Self-esteem is a “hot item” these days. For several decades we have been told that a strong concept of self-worth is absolutely vital for mental health and wellbeing. As a result, most Western educational systems now focus on the early development of self-esteem above many, if not most, other goals.
Unfortunately, the unmodified stress on self-esteem from early childhood onward all too often leads to a false sense of accomplishment. As psychotherapist Jennifer Coon-Wallman has written, the purpose of many school programs is simply “to dole out huge heapings of praise, regardless of actual accomplishment.”
Worse yet, in recent years it has become clear that an unbalanced sense of self-esteem invariably leads to the development of self-centeredness and to social problems that result from that flawed view of the world. As a New York Times article pointed out as far back as 2002: “Last year alone there were three withering studies of self-esteem released in the United States, all of which had the same central message: people with high self-esteem pose a greater threat to those around them than people with low self-esteem, and feeling bad about yourself is not the cause of our country's biggest, most expensive social problems.”
It is not that a concept of self-worth is somehow bad, but that self-esteem by itself is not good. We must be able to balance that concept in order to properly see ourselves in perspective, to properly relate with others, and for society to function properly.
Interestingly, we see this necessary balance in the Biblical story of the first humans. The first chapter in the Bible’s first book, Genesis, tells us: “ … God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them” (Genesis 1:26), and this should give us all the fuel we may need for the development of a healthy self-concept. If we believe what this verse plainly says, we can all rest assured that we are of great worth by virtue of our very nature and that we do not need some kind of fake praise to create an artificial and skewed self-esteem.
On the other hand, the very next chapter of Genesis tells us, with equal clarity: “… dust you are and to dust you will return” (Genesis 2:19). If knowing that we are the work of the very Creator of the universe is ever a temptation to pride and inordinate self-esteem, this verse quickly puts things in perspective. Knowing that at our very best we are still merely dust that comes and goes like a transient vapor (Psalm 39:5) should prevent us from taking too high a view of ourselves.
In that sense, the story of the creation of humans as recorded in Genesis carries with it a built-in and balanced self-worth prescription that both elevates and restrains our concept of ourselves at the same time. According to the Bible, both statements – that we are as gods (John 10:34) and that we are as nothing (Galatians 6:3) – are equally true. Both statements are also equally necessary for individual and social well-being.
Perhaps some of us need to focus more on one aspect of self-image than on the other, or perhaps we all need to focus on both aspects according to our current state of mind. When we feel pretty pleased with ourselves or our achievements, it does not hurt to remember that we are still dust, but when we are afflicted by self-doubt and feelings of unworthiness it is always good to remember that we are children of God created for his purposes.
Simplistic as it may sound, it’s a dual prescription that can prevent arrogance and pride on the one hand and discouragement and depression on the other. It’s a balanced prescription for the attitude we all need if we are to gain and maintain the kind of self-identity God intends us to have.