Published in the Hokusei Review (Hokusei Gakuen University, Sapporo, Japan) Vol.44, No.1, Sept. 2006
A Contrite Heart is Better
than an Esteemed Self:
Bruce W. Davidson
II. Self-Esteem in the Light of Reason
A. The Problem of Definitions
B. No Reasonable Grounds
C. Guilt and Moral Failure
III. Self-Esteem in the Light of the Bible
A. Love: A Scriptural Definition
B. “Love Your Neighbor As Yourself”
C. The Divine Image: Cutting Both Ways
D. Bible Texts Against Self-Esteem Ideology
E. Mankind’s Condition and How to Feel About It
F. Self-Confidence: Contrary to Faith
G. Humble, Contrite Faith: The Real Foundation of Moral Virtue
H. Self-Esteem and the Glory of God
The self-love / self-esteem teaching
has become an established feature of modern popular
culture. Judging by papers delivered at recent
conferences on education, the idea is alive and well
in the educational world as well. To sum up this
idea in a nutshell, it is that everyone ought to
think highly of himself or herself. Furthermore, if
one does not have self-esteem, then he or she will
be emotionally handicapped and unable to do much in
life. In other words, a felling of self-approbation
is the foundation of all achievement and moral
action, and the lack of it probably is the reason
why most people fall short in their lives.
The self-love / self-esteem teaching has become an established feature of modern popular culture. Judging by papers delivered at recent conferences on education, the idea is alive and well in the educational world as well. To sum up this idea in a nutshell, it is that everyone ought to think highly of himself or herself. Furthermore, if one does not have self-esteem, then he or she will be emotionally handicapped and unable to do much in life. In other words, a felling of self-approbation is the foundation of all achievement and moral action, and the lack of it probably is the reason why most people fall short in their lives.
Many Christians have also jumped on the self-esteem bandwagon, with a difference: they believe that they have found more Biblical basis for subscribing to this view. One proof for it they fin d in the doctrine that man is made in the image of God. Moreover, some argue that the Biblical injunction to "love your neighbor as yourself" assumes that self-love is something good and necessary to a happy and healthy life. Without self-love, they reason, a person can not obey this command and love his neighbor. However, these two notions ought to be looked at more critically, because the Bible has much more to say on these matters than the advocates of self-esteem seem to think.
In this paper I will examine the concept of self-esteem in two lights: (1) in respect to its logical merits and (2) in respect to a broad survey of scriptural texts that bear on the subject. I believe that both reveal this notion to be lacking in persuasive force. In fact, both reason and Scripture seem consistently to point in the opposite direction.
II. Self-Esteem in the Light of Reason
Some such as Jonathan Edwards have contended that it is impossible for a person not to have an inclination to make himself happy, which can be called "self-love." So not having any love for oneself is an impossibility. That is because we have a faculty of will, and personal choices amount to decisions made for one's own benefit.1 For example, at a restaurant we usually choose to order something that tastes good to us and that will bring us momentary pleasure. It is a manifestation of concern for oneself or "self-love." In fact, basic survival would be impossible without that kind of self-love. If a person without any self-love existed, he would soon die of self-neglect. The first problem that besets the self-love advocate is simply proving that there is such a condition as the absence of love for oneself.
In regard to the problem of defining love, Hollywood movies and TV have succeeded in propagating a romantic idea about the irresistible experience of "falling in love" with some person perfect for oneself. Reacting to that common misconception, some psychologists have posited a more realistic, practical definition of love, equating it with benevolent action toward others. While there are problems in this definition as well, it is probably a good corrective to the opposite, destructive illusion spread by the popular media. However, more in line with the Hollywood view of love, self-love advocates often define love simply as a feeling about oneself. Sociologist John Hewitt remarks that self-esteem is most often used in the sense of a set of feelings or a mental mood.2 Love defined as "self-esteem" or "self-acceptance" does not consist in action at all but in a certain attitude or feeling. In his excellent book The Danger of Self-Love, Paul Brownback explores these definitional difficulties in more depth.3
B. No Reasonable Grounds
So another basic problem with the notion of self-esteem is that the idea rests on some questionable reasoning. Accepting the arguments of self-love advocates requires a kind of leap of faith even greater than that demanded by many irrational religious sects. A believer in self-esteem, Kohn admits that the self-esteem teaching is "a matter less of scientific pedagogy than of faith".5 In other words, self-esteem has no compelling argument or evidence to support it, and believing it depends entirely on whether it "feels true to me." At that level of argument, perhaps anything can pass as believable.
