1. Self-Esteem and Self-Worth in American Christianity
There is no greater idol in American culture than the self. The self is at the heart of the sexual revolution, the gender identity crisis, and the epidemic of abortion. Reproductive rights are seen in this light: they are yours and no one else has the right to tell you what to do with your body. The same is true of the so-called gender identities. If you feel a certain way, you can identify that way and no one should be able to stop you (and perhaps they should even be forced to conform to your arbitrary standards by calling you by your preferred gender pronouns). As far as abortion goes, if that small human inside of you is going to make your life a little less convenient, you should have the right to mutilate and destroy it. In all of the above cases (and countless others), the self, with its freedom and needs and wants and desires, is what determines reality.
And though many in the church rightly stand opposed to these things, some within the church have accepted, perhaps unwittingly, the conditions necessary for these things to prosper, namely, the idea that the self is autonomous. The freedom of the self is at the center of the universe of both the American culture and, sadly, much of the American church. Furthermore, some in the church believe that the fundamental problem with humanity is a low view of self. The main reason for the sexual revolution, the gender identity crisis, and the epidemic of abortion, the narrative goes, is that people simply have too low a view of themselves.
What some in the church did in response to this has been to create what I am going to call the “self-esteem and self-worth movement.” Believing that most, if not all, human problems would be fixed by demonstrating to people their worth and by coaching them to have a higher self-esteem, the creators of the movement sought to reframe Christian theology within the context of their preconceived notions about this fundamental human problem. The movement began with good motivations (to help people with their problems) and promised much (the salvation of people from their problems), but ultimately it has failed to deliver.
2. Wrongly Diagnosing the Problem
I’ve said before that most of the popular Christian sermons, books, conferences, and Bible studies are all about you, the self. All Joel Osteen ever talks about is you (unless, of course, he mentions that God somehow wants to help you. But even then, the point is all about you, and God is only a means to achieving your desired ends). But even in less obvious sources, this trend abounds. I’ve heard people say that the cross is the demonstration of our value and worth. I’ve heard others say that God thought we were so lovely and beautiful that He saved us. Still others say: “you are enough.” All of these sayings come about because we think that the fundamental problem we have is low self-esteem and little sense of self-worth.
The issue with all of this is that we have wrongly diagnosed the real problem. It is not, in fact, the case that the fundamental human problem is low self-esteem or little self-worth. The Bible everywhere makes it clear that the fundamental human problem is our sinful rebellion against and separation from the holy God who created us. As Paul says, the root of all our problems is that we “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things” (Romans 1:22). Apart from Christ, we have traded in the knowledge of the glory of the Creator God and replaced it with the so-called glory of creation, ourselves at the center.
And this is precisely why the self-esteem and self-worth movement is so dangerous: it calls us to highly esteem ourselves without ever highly esteeming God. Even when God is mentioned by those who propagate this idea, He usually only functions as one tool to help us increase our self-esteem. So where the Bible says that our fundamental problem is that we have not esteemed God rightly (cf. Romans 1:18-32), the self-esteem and self-worth movement says that our fundamental problem is that we have not esteemed ourselves rightly. But the call to rightly esteem ourselves instead of rightly esteeming God is not good news. This call is all law and no gospel.
3. The Law without the Gospel
The reason I say that the call of the self-esteem and self-worth movement is one of law and not gospel is because the call has only commands and no good news. The commands (“You need to learn to live loved” / “You need to embrace your identity and purpose” / “You need to leave fear behind and move forward in faith” / “You need to ignite God’s vision for your life”) establish the law and what is required of you. The idea is: If you do these things, certain blessings and benefits will follow.
The problem with this is not necessarily that all of these commands are bad (though some of them are), but rather that the commands are actually impossible to accomplish in our own power. Who among us can learn to always live loved? Or who has perfectly left all their fear behind? When we are confronted with these commands, are we not discouraged after some time because we find it impossible to actually accomplish them? The ironic effect of this failure to carry out these impossible commands is that it actually leads to a lower view of ourselves than we had to begin with, thus perpetuating the problem altogether.
The even deeper problem is that there is no news of someone who has accomplished these commands on our behalf. There is no savior in this line of thinking. We have to be our own saviors. But we can’t save ourselves since the commands are impossible for us to accomplish. Thus if there is no savior, and if we can’t save ourselves, there is no salvation in the self-esteem and self-worth movement. If there is no salvation, there is no good news. That is why I say that the self-esteem and self-worth movement is one of all law and no gospel.
