Humility and Self-Esteem: Stumbling through the Sermon on the Mount

Keith KettenringBible Insights, Christian Living

This past week you served 10 people for four days with hardly a word of thanks for your efforts. How did that feel, my man!?! You didn’t think being treated like that was part of becoming like Jesus, did you? Welcome to His world. So, what did you do? You tried to convince yourself that you did a good job, that these folks lacked common courtesy, and that you are a good man despite being underappreciated.

So, let me ask you, can you progress in humility while believing that self-esteem is crucial to your well-being? Is there a place for self-esteem within God’s humility project? You’ve seen how people try to build you up when you talk about minimizing your ego. You do the same.  God sets your humility in motion. But you foolishly disregard His work while thinking highly of yourself.

Self-esteem is “confidence in one’s own worth or abilities; self-respect” (The New Oxford American Dictionary). Apparently, when you have healthy self-esteem, you feel good about yourself and see yourself as deserving the respect of others. When you have low self-esteem, you put little value on your opinions and ideas. The modern concept is that you must possess self-confidence and self-respect to live a successful life. To be satisfied with yourself is a noble goal. Having low self-esteem is tragic and to be avoided at all costs.

Two characteristics of self-esteem trouble you: 1) the focus on self – for humility includes the aspect of not thinking of yourself and 2) the emphasis on one’s own feelings – since relying on feelings about yourself – positive or negative – can trick or deceive you since they are unreliable guides to who you really are.

Ancient saints, like St. Cassian (365-435), were not fans of self-esteem but saw it as a vice needing to be destroyed. He writes:

“Our seventh struggle is against the demon of self-esteem, a multi-form and subtle passion which is not readily perceived even by the person whom it tempts. The provocations of the other passions are more apparent and it is therefore somewhat easier to do battle with them for the soul recognizes its enemy and can repulse him at once by rebutting him and by prayer. The vice of self-esteem however, is difficult to fight against because it has many forms and appears in all our activities, in our way of speaking, in what we say and in our silences, at work, in vigils and fasts, in prayer and reading, in stillness and longsuffering.”

This is the great challenge of self-esteem. It so infiltrates every area of your life to the point that you are even proud of your humility, you feel righteous when sinning, you are self-confident in your ignorance, and you feel pretentious about your service. You think you’re being holy when you’re actually being haughty. And most troublesome is that your self-esteem blinds you to your wretched pride. This is so true of you. Self-esteem is a form of pride that subtly emerges in every situation you’re in. You say to yourself, “Aren’t I a good person because I ______________.” Or in extreme cases: “God is fortunate to have me because ______________.” Maybe it’s not so extreme since you’ve often had these thoughts.

How did Christians ever survive before the 20th century without needing to be propped up by self-esteem? Have psychological ideas so penetrated Christian thought that you now believe self-esteem is biblical and needed for a flourishing spiritual life?

If you take Jesus’ words seriously, you’re going to have a hard time reconciling “self-esteem” with real humility. Jesus teaches a radically different kind of “blissful” living:

How blissful the destitute, abject in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven…How blissful are those who have been persecuted for the sake of what is right, for theirs is the kingdom of the heavens. How blissful you when they reproach you and persecute you and falsely accuse you of every evil for my sake. Rejoice and be glad for your reward in the heavens is great. 

You don’t understand the extent to which you are to humble yourself in order to experience the kingdom. The depth of humility that creates the environment for blissful living is beyond your current experience. That you live most of your day in anxiety, indifference, selfishness, and judgmentalism, indicates your lack of humility and the subtle self-esteem that lingers within.

Jesus and Self-Esteem 

Does Jesus teach you to…Think well of yourself…Be proud of yourself and your accomplishments…Don’t let anyone put you down…Stand up for yourself…Be sensitive and take offense when someone criticizes you…Defend yourself at all costs. Nope! Jesus never promotes such ideas.

Here’s a project for you: reconcile “How blissful are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” with your “defend yourself at all costs.”

Or, “pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven” with “take offense when someone belittles you.”

Or, “if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you” with “don’t let anyone put you down.”

Or, “You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.”

And the most basic of all: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven…For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others. Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

You’re not seeing “self-esteem” in any of those statements, are you? In fact, you are to live in a manner absolutely devoid of self-esteem – pray, forgive, love, obey, and be at peace. If you focus on these, esteem will take care of itself. Begin living like this, being shaped into a real Christian after the likeness of Jesus Christ, and you’ll find no need to bolster yourself with self-esteem.

BTW: “A sacrifice to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, Oh God, you will not despise” (Psalm 51.17). There is no notion of self-esteem here.