Self-Esteem vs. Self-Worth

© 2014 Bryan Dowd

We welcome, as guest blogger, Dr. Bryan Dowd, Professor in the Division of Health Policy and Management, University of Minnesota.  Professor Dowd was not only a founding board member of the Wilberforce Academy, but for one and a half decades has served on the board of the MacLaurin Institute, now known as MacLaurinCSF, which is one of our nation's oldest Christian study centers.  Bryan's voice is clear, concise, always thoughtful, and deeply Christian.  This article is reprinted, with the author's permission, from FacultyLinc

Following the shootings at Sandy Hook school in Newton, Connecticut, the papers were filled with the usual editorials about gun control, violence on TV and in video games, and inadequate care of the mentally ill.  However, there was one editorial in the Minneapolis Star and Tribune that took up a different issue.  The author (a counselor in Duluth, Minnesota, who works with children in a residential treatment program for personality disorders) suggested that at least part of the problem was that children of his generation, growing up in the 1980s and 1990s were given the message that “…we were important. Not collectively, but individually” (author’s italics).  The author goes on to say, “We were taught to love ourselves, but not how to love others.”  Immersed in social media, “we’ve got a generation of young people who not only crave validation, but are addicted to it and need to have it instantly.  Miss an instant-gratification hit or get criticized enough and one’s sense of identity crumbles.”  And for some people, that loss of identity leads to violence. The author concludes that “(w)e have an empathy deficit in this nation that is so large it makes the federal budget deficit look small.”

I expect that when Christians take up the problem of random acts of mass violence, it would be hard to find consensus on the issue of gun control.  Most Christians probably would agree that filling one’s mind with gratuitously violent images and actions is a waste of God-given time on the planet, and likely associated with deleterious consequences. But the issue to which Christians might have the most to offer is what our children should be told about their self-worth and their relationship to others.

To my knowledge, there is nothing in Scripture that supports the notion of self-esteem, per se, much less filling our children’s heads with notions of self-esteem.  In fact, there are grave warnings not only in Scripture (e.g., Luke 14:10, Romans 12:3, Philippians 2:3) but in all of recorded history, about the dangers of hubris.  How a secular society might distinguish between self-esteem and hubris is entirely unclear.

Christianity makes no attempt to distinguish between self-esteem and hubris, but instead, draws a clear distinction between self-esteem and self-worth.  Self-esteem is sinful and harmful, whereas every human being has infinite self-worth for at least three reasons.  First, every human being is made in the image of God.  Second, every human being is the object of infinite and self-sacrificial Divine love.  The familiar adage here is that, “God loved us so much that He chose to die, rather than live without us” and He did so, while we were still sinners (Romans 5:8).  Third, every human being will live forever.  As C.S. Lewis reminded us, there are no ordinary people.

These basic Christian truths provide clear guidance on what children need to be taught about self-worth and their relationships with other people:

 1.     You (the child) are infinitely valuable because God made you that way.

2.     God demonstrated his love for you when Jesus died on the cross so that you can stand blameless before God.

3.     Nothing and no one can separate you from the love of God.

4.     Because God loves you, he has established a set of rules to guide you through life. The rules are for your benefit, not God’s.  You can choose to break those rules and suffer the consequences, but that in no way alters God’s love for you.

5.     God’s love for you is a free gift of grace.  You did not, and cannot, earn it.  All of recorded history tells us that to think otherwise invites disaster.  There is nothing you can do to make God love you less or more than He does now.

6.     Every other human being has that same source of infinite value.

7.     Because every human being has that same infinite and intrinsic value, the way you treat other people is vitally important.    To sin against other people is to sin against God.

8.     The result of realizing the true source of your infinite value should be an attitude of infinite gratitude.

9.     Rather than simply absorbing God’s love and thereby converting it to hubris or self-esteem, you should redirect it out to others in self-sacrificial ways that demonstrate your understanding of the true source of self-worth in yourself and others.

 If every child and young adult knew that, perhaps the conversations about gun ownership, violent video games, and adequate care for the mentally ill would become superfluous.

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