4. Good News for the Struggling Sinner
But the Christian gospel offers genuinely good news for the struggling sinner. It says that God created us in His own image. When we disobeyed and sinned against Him, we fell into ruin and are thus incapable of accomplishing God’s commands and fulfilling His law. But God sent His only begotten Son, not only to die in our place as punishment for our sin and disobedience, but also to live in our place in order to accomplish and fulfill the whole law (cf. Matthew 5:17). What Christ did, both in life and in death, counts for us: his righteousness is counted to us when we believe, and our sin was counted to him on the cross.
God requires perfect obedience to His law, and Jesus Christ fulfilled that for us. A perfect sacrifice is required as the punishment for sin, and Jesus Christ was that sacrifice. This is the good news of the Christian faith. We are made right with God not by what we have done or can do, but through faith alone on the basis of what Christ has done for us. He alone fulfilled the law. He alone is our Savior. Therefore, we are called to turn away from ourselves (complete with all our sinfulness) and to embrace Jesus Christ alone by faith.
But the self-esteem and self-worth movement obscures this good news by calling us to turn in toward ourselves, to acknowledge and to increase our own self-esteem and sense of self-worth. Yet when real life happens and we realize that we’re not as awesome or worthy or beautiful as we think we are, we’re left with only doubt: “If it’s true that God loves me because I’m awesome and worthy and beautiful, what about those times when I’m not awesome, don’t feel worthy, and am anything but beautiful? Does God still love me then?”
The answer to this, of course, is found only in the one true gospel: God’s love for us in Christ is not dependent upon us, and, in fact, God loves us despite us. John 3:16 tells us that God loved the world in that He sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to be the Savior of all who believe in Him. He did not consult us before taking action to save us. He did not wait for us to approve. He did not acknowledge our awesomeness and then on that basis say to His Son, “Well, I guess I better send you down there to rescue those beautiful people!”
On the contrary, Christ died for the weak, the ungodly, the sinners (cf. Romans 5:6-8). He died for the unrighteous, those who turned aside from Him, the worthless (cf. Romans 3:11-12). It is good news that Christ died for these, for us. For we know ourselves. We know we’re sinners. We know we’re broken. We know we’re weak, ungodly, sinful, unrighteous, rebels, and unworthy. That is why it is good news that salvation comes from outside ourselves. Salvation comes from Jesus Christ, who in himself is not sinful, though he was counted as such on our behalf (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:21). Salvation comes from Jesus Christ, who is not himself broken, but who was broken on our behalf on the cross.
5. Rejoicing in the Supremacy of Jesus Christ
God did not make us so that we could rejoice in the supremacy of ourselves. He made us so that we could rejoice in the supremacy of Jesus Christ. And for all who are keenly aware of their own sinfulness before a holy God, this is entirely good news. What the self-esteem and self-worth movement offers is not at all good news, for it calls us to place our faith in something which can neither save us, nor ultimately satisfy our souls: ourselves.
The Psalmist illustrates this point beautifully. He says, “Whom have I in heaven but You? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides You. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Psalm 73:25-26, emphasis added). The point here is that the Psalmist trusts and treasures God alone. He does not place any faith in his flesh, which he knows will pass away, or in his heart, since he knows that all of his passions are fleeting and, therefore, untrustworthy. The Psalmist utterly forsakes himself, desiring, trusting, and treasuring nothing besides God.
Therefore, my friends, let us follow the Psalmist by taking our eyes off ourselves. Let us look to the supreme God and His supreme Christ, to the One who has seen us in all our unworthiness, and then given His Son for us anyway. The cross of Christ is not ultimately a testament to how much we are worth to God. Rather, the cross demonstrates just how sinful we are, how holy God is, and how far He is willing to go in order to glorify His own name by sending His Son for the salvation of a sinful, chosen people.
The one thing we need to know most is not how awesome we are, not how we are to have a higher self-image or self-esteem, and not even how to know our self-worth. What we need to know most is the supremacy of the worth of knowing Christ Jesus as Lord. What we need to proclaim most “is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord.” What we need to see most is “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:5-6). Nothing else can truly satisfy our souls.
Thanks for reading. Have any additional thoughts? Leave a comment below.