Today, just let me vent about the notion that Christians should promote self-esteem. I will, in future posts, look at the origins of the self-esteem movement and the various ways it undermines Biblical Christianity, but today I simply want to express my frustration with its influence in evangelical circles.
I recall sitting in a Bible Study over 20 years ago and feeling my heart break as a young college student twisted these words of Jesus:
And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. ~~Matthew 22:39 (ESV)
She explained, with the air of intellectual superiority so common to college sophomores, that Jesus taught in this verse the necessity of self-esteem in order to love one’s neighbor. When I countered that Jesus’ statement presupposed that people naturally love themselves quite well, she launched into a verbal dissertation about suicide, self-mutilation and the national “epidemic” of low self-esteem. The Bible Study leader, seeing that the girl had touched a nerve in me, wisely cleared his throat and resumed teaching.
I’ve heard others teach the same interpretation of Matthew 22:39 as that young college girl offered that night, and I still maintain that such an interpretation wrenches the verse completely out of context as well as reading a principle of pop psychology into it. If we look at the conversation in which Jesus made this statement, first of all, you’ll notice that neither Jesus nor the Sadducee lawyer ever mentioned self-esteem as a prerequisite for loving others.
34 But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. 35 And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 37 And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” ~~Matthew 22:34-40 (ESV)
In his article, Why You Don’t Need More Self-Esteem, Stephen J. Cole of Dallas Theological Seminary writes:
The question Christians need to ask is, does the Bible teach this? Does it teach that we need to build our self-esteem? Those who say yes usually support it with the verse, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:39). They say that you must properly love yourself in order to love your neighbor. But that is not the meaning of the verse. It assumes that we all love ourselves just fine, thank you. If we would show the same regard for others that we do in fact show for ourselves, we would be loving them as God commands. Even those who go around dumping on themselves don’t need to focus on loving themselves. Their problem is precisely that they are too self-focused. They need to consider the needs of others ahead of themselves. The mark of biblical love is self-sacrifice, not self-esteem (see Eph. 5:25).
Even in the case of a suicidal person, the problem is not that he does not love himself. Rather, he loves himself more than he loves anyone else. He is not considering what his death will do to family or friends. He is only considering himself: he is in pain and he wants out of his pain.
And, while Dallas Theological Seminary is a little more liberal than I’d prefer, I believe Cole gets it right here. Jesus clearly spoke from the common understanding that human beings have no difficulty cultivating self-love, but need instruction in loving others. An honest reading of Matthew 22:34-40 simply doesn’t support the self-esteem interpretation. And I resent seeing people distort the Word of God for the purpose of advancing a man-centered system like psychology.
Instead of perverting Matthew 22:39 into yet another excuse to pamper ourselves, why don’t we just obey it? I understand that obeying it may actually involve self-sacrifice, even forcing us to “hate” ourselves in order to truly love someone else. But Jesus modeled just that sort of love when He took our sins upon Himself.