learning the words: self-esteem

[art by Jacqueline Hudon-Verrelli]

Today’s guest post is from Rachel. “Learning the Words” is a series on the words many of us didn’t have in fundamentalism or conservative evangelicalism– and how we got them back. If you would like to be a part of this series, you can find my contact information at the top.

A boy, about two years old, realized that his parents had left the house. It was a big house, so he wasn’t sure. He ran from room to room sobbing and bellowing out his fear, anger and frustration. I followed him to make sure he was safe, knowing that he wouldn’t be satisfied until he had searched the whole house– he would keep crying with the abandon of a two-year-old until he got tired of it or was distracted. I’d seen it before. His crying didn’t offend me. My frustration was that his parents left without telling him so they could avoid dealing with this scene.

That day an adult who was respected in the Christian community I lived in also watched this scene unfolding. He made a comment about this little boy being “bad.” Although I was just a teenager I challenged this idea. He was just upset. How could that be bad? And the answer was only surprising in that it was applied to this particular situation. It was an argument I was very familiar with: we are all bad. Born with sin. Separated from God and incapable of pleasing Him. In short, on our own, we are worthless. Apparently, even a two-year-old who threw a fit when his needs weren’t met was evidence of this.

It was, I think, a fairly “mainstream” evangelical community, made up of members of a number of different denominations from a number of countries. They were missionaries – people who had fairly extensive training in biblical interpretation and who had committed their lives to reaching the “lost.” Although they tended to share the general evangelical suspicion of secular psychology, they generally had not written it off completely.

But the term “self-esteem” was sometimes criticized. Phrases like “We shouldn’t have self-esteem, we should have God-esteem” rattle around in my memory. When a counselor asked my teenaged self why I had poor self-esteem I was confused. Was there any other kind?

Whenever I hear someone criticize the concept of self-esteem I think: “Everyone has self-esteem. It has to do with our understanding of who we are. It just refers to the idea a person has about what they are worth. Healthy self-esteem is a realistic sense of worth. Unhealthy self-esteem is an unrealistic sense.” It doesn’t mean being proud or having an inflated sense of our abilities.

For a while it seemed pretty simple to me. As Christians, why shouldn’t we have not only a realistic sense of our worth, but even a positive one? After all, God thought that we were valuable enough to die for. He wanted to have a relationship with us. He made us his children. Lists of our identity in Christ just confirmed this idea to me.

But in spite (or because) of this complicated dance of “I no worth on my own but I great worth with God” I realize that I have spent most of my life feeling that I am falling short. Whatever God might think I’m worth, the “me” I deal with every day is still a raging two-year-old demanding to have my needs met. There is still a gray-haired man standing by declaring that I am bad. Maybe if I were healthier, more athletic, less emotional, more organized, or spent more time reading my Bible I would feel more worthy. Maybe I would actually be able to see myself the way that I have been taught that God sees me.

Or is the problem that this is a really muddled way of seeing the self? Do we really know ourselves in relation to how God sees us? Can that really be part of our everyday consciousness? My pastor, a wonderful man, often starts out his sermons saying, “I have nothing worthwhile to say. But I hope that God will speak through me.” This bothers me a little, since he is a man with skills and abilities. I feel that he should take some credit for the work he has done and the thoughts he has assembled.

For some people, maybe it’s all about being filled up and directed by God. But for me I suspect that there’s the spiritual reality I’ve been taught about, and then the physical reality I know from experience. The one where people evaluate me and give me grades. The one where I don’t keep my house clean and last autumn’s leaves are in the process of killing this spring’s grass… But I know that I’m a good cook. That I’m good at having empathy for people. I think I’m good at listening to my children. I desperately want to be good at helping them have a healthy sense of who they are.

So I don’t know what to do with the “We are all worthless sinners without the grace of God” mentality. I guess I start by saying that Jesus died for us before we made the decision, so our worth is not based on whether we get that part right. Because I look at my beautiful baby and I know that he is so much. That even if he never believes right or does right he is worth everything I pour into him. And I hear my five-year-old say “I’m really good at tracing” and I want him to hold on to that satisfaction. I want him to be comfortable with who he is – to feel that he is enough. I want him to know that striving is good, but it doesn’t give us worth. I want them both to know that having needs doesn’t make them bad.

I want self-esteem for my children to be about something other than fighting the sense that at their very core they are worthless sinners. Or even fighting to hold on to the idea that they are loved by God. I want them to have a sense of just themselves. I want them to stretch out in their skins and know that it’s acceptable for them to scream out their rage, to dance out their joys and to rest when they are done playing. I want self-esteem to be about knowing that they have a place in the world that they don’t have to earn. I want them to know they have a value they don’t have to prove.

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  • When my wife was pregnant she posted a status on Facebook about how the kid was incessantly kicking on her bladder. An old family friend of hers commented on it saying he was just “a depraved little sinner.”

