Self-esteem is important. We need our self-esteem to be positive; otherwise we might become depressed. We also need our self-esteem to be realistic, else we will make bad decisions based on our misunderstanding. Sometimes those goals are conflicting. But I find it possible to achieve both.
What is the basis of your self-esteem? My self-image is based on naturalism and humanism. This view is both realistic and positive. You may have found other ways to build your self-esteem. Is your way realistic? Is your way positive? These are important questions to ask.
Many value the Bible as their basis for self-esteem. This has been confusing to me. For the Bible never specifically mentions self-esteem. It often has a low view of human nature and strongly condemns pride. The Bible even praises Job for abhorring himself (Job 42:6) and speaks with favor of people loathing themselves (Ezekiel 20:43). So, how can you turn to the Bible as your source for self-esteem?
I came from a religious background that shared the Calvinist view known as “total depravity.” When it comes to our inner self, this view offers little to feel good about. We are told we are innately bad. Later, I met Christians who had a much higher view of human nature. They also based their views on the Bible. Who was right? Struggles over this issue led me to study the Bible and self-esteem. Eventually this was one of the keys to my deconversion.
In the first chapter of his online book, Beyond Born Again, Robert Price documents these two contrasting Christian views on solving life’s psychological problems. First, there is a hardline, traditional view that sees the Bible alone as our source for human living. It has little need for psychology. Proponents (such as Jay Adams and Martin Bobgan) often take a negative view of the value of self-esteem. The hard line sees humans as justly deserving Hell because of who we are. Our problems are essentially spiritual. Christ is the answer.
By contrast, other sites (such as this one) rely heavily on psychology. Advocates of this view seek cures such as promoting self-esteem. They adopt opinions that are often consistent with humanism. They have many proof texts, but are they really learning this from the Bible? I contend they are mainly drawing from secular humanism and science, not the Bible.
If you trust the Bible, should you adopt the hardline view or the soft-line view? Or is there, perhaps a better way, one that is built honestly on a secular foundation?
I contend that the hardline, anti-psychology view is neither realistic or positive. The soft-line, pro-psychology Christian view is positive but also often unrealistic. I will contend that humanism and science are the best way.
Are we Evil?
Let’s begin with a simple question. In a moral sense, are we humans good, or are we evil? Many Christians say we are innately bad. If so, then how could we possibly have a positive image of the self?
Christian doctrinal statements have generally seen us humans as evil. For instance, the Westminster (Presbyterian) confession of faith says:
They [Adam and Eve] being the root of all mankind, the guilt of this sin was imputed; and the same death in sin, and corrupted nature, conveyed to all their posterity…
From this original corruption, whereby we are utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil…
Every sin…does in its own nature, bring guilt upon the sinner, whereby he is bound over to the wrath of God, and curse of the law, and so made subject to death, with all miseries spiritual, temporal, and eternal.
We find we are descended from corrupted people and that we now have a corrupted nature. In fact, we read here that we are “opposite of all good,” “wholly inclined to all evil,” and properly deserving of God’s wrath. Why is God angry with us? According to this document, it is because we deserve it.
Similarly, the London Baptist Confession of Faith says we have all become “dead in Sin, and wholly defiled, in all the faculties, and parts, of soul, and body.”
The “Articles of Religion” of the Methodist Church says: “man is very far gone from original righteousness, and of his own nature inclined to evil, and that continually.”
Those statements leave little room to feel positive about ourselves.
John Calvin not only agreed with this low view of humanity but went so far as to call self-love a noxious pest that engenders all sorts of foul behavior. He said the only way to live a good life is to leave off all thought of yourself. He wrote:
This is that self-denial that Christ so strongly enforces on His disciples from the very outset (Matthew 16:24), which, as soon as it takes hold of the mind, leaves no place either, first, for pride, show, and ostentation; or, secondly, for avarice, lust, luxury, effeminacy, or other vices which are engendered by self-love (2 Timothy 3:2-5). On the contrary, wherever it does not reign, the foulest vices are indulged in without shame…
There is no other remedy than to pluck up by the roots those most noxious pests, self-love and love of victory. This the doctrine of Scripture does…
How difficult it is to perform the duty of seeking the good of our neighbor (Matthew 12:33; Luke 10:29-36)! Unless you leave off all thought of yourself and in a manner cease to be yourself, you will never accomplish it. (Calvin, 1536/2009, p. 4, 7, 8).
