CHRISTIANS who propagate these “self-esteem” teachings make a feeble show at finding self-esteem principles and practices in the Bible. While admitting that it was the unbelieving psychologists from whom they took their lead, they have made every attempt possible to scrape up some Biblical support. The Scriptures are ransacked and verses are twisted in order to give some sort of Biblical credence to the theory. But the Bible is used not to discover what God has to say or what to believe; rather, the viewpoint was already bought and brought to the Bible when the Biblical search began.
That methodology is always dangerous. Yet it has been the stock-in-trade of Christians who are psychologists: A pagan system is adopted; then the Bible is said to support it. First it was Freud’s view of the “id”1 that was supposed to approximate the Bible’s teaching on original sin. Then, since Jung made religious statements now and then, he was said to be “close” to Christianity. (Of course, that his thinking confessedly is based on such “religious” views as those found in the Tibetan Book of the Dead was rarely mentioned.) Next, Carl Rogers’ views on listening and acceptance were readily likened to Biblical ideas (even though statements in Proverbs 18 and elsewhere oppose Rogerian thought and practice in both areas). Then Skinner’s behaviorism was equated with scriptural statements about reward and punishment (without taking notice of the fact that the latter are conditioned by God’s eternal reward-and-punishment program, and thereby are entirely different). Now, as the latest fad, it is self-worth dogma that is said to be similar or identical to Biblical doctrine.
This penchant for “finding” the latest psychological ideas in the Scriptures is dangerous for several reasons:
1. The extra-Biblical view is given Biblical authority in the eyes of many Christians. To answer the question “how can so many Christians be led into the acceptance of psychological self-esteem views?,” the reason is that these views are given a Biblical cast and are supported by Biblical passages that have been wrenched out of place and made to do service that they were never intended to do. Unfortunately, many Christians are deceived into thinking that the Bible really does teach such things.
2. God is misrepresented. This, of course, is the most dangerous fact of all. That Christian psychologists (very few of whom take the time to become competent in serious exegesis) can use the Word of the living God in such a cavalier fashion as they sometimes do, and that undiscerning Christians so readily accept their interpretations, is both frightening and appalling. Passages are distorted and misused with abandon; the Scriptures are made to say what the interpreter wants them to say; and the Bible, as if it were made of wax, is shaped to fit the latest fad. There is a certain lack of reverence for God Himself evidenced in this process.
3. Any system that proposes to solve human problems apart from the Bible and the power of the Holy Spirit (as all of these pagan systems, including the self-worth system, do) is automatically condemned by Scripture itself. Neither Adler nor Maslow professed Christian faith. Nor does their system in any way depend upon the message of salvation. Love, joy, peace, etc., are discussed as if they were not the fruit of the Spirit but merely the fruit of right views of one’s self which anyone can attain without the Bible or the work of the Spirit in his heart.
For these reasons the self-worth system with its claimed Biblical correspondences must be rejected. It does not come from the Bible; Christians called the Bible into service long after the system was developed by others who had no intention of basing their system on God’s Word. Any resemblance between Biblical teaching and the teaching of the self-worth originators is either contrived or coincidental.
But, because Christians have attempted to make a Biblical case for this unbiblical substitute for God’s way of helping men, we must take a hard look at the principal passage that has been forced into service. Matthew 22:39b. We shall also have occasion to look at the parallel passage in Luke 10:25-37.
“ ‘Master, which is the great commandment in the law?’ Jesus said unto him, ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’ ”—Matthew 22:36-40
For purposes of our discussion, the most important verse is Matthew 22:39b: “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” This is probably the verse most quoted by advocates of self-worth, self-esteem teaching. Trobisch, for instance, called it a “command to love yourself,” and says: Self-love is thus the prerequisite and the criterion for our conduct towards our neighbor.
That is an astonishing statement! Trobisch is telling us not only that Jesus commanded us to love ourselves, but that we cannot love our neighbor properly unless we first learn to love ourselves, because the criterion, or standard, by which we determine how to love a neighbor is how we love ourselves!
