Low self-esteem is the experience that one is inadequate or defective as a person according to perceived (and usually false) standards of who one should be. It is also the feeling of never really measuring up in the eyes of oneself and others. Healthy self-esteem is quite different. It is experiencing oneself as valuable, worthy and loveable in spite of these standards. People with healthy self-esteem have a realistic grasp of their own strengths and weaknesses and see themselves as loveable and acceptable, just the way they are.
But why do some people develop low self-esteem and not others? That is a question which Alister and Joanna McGrath (2002) address in their book Self-Esteem: the Cross and Christian Confidence. In chapter 2, they argue that the development and maintenance of self-esteem depends on four key elements of a person’s experience: (1) the love of others, (2) enduring significance, (3) pedigree, and (4) role performance. The purpose of this blog post is to explain the meaning of each element and its relevance to Christians.
1. THE LOVE OF OTHERS
The development of self-esteem depends greatly on the quality of care and support one receives from others, especially during childhood. Parenting styles strongly predict whether a child internalizes a negative self-image or a healthy one. It is well known that when a child is neglected or abused by its parents, it does not bond properly with family and friends. Its attachments to significant others become insecure and disorganized. Such children grow up feeling ill-equipped to face life’s challenges because they have not learned to explore the outside world from a secure base of safety. As a result, they develop a low view of themselves.
It is also well known that when attentive parents demonstrate empathy and unconditional regard, their child bonds properly with family and friends. ItS attachments to significant others become a secure and safe place from which to explore the world and find comfort in times of distress. Consequently, the child develops a positive, realistic view of itself, others, and the outside world.
According to the McGrath’s (2002), Christian self-esteem is similarly based on having God as a secure attachment figure. Human bonds come and go with time, but God remains a constant source of unconditional love and acceptance amidst the changes and chances of this mortal life. Christian confidence, then, is primarily rooted in the faithful love of God and is secondarily rooted in the love of others, and of oneself.
2. ETERNAL SIGNIFICANCE
Alister and Joanna McGrath (2002) believe that human beings are meaning seekers. We do seek pleasure and power; but we often sacrifice those drives to pursue larger goals that give coherence and significance to our lives. We gain self-esteem from knowing that our lives have made a difference in the grand scheme of things. Moreover, we want our significance to last, to continue in the lives of others after we die, even beyond what can be remembered. This pursuit finds expression in human activities like charitable work and community building (among other things), but according to the authors of Self-Esteem, it also signals our spiritual need for God. We have been designed to flourish in a relationship with our Creator who provides our lives with eternal significance. For Christians, this relationship is based on the person and work of Jesus Christ.
In section (1) above, we explored how parents can nurture and influence self-esteem in the way they raise their children. But esteem is also shaped by our tendency to identify with the strengths, failures, and reputations of our ancestors – in other words, by our pedigree. In biblical times, historical figures were regarded more highly if their lineage could be traced back to royal blood, such as Davidic ancestry. The same principle holds true for the royal family in present-day Britain, or for children whose parents are national dignitaries. Could something similar be involved in Christian self-esteem? Yes, indeed. The New Testament teaches that believers have a new spiritual heritage. Their lives have been incorporated into the history of God’s covenant people and they possess all the rights and privileges of membership in God’s family. Now that’s an amazing pedigree!
4. PERFORMANCE OF ROLES
The fourth key ingredient of self-esteem is the ability to perform effectively in the roles we have adopted or been given. One reason for this is that we derive a sense of accomplishment from fulfilling our roles. Whether it’s being a mother, a teacher, an entrepreneur, or a friend, our self-esteem is enhanced when we succeed in these functions and diminished when we fail. But should Christians esteem themselves according to the specific roles they occupy?
There are two senses in which the answer has to be “no.” First, the doctrine of divine creation stipulates that human value is a gift that cannot be earned or unearned through performance of roles. God gave us that worth and He confirmed our value to Him by sending Christ to atone for our sins. Second, the doctrine of justification tells us that God’s performance puts us in a right relationship with Him, not our achievements, successes, or failures. All we can do is accept God’s justification with gratitude of heart and action. Now, if these two doctrines are true, it follows that Christians have a gift-based worth that goes beyond success or failure in their roles. They should therefore resist the tendency to measure self-worth in that way.
But even with these cautions in mind, believers can still derive esteem from a job well done. In his Epistle to the Galatians, the Apostle Paul commands believers to “test their own actions” so that they can “take pride in themselves alone, without comparing themselves to someone else” (6:4). Here Paul suggests that taking pride in one’s work can be healthy. It need not devolve into a works-based righteousness, a competition with others, or a basis for taking credit away from God. At most, it can serve as a secondary basis for self-esteem, but it need not eclipse the primary basis – which is God’s unearned love, the enduring significance found in relationship to Him, the spiritual pedigree of membership in His family, and His performance on our behalf.