Biblical Mental and Emotional Health
Ever since her childhood, Gretchen has problems with self-esteem. Yet she was capable, diligent, and pleasant to deal with. Her grades were consistently good all the way through college. When she graduated she got a job in a large insurance company, and a short time later, she set up her own agency.
After just one year of operation, Gretchen hired an assistant to help her with her paperwork. She chose Angie, who had scored very high on all the office skills tests, was good with computers, and seemed very self-assured. At first, Angie was very prompt. Soon, she occasionally came to work twenty minutes late. In time, she was tardy more frequently. She began to neglect her work. Gretchen was very frustrated, but she didn’t take the initiative to tell Angie her expectations – beating herself up instead because she felt that she wasn’t a good boss.
The root of Gretchen’s problem was her low self-worth. She was the boss, her expectation of Angie was valid, and she had the legal and ethical right to reprimand Angie for her inappropriate behavior, but she didn’t do anything about it. She let her negative feelings build and merely wished the problem would correct itself. Eventually, though, after a long conversation with one of her friends, who instructed her on how to confront Angie in a friendly yet firm way and encouraged her to follow through. Gretchen did speak with Angie about her concerns. Although the conversation took care of the problem, it didn’t solve the matter of Gretchen’s low self-esteem. That continued until she got professional help.
Inadequate self-esteem degrades relationships, academic performance, and occupational functioning. It also puts us through the psychological discomfort of constantly doubting ourselves. That’s one extreme. The other extreme, artificially inflated self-esteem, seriously hurts social interactions and is deemed immoral by the Bible. Adequate self-esteem – a fair and accurate analysis of our qualities and attributes – brings reasonable balance to our behavior.
Some people are more predisposed to having adequate self-esteem than are others, but a large proportion of the self-esteem we have comes from outside influences. In fact, self-esteem is one of our most malleable characteristics.
At one time there was a study done with university students to ascertain the effect of verbal statements on one’s self-esteem. This study observed sets of two young people. One in each set was a member of the research team. The other, was a voluntary participant, who was a student and was being paid a small amount of money to participate in the experiment but didn’t know what it involved.
The voluntary participant was asked to take some “Psychological tests” actually, self-esteem tests – and the confederate pretended to be there for the same purpose. As they sat in the waiting room before taking the test, the confederate would either praise the other participant or make cynical remarks and disdaining comments directed at the other student and his or her ideas. The researchers found that the manipulations of the confederate definitely influenced the results that the voluntary participant attained on the self-esteems test.
Everybody has felt inferior at times and rather euphoric about themselves at other times, depending on whether they’ve been scolded or praised. This is how people build other people up or tear them down – sometimes unknowingly, and other times intentionally. Aware of how powerful our statements about each other are, Paul admonished, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (Ephesians 4:29). Notice that this text assumes that there are people – perhaps the naturally insecure – who need a bit more praised than others do. Unlike the color of our eyes, how we feel about ourselves keeps changing as we experience differing internal and external events and processes. Let’s examine the various ways people’s self-esteem is fed.
What Influences Our Self-esteem
Early life experiences. It is widely believed that the core of a person’s self-esteem is shaped during the preschool and school years. Children of that age don’t know much about themselves, and they’re very eager to observe their own qualities, to compare themselves with others, and to hear what people say about them. Parents, teachers, friends, and neighbors have a lot to do with the shaping of youngster’s self-esteem. Remarks such as “You always keep you room tidy!” or You’re too slow, and you’ll always be!” have their effect. When our children are this age, we have to decide whether we want them to possess an adequate concept of themselves, and also what we want them to consider valuable.
A variety of studies conducted with school-aged children show that the characteristics that feed their self-esteem are, first, looks; second, social acceptance/popularity; third, achievement in school; four, conduct; and fifth, competency in sports and games. Isn’t it interesting that it’s how physically attractive we are that has the most influence? We have little control of our appearance, yet if someone is naturally attractive, he or she is likely to receive more praise and end up with greater self-esteem than someone who has not been graced with such pleasing features. Note also that the list contains only one character trait, conduct, and it’s next to last on the list. Traits like compassion for others and love for Jesus bring no apparent reward! Here lies the difference between what God understands as valid self-esteem and what the world understands it to be.
The Media. As people look at TV shows, movies, the Internet, and billboards, they see what society values. Appearance is at the forefront. Male and female models, advertisers, and famous people determine what society values most – and leave it up to us to reach that standard if we can. Those who attain it are considered successful, and those who don’t are considered losers.
Money almost always makes it into the package of what determines worth too. Through enabling people to buy designer clothes, expensive cars and homes, and sophisticated work environments, money brings the respect of the crowd.
