to have done it.’” If Lewis were to write such words today, would they be well received? I doubt it!
What do the Scriptures have to say about how we view ourselves?
Jesus taught the virtue of humility (Luke 18:14), and the importance of self-denial, rather than self-love (Matt. 16:24).
The Epistles are in hardy agreement with the words of Jesus (cp. I Tim. 1:15; Rom. 7:24; 12:3; and Phip. 2:3-8). As a matter of fact, nowhere in the Bible are we warned not to think more lowly of ourselves than we ought. Yet, there should be many such Scriptures if our problem is lack of self-esteem. There are, however, five and a half pages in the Nave’s Topical Bible on the subject of pride, including Prov. 16:5,18 and 19. In addition, there are three pages on self-denial. There are no references to self-image or any word meaning the same. Only in II Tim. 3:2 does the concept of self-love appear, and then it is a vice (see below). Clearly, the Bible does not present self-esteem as man’s problem. In fact, the opposite of self-esteem, pride, is certainly stated to be a problem.
In the New Testament, neither John the Baptist (Lk. 3:16) nor the prodigal son (Lk. 15:21) were corrected when they declared themselves unworthy. Yet Norman Wright says, “Worthiness is a feeling of ‘I am good.’” If this is true, then what do we do with Jesus’ statement, ‘there is none good but one, that is God.’
Note the Old Testament examples of Gideon (Jud. 6:15); Isaiah (Isa. 6:5); Amos (Amos 7:14); Job (Job 42:6); and Moses (Exod. 3:11; 4:10-13). Each of these men were used of God when they recognized the Lord’s greatness and their own smallness. II Cor. 12:9,10 also teaches us that we find God’s strength only when we recognize our own weakness.
II Tim. 3:16,17 and II Pet. 1:3 explains that God’s Word is sufficient to equip us to be godly people, and that everything concerning life and godliness is found in His Word. This being the case, we must ask the question: “Why is there no mention of self-esteem in all of the Scriptures?”
The answer to that question surely lies in the fact that our relationship with God is not based on our righteousness or our worth to Him, but upon His grace (Titus 3:4-7). Rather, we are sinners who can do nothing to impress or please God (Rom. 3:23; 5:6-8).
(This chart is undoubtedly borrowed from a source, which I cannot locate. My apologies to the author.)
KEY DIFFERENCES BETWEEN SELF-IMAGE AND BIBLICAL IMAGE:
GOD IN HIS WORD:
1) Love God & others (Mt. 22:37)
SELF-IMAGE ADVOCATES SAY:
1) Love yourself
SOME FALSEHOODS ANSWERED
We must love ourselves
Self-image advocates claim that Scripture commands us to love ourselves. The main verse they use to support this claim is Matthew 22:39b which says, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Based on a faulty interpretation of this passage many teachers – of the self-image theory – see this as a clear Biblical command for us to love ourselves. However, nowhere in this passage (Mtt. 22:36-40) is there a command from the Lord for us to love ourselves
As a matter of fact, there is no place in Scripture where we are told to love ourselves. Instead, it is always assumed that we already love ourselves (Note “as yourself” in the passage in study). Nevertheless, we are told that what Jesus meant to say is that we have to learn to love ourselves first, before we can love others. In other words, there are really three commandments given here (even though Jesus said that there are “two”). We are commanded to love God and our neighbor; then, Jesus concludes by saying, “On these two commandments depend the whole Law. . .” If Jesus says that there are two commandments here how dare we claim that there are three!
Ephesians 5:28,29 is another passage used by the teachers of the self-image philosophy to promote self-love. We are told that we must first learn to love ourselves before we can love our spouse, but the passage clearly states that there has never been a person who did not love himself. Our problem has never been lack of self-love, but too much concern for self. There is however one time in Scripture where self-love is mentioned: II Tim. 3:2. There we find the love of self at the top of a list of sins that will characterize the last days. It is interesting to note, as well, that the Greek word used for love in this verse (phileo) speaks of emotional love as opposed to self-sacrificing love (agapao) in the other passages. In other words, the only verse in the New Testament that speaks of us loving ourselves emotionally (feeling good about ourselves, etc.) is a warning that this is a sin to avoid.
We are Worthy of God’s Love
William Kirwin in Biblical Concepts for Christian Counseling (p107) says, “It is as if Christ has said, you are of such worth to me that I am going to die; even experience Hell so that you might be adopted as My brothers and sisters.” Donna Faster wrote, “Of course the greatest demonstration of a person’s worth to God was shown in giving us His Son (Building a Child’s Self-Esteem, p6). Wrong, the sending of God’s Son is not a demonstration of our worth, but the greatest demonstration of the love, grace, mercy and kindness of our God. The truth is that God saves us not because He sees anything of value in us, but despite the fact that there is nothing in us worthy of saving (Rom. 5:6-10; Tit. 3:4-7; Eph. 2:4-9). Such a statement wounds our pride, but it is true nevertheless.
The self-worth advocates destroy the concept of grace. The very definition of grace is God giving us what we do not deserve. If we are worthy of His salvation then eternal life is not a gift of grace but a reward based on our value, or good works. This is a concept totally refuted in Scripture (Eph. 2:8,9). For a person to come to Christ, they must first recognize their need for salvation. Teaching them that they are worthy in the eyes of God is to do them a terribly cruel and unbiblical injustice. The more we view ourselves Biblically the more precious the love, grace and mercy of our God becomes. If we consider ourselves worthy of any of God’s blessings we have grossly cheapened His free gift of love and grace.