    Just so we’re clear – she attributed “depraved sinner” status to a child STILL IN UTERO! If you ever needed a textbook example of a horrific theology there it is.

    • It seems so crazy, but that is exactly how it plays out and it can have devastating results when it comes to how children are treated.

  • We all know the song: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that save a wretch like me.”

    We might feel dissatisfied, or even guilty about our shortcomings. We might feel like a wretch but the Father does not see us as a wretch, it is only our perception of ourselves.

    We need to adopt the perception of the Father who loves us. This new understanding of the Father’s view of us is part of the ‘good news’ that Jesus brings.

  • Reblogged this on temporary and commented:
    I struggled with this same concept as I grew up. An important post about the worth of every human, reblogged from “Defeating the Dragons”

  • Reblogged. An excellent post.

  • I too am in the process of shedding the depraved belief of total depravity! The Jews never took on this idea and they wrote the Genesis story that is supposed to describe the fall! I don’t buy it. We are all glorious, beautiful creations of God. If you haven’t already, I recommend you read The Jesus Kind of Life by Michael Hardin (
    Here is an excerpt from my book in process:
    Original Sin
    I was talking to a Jewish historian who had spoken at our church one Sunday. He said that there were a lot of things that he saw in Christianity of which he was somewhat jealous. He said some things were just beautiful! “But”, he said “if there is one thing that Christianity gave to the world that was not lovely, that is original sin!” “I could never understand the idea of a newborn being evil at the core.” I scrambled to suggest that many in the church were suggesting a re-thinking of this doctrine but I still came away with the sense that Christians have a serious PR problem!
    Sin, which is related to personal guilt and results in a separation between me, personally, and God, was supposedly inherited at birth and although there are those who suggest a temporary period of purity during childhood, I am doomed by it. I am to believe that God holds me personally responsible for this disease that I had in my blood when I was born. The only way to be released from this death sentence was to accept that Jesus was punished (for what? I was born in sin?) in my place, that God’s judgment was put upon him and I could be released from its power by faith in Jesus (believe the right things, say the right prayer and start going to the right kind of church!)
    Here are the Four Spiritual Laws:
    Law 1: God loves you and offers a wonderful Plan for your life.
    Law 2: Man is sinful and separated from God. There, he cannot know and experience God’s love and plan for his life.
    Law 3: Jesus Christ is God’s only provision for man’s sin. Through Him you can know and experience God’s love and plan for your life.
    Law 4: We must individually receive Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord; then we can know and experience God’s love and plan for our lives.
    Copyrighted 2007 by Bright Media Foundation and Campus Crusade for Christ.
    There is no doubt that we are all screwed up and I have seen some of the results of addiction or being self-consumed! I would never seek to minimize the pain and destruction that our life choices cause. I know that evil has a powerful effect individually and on a society!
    We don’t know what’s in our best interests. Even at those rare times that we do, we often self-sabotage. Our attempts to make the world a better place and improve things have a long track record of less than desirable consequences—frequently making things worse. We’re exploited, used, and oppressed and we exploit, use, and oppress others. Left to our own devices, we tend to make a hell of a mess. Those who deny these realities are gravely deluded. We need help.
    Wolsey, Roger (2011-05-20). Kissing Fish: christianity for people who don’t like christianity (Kindle Locations 4045-4049). Xlibris. Kindle Edition.
    It is quite interesting that the people who wrote the story of creation and the beginning of human life did not construct any theory like the belief that dominates evangelical thought known as “original sin.” Jewish thought seems to have remained focused on God’s good creation and how we are called to be co-creators with the creator to make and re-make the world into a wondrous place of beauty. God created the world and then called us to create our world (social, relational, societal) into a place where the spirit can dwell!
    Sin=Violence. By this I do not mean violence is a sin (ie. violence=sin, “Thou shall not kill.”) I am saying that sin is violence. At its core, sin is not a moral concern or a “rebellion against God’s righteous law.” This is what, I think, Paul was disputing in Romans: The law =death. That is actual death! When we become zealous for the letter of the law, we are willing to kill, destroy those who disobey. This is what Paul was about before he met Jesus. And sin (violence) is not a religious thing, it is anthropologic. If we dispense with the moral code approach and see that sin is what we do as humans: competition, domination, manipulation. It is the way we have learned and continue to learn to be human.
    But the cross puts this to death. God was crucified in Christ to defeat this way of being human and to dispel the idea that God was all along participating in it through the sacrificial system. The death of Christ says that the one who was God embodied chose to be a willing victim so that we could see that God is not mad at us and never was!
    Free forgiveness from the victim! There never was a need for sacrifice, just trust! Through Him we can re-learn what it is like to be human, not through some religious system that sees Jesus as a sacrifice to appease God. The God of Jesus is not like that, only the false gods of this world.
    So sin is violence and we all joined the mob in committing the ultimate act of violence against Jesus. It remains obvious that we were there by our actions. Whether we are religious or not, we are human and we continue to act out our violence. We speak and act against those who are “to blame.” We create scapegoats to relieve ourselves of guilt. But Jesus’ blood doesn’t speak guilt. It doesn’t cry for the vengeance of God, nor does it satisfy this greed for violence. He just said, “forgive them!’

