Almost three hundred years ago, the great hymnist Isaac Watts penned the words; “And did my Sovereign die? Would he devote that sacred head For such a worm as I?” (2, Hymn 9). Isaac Watts wrote out of a tradition that grappled with, and came to strong conclusions about, the awesome holiness of God and man’s finiteness in relation to Him–especially man considered still in his sin. Nowadays, with the rise of positive psychology and the self-esteem movement in the late 20th century, some ask, “Is the term “worm” really an appropriate way to refer to mankind?” Many answer that it is not; if God is out to encourage human well-being, then where is the place for such self-esteem crushing language as this (eg. Charry 288)? If self-esteem is something we can and should have, what then is its basis? Some have said that men are not as bad as the Reformers claimed they are, searching for a foundation of self-esteem in the work of the Spirit through sacramentalism (Charry 291–292), but the majority see an objective ground for their self-esteem in Scripture (Carlson 20). Is there a place for both the language of Watts and that of the self-esteem movement in Christian counseling? Is one closer to Scripture, or does Scripture provide a middle ground? To answer these questions around the relationship of positive psychology and Christian counseling, this paper will seek to answer the question; how does the Christian anthropology change our understanding of positive psychology and self-esteem counseling? To answer this question, we will first look at self-esteem in popular Christian Counselling literature. Then, agreeing that “the differences between positive psychology and Christian theology must be identified with a discerning eye that does not glibly harmonize the two” (Entwistle and Moroney 299), we will critique this understanding by Scripture to see if it harmonizes with Scripture’s anthropology. Finally, with these in place, we will attempt to move forward by looking at how we can rightly judge ourselves (Rom. 12:4).
Many different definitions have been given for self-esteem, but within Christian counseling circles, David Carlson’s seems to be quite representative; “I understand self-esteem as the willingness to give up being the center of my world and accept myself as God’s creation: lovable, valuable, capable, forgivable, and redeemable” (21). From a secular perspective, Coon describes someone with self-esteem as one who regards “[himself] as a worthwhile person” and someone with high self-esteem as one who “is confident, proud, and self-respecting” (108, 430). Collins seems to agree with both these definitions, seeing self-esteem as a positive self-evaluation and someone with a positive self-esteem as someone who sees himself or herself as being worthwhile and capable (426). For the purposes of this paper, we will use self-esteem to refer to “a positive self-evaluation seeing oneself as worthwhile and capable—worthwhile meaning that one is lovable, valuable, forgivable, and redeemable.”
If this is what self-esteem is, why is it considered important? Speaking of the importance of a positive self-esteem, Collins writes, “the importance of a…positive self-esteem has become almost universally accepted by mental-health professionals, at least in the United States and Canada” (426). Based on the work of psychologists such as Maslow, self-esteem is considered a must if we are to fulfill our duty to love others; considering self-love and self-esteem to be largely interchangeable, Carlson writes, “if we are to nourish and cherish others, we must increase our ability to nourish and cherish ourselves” (28–29). He goes so far as to claim that people will rarely come to Christ apart from a healthy sense of esteem; to respond to God’s love, mercy, and grace, people need to come to affirm their own worth and dignity (42). These are the advantages of a good self-esteem, but it is also claimed that the lack of self-esteem—or inferiority—causes hurt by what is called “slavery;” “If I don’t feel very good about myself, I become a slave to those around me. I am easily influenced by other people. I need their approval” (Burwick 32). Other results of a poor self-esteem are thought to be failure or mediocrity (Burwick 31) and anxiety or unhappiness (Coon 430).
If people are not born with this self-esteem (Carlson 42), and it is desirable to have; where do we find self-esteem? If self-esteem means that we understand ourselves to be worthy and capable, how do we ground these beliefs about ourselves? Neither Collins nor Carlson make a major distinction between believers and unbelievers in their elucidation of what grounds our value and worth; they establish the value of both the redeemed and unredeemed on the basis of their creation in the image of God, God’s act of redeeming them through Jesus, and—for believers—by their state as children of God—given gifts by Him and filled with His Spirit (Carlson 26; Collins 429). Carlson writes that self-esteem based on one’s confidence in the fact that he was made in the image of God and restored to this image is rock solid (20). Collins identifies the image of God as our intellectual abilities, the ability to communicate, the freedom to make choices, our moral capacities, and our dominion over creation; “Since we are created in God’s image, we possess great value and significance…because of how we were made by God” (427). Alongside the worth that comes from being created in the image of God, we are also said to have value and worth because God was willing to sacrifice His Son for our salvation, “We were “bought with a price (1 Cor. 6:20)”” (Carlson 28). “Even in our fallen state… God still loves and values us. He hates sin but loves the sinner. He knows that we are ungodly and helpless, but this does not mean that we are unredeemable and worthless” (Collins 427).