Though an emphasis on self-esteem seems well-established in many quarters, others have noted that little empirical evidence exists that correlates high self-esteem with academic achievement or positive behavior. Commenting on the research report of the California Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility, established in 1986, Hewitt remarks "Considering their high expectations and strong beliefs in the importance of self-esteem, it is hard to believe the Task Force members were not disappointed by the research findings. . . the most consistent report in the chapters is that 'the associations between self-esteem and its expected consequences are mixed, insignificant, or absent.'"6 In fact, there is much more empirical evidence for the opposite. Three researchers in the Psychological Review, after extensively examining relevant research literature on the topic, concluded that violence is very often the way that people with irrationally high self-esteem respond to those who do not endorse their high opinion of themselves. In studies of many violent groups including rapists, psychopaths, school bullies, child abusers, murderers, and members of street gangs, Baumeister, Smart, and Boden found that violent individuals shared the characteristic of tending to respond to threats to a high level of self-esteem by lashing out violently.7 For example, the code of street gangs has been observed to center around respect, and they have learned "that humility (which is one of the concepts linked to modesty and low self-esteem) is not a virtue."8 In contrast, in studies people measured as having low self-esteem are usually not as violent. They note that modern attempts to solve the problem of increasing violence by aiming at increasing self-esteem actually run the risk of producing the opposite effect, since "it will almost certainly be impossible to insulate everyone against ego threats" which will tend to incite people to violence.9 Along the same lines, psychologist Harold Stevenson found that school children in the US have much greater self-confidence about their abilities in math compared with school children in Japan, Taiwan, and China. In actuality, however, the math skills of Asian children in these places are generally superior.10
C. Guilt and Moral Failure
This brings us to another problem with the self-esteem doctrine: its claim to be a moral cure-all. One important facet of the self-esteem movement is its ethical appeal. Its proponents claim that greater self-esteem will enable people to live better lives. However, like many other elements of the self-esteem ideology, there are strong grounds for doubting that notion.
In fact, the reverse is probably closer to the truth. Trying to produce concern for others by focusing more attention on pumping up one's own ego is a little bit like trying to put out a fire by covering it with wood. One could argue that fires spread because they are seeking more fuel to burn. Therefore, if we throw more wood on a spreading fire, it will receive the fuel it needs and will not have to spread and destroy. That analogy seems to me not too far from the logic of the self-love advocates, who say that to heal the self, we need to attend to its wounded vanity. However, obsession with personal well-being --the "me-first" attitude-- can just as easily be charged with many of the evils of the age. If my main concern is to satisfy personal emotional needs, I may justify abandoning my wife and finding another. If my principle concern is my own financial well being, I might resort to unethical means to get it.
One informal observation is as good as another, and mine is that many people do not suffer from any lack of self-regard but rather from too much of it. They can not seem to see or think about anything beyond themselves. They certainly seem to be the most important thing in the universe in their own eyes. In one Calvin and Hobbes cartoon, little Calvin says to his imaginary playmate Hobbes "You know what I hate? I hate when I'm talking and someone turns the conversation to himself! It's so rude! Why do they think I'm talking?! It's so they can hear about me! Who cares what they have to say! If I start a conversation, it should stay on the subject of me!" Most people are not as honest as Calvin, but they also lose interest when the topic of conversation is not themselves.
The Japanese novelist Ayako Miura
has written insightfully about this issue. In the
third volume of her autobiography Hikari Aru Uchi Ni
("While There Is Still Light"), she has a chapter
titled "Various Kinds of Love." In it she argues
that human love is fundamentally flawed and weak.
When love for someone else has to compete with
self-love, self-love will usually win out in the
end. As for herself, she confesses that she is
terrified of the wild bears that roam the woods of
her native Hokkaido, and if she and her husband ever
met one while walking outdoors, she admits that she
would probably shove him in front and run in terror.
In many cases, love for others finishes a poor
second to self-love. To illustrate the opposite,
Miura discusses a famous incident in which a
Japanese ferry named the Doyamaru overturned in a
typhoon off the coast of Hokkaido in 1954. As the
boat was sinking, many passengers did not have
life-preservers, so two missionaries decided to give
theirs to two Japanese teenagers who had none. When
the ship sank, the missionaries drowned. In view of
that kind of sacrifice, Miura observes "real love is
a thing that has a severity in it, such that it may
even lead to giving up one's life for others."12 Far
from originating from self-love, love for others
often seems to run counter to it.
