Q. My counselor tells me I need to love myself more and need to improve my self esteem. The Bible says that I’m not to think too highly of myself. So which is it? Do I love myself enough or too much? Debbie in OR
A. That can be a trick question for many Christians. The Bible isn’t against loving ourselves. In fact it assumes it. For example when the apostle Paul tells husbands to love their lives as their own bodies (Ephesians 5:28) or when Jesus tells us to love our neighbors as ourselves (John 13:34), there is an assumption of natural self-love or concern for our own well-being that is common to all of us. Proverbs also tells us that he (or she) who acquires wisdom, loves his own soul (Proverbs 19:8).
However, as Christians we’ve often associated loving self with rampant selfishness and egocentricity which is clearly against what God’s word teaches. So let’s look at what biblical self-esteem and self-love would look like.
First, self esteem is the way we feel about ourselves, self image is the way we think about ourselves. Since our thoughts and feelings go together, if we think too highly of ourselves, we will have an inflated self-esteem. On the other hand, if we think too lowly of ourselves, we feel inferior and worthless. A healthy self-image is where you see yourself truthfully, as God sees you. That means that you see your beauty and your sins, and don’t only see one side of yourself. Some Christians get caught in only seeing their sinful side and forget that they are indeed a magnificent creation of God (Psalm 139) and that God has indeed put gifts and talents inside of them to be used to serve him and others. On the other hand, some people are quite blind to their sinful side and can be jealous, prideful, arrogant and judgmental and don’t even see how sinful those things are (Psalm 36:2).
When you love yourself too much, the focus of your life is on you, either how wonderful you are and how much you deserve, or on how miserable you are because life, people, or God aren’t giving you everything you think you should have. In contrast to these self-centered types of love, when you love yourself biblically here are three things you would do:
1. You would seek God as your highest priority. God says that he is our soul’s only true satisfaction (Psalm 21:6) and that following his ways lead to great joy (Psalm 19:8; 1 Peter 1:8).
2. You would seek God’s wisdom for your life. Proverbs tells us that those who fail to find wisdom, harm themselves (Proverbs 8:36). God says that his wisdom helps us see clearly through the world’s philosophies and Satan’s deceptions that may mislead us.
3. We will correct and discipline ourselves. At first this may seem counterintuitive. People think that when they love themselves then they can indulge themselves because they feel so special or entitled. Credit card debt, obesity, sexual promiscuity, pornography, drug abuse and alcoholism are at all time highs. Not only do we indulge our fleshly appetites, we also indulge our immature and sinful ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving. We sulk in self-pity, throw temper tantrums when we don’t get our way, nurse angry and hatful thoughts and wallow in our morbid self-analysis.
The results of a self-indulgent psyche or lifestyle are not happiness and good self-esteem but bondage. When we indulge our sinful nature, we don’t feel better; we feel worse. God tells us one of the causes of self-hatred is ignoring discipline (Proverbs 15:32).
Disciplining ourselves doesn't mean we beat ourselve up for our failures, it means that we take corrective measures to stop doing negative and destructive things to ourselves and others.
So I can’t specifically answer your question on what your counselor meant, but by looking over these applications, evaluate where you are in loving yourself biblically and seeing yourself truthfully. Ask God to show you areas where you need to grow.
For more information on this whole topic, see my book How to Find Selfless Joy in a Me First World.