It is vain, O men, that you seek within yourselves
the cure for your miseries. All your insight only leads you
to the knowledge that it is not in yourselves
that you will discover the true and the good.
One of the first lessons I learned in my counselor’s training is that nothing said is insignificant, especially the opening and the closing words of a session. Jonathan came to see me at his wife’s request. She was dissatisfied with their marriage and contacted me after reading my book How to Act Right When Your Spouse Acts Wrong. She described her husband as depressed and uninvolved in their relationship. But he didn’t want to come for marriage counseling until he checked me out. After I spent time listening to him and his perspective of his life and his marriage, he agreed to return for another session with his wife. I smiled and thought, I passed. Then, after he rose to leave, he plopped back in the chair, looked at me earnestly and said, “I guess the answer is I’ll just have to fall more in love with myself.”
I thought, Is that true? Is the cause of Jonathan’s depression and marital problems rooted in his lack of self-love? For many years that’s what we have been taught.
I could relate to what Jonathan said. Several years ago I was feeling miserable after the Lord had convicted me of my impatience with a particular person. In addition, I was brooding over some other mistakes I had made. Looking for some emotional support, I wandered into a colleague’s office and unburdened myself. She said, “Leslie, stop being so hard on yourself. You can’t love others well until you love yourself more. Sounds to me like you have a self-esteem problem.” I nodded in agreement. But was that my real problem?
For a long time we have heard that high self-esteem and loving ourselves is essential to our well-being and happiness. One author of a best-selling book on self-esteem wrote, “I cannot think of a single psychological problem—from anxiety and depression, to fear of intimacy or of success, to spouse battery or child molestation—that is not traceable to the problem of poor self-esteem.”1 When I was in graduate school in the seventies, a popular slogan went something like this: “You can’t love anyone else until you learn to love yourself first.” Many Christians bought into this mind-set and taught that Jesus said we must learn to love ourselves first before we can love others well. (See Christ’s command to love God and love others in Matthew 22:37-39.)
It is time we reexamine this idea more closely. Is more self-love or higher self-esteem the pathway to deeper intimacy with God, good relationships with others, inner satisfaction, and personal well-being? Or is there a different road altogether?
Before going on, I think it is important to define the terms self-image, self-esteem, and self-love. For a long time, when people came to me for counseling and told me that they suffered from low self-esteem or a poor self-image or didn’t love themselves, I wasn’t quite sure what they had in mind. Did it mean she didn’t like herself? Or maybe he didn’t feel important or lacked self-confidence. Often people expressed that they felt worthless or inferior to others.
All of the above might indicate problems with the self. Yet, for the purpose of clarity, let’s distinguish these terms from one another. This will help us better understand the essential quality of each component and see how our self-concept affects our lives and our relationships with others and with God.
Simply stated, our self-image is our mental picture of ourselves. When you think of yourself, what consistently comes to mind? Do you usually see someone who is competent, attractive, interesting, important, gifted, skilled, loved, and valued? Or perhaps more often you view yourself as incapable, unworthy of love, stupid, incompetent, ugly, or inferior to others. Our internal picture of ourselves begins to be shaped early in childhood by significant people in our lives who reflect back to us how they see us. In addition, our self-image is formed by the evaluations we make of ourselves. Over time, these internal mental pictures are solidified into our self-image. Ideally, these reflections and evaluations provide a relatively truthful representation of who we are, but sadly, they often don’t.
Many times these distorted reflections and false evaluations lead us to make some inaccurate or untruthful conclusions about who we are. For example, Sally was the ninth child of an exhausted mother and father who did not believe in birth control. Her mother often passed her off to her older siblings to feed and care for her. Sally’s parents rarely spoke to her, and she grew up with the impression that she was unloved and unimportant—that she didn’t matter much.
Sally’s internal picture about who she was affected her feelings about herself and the decisions she made throughout adolescence. She gravitated toward needy people, because she believed that unless she could do something for them, they would not want to be her friend. Sally married a man who used her to take care of his needs but didn’t give much consideration or thought to Sally’s needs. Of course, why would he? She was unlovable and unimportant. Sally’s negative self-image was based on perceptions of herself that she gained as a child that were powerful but untrue. In order to heal and grow so she could understand who she really was, Sally would need to see herself as God saw her.
