Self-esteem—Hope or Hopelessness?

AiG September 1998 Newsletter

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We live in a complicated and sad world-a world where sin has affected

We live in a complicated and sad world—a world where sin has affected everything. As millions of students begin their new school year, what will befall them in the coming months? Consider that:

  • More and more young people come from broken homes—many don’t know what it means to have a father and mother who love them.
  • Feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness abound among teenagers—suicide is rampant.
  • Because of the accumulating effects of since the Fall, there are also biochemical and physiological disorders affecting mental health—it’s a mess out there!

So how can young people know true self worth? How can they cope in a fallen world?


There has been an increasing emphasis over the past few years that instilling “self-esteem” should be a priority in education and homes.

Warning bells about the self-esteem movement, however, were sounded by the July 13, 1998 Newsweek magazine. On page 69 of this issue we read:

“If students work in classrooms where posters proclaim WE APPLAUD OURSELVES! and complete sentences like ‘I am special because…’ they will be inoculated against drug use, teen pregnancy, bad grades and just about everything else short of the common cold. Or so the story goes. Parents, like educators, have soaked up the message, trying to make their child feel good about himself no matter how many courses he fails or fly balls he drops.”

But then the article goes on to declare:

“But now there is evidence that it might be dangerous…“If kids develop unrealistic opinions of themselves and those views are rejected by others,’ warns psychologist Brad Bushman of Iowa State University, the kids are ‘potentially dangerous.’”

Now it is important for every human being to have “self-esteem,” but ultimately this can only happen in the context of understanding the true nature of man and the purpose and reason for his/her existence. Sadly, in most instances, this “self-esteem” is not taught within the correct framework, and thus it can be very destructive, leading to hopelessness rather than hope.


One of our major problems today is that the absolute authority of the Word of God has been by and large removed from the secular education system. It has been replaced with a framework that teaches there is no God, no absolutes, truth is relative, man is an animal, and so on.

In doing this, society’s general understanding that man is a sinner (and that God has judged this world because of man’s rebellion) has also been removed.

Generations of students are coming out of a system with no basis for believing absolutes, and having the wrong basis for understanding their true nature.

Remember the man that came to Jesus in Matthew 19:16-17? And, behold, one came and said unto him, Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life? And he said unto him, Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God.

One cannot understand “good” apart from God, for only God is infinitely good. Not only this, but the Bible makes it plain that all humans are sinners (Romans 3:23), and because of sin, I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) dwelleth no good thing (Romans 7:18). This is why Paul cries out in Romans 7:24: O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?

Because of sin, no human being is perfect. While some are able to do well at academic studies, others have to work hard just to pass. And a number of people have learning disabilities. The point is, if we don’t understand our true nature and recognize and accept the effects of sin, being taught “self-esteem” as it is so often presented can lead to unreal expectations of oneself.

Thus the warning in the Newsweek article: High self-esteem that is unjustified and unstable—Bushman’s definition of narcissism—also puts a kid at risk of turning violent, he says.

Self-esteem and Christians

Sadly, even many Christians have succumbed to the psychologists” self-esteem teaching, believing they shouldn’t discipline their children, or ever make any negative statement to correct their behavior. Now it is true that some Christians have gone to the other extreme by punishing to the point of abuse. Excess criticism, or even a lack of sufficient encouragement, can be harmful. Scripture warns us: Fathers, provoke not your children to anger, lest they be discouraged (Colossians 3:21).

Actually, because ultimately much of what is called “self-esteem” is really a focus on one’s self, it can cause people to become proud and have no thought for Christ, who should be the focus of our attention. Remember how the Lord humbled Nebucadnezzar because of his focus on himself?

Because of what has happened with “self-esteem” teaching, perhaps Christians should think about using different terminology: for example, we should try to encourage and build people up. At the same time, within this context of encouragement, we need to build relationships with people, and then as the Lord provides opportunity, start sharing the Creation/Gospel message—the real and sure hope for everyone.

New Creation

What a difference we would see in our culture if teachers and parents taught their millions of students that they are special, and have great worth and purpose because they are made in the image of God! At the same time, they need to know that as children of Adam, they are sinners in rebellion against their God, and thus are under judgment from their Holy Creator. And because of the curse upon this world, they will have to work hard. They will need to be disciplined by their parents and teachers as per God’s instructions, just as God disciplines his servants. People will have different talents and different levels of abilities, but when this is understood from a Biblical perspective, they will accept what God has allowed and then look to Him to use this life for His glory.

The world recognizes that all humans have problems, but most don’t want to accept that it’s because of sin (and many Christian leaders today don’t want to talk about it). Sadly, many thus think that teaching “self-esteem” will free a person from these problems. However, as Jesus said: If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed; And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free (John 8:31-32).

The only way to have true “self-esteem” and “self-worth’—and be freed from the bondage of the power of sin—is when one becomes a new Creation: Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new (2 Corinthians 5:17).

Even if in this sinful world children don’t get the love they should from parents and others, what a difference it can make when they know that the infinite, loving God Who created them, sent his Son to humble Himself as a Man, so that He could pay the penalty for the sins of those who believe. Oh how we need to focus upon Him.

They can then understand that: There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1).

As we say so often in our ministry, “the Answer’s in Genesis.” It’s only when people start accepting a literal Genesis, and build their thinking on its doctrine, that they will have the ability to develop a framework so children can be trained to think about themselves and others in a correct way.


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