The media also exalts power. Whether it’s a movie character who is highly regarded and thus influential or a scientist who’s so respected that everyone must accept whatever he or she says, individuals who hold power are highly admired. It is unfortunate that many people think of themselves as failures because they’re not the powerful people these others are – or purport to be.
Messages from other people. Some have called the people who surround us the mirror of our self-esteem. What these people say to us and about us and how they say it adds to or subtracts from our self-esteem. But we have influence, too, and most of us don’t understand how much influence we exert on the self-concepts of our family members, friends, and acquaintances when we comment about them and what they do.
A graduating student with a doctorate degree in educational psychology, got a job in Madrid Spain. While attending a local church an older woman invited him to come visit them. The woman’s husband was not a Christian and really didn’t want anything to do with Christianity. Shortly after arriving at their home, the question was asked of the former student by the woman’s husband. “So, how much do you make at this new job?”
Now in some parts of the world this is not considered a rude question at all especially if an older person is asking it of a younger. So, the amount was stated by the former student. “Well,” he replied in a patronizing tone. “I can’t believe you went to America to get a graduate degree and you are only earning that!”
It was obvious that his value system was different from the former student. Although the former student understood that money was necessary, he didn’t consider it the most important thing and that he regarded service of higher importance over money. Judging by the expression on the older man’s face it was clear to see he had a different regard for service and valued money more than anything else.
For the student, his response was to not really respect the man, but he did have to admit that the question did shake him some. The question had dented his self-concept. The older man was an antique dealer whose motto, life philosophy, and guiding principle were one and the same:” Buy low and sell high.” What else could be value other than money? Yet, he had hurt the former student self-esteem. It’s a good thing that the feeling no longer bothered the former student in a day or two because since then the former student has never had a hard time finding high paying jobs.
The point is, another person’s comments or actions should not control our self-esteem, but so often it does.
Personal Achievement. This is another area intimately related to the development and maintenance of self-esteem. The more we accomplish and the more valuable we consider our achievements to be, the greater is the self-esteem we feel. Again, this isn’t an objective measure; it’s a strictly personal assessment. often there are young men and women who are receiving excellent grades, doing quality work, and performing beautiful music but considered themselves inferior. They didn’t appreciate what they had. Some of them had this skewed view because some deeply rooted problem from the past prevented them from considering themselves valuable. Others viewed themselves as lacking simply because they wanted the gifts that others had instead of those that were theirs. In any case, they could gain a better perspective on themselves only through much affirmation and much prayer.
In God’s Image
The Bible presents different measures for our worth and different values for our self-esteem. A quick look at the book of Proverbs reveals that God doesn’t attach worth to our attractiveness, possessions, or achievements. Instead, that book associates our worth with qualities such as wisdom, obedience to God, purity, diligence, righteousness, concern for others, honesty, benevolence, joy, temperance, humbleness, integrity, fairness, and so on. These are what the bible considers to be the attributes that should constitute the source of self-esteem.
The origin of our species should make clear our worth. Scripture says, “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27). Human beings were made in the Creator’s image and in His likeness. They were created as highly intelligent beings who had perfect bodies and were endowed with spiritual powers and the ability to continue to develop. It is true that the onset of sin truncated the endless possibilities that had once been ours, but it is also true that the Creator’s imprint, albeit limited now, is still present within us.
We can see this even today. In the midst of our evil world, we find compassionate people who are moved to help others despite its costing them significant loss. People who rejoice with those who are rejoicing and who suffer with those who are suffering; people who love good and hate sin and all its consequences. What is the root of these behaviors in human beings who are bent by sin? Apparently, we still bear enough of the image of God that we feel the urge to do godly deeds. This is one of the most puzzling thoughts to the evolutionist. Why should anyone display altruistic behavior toward someone unknown without the hope of receiving anything in return? This doesn’t fit the idea of the survival of the fittest, but it makes a lot of sense in the context of a loving Creator who originally passed on His goodness and His character to His creatures, in whom some of those traits still remain.
In addition to being created in the likeness of their Creator, human beings were granted authority to rule over all the earth – to administer its resources wisely in order to bring happiness to the human family. This is another privilege that should enhance out self-esteem – the trust that God has bestowed upon each of us to manage the earth. Unfortunately, we haven’t done it very well, but we need to remember that we still possess the power and authority God gave us. Both are excellent sources of self-esteem.
We do have a divine origin. We are made in the image of the God of the universe. Although sin has damaged us and marred the original image, we still bear God’s imprint. And, as if this weren’t enough, our Creator considers us deserving of salvation and as having the potential to grow throughout eternity. These are infinitely better grounds for self-esteem than those that society holds for us.
