A Test Case on the Role of Psychology: Self-Esteem

The issue of self-esteem (overlapping with concepts of self image, self worth, and self acceptance) is a complex and controversial one. Biblical counselors may be pulled in two directions. It is obvious that pride and selfishness are sins to be repented of and renounced. However, other Biblical principles and personal observation point to the need for a positive identity and personal value in Christ.

Four positions will be identified to explore this complex counseling topic. First, the view of secular psychologists is quoted. Note that not all secular researchers are pro self-esteem. Second, the integrationist view is presented. Christian authors address this issue in a way that combines the positive secular view with Christian beliefs. Third, the exclusion view rejects the use of psychology in Christian counseling and warns against its influence. The fourth position is the one advocated in this course–the contextualization view. While accepting the corrective arguments of the exclusionists, there is still the value of understanding observed problems in the diagnostic part of the counseling process.

The Secular View

Positive Self-Esteem

An excerpt from – Better Self- Esteem, (University of Texas at Austin)

Your self-esteem,…is something more fundamental than the normal “ups and downs” associated with situational changes. For people with good basic self-esteem, normal “ups and downs” may lead to temporary fluctuations in how they feel about themselves, but only to a limited extent. In contrast, for people with poor basic self-esteem, these “ups and downs” may make all the difference in the world. Take a look at the following information to get you on the road to better self-esteem.

Poor Self-Esteem vs. Healthy Self-Esteem

People with poor self-esteem often rely on how they are doing in the present to determine how they feel about themselves. They need positive external experiences to counteract the negative feelings and thoughts that constantly plague them. Even then, the good feeling (from a good grade, etc.) can be temporary.

Healthy self-esteem is based on our ability to assess ourselves accurately (know ourselves) and still be able to accept and to value ourselves unconditionally. This means being able to realistically acknowledge our strengths and limitations (which is part of being human) and at the same time accepting ourselves as worthy and worthwhile without conditions or reservations.”

The California Task Force on Self-Esteem was convinced that esteeming oneself and growing in self-esteem would reduce “dramatically the epidemic levels of social problems we currently face.”
This task force said: Based on their first-hand experiences most therapists, counsellors, teachers, and other social service professionals have long been certain of a direct link between low self-esteem and these personal and social ills…

Weaknesses of Self-Esteem Theory

Heightened global self-esteem can lead children to have “an exaggerated, though empty and ultimately fragile sense of their own powers … [and] a distrust of adult communications and self-doubt.”
– William Damon, an educational psychologist at Brown University,

John Rosemond weekly column on 4th December 2001 was titled, Unearned praise leads to mediocrity. Rosemond wrote, Baumeister [Professor Roy Baumeister (and others) of Case Western Reserve University] has found that people with high self-esteem tend to have low self-control. His excellent research lays the self-esteem myth to waste. Criminals, he has discovered, do not suffer from low self-esteem.They are not acting out their outrage at being oppressed, suppressed and abused.They are dangerous because they are narcissists.They believe that what they want, they deserve to have, and the ends justify the means.”
– John Rosemond, John’s Weekly Column, December 2, 2001, “Unearned praise leads to mediocrity,” available at: [December 8, 2001].

The Integration View

“Yes, what we need in the worldwide Christian church today is nothing less than a new reformation. Where the sixteenth-century Reformation returned our focus to sacred Scriptures as the only infallible rule for faith and practice, the new reformation will return our focus to the sacred right of every person to self-esteem!” If self-esteem (in his earlier books he used the term “self-love” synonymously) is not a Biblical teaching, then the new reformation is a rejection of the old one. It is my assertion that this is the case… Reformation theology failed to make clear that the core of sin is a lack of self-esteem. …The most serious sin is the one that causes me to say, ‘I am unworthy. I may have no claim to divine sonship if you examine me at my worst.'”
– In 1982 Robert Schuller, Self Esteem the New Reformation.

