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Should Christians Value Self-Esteem?

Matt Fuller | July 27th 2021

The bestselling memoir Eat, Pray, Love tells the story of Elizabeth Gilbert’s journey of self-discovery and spiritual exploration following a difficult divorce. After travelling around Italy, India and Indonesia, she arrives at this philosophy: “God dwells within you as yourself, exactly the way you are” (Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love, chapter 64).

The fact that the book has sold over 12 million copies, and has since been made into a film, shows that this is a philosophy that is very much in tune with the modern ear.

In some ways it’s grasping at the truth—there is something God-like about us. We’re made in the image of God. This gives us a wonderful dignity and a basis for satisfying relationships. Yet we’re merely mirrors—it’s who we reflect that makes us special.

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Hear what the Bible says about how to be true to yourself.

Taking Our Reflection Out of Context

If you take out the reflective glass, then, without the image of the glorious God filling our “frame”, we’re left with something woefully uninspiring. Yet this is precisely what our modern culture tries to do.

Our society has increasingly rejected the idea of a creator and so looks within to find meaning. To caricature this for the sake of simplicity, here are our unexamined assumptions:

Q: What shall I worship?

A: Well, if there’s no God, then... me.

Q: Who shall I love?

A: Me.

In rejecting God, many in the modern West have turned to an alternative “gospel”—by that, I mean a truth which people look to for happiness: a big philosophy to live by. One of the biggest “gospels” our culture sells us is the gospel of self-esteem: “Look within to find out who you are: what you find is wonderful”.

"We can only be true to ourselves if we are honest."

The Gospel of Self-Esteem

Most of us are familiar with the concept of self-esteem. It describes the way that someone thinks about themselves, and the worth and value they ascribe to their person.

High self-esteem is assumed to be desirable: people who possess this are confident, secure, trusting and resilient. Low self-esteem can manifest in self-criticism, pessimism or an excessive sense of guilt or need to please others. The “gospel” of self-esteem says that the way to be happy is to esteem yourself more highly. In other words, love yourself.

Christians can easily slip into these assumptions because they’re nearly all helpful. Confidence, security and resilience are good things that we like. Excessive guilt and a slavish need to please others are unpleasant things that we dislike. So, the gospel of self-esteem sounds great!

In contrast, when we first encounter the biblical gospel, it might sounds a little, well… miserable. At my church we sing songs like Elizabeth Clephane’s hymn “Beneath the cross of Jesus”, which includes lines like “My sinful self my only shame, My glory all the cross.”

So on a Sunday we gather several hundred people together to sing that we are worthless and ashamed of ourselves. What do you make of that?!

The Gospel Gives Us Something Better Than Self-Esteem

It’s not that my church is a particularly gloomy one—if you’ve ever sung “Amazing Grace”, you’ve sung these words: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me”.

Do you believe that you are wretched? That doesn’t sound good for self-esteem either!

But when we properly understand it, the gospel of Christ offers us the security, confidence and resilience that we really want and need. We can only be true to ourselves if we are honest.

The true gospel compels us to accept that we’re made in the image of God, but, because of our sins and flaws, we need to be redeemed into the image of Christ. He has made us lovely. It’s not something we naturally are, but something we have been given.

This is an excerpt adapted from Matt Fuller’s book Be True to Yourself, which has been written to help Christians of all ages live with confidence in today’s culture.

Matt Fuller

Matt Fuller is the Senior Minister at Christ Church, Mayfair in central London. Before working as a minister Matt was a secondary school teacher teaching history and politics.

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