I remember hearing once as a child – in a sermon or a Sunday school lesson or maybe a home group Bible study – that self-esteem should never be a focus in raising children. Focusing on a child’s self-esteem would teach them to look inside themselves for worth instead of looking to the Lord for their worth. Teach children to find their significance in Jesus, they said, and we will develop a far greater sense of value than any “self-esteem” or “self help” book ever could.
That message stuck with me for a very long time. It’s incredible how one little message can shape the way you view yourself. The term “self-esteem” was a dirty word for me growing up, and I avoided it even well into adulthood. In fact, any “self” word, unless it was self-denial or self-control, carried bad connotations for me. In all my formative years, I shunned the concept of self-esteem as New Age woo. As I grew older, I rarely talked about my self-esteem but couched the concept in euphemisms like “worth” or “significance” found in Christ – always found in Christ. Mentioning any problems with my self-esteem felt too focused on me and not focused enough on the Savior in whom my worth was found. If I had a “self-esteem” problem, it was more likely that what I really had was a pride problem.
Donated Worthiness, Revoked
We have all received messages throughout our lives that have told us we are not good enough at this or important enough for that. Too fat, too skinny, too stupid, too nerdy, too bossy, too sensitive. How can anyone deflect all the messages that are thrown at us all the time by everyone and everything around us? But even more so, when the very foundation of your belief system is based on the message that you are inherently wicked, how can you possibly develop any kind of self-love? For the Christian, the only way is through viewing yourself as saved by grace and covered by the robes of Christ’s righteousness.
For years, I believed my worth was entirely found in Jesus, a donation offered by a benevolent benefactor. As a child, I just knew I was a sinner that needed to be saved. As I grew older, I absorbed the more sophisticated messages about my depravity which told me that, without Christ, I was worthless and my good deeds were like filthy rags. As I grew in my faith and in my study of Scripture, I internalized these foundational messages about my origins to immunize myself against pride and any truly self-centered esteem I may have for myself. The term “self-esteem” no longer seemed a dirty word, just a very worldly way of trying to fill the hole of emptiness that only Christ could fill.
My self-esteem was actually Christ-esteem. So when I lost my faith, I also lost my source of significance.
When your view of yourself is built upon a strong foundation of self-denial, self-deprecation, and even self-loathing, and when your value is constructed of materials you source from outside yourself, it takes very little to bring you to collapse. If your self-worth is derived from someone else’s view of you – a significant other, a parent, or a deity – and that external source of worth falters or disappears from your life, what happens to you then?
With my loss of faith went my source of value. Without Christ, I am nothing! I felt lost and purposeless. I felt small, insignificant and worthless. Even though I could objectively acknowledge my past self-worth had been based on something unreal, I was still left with an emptiness I could not fill. If no god made me and I’m just a haphazard product of evolution, surely my entire life is meaningless. How could I possibly be worth anything at all? It still felt so self-centered and arrogant to assume I could possibly have any worth within myself; I was a miserable wretch at worst, and a mere blip in the universe at best.
I no longer found my worth in Christ but still saw myself as intensely wicked. I wanted to explore aspects of myself that had always been deemed sinful and displeasing to God, but I couldn’t do so without hating myself for having those shameful feelings. Without the Bible telling me these things were wrong, I was able to evaluate so many things through a different, more objective lens, but not without the guilt and shame that had clothed me since infancy.
Making Our Own Destinies
My then-husband introduced me to a band called Quiet Company after hearing an interview with lead singer and songwriter Taylor Muse on NPR. Every song on the album We Are All Where We Belong seemed to be written just for me. One song affected me particularly deeply, and things began to change with these simple lyrics:
But luckily I held out long enough to see
everybody really makes their own destiny.
It’s a beautiful thing.
It’s just you and me, exactly where we belong,
and there’s nothing inherently wrong with us.
-Quiet Company, “The Black Sheep & The Shepherd”
Suddenly it made sense. Not only could I put away the judgment and guilt I had heaped upon myself my whole life, but I could put away the very notion that I was born depraved and that no good could ever come out of me. Not only did I have the capacity to make decisions for myself, good or bad, I actually had the sense within myself to figure out what made something good or bad. I began to redefine “good and evil” in very basic terms – is it harmful to others or myself? Are there negative consequences that will outweigh the positive? Realizing that I was capable of making good choices and being a good person without the assistance of a supreme being planted in me the first seeds of truly healthy self-esteem.
I look at my children now. I see myself in them, different parts of me in different ones. I see the lack of self-esteem in one child in particular. How could I look at this little human being that I’ve brought into a harsh world full of harsh messages that will tear her down and try to destroy her and not put intense focus on building her self-esteem? I see the seeds of self-loathing already sprouting, and there’s nothing I want more than to choke those seeds out and plant new seeds of self-love in their place. I want to teach my kids to take care of themselves, something I struggle to do myself. I can’t imagine anything more important to focus on than a healthy self-esteem that comes from believing they are inherently good and are the masters of the decisions they make.
Not all people of faith believe themselves to be so inherently wicked, but that is the message of the Bible – that the heart is deceitful and desperately wicked. That’s the bad news we must be convinced of before the “good news” of Jesus on the cross can be accepted. Some people are far better at not internalizing that message as deeply as I did, but I can’t take that chance with my own kids. I can see which ones would internalize that message and define themselves by it the same way I did.
So I must – it’s my responsibility as a parent – fight against not only the messages the world will send my children that they are too much of this or not enough of that but also the message the church sends them that they are not inherently good. Positive self-esteem must be at the top of things I strive to help develop in them, so that they can easily tap into the good they recognize in themselves when choosing between right and wrong. And when they inevitably take wrong turns, a genuine sense of self-worth must be intact so they can forgive themselves and self-correct.
There is nothing inherently wrong with them, and they have worth and value just for being themselves. When I see this in them, I’m reminded it’s no less true for me.
[Image Source: Adobe Stock]
Lori Arnold is a writer, overachiever, and Oxford Comma enthusiast living in Arkansas with her three children and vindictive cat. She writes about the struggles she once faced as an evangelical Christian and those she faces now as an openly atheist, divorced young professional living in the Bible Belt. You can visit her blog here and order her memoir, The Last Petal Falling, here.