So, if Calvin is right, we should not even love ourselves, for self-love is the source of the vilest of vices. Such views were historically taught by Christians. Did they get this from the Bible? Let’s look at what it says.
How Does the Bible See Us?
Many verses see humans in a negative light. As I mentioned above, Ezekiel approves of self-loathing. He writes: “And there you will remember your ways and all your deeds by which you have defiled yourselves; and you will loathe yourselves in your own sight for all the evil things that you have done” (Ezekiel 20:43).
As another example, the book of Job is a drama discussing various reactions to Job’s suffering. At the end of the book, God steps in and lectures everybody on the true answer. (Job 38-42) It turns out that God is so much greater than people, and people just would not understand why they suffer. So Job and his friends better just accept what comes to them. Humans just wouldn’t understand, so don’t even ask. Job responds to this lengthy reprimand saying: “Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6 KJV). The book of Job implies God approved of this response.
And Isaiah 64:6 tells us “all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment”
John 15:5 says: “Apart from me you can do nothing.” Are we that helpless on our own?
These verses are not merely telling us to recognize that we did bad things. They are telling us we are bad to the core. We should loathe ourselves, abhor ourselves, and understand that our best deeds are nothing more than filth.
What about the New Testament? Jesus says we are evil (Matthew 7:11, Luke 11:13). He tells us that “when you do all the things which were commanded you, say, ‘We are unworthy slaves; we have done only that which we ought to have done.'” (Luke 17:10) I see nothing there about intrinsically being worthy of self-love. We are simply unworthy slaves who better do what we are told to do.
Paul expands on this view. In Romans 3:11-19 he tells us that all have become unprofitable and that none is good. Our tongues are full of lies, our feet are swift to shed blood, and we don’ know the way of peace. Paul even tells us the whole purpose of the law is to make us feel guilty before God. Guilt? God wants us to feel guilty? That is far from the modern Christian psychological view that encourages us to accept our inner selves and minimize our feeling of guilt.
Total Depravity and Self-Esteem
Based on verses like the ones above, many have adopted the doctrine of “total depravity.” Total depravity is the first point of the popular Calvinist TULIP acronym. Here is an example description of total depravity from a Christian site:
The doctrine of total depravity is an acknowledgement that the Bible teaches that as a result of the fall of man (Genesis 3:6) every part of man—his mind, will, emotions and flesh—have been corrupted by sin. In other words, sin affects all of our being including who we are and what we do. It penetrates to the very core of our being so that everything is tainted by sin and “all our righteous acts are like filthy rags” before a holy God (Isaiah 64:6). It acknowledges that the Bible teaches that we sin because we are sinners by nature. (“Total Depravity—Is it Biblical?” gotquestions.org)
It appears to me that total depravity is devastating to one’s positive self-esteem. Can a Christian believe total depravity and also seek to build his self-esteem? Or are these incompatible? I asked this question on the Christian Forums website. Many on that thread could see the conflict between those two concepts.
Some people there resolved the conflict by rejecting the need for high self-esteem, clinging strongly to the traditional view of total depravity. One person wrote that self-image, self-love, self-esteem, and self-confidence are incompatible with his theology. This is one way to solve the conflict, but it is a little depressing. If I had to give up either self-esteem or total depravity, I would give up total depravity.
Others did indeed reject the idea of total depravity or watered it down to the extent where it lost its original meaning.
Dropping total depravity may seem like the natural way out of the dilemma, but there is a problem. If you reject total depravity, then why does Hell exist? The hard Calvinist line says people are in Hell because they deserve it. Total depravity takes God off the hook. People that are in Hell deserve it. Don’t blame God. But that also destroys self-esteem. If we are so rotten that we deserve Hell, how can we feel positive about ourselves?
