The self-esteem movement as we know it really began when Adam and Eve ate the fruit in Eden.
Before that, self-esteem wasn’t an issue. Adam and Eve were not lost, and so had no need to “find themselves.” They had healthy self-esteem because they knew God and esteemed him above all things, certainly above themselves. This made them healthy selves, secure in their identity as children of God and complementary members of each other. Their self-esteem was rooted in a glorious humility, and defined and experienced in a God-designed community where they both knew and were known by God.
But that changed when they (and all of us since) detached themselves from God in their effort to be “like God” (Genesis 3:5). Self-esteem became rooted in pride, and seeking it became infected with selfish ambition. It mutated from a God-glorifying, complementary pursuit into a self-glorifying, competitive pursuit.
Looking in the Wrong Places
Around the turn of the twentieth century, theories of “self-esteem” emerged in the realms of psychology, and by the 1960s self-esteem was accepted by Western popular culture as one of the primary roots of mental health.
But because it didn’t address the fundamental problem — detachment from God — after more than fifty years of trying to apply self-esteem as a remedy for our identity-ailments, we find ourselves only more isolated as individuals and our relationships, communities, and societies only more fractured. And that’s because we’re looking for our self-worth in the wrong places, and for the wrong reasons.
We tend to think self-esteem comes from each of us being a star shining forth our own unique glory. The way we measure our glory is in how it is reflected back to us in the approval and admiration of others. We figure the more approval and admiration, the brighter our glory, and the greater our self-esteem. But anyone who’s really experienced those things knows this is not true.
Healthy self-esteem doesn’t come from prominence; it comes from being who we are designed to be. And we’re not designed to be stars; we’re designed to be parts of an organism. We see this in Romans 12:3–6:
By the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them.
Where We Find Ourselves
A body is Paul’s favorite metaphor for the church because it so beautifully illustrates who we are in relation to God and one another. Jesus is our head (Ephesians 5:23), and we are all members or parts of his body.
It all begins with grace: “by the grace given to us” (Romans 12:3, 6). None of us deserves our “membership” in the body. It comes to us from God as an incredible gift of his grace through faith in Christ.
Neither do we choose what parts of Christ’s body we’ll be. God assigns us our roles (Romans 12:3; 1 Corinthians 12:18). He places us just where he wants us for the purposes he has planned. Therefore each of us is needed where God has placed us.
And “as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another” (Romans 12:4–5). Just like a human body, no particular part of Christ’s body is more or less important based on how visibly prominent its role (1 Corinthians 12:22–24). None of us can do without the other (1 Corinthians 12:15–16). We are each very limited in what we can do and therefore beautifully interdependent upon each other.
That’s why, when trying to discern God’s will for our lives, we get confused if we look at ourselves in isolation. Just like a body part separated from the body looks strange, so do we out of the context of the church. It takes the body of Christ to understand the function of a part, and it takes all the parts working together to make the body function.
Sober About Ourselves
Understanding and believing that our unique place in the body of Christ is a gracious, sovereign gift to us from God, that it’s function is crucial for the good of others, and that their function is crucial for our good is what “sober judgment” looks like (Romans 12:3).
Pride is the knife that dissects the body of Christ into isolated parts to determine the value of each. The pride of conceit makes us consider our role or function more important than others. The pride of envy makes us covet the function of a part we consider better than our own (1 Corinthians 12:23–24).
But humility helps us see our function in relation to God and others. It unites the body because we don’t “think of [ourselves] more highly than [we] ought to think” (Romans 12:3). In fact, because we more clearly see how others benefit the body than we see how we benefit the body, humility causes us to think of others more significant than ourselves (Philippians 2:3).
And yet, our humbled and sobered mind still sees our identity and function in Christ’s body as a divine calling with more significance and nobility than any achievement or promotion in this world.
Only God could create such a glorious design, where each of us, no matter what our function in the body, can experience the beautiful depths of humility in receiving our calling as undeserved grace, while at the same time having it be more exalted and infused with meaning and dignity than we yet have capacity to comprehend.
Humility and exaltation: it is God’s way (1 Peter 5:6); it is Christ’s way (Philippians 2:5–11). In Christ, God once again calls us to find security in our identity as his children — esteeming him supremely — and as complementary members of one another— esteeming others more than ourselves.
This is where we find the restoration of healthy self-esteem: in a glorious humility and defined and experienced in a God-designed organic community — a community in which we know God and know each other: the body of Christ.