He has the temerity to say, “This [the finding of modern psychology that man must acquire a love for himself] sheds new light on the command which Jesus emphasized as ranking in importance next to loving God.” In other words, Trobisch thinks that until modern psychologists unearthed the truth elsewhere, this important Biblical command—in this very important new aspect—lay buried and was not adequately understood! For nearly 2000 years the church was in the dark!
In truth, the verse says nothing of the sort. Consider the facts. First, there is no command here (or anywhere else in the Bible) to love yourself. Does that surprise you? To hear self-image leaders talk, you would think the Bible contained little else. But in fact there is no command here or elsewhere in Scripture to love yourself.
Christ made it perfectly clear that He was talking about two, and only two, commandments. In verses 39 and 40, He speaks of the “second” commandment and “these two commandments.” There is no third commandment. All of Scripture can be hung on two pegs: Love God, love neighbor. Yet the self-esteem people make three commandments out of Christ’s two! There is absolutely no excuse for treating the Scriptures in this manner.
As if such distortion of plain scriptural teaching were not enough, they go further and make the first two commandments depend upon the supposed “third.” According to the Adler/Maslow hierarchy, lower-level needs must be satisfied before higher-level needs can be. This means that level 4 (self-esteem) needs must be met before level 5 (self-actualizing) needs can be. Or, to put it in terms of the verse that is being forced into the Adler/Maslow system, you cannot love your neighbor (a level 5 activity) until you first learn to love yourself (a level 4 activity). That is why Trobisch maintains “Self-love is thus the prerequisite” for loving your neighbor. He goes on to say:
You cannot love your neighbor, you cannot love God, unless you first love yourself...Without self-love there can be no love for others.
This way of thinking is not confined to Walter Trobisch. Remember Crabb’s statement of the case:
In order to be well-adjusted, you must reach the stage of self-actualization. In order to reach that stage you must pass through the other four stages first...
Now listen to Philip Captain:
Actually our ability to love God and to love our neighbor is limited by our ability to love ourselves. We cannot love God more than we love our neighbor and we cannot love our neighbor more than we love ourselves.
Captain has even refined the hierarchy with a twist of his own: Love for God is dependent on love for neighbor, which in turn is dependent on love for self.
In each of these constructions the writer is thoroughly convinced that love for God and neighbor is contingent on love for one’s self. But in the Biblical passage not only is there no third commandment, but neither is any dependent relationship set up between the two commandments. Both of these self-esteem claims are brought to the text to reshape it; then, in its reshaped form, the text is forced into the system.
Jesus actually presupposes a love of self in this passage. He says, “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” The command is to love your neighbor as you already love yourself. The verse could be translated [from the Greek] literally, “You must love your neighbor as you are loving yourself.”
That same self-love that is presupposed by Jesus is likewise presupposed in Paul’s argument in Ephesians 5:28-29, where he urges husbands to love their wives “as you love [are loving] your own body.” He goes on to say:
For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the church.—Ephesians 5:29
In other words, Paul’s entire argument turns on the fact that we already exhibit love for ourselves.
Comparing Luke 10:29 with Matthew 22:36-40, an important contextual addition appears. Luke tells us, “But he [the lawyer whose words occasioned the discussion], willing [wishing] to justify himself, said unto Jesus, And who is my neighbour? Whereupon Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan.
What was the lawyer’s problem? Was he suffering from a loss of self-esteem? Quite the contrary. Luke says that “he wanted to justify himself.” That is to say, the question he raised, “Who is my neighbor?” was not really asked for information but to stump Jesus. And notice that he wanted to stump Him so that he could justify his own sinful ways. It was asked, therefore, out of self-interest. He liked himself the way he was and did not want to give of his time or money to his neighbor. He wished to remain all wrapped up in himself.
The parable of the Good Samaritan certainly was not designed to foster a higher self-interest, but just the opposite. The very point of the parable is that one must love his neighbor—i.e. anyone in need—as himself. He must look after the needs of others and even put himself out for others. Jesus did not say that in order to engage in such high-level activity as the Samaritan did, one must first come to a place where all his own needs at lower levels were satisfied. What of the priest and the Levite? Were they deprived? Did they have low self-esteem? Of course not. They probably considered themselves far better than the Samaritan. Their problem was the same as the lawyer’s: They loved themselves so much that they would not put themselves out for anyone else.
