After years of studying the topic, I’ve concluded there are three kinds of self-esteem: positive, negative, and biblical. Positive self-esteem is the kind nearly everyone goes for because it is the feel-good attitude that says, “I am loved, I fit in, I can do it.”
Negative self-worth is the opposite—none or very little sense of being loved, accepted and capable. Both kinds are based on things like appearance, performance, popularity, and ‘what I think other people think.’ Those who strive for a positive sense of self often find themselves on a teeter-totter that tips back and forth between the two. They are never sure where they stand with others, and never sure of their true worth in this world.
Biblical self-esteem is based on what God says about me. It has a negative element, but instead of constantly wondering if it is true or not, I know it is. I am a sinner. I don’t want to be one, but God never lies to me.
The positive element is found in all that Christ has done for me. He loves me with an everlasting love (totally unlike most people). He also accepts me just as I am (but loves me too much to leave me in that condition), also unlike most people. He gives me His Holy Spirit so that I can be and do all that He wants from me. In Him, I am totally capable of being all that I can be. I’m still capable of sin, but that tipping thing is made steady by the truth of the Gospel.
Romans 8 starts with this: “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.”
I could write a book on the connection between the Gospel and that up and down battle with what I think about myself. The Gospel tells me that God loves me so much that He sent His Son to die for me, that He wants me to be free from sin and self-effort. He humbles Himself to come to earth, live with me, live in me, give me His very nature that I might walk as in the Spirit and live above that self-esteem game. I no longer need to constantly strive toward some ambiguous standard or constantly compare myself to other people.
The Lord tells me that I am “accepted in the beloved” and that I am in His kingdom, adopted into His family, a part of His Body the church, and nothing I do or say can change that; I’m His, I belong. No more trying to be part of that mysterious ‘in crowd’ that fluctuates and changes with every passing fad or fancy. God defines what is ‘in’ and He is the same, yesterday, today and forever.
My sense of self also includes being capable. While in the flesh and in my humanness, I have been able to do many things, develop many skills, I’ve learned that all of those are press me into that self-esteem game of comparing myself with others. Am I the best? Do they know more, do more, have more talent than me? But in Christ, that comes to an end. He enables me to walk in the Spirit, do what I do by His grace and power, live according to the resources that are in Him, not by my own strength.
Walking in the Spirit is a challenge to anyone who is capable of doing things without God. Habit alone resists the dependency required, yet God teaches me that when I am weak, without any sense of being able, His strength is there for me. When God gives me the power and ability to do something, there is no comparing, no wondering if I was ‘good enough’ and no boasting that I topped so-and-so with my skills. That game is over; I am free from doubts and fears about my performance because I know that in Him, whatever I did or said was exactly the right thing (and most of the time I cannot even remember what it was).
The Gospel delivered me from the law of sin and death, and also from that human effort to prove myself, that striving to be loved, that worry about fitting in, those concerns about being able. In Christ, I am free; in Him, I can do all things. Such amazing grace!