Self-esteem: Biblical or Distracting?


“Christ and the Canaanite Woman” by Jean-Germaine Drouais, 1763-1788

Self-esteem is a relatively modern concept that has been elevated to the point of an all-important virtue by pop psychology, perhaps the virtue in which all others can be found. Christians need to make sense of the word from their own perspective. Does self-esteem matter? Why or why not? How does self-esteem fit into our traditional lists of virtues or vices?

Part of the confusion, no doubt, begins with the scope of the term. Self-esteem is a valuation of one’s own abilities and one’s worth, as if those things are inseparably related, necessarily rising and falling together.1 Professionals in the field of psychology have debated for decades whether self-esteem is a construct that actually exists, and if it exists, whether it is the cause of positive correlations like success, happiness, or health. Not surprisingly, the results of various studies are as mixed as the definitions of success, happiness, and health.

However, self-esteem as a concept is not debated outside of academia. It is either reverenced or mocked with equal flippancy on both sides. As Christians, we stand utterly opposed to valuing persons based on their abilities, so it can be easy for Christians to jettison the whole construct. Nonetheless, I argue that there is value to thinking about self-esteem as it relates to the virtue of charity, though there are also times when talk of self-esteem would merely distract us from faith in God’s greatness.

Let’s start with a story of an Old Testament man who talks with God about his low self-esteem issue, and we’ll listen in as God (very helpfully) scolds him about it. Afterwards, we’ll rejoice with a Gospel woman who realizes that focusing on self-esteem, high or low, would merely be a distraction in her situation. Then, we’ll examine how and when self-esteem relates to the virtue of charity, making it of deadliest importance. For that last insight, we’ll contrast two Gospel stories, one good example and one bad example. Finally, I’ll draw out some pastoral implications.

Low self-esteem gets in the way of doing God’s will
Moses was fairly doubtful about leading the Chosen People out of Egypt. The Lord understood and gave Moses some signs showing that God was speaking to him: a Name for God, a staff that turned into a snake, leprosy and then health restored. Finally, their conversation answered his fears. Moses worried about a lot of things, but he was terrified of public speaking. God promised that He would help Moses speak. Not to worry, God assured him:

Who gave human beings their mouths? Who makes them deaf or mute? Who gives them sight or makes them blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go; I will help you speak, and will teach you what to say.2

God didn’t take my Counseling 101 course. Exasperated, and not even attempting to reflect back Moses’ feelings and concerns, God baldly told Moses what to do. That’s a big counseling no-no, if you want to help people grow in their sense of mastery over themselves and their lives. In other words, if you have concern for the modern understanding of self-esteem, you don’t do what God did.

Feeling like this conversation just needed to end, Moses asked God to send someone else (please). Honestly, he did. I can’t believe it either.

God angrily allowed Aaron to do the talking, but Moses had to keep the trick staff to himself.3

I retell this for two reasons: 1) God chides Moses for lack of faith in Him, not for lack of self-worth, or lack of confidence in his own abilities, and 2) we can all relate to this story. Moses allowed his low self-esteem to overshadow God’s greatness so completely that nothing, not even his faith in God’s greatness, could compete. Self-esteem didn’t need to be an issue, if only Moses had focused on God. It seems as though Moses had his self-worth tied up in his abilities, a common human experience even outside American culture, which explains why such a broad and confusing term as “self-esteem” is so popular.

This story also seems to illustrate why it’s so important in the Christian life to avoid equating one’s worth with one’s abilities. Abilities may fall short, but it’s of paramount importance to keep our self-worth high, right? What good could we do without believing in ourselves? Leaving aside the obvious challenge that narcissism is, the answer is still complicated. We will now witness the great faith of someone who doesn’t let self-esteem get in the way, even when her self-worth is directly challenged.

Self-esteem? What’s the big deal?
Remember the Canaanite woman Jesus likened to a dog?4 A breath later, Jesus praised the same woman for her great faith, and granted her request because of this reply: “Even dogs eat the scraps that fall from their master’s table.” Notice that this issue of self-esteem dives directly into the question of whether she’s even worth caring about, whether someone, as insignificant as she is, can even approach God with her problems. She responds that it doesn’t matter what she’s worth, so long as God is great. She implies that what she’s asking for is nothing to Jesus, something He won’t even miss after nudging it to the floor for her. Following the logic of her response, analysis of her self-esteem would be beside the point. She may or may not be comfortable calling herself a dog—it’s left unclear. What matters is that God is the great master of the house, and she’s in His “house,” otherwise known as “creation.”

Imagine how beautiful it would have been had Moses responded with faith like this. Whenever God spoke through Moses, the Israelites could have held Moses’ temporarily lucid speech as a sign of the Creator’s own words flowing through him. In that way, Moses would have been a more effective speaker. Moses didn’t need to esteem his own abilities or worth differently. He needed to fix his attention on God.