The possible connection between the strictness of one's moral standard and self-evaluation is especially insightful. If the standard were simply brushing one's teeth and flossing after every meal, someone with good dental hygiene could think highly of himself and look down on the rest of us. The lower the standard, the easier to feel self-respect. Conversely, people with morally higher standards tend to be more severe on themselves. This observation appears to contradict conventional wisdom about the moral power of self-esteem.
Self-esteem ideology may even undermine moral accountability. According to advocates of self-esteem such as Kohn, the lack of a connection between performance in life and a good self-image means the best self-concept is completely unconditional. In other words, even if I murdered ten people the previous day, presumably a healthy self-concept would not suffer. Of course, the self-esteem advocates might argue that a person with a healthy self-concept will not commit such horrendous crimes. However, my main point is that if self-esteem is really to be unconditional, it must have absolutely no connection with my moral life. No matter how often I violate my own moral standard, my healthy self-image ought to be able to keep me feeling good about myself. Is this a realistic expectation for a person with a healthy conscience? Furthermore, if there need not be any connection between behavior and self-esteem, then how does self-esteem become a prescription for moral reformation? According to their own reasoning, ideally self-esteem and morality should be independent. On this point it seems as if the self-esteem advocates want to have their cake and eat it too.
Finally, if evil behavior comes merely from an unhealthy self-concept, what happens to punishment and blame? A psychological flaw becomes sufficient to explain everything. There is no basis for blame in evil behavior arising out of a psychological flaw alone. In fact, describing it as evil behavior seems inappropriate. Sickness would be more appropriate. A sickness needs only a cure --not punishment, forgiveness, or repentance. We consider evil behavior to be worthy of condemnation precisely because it arises out of evil dispositions or motives. Evil behavior rooted only in a personality flaw merits no morally critical attention at all. From that new perspective, even a person like Adolph Hitler can be considered a sufferer of low-esteem who ought not to receive the severe moral censure he has had until now. In the end, the self-esteem prescription appears to make the whole notion of moral accountability meaninglessness. In fact, in his book Whatever Became of Sin? psychiatrist Karl Menninger bemoaned the fact that in many respects such psychological explanations for poor behavior have made ideas such as moral accountability irrelevant.14 Furthermore, MacArthur argues in The Vanishing Conscience that self-esteem ideology has indeed helped to extinguish a sense of personal moral responsibility in the minds and hearts of many modern people.15
Self-Esteem in the Light of the Bible
A. Love: A Scriptural Definition
Besides offering a definition that goes directly contrary to a lot of conventional wisdom about love, these verses create problems for self-love advocates. Paul defines love as "not self-seeking" (I Corinthians 13:5). This text seems to indicate that love based on self-concern is an impossibility. Rather than being an impetus to virtuous, other-directed love, it could just as easily be a hindrance. According to Paul, love by definition is completely other-directed. To him, "love oneself" is like saying "kiss oneself" and is just as meaningless a concept. By definition, self-sacrificial love does not draw attention to self.
B. "Love Your Neighbor As Yourself"
So the Biblical command to "love
your neighbor as yourself" proves nothing about a
causal relationship between self-love and love for
others. If anything, it proves the opposite --that
there is no necessary causal link between self-love
and other-love. If one led naturally to the other,
there would be no need for Jesus to say anything
about other-love at all. He would only need to
command "love yourself" and other-love would take
care of itself, by arising naturally out of
self-love. Grammatically, the plain sense of the
text is that we should love other people as, meaning
"to the extent that," we love ourselves. Nothing
more is intended or proven by the construction of
C. The Divine Image: Cutting Both Ways
D. Bible Texts Against Self-Esteem
As Edwards points out, it is more helpful to tell the painful truth when that truth can lead to recovery than it is to conceal it. That the Bible does very honestly, for which we can be grateful.
