The conservative evangelicalism in which I grew up requires that in order for people to be saved, they must admit that they are in and of themselves utterly lost and sinful and deserving of eternal torture. Within this conception, it’s not surprising that the idea of “self esteem” should be suspect. I recently came upon a blog post by a conservative evangelical blogger arguing just that.
God has created each individual to be exactly what he or she is: a marvelously-crafted bearer of God’s image, complex and beloved for those complexities. A lack of gratefulness and contentment with what God has endowed you with shows low God-esteem, not low self esteem. God is the one who has created you, not you yourself or even your biological parents. Your dissatisfaction with yourself is more a dissatisfaction with God’s creation than anything else, because you choose not to see the good He has wrought in you, but see only what you judge to be bad. High self esteem starts and ends with high God-esteem. You worship the creator (God) rather than the creature (yourself). In doing so, you turn your infatuation for personal perfection into infatuation with God, and you who are infatuated with God cannot help but mirror Him in all His splendid perfection.
She then goes on, adding a subheading:
Low Self Esteem Is Spiritually Healthy
So we are to have high God-esteem, and with that comes high esteem for God’s creation, including ourselves. This is not an arrogant, conceited esteem of ourselves, but rather it is an objective view from a position outside of ourselves, in a sense looking across the room at ourselves and saying, “God has given that person (me) much to be thankful for.” This is the only kind of high self esteem that is honoring to God.Now, there is a type of low self esteem that is also beautiful and precious to the heart of God, and that is humble repentance. It is the self esteem that confesses to God and to others that it has failed at keeping God’s righteous and holy laws, and that there is “only evil in my heart continually.” It is the self esteem that esteems others more highly than itself. It is the self esteem that lives to be trampled down and crushed if it will only build God’s kingdom. The meek are blessed, Jesus says, for they shall inherit the earth. This is the opposite of what many influences will tell you, such as “Believe in yourself,” “Follow your heart,” “Fight for what you want,” “Just do it,” “Be proud of yourself.” However, it is the meek who will inherit the earth. Who made Rome fall? Who founded America? Who freed a downtrodden people from a slave state? Who killed a giant with only a stone? The meek.
So you see, a proper view of God will create a filter through which you can see yourself in a better light. Understanding that God has created you helps you to not despise the person He has made you to be. Understanding that your own sin mars the pure beauty God planned for you helps you to honor God’s perfection and to keep you from elevating yourself above God and others.”Let him who stands take heed lest he fall,” [1 Cor. 10:12] and “let each esteem others more highly than himself.” [Philp. 2:3]. Understanding that God is the one who deserves high esteem lifts the burden off of you from either being too “down” on yourself or too “high” on yourself. It doesn’t really matter what you think of yourself! But what you think of God is a matter of life and death.It’s not all about you and how you view yourself.
. . .
You were created to highly esteem God, to have confidence in God, to spend life seeking to please Him. It’s not all about you.
I had a lot of thoughts while reading this. For one thing, it is true that Christianity offers individuals a sense of purpose—a belief that they are part of something greater, and that they matter because God says they matter. But as I led with, the conservative evangelicalism in my youth begins with an admission of utter depravity and worthlessness outside of God. As a teen, I struggled with the fact that I was proud of my accomplishments and of how carefully I was following the Bible. I believed that if I thought highly of myself, this could invalidate my belief in my utter in my utter sinfulness, and thus threaten my path to heaven. In the end, I strove to convince myself that I only mattered because I mattered to God and that any sense of self worth outside of God was a problem.
The article quoted above argues that we have worth because God chose to create us, and that as a result we should think highly of ourselves, as God’s creation. This argument, coupled with the idea that it’s what we think of God that matters, and not how highly or lowly we think of ourselves, might have helped me as a teen, had I not considered it heresy. And I might have. Time Magazine’s 2012 theologian of the year was once asked to sum up his thoughts on humanity, and he did so in two words: “We’re shit.” Other theologians are fond of referring to humans with epithets like “pond scum.” John Piper himself has talked about how he intentionally brings up his faults to remind himself of his worthlessness apart from God. This wasn’t just me—it appears to be endemic throughout much of conservative evangelicalism—so much so that self esteem becomes a dirty word.
There are of course more progressive and mainline Christians who believe that man does have worth independent from God, but in the conservative evangelical world, those are called “heretics.”