If you instead decide to reject total depravity, how can your God justify Hell? Those that deny total depravity tend to justify Hell on a technicality. They will tell me that their God has a list of demands. And if your score on life’s test is not 100%, then sorry, you go to Hell, that’s the rule.
Oh, but they also say believers have an exemption. Don’t forget that.
But what about everybody else? What about those who never heard? Sorry. If they don’t believe in Jesus, they need to score 100% on the test. One wonders why a loving God would make this be the rule. Any teacher who failed every student that scored less than 100% would be regarded as unrealistic in expectations. So how could God make such a requirement?
And if you say we can’t blame God for that requirement, for the nature of reality is such that God had no choice but to enforce this rule, then God is not all powerful. Whatever it is that made this rule is then more powerful than God.
If people go to Hell, not because they are depraved people who deserve it, but because they made a few moral mistakes without having heard of Jesus, one wonders why God would not be more tolerant. If people don’t really deserve Hell, and they are just slightly off course, why doesn’t God stop the suffering? If we deny total depravity, then we are left with people that deserve to feel good about themselves being condemned forever as utter trash. That makes no sense.
Those that have taken this course to promote self-esteem and abandon total depravity often find the doctrine of Hell is the next to go. If people aren’t totally depraved, a God who enforces such punishments on good people who are not perfect is not easy to accept. So the doctrine of Hell is frequently ignored, or even argued away.
Some people on that Christian Forums thread went through mental contortions to make total depravity and self-esteem compatible. One person suggested that “total depravity” simply means that we are good people that sometimes make mistakes. That is not total depravity.
Another person on that thread suggested that total depravity was just another way to say we were not good enough for God. But not being good enough for God is not the same thing as being totally depraved. For instance, I am not good enough to play chess in a tournament with grandmasters, but I do have significant chess skills. The fact that I could not play competitively with Magnus Carlsen does not mean I am totally deprived of chess skills.
We cannot water down “total depravity” by saying it just means “good but falling a little short of the standard.” That is an abandonment of total depravity.
Another person told me I could have a positive self-esteem if I ignored my human, evil nature. That is ersatz self-esteem. The self-esteem that comes from ignoring reality is not true self-esteem. But this is the best self-esteem this believer in total depravity could come up with for unbelievers.
So, if one adopts a view of total depravity, based on the Bible and on the need to explain Hell, one is left with a struggle to have any meaningful positive self-esteem.
In the extreme, groups like the Independent Fundamentalist Baptists, of which I was once a participant, see people as little more than a speck of worthless dust.
In conclusion, I find traditional Christian doctrines of depravity are at odds with the modern emphasis on self-esteem. Many who were once trapped in these depressing doctrines of human depravity have expressed tremendous psychological relief when leaving these doctrines of faith.
The Bible repeatedly mentions pride. Here are links to the many verses that mention pride, verses that mention the proud, and verses that mention the haughty. The Bible tells us that we are to hate pride (Proverbs 8:13); that pride leads to dishonor (Proverbs 11:2); that pride leads to destruction (Proverbs 16:18); that it brings us low (Proverbs 29:23); and that God humbles those who walk in pride (Daniel 4:37). In Mark, pride is listed as one of the evil things that defile a man (Mark 7:21-23). And Proverbs 16:5 tells us that “Everyone who is proud in heart is an abomination to the LORD.” Other verses tell us God opposes the proud and gives grace to the humble (James 4:6, 1 Peter 5:5).
And Isaiah tells us:
Moreover, the LORD said, “Because the daughters of Zion are haughty and walk with heads held high and seductive eyes, and go along with mincing steps and jingle the anklets on their feet, the Lord will afflict the scalp of the daughters of Zion with scabs, and the LORD will make their foreheads bare.” (Isaiah 3:16-17)
You do not want you scalp afflicted with scabs or your forehead bare. Isaiah says if you are haughty and walk with head held high, this will happen. Will you no longer walk with head held high? Or will you ignore this warning?
