In order to love others, a person must first love himself/herself. That premise fails to have legitimate proof to affirm it as truth, but the teaching finds general acceptance anyway. The maxim is more than a teaching from psychology though, but now infiltrates churches, schools, and homes.
Either from my own library of stories of growing up or through those of others, I know of typical instances when responsibility and accountability were denied on the basis of building up self-esteem. One man shares of trying to teach his child to read and approaching his school teacher about the difficulty. Instead of generating a plan, the teacher’s response was significant when she said, “It is not important if the child learns how to read, but it is more important that he be happy and have confidence.” In an ongoing examination of the psychological postulations in our society, the advancement of the self-esteem system warrants inspection about its biblical legitimacy.
The Self-Esteem System: A History
The concept of self-esteem is not a recent invention. At the end of the 19th century, support was increasing from within the field of psychology. However, the 1960’s gave birth to a transformation. Self-absorption was renamed self-esteem (something I’ll address in a later article) and redefined as a positive instead of a negative.
With the aid of Stanley Coopersmith, the theory of self-esteem was introduced as a necessity for the success of an individual and the success of a society. From his theory prominence began to mount and in the 1980’s John Vasconcellos proposed to the California government that the lack of self-esteem resulted in increased crime, drug use, teenage pregnancy, and decrease economic initiative. He received support from Governor George Deukmejian to set up a task force for further examination. The lengthy research of that task force could not affirm Vasconcellos premise. In fact, the multitude of studies since then have reached those same conclusions or lack thereof.
While the outcomes have denied such extrapolations, society has not ceased to latch on and promote these views. A system has been adopted to create affirmations in order to deny negatives. It is a system based solely upon the sensitivities of the individual. Unfortunately, the application of a self-esteem system has morphed into something self-serving and egocentric.
The Self-Esteem System: A Failure
The self-esteem system is a failure. Ultimately, I plan to follow this premise up with subsequent articles. For now, the importance lies in understanding a key principle that leads to failure: the exaltation of self, ignorance of others, and rejection of consequences. First, the self-esteem system appeals directly to a person’s pride by elevating him or her to a superior position. It does this by asserting that a person’s value should not be based upon a secular system of perception, but instead should be based upon one’s own perception. Self-esteem based upon self-perception gives permission to individuals to create a false reality in order to elevate his or her own status. Additionally, anytime a person elevates himself or herself in this false system of reality, it is done at the expense of others. Finally, one does not need to accept consequences for actions because the individual did his or her best and that should be sufficient. The result is a failed system that undermines the true value of a person (more on that later also) and negates any responsibility.
The Self-Esteem System: A Confidence
The institution of a self-esteem system is meant to replace the previous secular system of value defined by societal expectations. As a result, this is not a new system, but a reinvention of the previous system. Society is not obligated to this system, but instead can find greater contentment in a better system.
Finding one’s own worth based upon a secular system will always be in flux and eventually disintegrate. This is because societal values are dependent upon the ebb and flow of emotions and conformity to the current social agenda, which is in constant change. In place of this exists a better system that has proven itself to be reliable since the opening discourse of history. This reliability is affirmed in a constancy that is rooted not in the changing opinions of man, but on the absoluteness of God.
The major distinction we find is that the only system in which a person can find absolute confidence in must be one that is oriented towards God. While people and their beliefs and opinions change, God does not change. To be a God-oriented system though, it must find value in God and the things of God.
For Christians then, the value comes not in who we are, but who we are with God. The beginning of a God-oriented system is one that first recognizes the concept of imago dei. Because we have been created in God’s image we reflect God to those around we. There is an astounding aspect of this concept though. If the value is not based upon human appraisals but on God, then every person is to be valued for being made in God’s image. That is to say, all people are of value. One is not better or worse than the other. Such a system eliminates competition (evaluating who is better) while generating compassion (loving people as they are).
In a well-known passage, Paul writes the following:
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it – the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short fo the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. ~ Romans 3:21-25a
Those words contain beauty, hope, and wonder and much can be said about them. However, the very fact that Christ was a propitiation indicates that Christ took what was to be our punishment and that he did so without deserving it. There was nothing we did or could do for our salvation, but all of it is by the complete work of Christ. The result is that for all of us, we are accepted by God because of Christ. Therefore, in a system of confidence built on God, one cannot boast of his or her own works because all is insufficient. Instead, the confidence is defined by who Christ is and what Christ has done and not by mere human fidelity and ability.
Finally, a system that is God-oriented will recognize that human capability is the result of God’s gifting (Romans 12:3-8; 1 Corinthians 12:1-11). As God equips people, he does so for their good and for His glory. God has equipped each individual appropriately and adequately. It is OK if an individual does not have a desired skill because God has qualified him for a particular service while surrounding him with others who may be able to function better in that particular capacity. The point is simple: confidence that is oriented towards God is built upon not on who we think we are or who we want to be, but on who God has made us and with the hope that he is still in the process of sanctifying us.
The adage that one must love himself or herself before loving others is overstated. Truthfully, I do not need to love myself anymore. I would even be bold enough to say that none of us needs to love ourselves more. So many of the conflicts that take place do so because we love ourselves too much already and don’t love others enough. If a system of confidence is built upon the perception of society and the perception one has of himself or herself, we can be assured that at some point it will fail (I am being a bit bold here by not offering stats and insights to prove this, but I think the trajectory of our society confirms that the current system is failing). Instead, we need to redesign the confidence system, or perhaps it is better to say we need to adopt a system that has already proven its veracity. That system is one in which confidence, value, and worth are oriented towards God and defined by the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.