Much of our culture centres around self-image. From this perspective low self-esteem is both a danger and a tragedy. For several decades psychologists have also believed that low self-esteem was the root cause of many personal and social problems. Popular Christian psychology is influenced by it to a significant extent. Building and maintaining self-esteem is thought to be a key priority. Yet some have called into question the narcissicism this encourages. Certainly, few ever ask what might be the dangers of excessive self-esteem. What does Scripture say?
There is an interesting expression in Romans 12:3 that no one should “think of himself more highly than he ought to think”; but rather “think soberly”. This certainly seems contrary to the self-esteem movement. Some have preferred to think of self-compassion rather than self-esteem. Few think about whether low self-esteem might arise from pride as much as high self-esteem. Thinking “soberly” of ourselves achieves the balance, The puritans spoke of three types of self-love: natural, carnal and gracious. Carnal self-love is excessive indulgence of the natural instinct of self-preservation. Gracious self-love find its happiness and chief good in God. It seeks its own welfare in pursuing the higher ends of God’s glory rather than merely pleasing ourselves.
John Brown of Wamphray draws many interesting observations (many relating to pride in ministers) from this verse in his exposition of the book of Romans. The following are a selection:
1. Self-esteem goes too far when it Hinders Growth in Grace
Pride and conceitedness in the gifts we have received is a major hindrance to growth in grace and in holiness. It provokes God to leave us to ourselves because of the pride of our hearts. He does this so that we may find by experience how little strength we have to acquire anything and may learn to be humble in the future. This is clear from the connection with the former verses, where he had been pressing them to holiness (Romans 12:1-2). He begins verse 3 with the exhortation that they should not think too highly of themselves with the word “for” to make this connection.
2. Self-esteem goes too far when it Strengthens Pride
The innate corruption of pride within our heart is so strong that it is hard to root it out once we give room to this evil. This weed is so natural to us that if we allow it to grow up even in that garden where there are flowers planted by God’s we cannot get rid of it easily. This is clear from the many arguments which the apostle uses to dissuade them from it. “I say” (at the beginning of the verse) is an authoritative way of saying, “I command”.
3. Self-esteem goes too far when we Congratulate Ourselves
We have no abilities or gifts except what we have received and must acknowledge God as the giver. Our natural corruption is so great, however, that we are ready to abuse the best gifts of God. We grow proud of them and boast as if we needed to thank no one except ourselves for them. We are ready to be puffed up as if we had more ability than we have and could do more than we can and as if there were no one like us. We even see this in those in Church office whom Paul rebukes here.
4. Self-esteem goes too far when we Think We Have All the Answers
However small God’s gifts may be, we should not undervalue them since we are less than the least of all His mercies. Rather we are to give God due acknowledgement and hearty thanks for them. Thus, it is a heinous sin when those to whom God has given abilities and gifts swell with pride as if there were no one equal to them. This is particularly so when they think that they alone have unique gifts to search out new and strange doctrines and interpretations never heard of before (1 Timothy 6:3-4).They presume to dive into the secrets of the Lord and things that do not tend to edify. They neglect truths that are more necessary and obvious and are diverted from their ordinary calling and employment: This is the sin from which he dissuades them i.e. thinking more highly of themselves than they ought to think.
5. Self-esteem goes too far when it Prevents True Self-Knowledge
This sin is heinous in making a man a manifest and notorious liar. It also tends to make a man into a fool that does not know himself. He does not know how he ought to behave towards others. This should scare away Christians (especially the servants of the Lord) from this delusional sin of thinking more highly of themselves than they ought to do.
6. Self-esteem goes too far when we Fail to Have Modest Thoughts of Ourselves
Whatever gifts or graces the Lord is pleased to bestow on us, we should strive to have low thoughts of ourselves. We must remember our many infirmities and how unworthy we are of God’s gifts. We should be content in our minds with the measure he has given, knowing it is of His mercy and free love that we get any measure at all. We must pursue what tends to humble and edify rather than questions that cause strife. Thus he exhorts them to “think soberly”.
7. Self-esteem goes too far when it Implies that God is Unfair
Those who have conceited thoughts of themselves implicitly charge God with injustice in that He has bestowed fewer abilities on them than they believe they deserve. Beside this, they are guilty of heinous ingratitude in not acknowledging God’s goodness but rather are displeased because they have not been given more. The only wise God distributes freely as He pleases not according to what anyone deserves. This should keep people from conceited thoughts of themselves and undervaluing others. To scare them away from this sin he tells them that it is God who distributes to everyone “the measure of faith”. No one can get more than what God is pleased to give.
8. Self-esteem goes too far when it Fails to Depend on God
Every good gift comes down from above and is not the fruit of any man’s work or efforts (though God often blesses faithful effort with gifts). Considering this properly should keep us far from boasting and thinking of ourselves beyond what we ought. Failure to look to the original source of those gifts makes men swell with such great conceit of themselves as if there were none equal to them. Paul reminds them that it is the Lord that these gifts come from. It is called “the measure of faith” or the knowledge of God through faith in Christ. It is the knowledge of the truth revealed by the Spirit in and by the word, and therefore called “the ministration of the Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:7) or “the gift of Christ” (Ephesians 4:7). We cannot attain these without help from God.
9. Self-esteem goes too far when it Fails to Acknowledge our Shortcomings
No one, however gifted, has achieved perfection in these gifts. However much he has received, he has only received a measure and a certain proportion. Considering this should lay low the peacock feathers of those who are ready to be puffed up with a vain conceit of themselves and their abilities. Others also have a proportion (not everything) according to “the measure of faith”.
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