We all have faults that embarrass us memorably, sometimes scarring us. It always requires work to accept ourselves, warts and all. Moses’ problem is one common to all of humanity. And yet, there are certain situations in which self-esteem may be an obstacle, but not the problem. God doesn’t tell Moses to believe in himself. God tells Moses to get past himself, and to believe in the greatness of God, just as this Canaanite woman did.

So, is it possible for Christians merely to forget self-esteem, and to focus on God’s greatness at all times in the moral life? Is the search for self-esteem just a modern term for naval-gazing at the expense of loving God and neighbor? I’ve met Christians who think this is the case. They think self-esteem has no relationship to virtue, and they discredit anyone who uses the word. I think they’re making a mistake, too.

Placed in a different situation, the Canaanite woman, who had no problem being called a “dog,” might have some problems. It’s tough to tell how she really esteemed herself from that quick exchange, but I hope she didn’t really judge people as subhuman based on whether they were Jewish, and followed all the Jewish laws and customs from birth.5 For the sake of argument, though, let’s say the Canaanite woman did regard herself as sub-human. How could that be a moral problem for her? Obviously, it wasn’t a problem while she was talking to Jesus.

Esteem: The measuring stick for our love
Where “esteem” refers to judging a person’s value, esteem is about love. For Jesus, each individual person is worth the ultimate sacrifice, the height of love. The fact of being a person determines worth for Him. But there are plenty of less loving ways to judge the worth of a person. We may esteem people based on their usefulness, intelligence, or appearance. And here’s the most difficult part to admit: We all have one, and only one, measuring stick that we use on ourselves, our neighbors, and even God.

Many Christians like to think they are hard on themselves, but easy on everyone else. Ultimately, I think that double-standard is incoherent and unstable. (It’s usually not true, either, but that’s material for another essay.) Even if a double-standard was possible to maintain, it’s not allowed by Scripture, so it would hardly be something to brag about. Charitable love for self is at least implied by the commandment that we love others as we love ourselves. Loving ourselves in the proper context—that is, within the context of loving God, above all, and loving His creation for His sake—is a supernatural virtue to cultivate. We will see this through common human experience, as well as two clear Gospel examples, of people who have chosen the rule by which they esteem themselves, and others, as being worthy of love.6

How much are you worth?
At the end of his life, Judas was pretty consistent about how he measured people. He judged people by whether they brought in profit. (I’m guessing that following Jesus was easy money for a while.) If people didn’t enrich Judas or, especially, if they might endanger his life, he felt they should go away, or die. When he applied that yardstick to Mary at Bethany, he tried to shame her for her generosity to Jesus, because he wanted more coins to steal from the money bag.7 When he applied that rule to Jesus, whose life looked like it would end soon anyway8, he literally sold Jesus’ life, rather than let anyone else profit from the betrayal. And when he applied the rule to himself, in a rare bout of perspective-taking and regret9, he realized that he had cost Jesus His very life, and profited Jesus nothing. This made Judas absolutely unlovable by his own estimation, worse than unforgivable, unworthy of life. The result was a dramatic one, but it was the logical result of his rules.10

Compare this profit-centered esteem with the way Jesus esteemed Himself and others. Jesus has a right to our obedience—He’s the King—and yet, Jesus doesn’t withhold love until we are obedient to Him. He loved the woman at the well while she was still living in sin, and He wanted to give her “living water” right then.11 Not everyone will appreciate that the “living water” first manifested itself in shedding light on the woman’s sins. But that’s what she needed in order to live her life to its fullest. She appreciated it so much, she told the whole town about Jesus.

If Jesus is preferential in how He shows His esteem, He does tend to show it toward the most needy—hungry people who might faint if he sends them away to get food; people who have suffered a long time with illnesses or handicaps; people with no friends, and lots of enemies; and sinners drowning in their debt. Why does He favor them? They love Him the most,12 so He’s most welcome there.

Jesus doesn’t demand that we be self-sufficient, happy-go-lucky, popular, or even particularly obedient before He offers His love. (Of course, we owe Him obedience and love.) I defy you to find a single criterion for Jesus’ esteem or love besides simply encountering Him, and being human, dependent, and needy. As Christians, we can bravely embrace the fact that we’re needy, because our neediness brings us signs of God’s love.13

Pastoral Implications
We need to place a “Do Not Enter” sign at the door of our tendency to esteem people based on their abilities. As Christians, we cultivate our abilities because we love God, and His creation. We want to work for the good of all. Love comes before abilities. Abilities are great at helping us show love for one another, but they aren’t even a fair measure of how much we love others, much less is it a measure of how well we are loved. It’s probably helpful for all Christians to remind themselves of this, since there is a powerful cultural influence to the contrary.