“The matter of personal worth is not only the concern of those who lack it. In a real sense, the health of an entire society depends on the ease with which its individual members can gain personal acceptance. Thus, whenever the keys to self-esteem are seemingly out of reach for a large percentage of the people, as in twentieth-century America, then widespread mental illness, neuroticism, hatred, alcoholism, drug abuse, violence, and social disorder will certainly occur. Personal worth is not something human beings are free to take or leave. We must have it, and when it is unattainable, everybody suffers.

“If I could write a prescription for the women of the world, it would provide each one of them with a healthy dose of self-esteem and personal worth (taken three times a day until the symptoms disappear). I have no doubt that this is their greatest need.”
– James Dobson, Hide or Seek, 20,21; What Wives Wish Their Husbands Knew About Women, p. 60.

“Our attitude toward ourselves— our self-concept or our self-image—is
one of the most important things we possess. Our self-concept is the source of our personal happiness or lack of it. It establishes the boundaries of our accomplishment and defines the limits of our fulfillment. If we think little of ourselves, we either accomplish little or drive ourselves unmercifully to disprove our negative self-evaluation. If we think positively about ourselves, we are free to achieve our true potential.”
– Bruce Narramore, You’re Someone Special, p.11.

The Exclusion View (e.g. Nouthetic Counseling Model)

This position excludes the use of psychology in counseling and represents the approach of the National Association of Nouthetic Counselors (NANC) and the International Association of Biblical Counselors (IABC). It is summarized by Ed Bulkley in Why Christians Can’t Trust Psychology, pp.243-249. This view is further expounded in the following excerpt from Self Esteem: A Christian Response, by Spencer Gear.

Prominent Christian psychologist, Bruce Narramore, has been up-front in stating the source of his self-esteem teaching — and it wasn’t from the Bible. He states that “…under the influence of humanistic psychologists like Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow, many of us Christians have begun to see our need for self-love and self-esteem.”…

What About loving yourself?

There is no command to love ourselves. Isn’t this surprising in light of what some Christian counsellors, psychologists and teachers are saying. …Christ is very clear. There are only two commandments: First, Love yourself. Second, Love your neighbour. There is no third commandment: Love yourself. Jesus actually presupposes a love of self in this passage.

He says, ‘You must love your neighbour as yourself.’ The command is to love your neighbour as you already love yourself. The verse could be translated literally, ‘You must love your neighbour as you are loving yourself.’ We already have an agape love for ourselves that influences our care of ourselves in many areas. Jesus’ estimate of our continuing love of ourselves is understood by the apostle Paul in Ephesians 5:28,29 where he urges husbands to “love your wives as you [are loving] your own body.” Paul then states in v. 29, “For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church” (ESV). Paul’s entire argument revolves around the fact that we “already exhibit love for ourselves.” So, what could Jesus and Paul be teaching about self-esteem? We are commanded to love the Lord; we are commanded to love our neighbour.

Husbands are commanded to love their wives. How? To love them just as wholeheartedly as you are already loving yourself. Just as you love your own body and take care of it, husbands you are to love your wives with that same kind of unselfish love. Many self-esteem advocates promote the view that we will help people reduce their problems if we elevate their self- esteem.

Nowhere do I read that in the Scriptures. Why would God command us to love ourselves more and more when some already have a sinful problem with loving themselves? (Cf. 2 Tim. 3: 1 & 2a). All proper loving, from a biblical view, is a giving kind of love, NOT an inward self- love focus. It is more blessed to give than to receive.

Let’s get this clear; what you hear from the pop-psychologists on TV and the counsellors around the world that you need to have a good dose of self-esteem every day to keep the depressive disorder, criminal behaviour, and many other kinds of destructive behaviours away, does NOT come with God’s endorsement.

We are commanded to: Love God with all our being. Love our neighbour. WE ARE NOT COMMANDED TO LOVE OURSELVES. We already have enough of that. In fact, much of our selfish, self-love is a detriment to others. It should not surprise us, then, that some of those with the highest self-image are those in prison populations…

One of the signs of the last days

But mark this: “There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God–having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with them” (emphasis added). One of the signs of the “terrible times in the last days”will be that “people will be lovers of themselves.”