On the other hand, Greg was an only child, a much-wanted baby after a ten-year battle with infertility. His parents doted on his every whim and constantly told him that he was wonderful, special, and capable of anything that he set his mind to. Greg grew up believing that he was loved and valued. He also believed that others should always want to please him, affirm him, and do whatever he wanted. Greg saw himself as a cut above others. Later on, when Greg’s wife tried to express her needs or ideas, Greg felt slighted. After all, his needs should come first; he was the most important. Greg’s inflated self-image was just as injurious to his well-being and future relationships as Sally’s. For Greg to mature, he, too, would need to reevaluate how he saw himself—from God’s perspective.
Both Greg and Sally had inaccurate or false pictures of themselves. Sally thought herself inferior to others; Greg believed himself superior. Sally saw herself as unlovable; Greg felt entitled to everyone’s love and attention. Greg’s and Sally’s distorted self-images led to problems in their relationships with others and with God. Sally was afraid God wasn’t interested in her; Greg used God as a servant to meet his needs and wishes. Neither was happy or content.
I have described two extremes, but most of us fall somewhere between the Gregs and Sallys of this world. No one grows up with a totally accurate self-image. But no matter how distorted or how inaccurate your picture of yourself is, I have good news for you: God’s Word provides clear and truthful information about who we are so that we can begin to make corrections. I will explore this more fully in later chapters. For now, understand that this mental shift in our selfimage is absolutely essential to our well-being, because how we think about ourselves or see ourselves has much to do with the related concept of self-esteem.
Whereas self-image may be described as the way we think about ourselves, self-esteem is the way we feel about ourselves. Our thoughts influence our feelings. Therefore it stands to reason that if we are thinking negatively about who we are, we will also feel negatively about ourselves. Sally didn’t only think of herself as unlovable or unimportant; she also felt unlovable and unimportant. Sally never offered her opinion to others, because she didn’t feel she had a perspective worth listening to. She always felt shy and insecure around other people because she saw herself as inferior.
On the other hand, Greg felt good about himself and had a lot of self-confidence. He had high self-esteem but low regard for others. He lacked compassion, was often demanding and self-centered, and became angry when others didn’t see things his way or do what he wanted. Greg thought highly of himself and felt positively about himself—qualities that most of us would value and think necessary to our personal happiness and well-being. Yet Greg was not satisfied. People never met his needs as adequately as he thought they should.
Sometimes we work hard to change our mental picture of ourselves but continue to feel poorly about our value and our worth. We can admit our strengths, see our assets, appreciate our talents or skills, but still feel insignificant or unimportant. We acknowledge that God made us and that God loves us, but that old feeling of being worthless or unlovable still gnaws at us from inside. This usually occurs when we have a head-heart split. In other words, we know (or acknowledge) the truth about who God says we are, but deep down, we don’t really believe it or feel it.
I have two children, Ryan and Amanda. I love them both dearly. Ryan is my biological child; Amanda we adopted as an infant from Korea. When we adopted her, she became a Vernick. We gave her a new name, and her status was changed. She was no longer an alien from another country. As an American citizen, she was afforded the full rights and privileges of that identity. She was no longer an orphan; she had become our daughter. She was no longer penniless but had resources at her disposal for all of her needs and many of her wants.
She was no longer alone; she was part of a family. She was no longer unloved or unwanted, but was dearly loved and deeply wanted. Amanda experiences her identity in line with these realities. When she was little, she felt free to snuggle in my bed if she was frightened by a nightmare. Now that she’s older, she doesn’t think twice about running into my bathroom to use my hair gel or cosmetics or to borrow some jewelry. She knows she is adopted but fully trusts she is our daughter and is emotionally bonded to that truth.
But what if Amanda knew intellectually she was adopted but emotionally felt unsure of our commitment to her? Because of her lack of trust, she might choose to sleep on the floor instead of in her nice big bed. She could be reluctant to eat our food or use our things. She might fear that if she displeased us we would send her back to Korea.
