Should churches promote high self-esteem?

Let us consider for a moment how popular it has become to promote a positive self-image, to affirm personal identity in self, and to uplift confidence in one’s own ability. Better yet, let us consider how popular this has become specifically among believers. Whether a mother uplifting her daughter’s self-image or a speaker striving to proclaim a message that makes people “feel better” about themselves, is it biblical to promote high self-esteem for those in the body of Christ?

This is a question I have wrestled with quite often in my early years of the faith. Why? Because uplifting and encouraging others in self has always seemed to be such a noble task that should be championed by the church. In fact, why would anyone get upset at people promoting high self-esteem among other Christians? What’s wrong with wanting to make people feel good? If someone is lowly, shouldn’t we as the church attempt to uplift him in his abilities?

These are all great questions. However, this is not a matter of what sounds best. Rather, we must consider whether promoting high self-esteem lines up with Scripture. As believers living in an utterly depraved world, we will face a lifetime battle in answering life’s toughest questions by choosing one of the following:

  1. I will do this because it’s biblical.
  2. I will do this because “I’ve seen it work.”[1]

As believers, we have the blessed assurance of knowing our faith is firmly grounded in the absolute truths of Scripture (Psalm 1:1-3). In the Word, we find life (Proverbs 4:4), hope (Titus 2:13), and ultimate fulfillment (Psalm 3:2-6) because we find Jesus saturated on each page. Therefore, before we consider truth claims or practices based on results, we must run them through a filter and see whether they are truly biblical. Thus, if we are striving to be biblical, let us hold the phrase “high self-esteem” up to a biblical filter and answer an important question: Is self-esteem a biblical concept?

Self-esteem can be defined as the subjective self-measure of an individual’s worth and value.[2] According to psychology, when every humanistic need is met, mankind can reach their ultimate fulfillment. This fulfillment is called “self-actualization.” Therefore, a self-actualized individual is one who has fulfilled all humanistic needs—one of those being high self-esteem—in order to reach a point of self-fulfillment. Psychology teaches that promoting high self-esteem equates to showing people that ultimate satisfaction can be attained through self. At its very core, this is not a biblical concept, but a psychological construct.

Why does this concept pose a problem for believers?

Biblical Filter

If God’s Word is superior to all things for training in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16), then does Scripture advocate psychology’s theory of promoting “high self-esteem” to reach “self-fulfillment”? Let me use a personal example that may relate to many of you reading this article.

Look back on your life and recall the day our Lord saved you from your sins. I may not remember the specific date the Lord saved me, but I will never forget what happened that day. I was laying prostrate on my bedroom floor, mourning the sinful life I was choosing to live. Granted, at the time, I was only 8, but the impact of God’s Word resonated so deep that it pierced my stone-cold heart. God’s Word showed me that I was a foul sinner (Romans 3:23), completely helpless in my current state (Romans 5:6), fought to see the destruction of God’s Kingdom (Galatians 5:17), and even enjoyed dwelling in darkness. The Word of God went on to teach me of my brokenness, and that without a miraculous change (2 Corinthians 5:17) from God’s own choosing (John 6:44), my life was destined for death and destruction (2 Thessalonians 1:8).

Further, the Word of God clearly depicted me as an individual always in this state of dependence, fragility and brokenness.

One thing is certain: once I understood this, I did not feel very good about myself and what I accomplished in life. In fact, none of the people I know who fully grasp their depravity and wretchedness regard these truths as a boost to their self-esteem. That is because our confidence, hope and fulfillment are not found in what I can discover deep within myself. Even if there were a way to bring the deepest depths of my heart to light, I would only be deceived by the wickedness that comes from within (Jeremiah 17:9). Therefore, that which I choose to esteem should not be myself; rather, I should exalt the God who is able to save!

The promotion of the self-esteem concept was originally designed to fit into the paradigm created by psychologists in their finite understanding of man’s true needs separate from Scripture. How do I know this was separate from Scripture? Because everything psychology suggests for man’s ultimate need is completely contrary to God’s Word. Choosing to esteem self is the exact opposite of what Scripture teaches regarding the believer’s trajectory.

In Romans 3:10-18, the apostle Paul presents a compelling image of the depravity of mankind. In these verses, we see the downward trajectory of mankind as sin takes us further from God toward an empty, bottomless nothing, only to be reversed by the actions of God, who, by His grace, sent His Son as a propitiation for all mankind (verses 21-26). God is further glorified when man takes on a posture of decreasing self (John 3:30).

The ultimate goal of seeking to promote high self-esteem is to teach man to depend on man, whereas the ultimate goal of Christianity is to show man that, apart from God, we can do nothing (John 15:5). Therefore, let the churches always posture our hearts toward Christ, in whom we find our only hope and ultimate fulfillment.

But wait a minute…

Does this mean it’s unbiblical to promote confidence within our children, friends, family, etc.? How is it unbiblical to uplift their spirits by encouraging them?

To properly answer these questions, we must be on the same page when it comes to defining the word “confidence.” According to Scripture, we are to “put no confidence in the flesh,” but only “glory in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:3). It is true that we, as believers, are called to pursue mutual uplifting (Romans 14:19), encouraging one another (1 Thessalonians 5:11), and stirring our brothers and sisters toward love and good deeds (Hebrews 10:24). However, in these biblical actions, notice the direction in which we are ultimately pointing people.

In each instance mentioned above, we are pursuing these godly acts in order to point believers back toward the greatest fulfillment, which can only be found in Christ. It is not unbiblical to uplift, encourage and instill confidence within a fellow believer that will stir his affections toward Christ. It is contrary to Scripture when we turn those affections to our own abilities. Confidence and encouragement should always be found through the weakness of self, which points us to our hope of being eternally satisfied in Jesus Christ alone.


[1] This is defined as pragmatism.
[2] For further reading on this topic, visit: http://www.simplypsychology.org/self-concept.html