Is self-esteem overrated?

I recently completed the yearly wellness self-assessment required by the Presbyterian health plan. It doesn’t just ask whether you exercise, take your meds, or eat right. It asks you to rate yourself on statements like:

  • I have a number of good qualities.
  • I feel useless at times.
  • I take a positive attitude toward myself.
  • I sometimes think I am no good at all.

The assessment asks dozens of these questions in different ways, I suppose to make sure you’re telling the truth. The assumption is that having a positive self-image is key to well-being.

We all think it is. But is it?

Back in 2002, psychotherapist Lauren Slater reported on numerous academic studies. The results were inescapable: self-esteem is overrated.

In a widely published article, “The Trouble with Self-Esteem,” Slater wrote, “People with high self-esteem pose a greater threat to those around them than people with low self-esteem, and feeling bad about yourself is not the cause of our country’s biggest, most expensive social problems.”

A researcher from the London School of Economics wrote, “There is absolutely no evidence that low self-esteem is particularly harmful. It’s not at all a cause of poor academic performance; people with low self-esteem seem to do just as well in life as people with high self-esteem. In fact, they may do better because they try harder.”

So why does the wellness assessment for Presbyterian pastors focus on self-esteem? Shouldn’t it be asking if we really believe that we’re all sinners saved by grace?

The Apostle Paul was writing to the church in Corinth, and to us, when he said, “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him.”

Self-esteem really is a feeble notion. You have to feed it every minute of every day. Yet a pin prick can deflate it.

So instead of feeding our self-esteem, we should continually give thanks for God’s limitless, unmerited grace.

Self-esteem is such a feeble notion when compared to God’s esteem for us.

Reprocessed anger

We’ve been talking here about God’s kingdom. God’s plan is to bring everything under his sovereign rule, but God has been doing it slowly, over centuries, so everyone will have the chance to come in.

One of the Bible’s enduring images of the kingdom is of a feast, where everyone will sit down to eat with God at the end of history. In Luke 14, Jesus builds on this image with the parable of a master who held a great banquet. Invitations had gone out and been accepted. When the big day arrived, guests were invited to take their places, but one by one they began to make excuses. The excuses were calculated to insult the host and keep the banquet from taking place.

What would the master do?

Instead of retaliating for this public humiliation, the master sent his servant out to bring in the poor, the blind and the lame. The master commanded this be done until his house was full.

Middle Eastern scholar, the late Ken Bailey, said the master “reprocessed his anger into grace.”

I just checked several news websites, and there were at least a dozen reports of insults along with the inevitable angry responses. Anger is the air we breathe.

The thing is, genuine injustice is a legitimate cause for anger; the master in Jesus’ parable had every right to retaliate. Instead he opted for costly grace. He used the anger generated by the insult to reach the folks who never could have imagined being invited to the feast. 

Jesus has sent out the invitations and the kingdom feast will soon begin.

Could it be that we are so used to anger, and being angry, that we don’t know how to respond when we experience his costly grace? 


This week we observe “Reformation Sunday.” Church tradition says that 500 years ago this week, a priest named Martin Luther nailed “95 Theses” to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. Luther objected to the Roman Catholic practice of selling “indulgences,” essentially a way of buying one’s way out of the consequences of sin. Luther argued it was wrong to make people pay for what God grants for free. Humans can do nothing to earn salvation; rather salvation is a free gift of God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ.

But here’s why we still need reformation:

Deep down, we find the idea of indulgences attractive. Indulgences were degrading and came down hardest on the poor, but at least they gave human beings the sense of being in charge. If we can buy our way out of hell, no matter the cost, it means we’re in charge of our salvation.

Modern North Americans have a different indulgence problem.

Most of us have been indulged our whole lives. From the time we were old enough to hold a spoon, our preferences have been consulted. Life is all about us. We have the illusion that we’re in control of our lives. What need do we have of God, the church, or the free gift of God’s grace in Jesus Christ?