What if Amanda thought we loved Ryan more than we loved her? If Amanda wasn’t emotionally secure in her identity as our daughter or didn’t trust that our covenant of adoption with her was meaningful, then her internal feelings would not align with the legal information she has about her adoption. She would experience her life (or feel) as if she were still an orphan, even though factually she is a Vernick.
Many of us fail to experience a change in our feelings about ourselves when we come to Christ for salvation, because we don’t really believe God when he tells us we are his adopted children and that we are deeply loved and valued. We have head knowledge of those truths but lack heart trust. Those of us who suffer from this kind of headheart split experience a great deal of emotional pain. We long to feel differently, to experience our adoption as children of God. We yearn to feel special, loved, and valued. If only we could really believe that God loves us, then maybe we could feel happy.
The writer of Hebrews spoke of this head-heart split when he told the Hebrew believers that they didn’t experience God’s peace and rest because they didn’t really believe his promises (Hebrews 4:2). God knows our pain and turmoil, and he offers to heal us. However, our approach to healing our identity issues is crucial. We can’t change these damaging feelings about ourselves by working on feeling better about ourselves. We only change our feelings when we deepen our trust and belief in God, and when our view of ourselves becomes aligned with God’s view of us. Then the truth of our identity is not mere information but a heartfelt reality.
The last concept is closely related to the other two and might be defined simply as the way we treat ourselves. When Jesus tells us to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27), he is teaching us to care for our neighbor in the same good way that we would care for ourselves. John Piper wrote, “The self-love Jesus speaks of has nothing to do with the common notion of self-esteem. It does not mean having a good self-image or feeling especially happy with oneself. It means simply desiring and seeking one’s own good.”2
Scripture tells us, “No one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it” (Ephesians 5:29). In our humanity, we naturally love ourselves. The Lord doesn’t say this is sinful, but it is automatic and necessary so that we will be responsible for our well-being. For example, when I cut my finger with a sharp knife, everything within me springs into action. My mind races to figure out what to do, my other hand applies pressure to my bleeding finger, my eyes begin to tear, and my voice cries out for help, all of which work together to comfort and care for my injured finger. Whenever I am criticized or corrected, my first impulse is to withdraw, to shut down and protect myself. Or sometimes out of love for myself I do the opposite: I go on the offensive and verbally retaliate in order to defend my wounded ego.
We all behave in ways that we believe will help us feel better when we’re hurt or upset. Some of us take a nap or exercise. Others work on constructive problem solving or self-improvements. Even people who don’t feel good about themselves or suffer from low self-esteem or poor self-images love themselves. Their behavior may look more like self-hatred than self-love because it appears to be destructive (like compulsive overeating, substance abuse, or promiscuity). However, people often engage in these destructive behaviors because they honestly believe these things will help them feel better, even if only temporarily.
The Bible tells a story of a young man who wanted to know what he needed to do to receive eternal life (Matthew 19:16-22). Jesus told him that he needed to keep the commandments. Then he got specific, ending with “and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’” The rich young man replied, “All these I have kept. What do I still lack?” But Jesus knew this young man’s heart. The young man didn’t have any problem loving himself, but he lacked love for God and his neighbor. To expose him, Jesus told the young man to “go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” The young man turned away. He loved himself and his money more than he loved God or his neighbor.
We often think of this parable as a story about money, but it is really a story about love—self-love gone awry. Thomas à Kempis wisely said, “We deceive our own selves through the inordinate love we have for the flesh.”3
“What do I need to do to be happy?” could easily have been the question the rich young ruler asked Jesus that day. I believe Christ’s answer would have been the same: Let go of what you think makes you happy, and follow me. Because all people intrinsically love themselves, we all look for ways to satisfy ourselves and make ourselves happy. This is life’s motivational drive. Blaise Pascal, a mathematician and philosopher said:
All look for happiness without exception. Although they use
different means, they all strive toward this objective. That is
why some go to war and some do other things. So this is the
motive for every deed of man, including those who hang
One of the results of our cultural emphasis on promoting greater selflove and self-esteem is that we now believe we must find ourselves, feel good about ourselves, and fulfill ourselves so that we can be more selfconfident, have more self-worth, and become self-sufficient and selfreliant. Elementary schools have implemented programs to raise students’ self-esteem, and we who are parents vigilantly try not to damage our children’s self-worth. Counselors have caseloads full of people who describe themselves as having low self-esteem, and bookstores devote a significant amount of shelf space to books on selfimprovement, self-esteem, self-confidence, and the like.