E. Mankind's Condition and How to Feel
F. Self-Confidence: Contrary To Faith
G. Humble, Contrite Faith: The Real
Foundation of Moral Virtue
H. Self-Esteem and the Glory of God
However, God's main concern is not whether or not people feel good about themselves, and his real priority appears clearly in the book of Isaiah. Isaiah predicts that "the eyes of the arrogant man will be humbled and the pride of men brought low; the Lord alone with be exalted in that day" (Isaiah 2:11). Almost the whole book is devoted to the theme of how human pride will be humbled so that the glory of God can be exalted. Israel, the nations, and mankind in general will face terrible judgment in order to accomplish this feat. Isaiah 2:17, 3:16-22, 5:15, 8:7, 10:12-13, 13:11, 14:13-14, 16:6, 23:9, 25:11, and 26:5 are just some of the passages that show how God is determined to bring down all evidences of human arrogance, whether in the form of confidence in military power, love of wealth, physical vanity, pleasure-seeking, confidence in economic might, or religious self-righteousness. Without the humbling of human pride, God can never be adequately magnified, since he is the only one who really deserves exaltation. Isaiah makes it clear that his creatures, especially the rebellious ones, are puny in comparison, even whole countries full of them: "Before him all the nations are as nothing; they are regarded by him as worthless and less than nothing" (Isaiah 40:17). If whole nations amount to "less than nothing," what about individual human beings? Scripture is obviously committed to taking humanity off its pedestal and putting God there instead.
I. The Real Source of a Sense of
Seeming to speak the language of the self-esteem movement, Jonathan Edwards wrote: "What a sweet calmness, what a calm ecstasy, doth it bring to the soul! How doth it make the soul [to] love itself. . ."20 Here he is talking not about normal human experience but about a state of salvation. There is something in the Biblical Gospel that confers very great worth on people and makes them able to respect themselves. That dignity comes completely from a new relationship to God. As Edwards exclaimed, "How hath he honored us, in that he hath made us to glorify him to all eternity! How are we dignified by our Maker, who has made us for so high and excellent an end!"21 Paradoxically, only when people put themselves far below God, acknowledging that he is the only one who deserves esteem, they are amazed to find that they receive the gift of a real sense of worth, without any aid from the self at all. Or, as John puts it, "How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!" (I John 3:1).22 Only by grace through faith people can enjoy forever the most intimate association with the Person from whom all worth flows.
(1) Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards: The “Miscellanies”501-832, Chamerlain, A., ed., (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000) 18: 73-76
(2) John Hewitt, The Myth of Self-Esteem, (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998).
(3) Paul Brownback, The Danger of Self-love, (Chicago: Moody Press, 1982).
(4) Richard Paul, Critical Thinking: What Every Person Needs to Know in a Rapidly Changing World, (Sonoma: Foundation for Critical Thinking, 1992), 11.
(5) Alfie Kohn, No Contest: The Case Against Competition, (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1992), 98-99.
(6) Hewitt, The Myth of Self-Esteem, 59-60.
(7) R. Baumeister, L. Smart, &J. Boden, "Relation of Threatened Egotism to Violence and Aggression: The Dark Side of Self-Esteem." Psychological Review 103:1
(8) Ibid. 22.
(9) Ibid. 29.
(10) J. Adler et.al., "The Curse of Self-Esteem: What’s Wrong With the Feel-Good Movement." Newsweek, Feb. 17, 1992, 51.
(11) Kohn, No Contest, 100.
(12) Ayako Miura, Hikari Aru Uchi Ni (While there is still light). In Miura Ayako Zenshu (The collected works of Ayako Miura) (Japan: Shinkoubunkou, 1991) 15: 253.
(13) S. Oliner and P. Oliner, The Altruistic Personality: Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe, (New York: The Free Press, 1992), 177-8.
(14) Karl Menninger, Whatever Became of Sin? (New York: Hawthorne, 1973).
(15) John MacArthur, The Vanishing Conscience, (Dallas: Word, 1995).
(16) Tom Wells, A Price for a People, (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1992), 60.
(17) Robert Schuller, Self-Esteem: The New Reformation, (Waco: Word, 1982), 98ff.
(18) Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards: Original Sin, Holbrook, C. ed., (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970) 3: 423-4.
(19) Robert Schuller, Self-Love: Dynamic Force of Success, (New York: Hawthorne Books, 1969), 32.
(20) Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards: Sermons and Discourses 1720-1723, Kinnach, W. ed., (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992) 10: 479.
(21) Ibid. 427.
(22) Bible quotations are all from The New International Version, (New York: International Bible Society, 1973).
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