What We See in Ourselves
People often have faulty views of themselves. We don’t assess our strengths and weaknesses accurately, and this tends to cause trouble. Have you ever seen a dog that miscalculates his size. I knew a family that had a small dog, yet he tended to believe that he was very big, especially under certain condition- namely, when a member of his family was nearby and he was allowed to run free and when that dog saw another dog a big dog running loose, then this little dog would approach the big dog, stand up on his back legs, place his front legs on either side of the big dogs head, and then almost stand nose to nose. He would growl. Big dogs tend to be noble and forgiving, so most of them ignored the little dog. But one attacked him and left a scar on his shoulder.
The Bible tells us of individuals who didn’t assess their gift correctly. Take the case of Moses. He was well trained and seasoned, and above all, he had the Lord backing him. Yet, he still had serious doubts about himself. He begged God not to send him to Pharaoh, but to find someone else instead because he wasn’t eloquent. “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh?” (Exodus 3:11 and Exodus 4:10). Conversely, Jesus had to warn His followers that their self-perception was also mistaken – but in a different way. “How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take the speck out of your eyes,” when you yourself ail to see the plank in your own eye?” (Luke 6:42).
So while some can’t see the bad in themselves, others – like Moses – can’t see the good in themselves. But it’s there. When Jesus summarized the law, He said the second great commandment was that we should love our neighbors as we love ourselves (see Matthew 22:39), which implies that we direct a reasonable amount of love toward ourselves. We should feel satisfaction for a job well done and for whatever good there is in us, acknowledging all the while the One who is the Source of all good. This is a very critical point: it was Satan’s refusal to acknowledge this Source that set him on the wrong path.
As we judge our skills and abilities, traits, character, appearance, and so on, we are likely to be mistaken in some things. This entails serious risk of our reaching one extreme or the other: we may not be willing to face the challenges God allows to come to us because we have little self-confidence – or because we are so arrogant that God won’t bestow His blessings upon us because it might push us further in that direction. To prevent both of these extremes, we must be in constant communion with God, maintaining continually a prayerful attitude.
What God Sees
God’s regard for His children is based on the different values than those that society considers important. Society pushes people to consider themselves worthless if they’re poor or uneducated or part of the wrong ethnic group or religious minority, or if they’ve gone through some tragic event or been a victim of abuse. Chapter 15 of the Gospel of Luke is a jewel that reveals what or whom God values. It presents three stories – the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son that have a common theme: God’s concern for the odd, the disadvantaged, the outcast, the sinner the inferior. Anyone who feels left out because of social expectations should remember that those whom the world regards as inferior can enjoy the special, intimate care of God and His angels. In these three stories, the protagonist the shepherd, the woman, and the father cared more for the lost than for those in position of advantage. And when the lost are found, the whole universe rejoices.
God sees tremendous potential in each and every one of His creatures in all of us. He doesn’t have us to struggle along but offers to lead, to guide, and to help: “I will counsel you and watch over you” (Psalm 32:80). He cares so much for us that He yearns to care for us as “the apple of your (His) eye” (Psalm 17:8).
A New Self
The apostle Paul urges his readers to “put on the new self” (Ephesians 4:24). People have different opinions of what constitutes a new self. Recently, while driving in my car, headed west to meet up with some friends. Not knowing the area well, I entered the destination into my GPS and then chose the shortest route. The GPS took me off the interstate highway into city streets. As I drove, I could observe people who were walking along the street and the various shops and businesses along the way. This gave me a glimpse into the services that people in that area patronize. It seemed to me that there was an unusually high number of hair salons, clothing shops, aesthete dentistry and plastic surgery practice, specially decoration shops, and imported car dealerships. I concluded that the people living around this area had to care more for their appearance and the impression they make than the rest of us do.
In contrast, the new self that Paul wrote about is the product of a godly method of building self-esteem. According to the criteria outlined in Scripture, things don’t make us more beautiful. Instead, character is the key to true beauty and self-worth. Ephesians 4:25-32 list the activities God considers important. He wants us
- To be honest and truthful to the people around us:
- To keep our tempers under control, and if we do become angry, to seek to resolve things quickly.
- To work hard to have enough so that we can share with those in need;
- To build others up through what we say:
- To avoid grieving the Holy Spirit:
- To get rid of bitterness, brawling, slandering, and all kinds of bad traits;
- And to be kind, compassionate, and forgiving.
- Both God and spiritually wise men and women consider all these actions and qualities to have true value.
If you have problems with self-esteem, reflect on your origin: you’re created in the image of God! And ponder your destiny: you’re saved by grace! Then fervently ask God to give you wisdom to “think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith.
Out next post in this series will be on Saturday March 10th.
Usually I run this series on Saturday and Sunday morning, but hope to have a different kind of post tomorrow so will post this entire entry on Self-esteem today.