A look at this idea from a biblical point of view leads to a surprisingly different conclusion. The Bible never encourages us to pursue loving ourselves or to work on enhancing our self-esteem at all. In fact, God’s Word often cautions us against thinking too highly of ourselves (Romans 12:3) or too much of ourselves (Philippians 2:2-3). One of the central themes woven throughout the Scriptures is that of losing ourselves and dying to ourselves, not of loving ourselves.
It is time to carefully examine whether our cultural emphasis on the self has resulted in greater personal happiness, better relationships with others, and a deeper intimacy with God. Secular research examining the effects of self-esteem improvement efforts has yielded some startling results. A 1986 California task force found a low correlation between low self-esteem and poor behavior. In fact, the opposite was discovered. For example, they reported that many child abusers did not have low self-esteem. Nor did people on welfare.5 Another study suggests that some of the most dangerous people are those who have a strong desire to regard themselves as superior beings and have an inflated self-image.6
These secular studies confirmed some of what I observed in my counseling practice. More often than not, people who experience discouragement, marital problems, and difficulties with anger management usually aren’t suffering from a low opinion of themselves. Often it is just the opposite! They experience problems in living because they have strong feelings of entitlement and feel upset because people don’t give them what they believe they deserve. Oswald Chambers wrote, "Discouragement rises from following self-love, and from nothing else. We get discouraged because we do not get our way.”7
Is it possible that we’ve been getting it backward? Perhaps our difficulties in life occur, not because we don’t think highly enough of ourselves, but because we think too highly and too much of ourselves. Our problems in life usually don’t stem from loving ourselves too little, but of loving others and God too little and ourselves too much. Psychologist Paul Vitz said, “For the Christian the self is the problem, not the potential paradise.”8
The fundamental questions in the heart of every human being are “Who am I?” and “Why am I here?” The answers we settle on will depend upon which lens we look through: the world’s lens or God’s. The world teaches us that to live well, we must focus more and more attention on loving our self by affirming that “I am” and “I can.” The irony is that when we pursue the path of self-discovery, selffulfillment, or self-love, Jesus says we will ultimately lose ourselves.
Paul reminds us that in the last days: “People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God—having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with them” (2 Timothy 3:2-5, emphasis added).
The way to finding our true self begins by looking to God. Then we will get a much clearer picture of who we are and why we exist. We will cover this more extensively in later chapters, along with what constitutes a healthy self-image and what exactly biblical self-esteem and self-love look like. Contrary to the world’s advice, the Lord tells us that only he can give us a fulfilling life because he alone is the great I AM.
The path he calls us to involves denying our self and loving him with all of our heart, mind, strength, and will (Mark 12:30). God wants us to understand who we are and to look at all of life from his perspective (Proverbs 3:5-6) so that we will discover the secret of lasting joy. He is the Creator and Author of life, and only he knows what will satisfy our deepest longings. We were created by him and for him. Our souls are hungry, craving something that will truly satisfy our longings, but our spiritual taste buds have been dulled. Seeking gratification, we stuff ourselves with junk food, looking for something—anything—to quench the hunger in our souls. But we never quite experience satisfying fullness.
In our ignorance and sometimes in our rebellion, we strike out on our own, thinking that we know best what will fulfill our deepest longings. C. S. Lewis wrote that we are “half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”9
Only God understands the desires of our heart, and he doesn’t want us to settle for less than his best. He says, “Taste and see that the LORD is good” (Psalm 34:8). “He fulfills the desires of those who fear him” (Psalm 145:19). Instead of self-confidence, we need greater Godconfidence, for he alone knows what will make us truly happy, truly satisfied.
God never instructs us to concentrate on loving ourselves as a means of emotional or spiritual growth. He tells us deeper maturity comes about through loving and obeying him (see Matthew 6:33; John 15:10-11). In what ways have you been too focused on yourself and not enough on God or others? Begin to ask yourself and God how you might change this.