We need to think like this about ourselves:

Romans 12:3 is clear: “For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you.” Don’t overestimate yourself, but engage in “sober judgment” or “sober thinking.” This is not talking about an intellectual exercise, “but the direction of [your] thinking, the way in which a person views something… in accordance with a true and objective estimate, the product of a ‘renewed mind’ 12:10

We need to esteem others

Romans 12:10 gives the biblical emphasis:
“Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honour one another above yourselves.” In Philippians 2:20-21, Paul affirms Timothy, “I have no one else like him, who takes a genuine interest in your [the Philippians’] welfare. For everyone looks out for his own interests, not those of Jesus Christ.” This sounds awfully contemporary.

Dying to self seems to be unfashionable these days.

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it” (Matthew 16:24-25). I do not believe it is possible to die to self and elevate my self-esteem at the same time.

The better focus: encourage one another

“Therefore, encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing” (1 Thessalonians 5:11). The meaning of our responsibility to encourage is self evident, although in short supply these days among believers. To “build up” is a metaphor borrowed from the carpenter’s world, where the person and the body are built up by a giving-kind of ministry to each other.

To build up another, you are serving the other. Barnabas was called the “Son of Encouragement” (Acts 4:36). Instead of promoting self-esteem, I believe we should be encouraging one another, giving to one another, and ministering to one another so that the body of Christ is taken from basic foundational Christian teaching on to maturity.

We need one another. Instead of focusing on the self, God calls us to ministry to the other — encouragement and building up others. Isn’t this a ministry in which all of us need to be engaged? Quit the focus on self! Emphasise ministry to others. There are discouraged people all around, including in our churches — especially since September 11. Others have not grown much and they need to be edified spiritually by our ministry of giving to them and encouraging them.

Whom does the Lord esteem?

“This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word.”

Low Self-Esteem Commended

An excerpt from Self- Esteem: The New Christian Virtue? by Bob Dewaay

Contrary to modern thinking, Scripture commends people with a low estimation of themselves. Consider the following passages:

“So you too, when you do all the things which are commanded you, say,’ We are unworthy slaves; we have done only that which we ought to have done. ‘” (Luke 17:10)

“But the centurion answered and said, `Lord, I am not worthy for You to come under my roof, but just say the word, and my servant will be healed.'” (Matthew 8:8) [this man was commended by Jesus – “… I have not found such great faith with anyone in Israel.” (Matthew 8:10)

“And the son said to him, `Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.'” (Luke 15:21) [in this the prodigal was reconciled to his father]

“And He also told this parable to certain ones who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt: `Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee, and the other a tax-gatherer. The Pharisee stood and was praying thus to himself, `God, I thank Thee that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax-gatherer. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax-gatherer, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, `God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled, but he who humbles himself shall be exalted.'” (Luke 18:9-14)

In every one of these cases, Scripture commends people who evidenced a low opinion of themselves. This is but a small sampling of the many passages in which those who think highly of themselves are censured and those who think lowly of themselves commended.

This theme is just as prevalent in the Old Testament. Consider Samuel’s rebuke of Saul, “And Samuel said, `Is it not true, though you were little in your own eyes, you were made the head of the tribes of Israel? And the Lord anointed you king over Israel'” (1 Samuel 15:17) In verse 12 of this chapter it is said that Saul “…set up a monument for himself…” As Samuel delivered the message that Saul was now being rejected as king over Israel, Saul had a last royal request, “I have sinned; but please honor me now before the elders of my people and before Israel…” (1 Samuel 15:30). Saul went from being little in his own eyes to being great in his own eyes and suffered severe consequences. It is hard to reconcile this Biblical picture with the modern teaching that we ought to build up our self-image. Do we really think it will work better for us than it did for Saul?
– Bob Dewaay, Self-Esteem: The New Christian Virtue? (and issue18.htm)

Cf. Jim Owen, Christian Psychology’s War on God’s Word: The Victimization of the Believer, chs 3,4.