Christians who want a healthy self-esteem will tell us that high self-esteem and pride are not the same thing. One site says pride is the notion that we don’t need help, or that pride is the notion that one is superior. Where do they come up with these definitions? Nowhere does the Bible tell you that is what it is talking about. One would think that authors who wanted us to think highly of ourselves, but to avoid certain errors would be clear that they are actually praising high self-feelings, and that their condemnation applies only to certain wrong extremes of pride. The Bible does not do this. It declares a blanket condemnation of pride. It sure looks like what is condemning is essentially a high self-esteem.
In spite of the conflicts with the Bible and Christian teachings, many modern Christians have found ways to promote a high self-esteem. You will find many Christian sites arguing for the virtue of self-esteem (such as this site and this one). You will find lists of Bible verses supposedly supporting self-esteem here and here. Yet the verses they list have little to do with self-esteem. None of these sites shows a verse warning of the problem of low self-esteem. None lists a verse telling us to think generally more positively about ourselves. None can find a verse stating the need for high self-esteem.
But there are many verses that say the opposite. Romans 12:3 tells us not to think more highly of ourselves then we ought to think. Galatians 6:3 warns people that think they are something when they are nothing. No verse warns us about thinking we are nothing when we are actually something. 2 Timothy 3:2 warns us that the last days will be terrible. It gives a long list of evils, beginning with “lovers of their own selves. ” Low self-esteem or lack of self-love didn’t make the list of evils. But loving oneself is on that list.
As I said at the top of this post, it is important that our self-esteem is both accurate and positive. I find everything that is needed to build that healthy self-esteem as a Humanist. After all, we are all humans with all the inner capacities that involves. We humans are able to accomplish great things. We can fly to the moon, make great works of art, and build great nations. And so, we can simply look at ourselves, without the veil of total depravity or fear of deserving Hell, and see ourselves as who we are as humans.
Love as You Love Yourself
How can one look at the Bible and promote a high self-esteem? Many Christians turn to verses such as the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself. They say that is telling us to love both our neighbor and ourselves.
Actually the verse assumes you already love yourself. How can it assume that? Simple. It is talking about how we treat people. It assumes that all people are nice to themselves. It tells us to also be nice to others.
As Romans 13:9 puts it, the command to love neighbors is simply summing up all the other commandments, such as the one forbidding murder and the one against stealing. It is telling us to treat others nicely, just as we already try to treat ourselves nicely.
So no, the command to love our neighbor is not primarily about respect. And no, this verse does not tell us to respect ourselves more. It is about treating people nicely. It assumes we are already nice to ourselves, and should also be nice to others.
Made in God’s Image
Ah, but you might tell me that we were made in God’s image, and that this is something to feel good about. And how do you know that? You read it in a book that I think is often mistaken.
You have read that you are made in the image of God. Reality tells a different story. Actually, we are closer to the image of a chimpanzee, sharing much of its DNA and body structure. Yes, we are significantly different from other apes. There was a series of evolutionary pressures that gave us an enormous concentration of brain power and enhanced abilities to cooperate with others. But inwardly, much of our structure is like that of the ape. A grand and glorious ape that can engineer the Internet, build great civilizations, and create wonderful works of art. But still, biologically apes, made in the image of apes—truly amazing apes.
But even if it is true that we were made in God’s image, the Bible does not stop there. It proceeds to tell of a fall for which our ancestors were cursed and removed from the garden. A few chapters later, we read, “the Lord saw that the wickedness of mankind was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5). There is not much room there for feeling positive about being human.
Again, we need our self-esteem to be realistic. I find it easy to have a high self-esteem based on the reality found by science. We are mammals that have special abilities that make our species truly worth loving.
A New Nature
Many will argue that they are in Christ, and so have become a new person (2 Corinthians 5:17). They call this process regeneration. They say it gives them a new nature that makes them want to do good. Does this give them something to feel good about?