Some of what these Christian counselors have to say is right on the mark, but it would seem as if their picture of man’s relationship to God and the value derived therein is profoundly off the mark. In arguing for man’s self-esteem rooted in God’s acts, it would seem that they have failed to take into account the full breadth of what Scripture testifies to about the nature of man and God’s actions towards him. In addition, in failing to make the distinction between the believer and unbeliever, they do not take fully into account the differences between these, especially when it comes to capability. In order that we might evaluate the above position on self-esteem, we will examine the biblical anthropology in comparison, or contrast if necessary, with the Christian self-esteem position. For our purposes, the relevant areas of biblical anthropology are: what it means to be made in God’s image, the capabilities of man apart from God and of man in God, and God’s view of sinners with His acts for them.
Early in Scripture, when we read of God’s creating work, we are told that man was created in the image and likeness of God (Gen 1:26). In Genesis 9:6, we are told that, because man was created in God’s image, the act of murder is incredibly serious. From these Scriptures, and those like them, many have deduced that man is valuable, possessing eternal value (Collins 427) or even infinite worth (quoted in Adams 81). In searching for a ground of self-esteem, it would seem as if these authors have distorted the intent of these passages; they do not point to our significance, but to the significance of the one who created us (Adams 82). As those who are made in God’s image and likeness, we are like Him and represent Him here on earth (Gentry 190–202); the significance of these truths is not focused on us as the image, but on who it is that we are imaging (Adams 82). God is the infinitely worthy and glorious ruler of the heavens and the earth; He has given us the position of representing Him. This is not so that we would be seen to be worthy and glorious, but in order that His glory may be shown throughout His creation. The significance we show to one another in refraining from murder and other sinful acts against one another is not rooted in ourselves, but in Him who made us; to attack that part of creation that most resembles God “betrays an attempt or desire (if one were able) to attack God himself” (Grudem 444). Man as God’s image bearer is meant to point upwards, not to our own “infinite value” but to the infinite worth and value of the one who created us; it is significant to note that “man’s nature, which bears God’s image, is never [in Scripture] held out as a reason for having high self-esteem” (Adams 81).
The second part of our definition of self-esteem was a positive evaluation of one’s capabilities, is this something about man that Scripture teaches? If a positive self-esteem requires one to have a positive evaluation of one’s own capabilities, then the Scriptural picture appears to be in contrast with this. Man has potential for much in this world, as our advances in technology over the last 200 hundred years has shown, but in a world created by an infinite holy God, our true capabilities must be measured by His standard. Our capability for good or worthy tasks means our capability to follow His ways. Unfortunately, Scripture teaches that mankind apart from God is completely unable in this area: all men suppress the truth of God and have become haters of him (Rom. 1:18-32), there is none who are righteous and no one seeks God (Rom. 3:10-17), there is no fear of God in anyone’s eyes (Rom. 3:18), every thought and intention of man’s heart is evil (Gen. 6:21, cf. Jer. 17:9), every man is sold in bondage to sin (Rom. 7:14), enslaved to sin (Rom. 6:16-17) with their minds set on the flesh (Rom. 8:5). Even those who are redeemed feel the daily struggle between their new nature in Christ, living by the Spirit, and the remnants of their flesh (Gal 5:16-17, cf. Rom. 7:14-25). We must put to death all that is earthly in us (Col. 3:5), only doing this because God is giving us both the ability and the desire to do this (Phil. 2:12-13). Overall, the biblical picture is not one of human capability, and for those of us in Christ, the Biblical picture is not one that lets us cling to our own abilities. It points us to the fullness of our potential to change and be sanctified in Christ Jesus; we are driven not to our own ability, but we find confidence to move forward in the Spirit’s power at work in us and God’s promises to us (Lane and Tripp 149–151).
What of the Cross and God’s love for us, do these provide grounds for our worth? Collins writes of God’s value and love for us, “He hates the sin but loves the sinner.” If God loves us, should we not view ourselves as lovable (427–428)? God paid a great price (1 Cor. 6:20), in fact the greatest; He sent His one and only Son to die for us (John 3:16). Doesn’t this mean that we are worth it, valuable and redeemable enough for the price paid (Carlson 20, 28; Wright 36)? This borders on the worst form of heresy, claiming that God ransomed us from the grave because of something in us making us worth it! It is true that God loves sinners (John 3:16), but it is also true that He hates them. God’s love is not directed towards man because he deserves it, but in spite of his complete unworthiness. In the OT, God directed His special electing love to Israel, but this was not based on anything special about them (Jeremiah 31:3, Hosea, Deut. 7). In the Psalms, God is said to “hate all who do iniquity” (Psalm 5:4-5, cf. 11:5), which as we have seen is all man. In Romans 5:6-10, when speaking of Christ coming and dying, it is not those who are worthy who are seen as the objects of His death but the sinners and the ungodly, God’s enemies! The Psalmist in Psalm 62, verse 9, speaks of men from every rank as lighter than breath; in God’s balance they are fleeting, evanescent. Collins points to Psalm 8:5 as evidence of man’s value and worth (427), but the context points the opposite direction. In verse 4 the Psalmist expresses wonder at the royal position we have as God’s image bearers, asking “What is man that You take thought of him,And the son of man that You care for him” (Cf. Psalm 144:3)? Even God’s choice to choose for Himself men of all fallen creation to save was not based on anything in them, but solely on His sovereign mercy (1 Cor. 1:26-31, Rom. 8:29, 9:6-18, Eph. 1:3-12). The reason for this was so that man would have no boast but in God Himself, in the foolishness of the Cross (1 Cor. 1:29). Nothing in Scripture would give the impression that God sent His Son and set His love upon us because we deserved it, because we were worthy; in fact, to suggest this is to make a travesty of grace. What makes God’s grace in the Cross so amazing and His love so profound is that while we were yet sinners, while we deserved only God’s wrath, when our unrighteousness made us abominable to God; God sent His one and only Son so that we may have eternal life in fellowship with Him! We find a right evaluation of ourselves not in looking to our own worth, but seeing ourselves, with the men of Israel, as worms and taking comfort and finding freedom in the fact that “God engages all his forces on behalf of worms who take refuge in him” (Piper, cf. Isaiah 41:14).