The Contextualization View (advocated here)

Some of the controversy of the self-esteem issue can be reduced by clarifying the meaning of some related terms; self-image, self-worth and self-acceptance. We would also do well to define what aspect of “self” is being addressed. (See the Grace Note: Sorting Your Self Out.)


Self-esteem usually involves the problem of pride, self-sufficiency, and self confidence. (Even the wholesome film, The Sound of Music, features the song brimming with excitement: “I Have Confidence in ME!”) This writer recalls a mother who criticized the teaching (in the children’s program) of the sinfulness of man because if would damage her son’s self esteem.

A primary standard regarding self-esteem is found in Romans 12:3: “For I say, through the grace given to me, to everyone who is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think soberly, as God has dealt to each one a measure of faith”(emphasis added). In other words, we need to see ourselves realistically avoiding pride as well as self-rejection/hatred.

In comparison to God, we need a deep humility and reverence (Psalm 8). In comparison to others, “having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind. Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself” (Phil. 2:2,3)

Regarding our flesh (the old programming in the body/soul), we should agree with Paul’s assessment: “For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells…” Rom. 7:18). Our body has been affected by the curse; it is destined to return to dust (Psalm 103:14), yet the Lord is for the body and will resurrect it (1 Cor. 6:13; Phil. 3:20). It should be cared for and disciplined as a servant of righteousness (Eph. 5:29; 1 Cor. 9:27). The soul is in the process of transformation as the believer cooperates with the sanctifying work of God’s Spirit (2 Cor. 3:18). To the extent we fail to grow, to grieve or quench the Spirit, we should have a constructive impression of disappointment in ourselves. However, this should avoid despair since our position of acceptance with God does not change (Rom. 8:1; Eph. 1:6). We should correct ourselves if we waste opportunities and lack spiritual growth (Eph. 5:16; Heb. 5:12-14)

In a critique of Pop Psychology, columnist Kerby Anderson commented on self-esteem:

It should probably be as no surprise that the Bible doesn’t teach anything about self-esteem. In fact, it doesn’t even define the word. What about the term self-worth? Is it synonymous with self-esteem? No, there is an important distinction between the terms self-esteem and self-worth.

William James, often considered the father of American psychology, defined self-esteem as “the sum of your successes and pretensions.” In other words, your self-esteem is a reflection of how you are actually performing compared to how you think you should be performing. So your self-esteem could actually fluctuate from day to day.
– Pop Psychology Myths,

Low self-esteem, which would include symptoms such as inferiority, insecurity, inadequacy, worry, doubts, fears and guilt, are problems with which countless people struggle. To declare negative self-esteem a non-issue would not resolve these problems. Neither would adopting psychology’s prescription of inducing positive, global self esteem (unconditional positive regard to oneself). The criticisms of self-esteem in the “exclusion of psychology” view (quoted above) are valid.

Does this mean that Biblical counseling should overlook the symptoms of negative self esteem or self hatred/self-rejection? Not at all. God can and does “crowd people to Christ” by the chronic unhappiness that often accompanies people who are not experiencing a Christ-centered life. The Lord Jesus declares, “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30). This offer relates to the burdens of inner conflicts as well as the burden of sin and guilt. Christ came that His people could have “life more abundantly” (John 10:10b).

Therefore, the problems associated with low self esteem (in the sense of negative emotional, mental and volitional conflicts) can be recognized by the Biblical counselor as the CONTEXT of a person’s self-life.

What is the cure? The uncompromised, gracious, New Covenant message of yielding to and depending on Christ as Savior, Lord, Life, Liberator, and Leader. One of the happy byproducts of experiencing the deeper work of the Cross (Luke 9:23; Rom. 6:6-14; Gal 2:20) is that the inner conflicts usually connected with “low self-esteem,” self- rejection, self-hatred, etc., are resolved through renewing one’s mind in the truth.


Anderson went on to contrast self-esteem with self-worth.

