The self-esteem argument

“With humility of mind let each of you regard one another as more important than himself” (Philippians 2:3).

You are somebody.  But you’re not everybody.

You are someone special. But you’re not more special than anyone else.

Coming to terms with these realities is one of life’s biggest challenges.

While team-teaching a seminary class of master’s level students, the professor and I had a mild disagreement.  To explain, the “professor” is a career educator while I am only an adjunct professor. This means I teach once in a while and am not a bona fide member of the faculty. When coupled with a lifer, I usually yield to him/her regarding the nuts and bolts of classroom work. But not necessarily pertaining to the content of the class.

Here’s what happened.

The class periods were three hours long. On this day, the professor had taken the first hour, the students had done a work project the second hour, and after a break, I was teaching the final segment.

I’ve forgotten the general topic, something about self-esteem evidently.

I was pointing out something about the ego, how Scripture reins it in and calls on us to humble ourselves.  I said, “Our problem is we think too highly of ourselves and that can be a problem. Scripture has much to say about our out-of-control egos.”

The professor interrupted. “Oh, I thoroughly disagree.  People are much more likely to think too lowly of themselves.  They need to be encouraged and built up.  It’s the low self-esteem that is the problem.”

That caught me off guard.  I’ve been teaching off and on like this for nearly 20 years, but had never had a colleague interrupt to disagree publicly.  For a moment, I was shocked into silence.

Rather than get into a debate in front of the class, I said, “Then we may just have to agree to disagree.”

And left it there.

However, in my mind–as in society as a whole–the debate continues. Do we think too highly of ourselves? Or is the problem the way we devalue ourselves?

The answer, I expect, is both. Some people are afflicted with the first and some with the second.

Numerous times since that little incident, I have returned to that moment and reflected on it.

To be sure, many people are burdened by low self esteem. There is no denying that.  I see it when the people I am sketching refuse to look me in the eye, refuse to smile because of something they don’t like about themselves, that sort of thing. They shy away from public speaking and praying in public.  Some refuse to “walk the aisle” in church lest everyone turn in their direction and stare. Some even stay away from church altogether because “the good people go there and I’m such a loser.”

Low self-esteem says “I’m not worthy” and refuses to attempt anything difficult.

I suspect that far more people are afflicted by oversized self-esteem. The ego on steroids is the monster behind many of our problems.

The lower nature of man (what Scripture calls “the old man”) has a god complex and wants to be godzilla in a world where it can live as it pleases and everyone else exists to do its will, where it can wreak all the havoc it chooses and not be held accountable.

Scripture addresses the out-of-control ego in many places….

–“He (Jesus) must increase; I must decrease.” (John 3:30)  John the Baptist was not suffering from low self-esteem or bad mental health.  He was as clear-headed as we could hope to be. He correctly saw the Messiah as God’s emissary from Heaven and himself as “a voice in the wilderness” and nothing more.

–“Whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant” (Matthew 20:26).  The Lord Jesus was not recommending groveling as a path to prominence, but clear-headed, right-seeing service to others. Only someone with a solid knowledge of who he/she is can pull this off.

–“Before the Feast of the Passover, Jesus knowing that His hour had come….(and) knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper, and laid aside His garments, and taking a towel, He girded Himself about (and washed the disciples’ feet)” (John 13:1-4)  The disciples could not bring themselves to such a selfless act because of their false pride. But our Lord’s esteem was intact and He knew who He was. Therefore, He had no problem humbling himself to get down and wash their feet.

–“For through the grace given to me I say to every man among you not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think; but to think so as to have sound judgment, as God has allotted to each a measure of faith” (Romans 12:3). That well-balanced view of the self is what Paul calls “sound judgment.” And that’s the right answer. Neither too high nor too low.  We are not Gods and we are not junk.

–“Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor” (Romans 12:10). This sounds a lot like our Lord’s teachings on “the second greatest commandment,” to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39; quoted from Leviticus 19:18).  Either one is huge and contrary to our base nature.

–And then, Philippians 2:3. “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind let each of you regard one another as more important than himself.”  How strong is that!

Here is a typical scene from a high school party.

The boys and girls are slow to mix, but eventually they blend.  Some are dancing or eating, some are holding hands and talking, and a few are gathered into little groups for conversation.  But over against the wall sit a few people we call the wall flowers.

A wall flower is so called because this person is not a mixer, but frequently sitting as far removed from contact with other humans as possible. He or she is suffering from low self-esteem, it appears, and has withdrawn deeply inside their shell, pulled down the shades, locked all the doors, and pulled up the drawbridge.  No one gets inside that fortress tonight.

If you could know the person’s thoughts, you might pick up on something like this: “Nobody likes me.  Nobody has time for me. Nobody speaks to me. They’re all conceited.  I’m such a loser. I don’t know why I bothered coming to this thing.”

Question: Who is this person thinking about?

Himself. Themselves.

He or she is the most egotistical person in the room.

(I suspect at this point my professor friend would once again disagree mightily.)

Now, watch as the most popular person enters the hall.  He walks over and high-fives a friend, hugs another, and fist-bumps a third.  He brags on a student who turned in a great game on the gridiron Friday night, and tells another “Great report in class today!”  To another, he asks about her mother who has been ill.

The healthy, well-balanced outgoing–and therefore, popular–person is thinking about everyone in the room except himself.

And that is what good mental health and a proper self-esteem allows one to do.

Warren Wiersbe once said he could wish there was one more Beatitude: “Blessed are the balanced.”

We agree.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.