What we have seen so far is a largely negative picture, that the “self-esteem” espoused by positive psychology is not compatible with a biblical anthropology, in fact it is contrary to it. However, is that all there is? Are we destined to be slaves to others, to be unconfident failures, unable to love and cherish those around us? Many authors, including this writer, do not think so. Towards a more biblical model for building the confidence of a client, let us see how we can appraise ourselves with sound judgment (cf. Rom. 12:3).
The first thing we must do is differentiate between the unbeliever and the believer. For the unbeliever, their greatest asset towards growing in every area and coming to faith is not self-esteem (contra. Carlson 42); in fact, self-esteem is probably what they need the least. What the unbeliever needs is right evaluation of himself; apart from Christ none are able to do anything good (cf. Heb. 11:6); everyone is an enemy of God and, though loved by God, is hated for his or her unrighteousness, facing the burning hot wrath of a Holy God. People do not come to Christ boasting in God’s love for them and their value, but broken before a Holy God, throwing themselves upon the mercies of a gracious God who would give His Son for His unworthy and disgusting creation. The Gospel is needed because we are broken and fallen, unless one comes to see this and gives up self-dependence to depend on God, there will be no faith.
For the believer, we need to realize that it is not sin to acknowledge the gifts that God has given us (Rom. 12:1-8). He has given them to us for serving the body (eg. Eph. 4:12, 1 Cor. 12:7) and so we need to acknowledge them and use them, all the while glorifying God for the fruit being produced through His work in us.
Unlike what self-esteem counselling teaches, we all have a love for ourselves (Piper, “Self-love and the Christian Counselor’s Task”; Myers 568). Self-love, in the Bible, “refers to a person’s natural compulsion for his own welfare in every facet of life—physical and emotional” (Makujina 222, cf. different aspects emphasized in Luke 10:25-37, Rom. 13:9, Eph. 5:28-29). This kind of self-love is not foreign to mankind, but is instinctive in all of us (Piper, “The Cult of the Self and the Command of Jesus”; Makujina 222–223). When employed within proper constraints, this self-love is not evil, but because of sin, it is often pushed beyond the bounds of what is good; eating when we are hungry is a healthy part of our self-love, but to overeat to the point of gluttony goes into sin (Makujina 223). As Christians, we are called to love others with the same love that we have for ourselves (Matt. 19:19), looking out for their good—both physical and emotional (Piper, “As Yourself”). Loving others in this way will sometimes require us to forsake our own needs, putting aside our self-love for their sake. In our call to take up our cross and follow Christ, in forsaking our lives to find it, we will have to give up self-love in some senses, for we need to be willing to give up our lives and put the kingdom of God before our needs (Luke 9:23-27, 14:25-33). This self-love can be said to be desire for our own happiness, and this self-love is a presupposition of Christian counseling; people come in desiring to change and be happier. A Christian counselor cannot give people self-love, they already have it, but he or she can help them replace worldly values and definitions of happiness with those of Christ and help them achieve these values, helping them to “love holiness and to be holy” (Piper, “Self-love and the Christian Counselor’s Task”). As they achieve these values by the power of the Spirit, the counselee will see this and grow a positive self-image and as they pursue the values of Christ, they will find happiness. The Christian’s life is not meant to be one of sadness but one of joy (eg. James 1:2), God has created us in such a way that we glorify Him most when we are most satisfied in Him (Piper, Desiring God 309); happiness is a legitimate goal and we can only help counselees find it by pointing them to the way God has given to live.
Christians will find confidence for life lived in this way and not in any of their own capabilities, for they do not have any, but, by looking to the Cross, they can gain confidence that by the Spirit’s work inside of them, they have the potential for great change. Because we have new hearts and are no longer slaves of sin, having been “liberated by the gracious rule of Christ,” we “have the potential for amazing change and growth in [our hearts and lives]” (Lane and Tripp 151).
In light of the picture that Scripture gives us of man, we cannot uncritically accept contemporary positive psychologies’ self-esteem teaching, but we have a direction to take in its place. We need to encourage those who are unbelievers to come to an understanding of their desperate condition and turn to the only one who can help them, Jesus Christ. For those who are believers, we must point them for confidence to the cross, trusting that it is by God’s strength that they can have confidence for change in their lives, and we must encourage them to pursue their happiness in the things of the kingdom.
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