Self-worth, however, is different. Our worth as human beings has to do with the fact that we are created in God’s image. Our worth never fluctuates because it is anchored in the fact that the Creator made us. We are spiritual as well as physical beings who have a conscience, emotions, and a will. Psalm 8 says: “You have made him [mankind] a little lower than the angels, and you have crowned him with glory and honor. You have made him to have dominion over the works of Your hands, you have put all things under his feet.”
– Pop Psychology Myths,

The Scriptures contain many affirmations of the value God places on us as His children. Christ declared that people are more valuable than animals. “Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?Do not fear therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.Of how much more value then is a man than a sheep? Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” (Matt. 6:26; 10:31; 12:12). This is due to man’s dignity as being created in God’s image. How much greater is the worth of believers when they contemplate the value of Christ’s blood that was shed for their redemption. (1 Pet. 1:18,19). To deem this irrelevant in counseling is to commit the error of overreacting to psychology. (Note: The Loftiness of God: Self-Worth, by David Needham is available from GFI on audio CD.)


A component of self-image is one’s perception of his/her essential identity. Most individuals base their identity on the sum total of their life experiences and how others have treated them. They may accept such labels or choose an identity to try to disprove what others have said. Even believers tend to see themselves as only “sinners saved by grace.” Although this phrase is a valid statement of our unworthiness to be saved, it falls far short of the New Testament declaration of the essential identity of true believers. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new” (2 Cor. 5:17). Believers are no longer to regard others (or themselves) “according to the flesh” i.e., according to one’s natural identity (2 Cor. 5:16). (See Grace Note: Let the Real You Stand Up.)


Many people have bought into the culture’s view of outward beauty and success. This may cause an overt or covert resentment that they were not created with the IQ, physical stature, race, social status, etc. that seem to be important for a better self image. However, the unchangeable features of a person’s life are due to God’s providence, and God never makes mistakes. God corrected Moses’ negative self- image: “Then Moses said to the LORD, ‘O my Lord, I am not eloquent, neither before nor since You have spoken to Your servant; but I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.’ So the LORD said to him, ‘Who has made man’s mouth? Or who makes the mute, the deaf, the seeing, or the blind? Have not I, the LORD? Now therefore, go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall say'” (Exodus 4:10-12). Renouncing resentment or doubt about the wisdom of God’s providence in creating one’s unchangeable features would usually be addressed under “phase three” in the counseling process (Freedom in Christ). This theme is expanded in How to Gain Self Acceptance from


On the resurrection side of the Cross, discipleship includes a sober minded awareness of, and gratitude for, our dignity as made in God’s image (Rom. 12:3; Gen. 1:26,27), our value to God as evidenced by the price Christ paid to redeem us (1 Pet. 1:18,19), the privilege we have as temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19,20), and the opportunity we have of being vessels of God’s life (John 15:5-8; 2 Tim 2:20,21). These positive attitudes toward ourselves as “in Christ” people includes a deep humility due to our unworthiness of God’s grace and meekness of our impotence apart from our union with God (James 4:6-10). Although the self-concept is not emphasized in discipleship, it is not ignored either. As the believer loses his life for Christ’s sake, he finds it (Matt. 16:25). (See Christ Esteem by Don Matzat, Eugene, OR: 1990).

The restoration of the believer’s soul is an extra blessing en route to glorifying God by fulfilling the Great Commandment (love God and others) and the Great Commission (go and make disciples) for His glory.


In summary, secular and integrationist counselors generally see the need to increase one’s self-esteem as essential for personal improvement. Biblical counselors who exclude psychology, however, see the emphasis on self-esteem as a sign of pride and self-centeredness. In contextualization, we heed the warnings of the exclusionists, yet seek discernment in using negative self-esteem as a motivation of the counselee to relinquish his/her life to God in salvation and surrender. Through appropriating identification with Christ, the believer discovers a new, positive spiritual identity in Christ. Regarding the complex topic of “self,” the counselor needs to define the aspect of self under discussion, note the context of the issue in the counseling process, and distinguish self-esteem from related themes.

GFI Counseling Institute