    • Wow! I have lots to think about when it comes to the theology. I find the idea that Jews don’t see the creation narrative the same way very interesting. We studied that recently at my church in relation to how the original readers would have understood it, but not the historical Jewish understanding. Good luck with the book!

  • Self-esteem and similar concepts were always looked on with deep suspicion, or open mocking, inside my bubble as a kid. It’s taken a long time to really understand what that means and how it applies to me. In this sort of deal, your self-value is always conditional. God may value you, but independent from that you have no innate worth. I think that kind of conception is partially why so many conservative evangelicals/fundies believe so intensely that atheists must believe people have no value and life is meaningless, because according to their paradigm, there’s no other option. Anyway, good article. Definitely resonated with me.

    • Shoot! I wish this comment engine had a “like” option! I’m really enjoying these comments since my own blog is new and I don’t get very many. (Also I’m not often brave enough to take on big concepts) Yes about the atheists and also why “humanism” seems to be the other big bad guy. Acknowledging that humans could have any worth apart from God is seen as worshiping them. I was about to say that’s funny because valuing other parts of creation is seen as an act of worship to God, but then I remembered anti-environmentalism and…. sigh.

  • This came at a very opportune time. Thanks for writing this.

  • I too am a product of fundamentalist church, but I have had some other insights along the way… Here is my thought on self-esteem…

    Some 12 years of working with boy scouts, including scout master for several of those years taught me one thing. Boys (and girls) gain self esteem primarily through hard-earned success. Success at the various skill-sets contained in scouting, success in building new relationships in the Troop, success in doing more and more complicated things like going camping, packing your own pack, staying safe while out there, staying together, operating as a coherent group… But mostly it was the basic first principle. Success, hard earned, not spoon fed, was the basis for their emotional growth and in some cases, yes, healing. We had some boys that had been beaten up by life, one by a parent, and they grew and matured away from those nightmares and became happy people. I watched it happen. I know it works.

    The corrolary to hard-earned success is that success is not earned the hard way unless some of their choices lead to failure. It is important to allow a child to experience failure, as long as it does not crush their spirit. Failure is the flip-side of success, and avoiding it successfully is part of succeeding. If you as parent cut off their access to failure, you are hurting them. Don’t take this idea too seriously–the core of the idea is the positive side–real success builds real self esteem, virtually nothing else.

    I suspect that this is true for all recovering fundamentalists as well–you need to learn to measure your actual successes. Did you reach out to help someone? Did you bless anyone? Those things count…

  • Yes, this. I know that there are many, many evangelicals who believe in the “4 laws” and are “OK” psychologically, or at least functional. Some of them are incredibly kind, selfless people who do wonderful acts of charity – much more than I do. But it needs to be said, over and over, that this is an aberration, or perhaps a finely developed coping mechanism. The natural consequence of this thinking is damage, possibly to the point of suicide. Those of us who emerged damaged from this theology need to know that IT IS NORMAL to be psychologically unstable after hearing that you’re a worm. The question is not why am I fucked up – the question is why are others seemingly OK?

  • I grew up with this mentality, and upon moving to Illinois three years ago, find myself once again confronting the concept that being born into sin means that I am worthless until redeemed. I reject that idea, and find it terribly sad and…such a waste. I generally do not try to enter discussion with my peers here, because they’re utterly convinced that they are right, and that I am not only wrong but think the way that I do because I “just didn’t have a good scriptural background.” (Can you say insulting and arrogant??) But I do speak up when it comes back on my daughter. She’s only two years old, but it will be a mere blink, and she will understand when someone looks at her being wild and says, “Aww, what a little sinner!” I won’t stand for that. I won’t allow others to use sin as a way to quantify my child. I still struggle enough because of that, and I want a different story for her.

  • Anna

    I know I’m a little late on leaving a comment, but I just wanted to say thanks for this piece. Reading articles like this helps me to heal and understand why I’ve struggled so much. I remember reading something my dad wrote about when I was born. He said while holding me and finding me precious, he had to remind himself that I was a wretched sinner with a heart that needed the Lord. This hurt me and bothered me for reasons I couldn’t understand until just recently. Again, thank you for sharing this.

    • Thanks for reading. I’m so glad it was helpful. I think this is the great tragedy of this type of thinking – that it can cause us to pull back from our own children for fear of “over-loving” them. When we focus in their “brokenness” we risk missing the wonderfulness. I hope that your healing journey keeps moving you to places of greater wholeness.