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Biblical self-esteem

Another example of pop psychology is in the area of self-esteem, and equally disheartening, religious over-reaction against the concept of self-esteem among fundamentalists.

Many self-help books and pop psychology pundits talk about self-esteem without a proper understanding of it, and thus oversimplify and misapply it. First, self-esteem is a legitimate concept, and an important domain in social psychology research. There's been a good deal of interesting research in psychology over the years. However, self-esteem is not just one simple thing, that people need more of. There are different types of self-esteem, or different dimensions to self-esteeem. These dimensions can include one's self-knowledge and self-understanding, one's appraisal of one's abilities and general self-evaluation, one's feeling of control, in addition to evaluation of self, others, and social relationships. Often these things are fluid, and can actually vary depending on the context - specific social context, circumstances, etc. Another dimension is self-esteem stability - some people's self-esteem can be stable when threatened (or not overly inflated when one is being flattered), but some people may have an excessive, unhealthy form of self-esteem that is unstable and easily threatened, making them overly self-defensive when they feel their ego is threatened.

In self-help books and pop psychology, all these complexities and nuances are disregarded, and self-esteeem is presented as one simple construct, one simple thing that you just need more of. But it may not be healthy to develop more esteem if a person already has good self-esteem - maybe one's problem is something else. A person who has an unstable self-esteem won't benefit from more self-esteem without first addressing his/her instability. If a person with an excessive self-esteem tries to cultivate more esteem, s/he will only become more of a jerk. And a person suffering from depression feels a lack of control, or other specific issues that need to be addressed, not general esteem; for such a person, trying to cultivate more general esteem will be a futile effort.

But a normal, healthy self-esteem is part of how God created us originally - part of being created in God's image. In fact, there are so many things in our personal social psychology (social cognition & social-psychological make-up) like self-knowledge, self-esteem, and other areas that are necessary for us to function properly in a world where we interact with others. In fact, that extends to our relationship with God, because we relate to him as a personal entity, not an impersonal spirit, so our social psychology directly affects our spiritual lives.

Thus, it is terribly misguided for some religious persons to totally dismiss self-esteem or psychology. That stuff is part of what it means for us to be made in God's image, and part of how God made us. Without that we would not be able to interact with others, get around in the real world, relate properly to fellow believers and non-believers, and most importantly, have a relationship with God. Otherwise, there would be no biologically or spiritually hard-wired moral or social constraints or inhibitions regarding how we treat others or ourselves, nor would we sense any need for God or religion. Beyond our basic psychology as part of the imago Dei (being made in God's image), there's of course a need for healthy social psychology for our spiritual lives. God is a personal being, and it's important to have a proper conception of him as a very special personal being - one who is loving, personal, and just as real as any physical person, but also infinite, holy, perfect, supernatural, spiritual, beyond our natural ability to understand, and one who is to be loved, worshipped, and feared.

Of course, if one has an incorrect conception of God, this can cause serious problems in one's spiritual life. If one has a passive, grandfatherly image of God, rather than a holy, perfect God (as in liberal theology), then one will not take God, his requirements, and one's relationship with him seriously. If one views God as demanding and perfectionistic, then one will fall into a self-defeating form of legalism. If one views God as always angry, or doesn't understand and experience God's love, then one will be spiritually stunted and frustrated in his/her relationship with God, failing to achieve meaningful spiritual intimacy with God. Such issues can come from one's childhood, e.g., if you had parents who were aloof, over-demanding, or abusive; people often transfer those experiences with their parents onto their views of God.

These of course then make a person vulnerable to spiritual attack and problems in spiritual warfare. Also, similarly, if one has a low or unstable self-esteem, then that person has deep-rooted psychological and spiritual issues, where one is vulnerable to spiritual attack or temptation, and the evil one knows just how to push such a person's buttons, to hinder his/her spiritual life and walk with God, or to lead him/her into various temptations (e.g., things to dull the pain of one's deep-rooted problems) that an otherwise healthy person would not be so vulnerable to. So self-esteem is important for Christians, because excessive, unstable, or low self-esteem, or incorrect views of God, are spiritual barriers, and sources of temptation, discouragement, and interpersonal problems. As Jesus said, we must love others as we would love ourselves. Self-love, of a proper kind, is biblical, as it would be wrong for you to "hate" yourself, a person made in God's image, just as it would be to hate another person made in God's image.


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