Trobisch tells us that our love for ourselves is the “criterion” as well as the prerequisite for loving others. He explains this by saying, “It is the measuring stick for loving others which Jesus gives us.” What he is claiming is that when Jesus said, “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself,” He meant “Do the same things for others that you do for yourself.” But that couldn’t be right for several reasons. First, the criteria for loving others are the Ten Commandments that Jesus was here summarizing in two:
“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself.”—Luke 10:27
By saying that all the books of the Bible (the Law and the Prophets) could be summed up in those two commandments, He was also pointing to the Scriptures as the outworking of the commandments in everyday life. In effect, then, Jesus was saying that the criteria for loving God and others are to be found in the Bible—not in us.
Clearly we must love our neighbors as the Bible commands, and not by doing the same things for them that we do for ourselves. Out of self-love we do not only good things, but all sorts of injurious and sinful things to ourselves: We commit adultery, we lie, we steal, we eat too much, we commit suicide, etc. Things we do for ourselves, then, are not the criteria for loving others.
What then do Jesus’ words “as yourself” mean? There is no thought of criteria in them, since, plainly, the criteria were to be found in the Ten Commandments and their outworking in all of Scripture. The thought has to do with intensity, fervency, and amount of love. Notice carefully that Jesus says the second commandment is just like the first (Mat 22:39). In what respects are the two alike? First, they both speak of love; they are both commands to love. But that cannot be the primary likeness to which Jesus was pointing; it is too obvious to make a point of. There is a second way in which the two commandments are alike. Jesus’ command to love God “with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind” (v 37) means with all you are and all you have. It means to love God genuinely and sincerely, fervently and wholeheartedly. It is in this respect that the two commandments are “just alike.” When you are commanded to love your neighbor “as yourself,” it means to love him just as wholeheartedly as you love yourself!
We already have a fervent, dedicated, genuine, and sincere love for ourselves. With sinners, this love is almost always excessive. Now, says Jesus, extend the same amount of love toward your neighbor: Love him “as yourself.” The argument is precisely the same as the argument that Paul makes for a husband loving his wife “just as” he already loves his own body. How is that to be done? In the same fervent, nourishing, and cherishing attitude with which a man cares for himself (not necessarily by doing the same things to his wife that he does to himself).
It is plain that Matthew 22, supposedly the strongest passage supporting self-worth, is actually aimed directly at the movement itself. Any serious consideration of this passage completely repudiates the kind of self-love teaching we see today.
To sum up, we must love our neighbors as ourselves. But Matthew 22:39 contains no commandment to love one’s self, since we need not be concerned about learning to love ourselves if we truly love God and our neighbors. Since the fulfillment of these two commandments is the fulfillment of all, we will always do the right things for ourselves. Love, in the Bible, is a matter of giving: “God so loved the world, that he gave” (Joh 3:16); “He loved me and gave...” (Gal 2:20); “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself” (Eph 5:25). Because it is more blessed to give than to receive, the self-love proponents (who advocate getting from others and giving to self before giving to God and others) take away a rich blessing from those who follow their unbiblical emphasis. There is no need for concern about how to love one’s self, for so long as one seeks first to love God and his neighbor in a Biblical fashion, all proper self-concern will appear as a by-product. That is why the Bible never commands us to love ourselves. Since the Bible is silent on the matter, we should be too.
1 id – in psychoanalysis, that part of the psyche which is regarded as the reservoir of the instinctual drives; it is dominated by the drive for selfish pleasure, or lust. The Bible teaches that the psuche (Greek: soul) can attain its highest end and secure eternal blessedness if the true believer in Christ makes right use of the aids offered by God: reading and meditating on the Word of God, hearing Biblical preaching in a Biblical church, prayer, and fellowship with mature believers.
From Jay Adams’ Biblical View of Self-Esteem