My first response is to ask: “Do you know this is true”? For many Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Atheists, Agnostics and others also live a moral life. And many Christians fail to live up to decent standards. So, if you really have a new nature that makes you better than me, where is the evidence?
Even Paul admits that his life is far from this new standard. He argues that he actually has two natures, the flesh and the spirit (Galatians 5:17). The word translated “flesh” literally means the body. So Paul is saying he has a body that wants to do bad things, but he also has a new spirit inside him that wants to do good. And he sees that the two natures are constantly fighting each other. He writes:
For we know that the Law is spiritual, but I am fleshly, sold into bondage to sin. For I do not understand what I am doing; for I am not practicing what I want to do, but I do the very thing I hate. However, if I do the very thing I do not want to do, I agree with the Law, that the Law is good. But now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin that dwells in me. For I know that good does not dwell in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not. For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want. But if I do the very thing I do not want, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin that dwells in me.
I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good. For I joyfully agree with the law of God in the inner person, but I see a different law in the parts of my body waging war against the law of my mind, and making me a prisoner of the law of sin, the law which is in my body’s parts. Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? (Romans 7:14-24)
So yes, Paul claimed to have a new nature, but in this moment of sincerity, he admits that it really is not making that big of a difference. His flesh, his body, his natural self still does what it wants.
So yes, he talks about a spirit inside, but it doesn’t really seem to be working. If this new creation that he has become is really not winning out, how could he rightfully claim that his new, regenerated self gives him a reason for self-worth? And can he really claim that the regenerated are so much better that they can feel self-worth, but the unregenerated cannot?
Paul ended his confession above on a most dismal note: “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?” That is depressing.
But wait, don’t stop there. Read on. He answers this rhetorical question: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:25). So now we find it actually works and ends with triumph in Jesus Christ.
Or does it? Read on.
“So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin.” Paul could have ended on the first sentence of v25, declaring victory in Christ, and the whole thing would have a positive tone. But he doesn’t. He can’t help himself. In a moment of sincerity, the truth comes out. Yes, he does include that note of triumph in Christ, but he immediately goes back to despair: with my flesh I am serving the law of sin. In reality, that new life he claims does not really work that well.
Realizing that the flesh—the body—keeps on wanting to do things Paul considers wrong, he has a constant answer: Don’t listen to the flesh (Romans 8:13, Romans 13:14, 2 Corinthians 7:1, Galatians 5:16, Galatians 5:24). Crucify it! But as he himself admits in Romans 7, this strategy does not work well.
By way of comparison, the Noom weight loss program also speaks of two natures, a “rider” and an “elephant.” The elephant is the part of you that wants to eat anything in sight. The rider is the part that wants to lose weight.
If somebody is actually riding a real elephant, the goal is to get the elephant to go where the rider wants. In order to do that, the elephant needs to know there is something in it for him, that when the elephant reaches the end of the journey he will be fed and cared for. If the elephant has been trained to know this, the elephant will go where the rider wants.
But what happens if you hop on an elephant when there is nothing in it for the elephant? The elephant then has no desire to cooperate. It will do what it wants. And you then, like the Apostle Paul, might cry out “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?!”
In the Noom program, the idea is for the metaphorical rider to get the metaphorical elephant to cooperate. To do that, we need to be nice to our “elephant”—our inner bodily desire for many food calories—with the understanding that the elephant must in turn allow us to control the overall ride. The rider must bargain with the elephant.
Paul’s reaction to his flesh is nothing like Noom’s. Paul makes no room for finding ways to please the fleshly desires. No, what the flesh wants is wrong. So, the flesh must be crucified. There must be a firm “No!” But in reality, as Paul admits in Romans 7, his plan simply does not work.
We all have fleshly desires that want us to do socially undesirable things. And we all have an inner desire to do moral, socially acceptable things. Christians and non-Christians share this. When one claims that only Christians have the good nature, one is making a claim that is simply not supported by the facts.