Nonetheless, it’s not always in the best interests of the troubled soul crying on your shoulder, the sinner in your confessional, or the congregation hearing your homily, to hear about how loved they are. Similarly, it may not be the best idea to give others encouragement to focus on God’s greatness, which isn’t always the most needed response in a given situation. We need to hear about both—the way we measure out love, and the faith we place in God. How do you know what this person in this situation calls for? Try to draw out the source of the anxiety, and bear in mind that it might be a confused combination of both problems.

If I fear someone might not be worth the effort to love him/her, then help me ask some hard questions about how I consider as worthy of my love myself, others, and God.
Is Jesus worth dying for? Am I worth forgiving? Judas came up negative on both counts, and I think choosing Jesus’ standard consistently is the struggle of a lifetime. It would be wise to find out what standard or measuring stick is in play for this soul, or this congregation, so that the measuring stick being used can be intentionally challenged, and replaced. Jesus loves everyone, without condition, so what condition is this person holding onto?

If my anxiety is about whether or not I can do something, then help me place my focus on God.
Can I do public speaking? Can I, a mere Canaanite, ask for a miracle? The Canaanite woman was moved by love for her daughter to beg like a dog for a miracle from Jesus, so I would guess that she had no reservations about whether her daughter was worth the effort. Jesus’ challenge comes after she has travelled, and sought Him out publicly. She might have been worried about her ability to persuade Jesus, so she played the big trump card—flattery. Praising God kept the focus where it belonged in the context of an impossible situation requiring a miracle.

By contrast, Moses’s anxiety wouldn’t be pacified with the explicit promise of miraculously flowing speech. God wasn’t happy with Moses, and wasn’t interested in propping up Moses’ self-esteem, understood in either sense. God wanted Moses to recognize Him as the Creator.

There is a pastoral distinction between esteeming correctly, and focusing on God’s greatness, but the two actions are ultimately inseparable. While different situations may call for different pastoral emphases, remember that it is because we believe in God’s greatness that we love. We either affirm both sides of the coin, or we don’t really have a grasp of it at all. It is because we want to be Christ-like that we esteem every person as worthy of the ultimate sacrifice. God is great, and God asks us to love. To this end, we need to esteem ourselves and others as beloved creatures, worthy of love without condition.

  1. Rosenberg, M. (1965) constructed one of the most widely used self-esteem questionnaires, which is available here: It was originally published in Society and the adolescent self-image. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  2. Exodus 4: 11-12.
  3. Exodus 4: 14.
  4. Matthew 15: 21 ff.
  5. Jesus was, it seems, just testing the Canaanite woman’s faith, not passing a proclamation about the need to become Jewish before following Him. Otherwise, the Acts of the Apostles is an incoherent follow-up to the Gospels.
  6. Disclaimer: Most examples aren’t clear, so hunt for them at your own peril. Most of the time, we humans don’t know what we want, or how we’re judging others (and ourselves) to be lovable, and we switch measuring sticks in and out of play based on circumstances like mood, personal triggers, current company, and situational goals. For example, Jesus foretold that Peter would deny Him three times, and then repent. Peter thought he was ready to lay down his life for Jesus (John 13:37), and eventually, he would be. But Peter hadn’t come to his definitive crossroads at the time of Jesus’ death and resurrection. We know he was still having trouble standing up to peer pressure when the argument about Gentiles’ circumcision broke out (Gal. 2: 11-14). Peter’s definitive crossroads probably came around the time of his own martyrdom. It takes a lot of little decisions and experience to settle us one, final, coherent measuring stick by which we judge ourselves and others worthy of love (or not).
  7. John 12: 5-6.
  8. John 11: 53-56.
  9. Matthew 27: 3 ff.
  10. The story of raising Lazarus from the dead, just prior to this, makes me wonder how consistent Judas was and how he came to his final decision. The apostles thought Jesus would be killed at Bethany, when Jesus told them that was the next group trip and that Lazarus was dead. Doubting Thomas encouraged his fellow apostles to go along and die with Jesus (John 11:15). Judas was silent.

    Was Judas still undecided about how to esteem people? Or did he have a plan to run with the bag of money, if things got out of hand? It’s tough to imagine profit from returning to Bethany, risky as the other apostles saw the trip, but just one chapter later, Judas was loudly concerned with the price of the oil used to anoint Jesus’ feet.

    I have a theory that watching Jesus miraculously resuscitate Lazarus made the apostles think no one has to die, dislodging their better intentions. For Judas, perhaps watching Lazarus rise suggested that life following Jesus should be easy and profitable. Perhaps Lazarus was the final wrinkle in the parchment, drawing out the stark contrast between the messiah Judas wanted and the hunted Jesus he followed. All I can say with certainty is that no apostle had made a firm commitment to die alongside Jesus, even if he thought he had.

  11. John 4: 10.
  12. E.g. Luke 7: 47.
  13. 2 Cor. 12: 9-10.
Juliana Weber About Juliana Weber

Juliana Weber earned her MA in Theology at Ave Maria University and now works for a parish in the Archdiocese of Washington. She regularly reviews books for Humanum Review and