Satan Loves It When We Think Badly of Ourselves
Self-image teachers would like us to believe that we must have a good self-image or else the devil has a strong foothold in our life. They believe that a poor self-image will keep us from recognizing our worth to God and therefore we won’t accept His gift of salvation. In truth Satan doesn’t care what we think about ourselves as long as we are preoccupied with SELF. If he can keep us wrapped up with self he can keep us from being occupied with God and others as we are instructed in Scripture (Phip. 2:3-8).
Man’s problem has always been pride. From the beginning man wanted to be like God (Gen. 3:5). The devil, himself, is the author of sinful pride (Isa. 14:13,14). This kind of attitude and high opinion of himself not only got Satan kicked out of heaven and damned to eternal punishment, but it also became his favorite tool to keep from trusting in God.
THE BIBLICAL VIEW OF SELF
Jay Adams in The Biblical View of Self-Esteem, Self-Love, Self-Image says, “While there is no concern evidenced in the Bible about having too little self-esteem, and therefore no directions for enhancing self-esteem, God does indicate that He wants us to evaluate ourselves – so far as it is possible to do so – accurately” (p113). In Romans 12:3 Paul is instructing his readers how to evaluate themselves concerning the different gifts that God has given to them. In doing so, he provides the principle that we should use to evaluate ourselves concerning every area of our lives. In that passage, “sound judgment” means (and demands) that a reasoned judgment, based on evidence, be made. Note that Paul’s warning is against thinking too highly of ourselves. He says nothing about being careful not to think to lowly of ourselves, since this is never a problem discussed in Scripture.
When we evaluate ourselves according to sound judgment what do we find? As believers we will find that God has reached down to us totally by grace to save unworthy sinners, making us a very child of God! We have been made worthy by God (cp Rev. 3:4), not because we deserved it but because of God’s love. We also now know, by the Scriptures, that God has uniquely equipped us to serve and minister for Him in this world and in His church. Our value is not based upon a comparison of ourselves with others (as a matter of fact that is forbidden, II Cor. 10:12), but upon the position that we have in Christ and the gifts with which He has equipped us to live for Him.
As Christians, are we supposed to think badly about ourselves? Not at all! The Scriptural position is that we are to focus on God and others, not ourselves (Matt. 22:36-40; Phip. 2:3-8). Any preoccupation with self (either in thinking too highly or too lowly), is an unbiblical response to God’s Word. Scripture starts from the position that we already love ourselves and commands us to love others equally. As a matter of fact, we are to put the interest of others before our own (Phip. 2:3,4).
Most would assume that since both the secular and Christian segments of our society have jumped on the self-image train, apparently the scientific research has revealed that low self-esteem is rampant and the need to build a good self-image is paramount. Such is not the case. As a matter of fact, most research has shown that both children and adults in our society actually esteem themselves too highly. In addition, there appears to be no correlation between self-image and behavior. The following are some such examples:
- The findings of the College Board (through surveys taken from millions of high school seniors who take its tests) found that seventy percent rated themselves above average; two percent as below average. Sixty percent viewed themselves as above average in “athletic ability;” only six percent said they were below average. In “ability to get along with others,” zero percent rated themselves below average; sixty percent rated themselves in the top ten percent and twenty-five percent saw themselves in the top one percent (The Inflated Self, p23,24).
- In one study, ninety-four percent of college faculty members think themselves better than their average colleague (“A New Look at Pride,” in Your Better Self, p90).
- In a recent issue of Psychological Review, a journal published by the American Psychological Association, an article was written with the subtitle: “The Dark Side of High Self-Esteem.” The authors stated, after studying numerous serious empirical studies, “In our view, the benefits of favorable self-opinions accrue primarily to the self, and they are if anything a burden and potential problem to everyone else.” (Reported in Fortune, April 29, 1996, pp211-212). Newsweek claimed that although more than ten thousand scientific studies of self-esteem have been conducted, the experts cannot even agree on what it is (Newsweek, Feb. 17, 1992, “Hey, I’m Terrific,” pp48-51).
- Perhaps the most comprehensive study of its kind was that which was done by the California State Task Force on Self-Esteem. U.S. News and World Report (April 2, 1990), says concerning this study, “The Bush era turns out to be a perfect time for self-esteem programs. They cost almost nothing. They offer the light of sunny California optimism at a time of great pessimism. They are simple — easily grasped, easily spread. And in public-school systems torn by competing pressure groups, they have no natural enemies. They have only one flaw: They are a terrible idea. First of all, despite the firsthand reports of many teachers, there is almost no research evidence that these programs work. The book Social Importance of Self-Esteem, which is basically all the research turned up by the California task force, says frankly, ‘One of the disappointing aspects of every chapter in this volume. . . is how low the associations between self-esteem and its and potential problem to everyone else” (Reported in Fortune, April 29, 1996, pp211-212). Newsweek claimed that although more than ten thousand scientific studies of self-esteem have been conducted, the expertscannot even agree on what it is (Newsweek, Feb. 17, 1992, “Hey, I’m Terrific,” pp48-51).