And when one makes the assumption that the fleshly desires are all bad, and the “spirit” is all good, one simply is not being realistic. All our desires can be channeled for good or bad. We are simply a mixture of conflicting thoughts and emotions. They are the natural result of being human. The best course of action is to rationally think through all of this and find ways that best meet all our desires in ways that are morally acceptable.
But Paul and his immediate followers were against finding rational ways to please the flesh. In fact, they even opposed all efforts to approach life from a rational, scientific viewpoint. (See 1 Corinthians 2:6-13, Colossians 2:8, and A Primer on Christian Anti-Intellectualism)
I find that the assertion that believers have a spirit in addition to the flesh, but unbelievers have only the flesh, is wrong. And in practice, following this two-natures approach is not realistic. If we want our self-esteem to be based on reality, then telling ourselves that Christians have these two natures is not realistic. And it is not practical.
If our self-esteem depends on this theory of transforming grace, and that grace doesn’t seem to work in reality the way it is claimed, we are setting ourselves up for discouragement. If our self-esteem is not rooted in reality, we are asking for trouble. The human mind does not like to be told it must ignore reality.
God Loves Me
Others have told me that God loves them, and this gives them reason for self-esteem. Bill Cooke describes this method of building self-esteem:
Many accounts of pious converts tell of suffering low self-esteem that was then resolved by being told that they did indeed matter; that despite being one biped among millions on one planet among millions, the creator of this entire universe is interested in their welfare. The success of religious conversions and apologetic arguments consist of religion’s ability to inject people with such quantities of anthropocentric conceit that it almost becomes plausible. (2003/2004, p. 35)
The first problem with this is that it is unrealistic. If there is indeed a Creator of the universe, I see no reason to believe he takes a special interest in us.
A second problem is that this is nothing more than an argument from authority. It says somebody says I have worth, therefore I must have worth. Couldn’t you just figure that out for yourself? Many Humanists have long seen the worth and value of being human, without needing somebody to tells us we have worth.
It is similar to a teenage girl saying that she has worth because her boyfriend loves her. It would be better if she recognized that she had worth because there is within her a core of human goodness. That way, she would not be dependent on some authority telling her she is good.
If the teenager knows she has worth because of the goodness she sees within her, she will find it easier to escape an abusive relationship.
If, on the other hand, her only reason for valuing herself is because her boyfriend loves her, abandoning that relationship would remove her source of self-esteem. The need for positive self-esteem is so strong it can drive people to do anything to keep that self-esteem up. She might hesitate to give up her only hope.
Likewise, if the only reason one has for feeling good about herself is that God says she has worth, she might be less likely to explore if this is really the case. Too much relies on it being true. So, she avoids questions about her faith. But, if we cannot explore and ask questions, we are not really free.
And besides, if we base our self-esteem on what the Bible says about us, it is not very complimentary.
All flesh is like grass, and all its glory is like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls off. (1 Peter 1:24; cf. Romans 3:11-19, Isaiah 64:6)
As a Humanist, I readily see the worth and value of all humans, including myself.
I conclude that many of the problems that Christians report with self-esteem may well be rooted in the Christian religion itself. The Christian view that we are naturally sinful and depraved is degrading. Attempts to balance this teaching with the teaching of a transforming grace needlessly complicate the efforts to reach a healthy self-image. Those attempts succeed only in proportion that the resulting self-image approximates reality. But if a self-image based on reality is our goal, should we not start our search with science?
There is a better way. In humanism and naturalistic science, you can simply look at the facts—at the intrinsic value of all humans including yourself—and then you can feel good. You can then move on and start living.
Calvin, John. (2009). “Calvin on Self-Denial [Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 3, Chapters 7-8]. Pensacola, FL: Chapel Library. (Originally published in Latin in 1536.)
Cook, Bill. (2003/2004). “Religion’s Anthropocentric Conceit: Atheism’s Cosmic Modesty is More Moral.” Free Inquiry, Vol. 24, No. 1 (December/January): 35-38.