The following is a homework project turned in by one of my students. Mark is participating in our Distance Education Self-Paced Study Course–a two-year training program where I personally coach each student.
Part of the program requires the student to interact with 48 Case Studies–one every two weeks. Each Case Study consists of a brief synopsis of the problem, followed by a series of questions. The student studies the case and answers the questions.
What you’re about to read is an actual Case Study and Mark’s response to question one. His response was so wonderful, I wanted to share it with you. He graciously permitted me to share this.
Sally’s search for self-esteem
Sally said during one of her counseling sessions that her dad was unstable and it typically worked out in angry, verbal outbursts toward her and her three siblings.
She’s nineteen now, but remembers in vivid detail many nights where she balled-up in a fetal position in her bed, as she listened to the fights between her dad and mom.
Her mom worked full-time outside the home. For the most part Sally reared herself during the day, while at night she lived in low-grade fear of her dad.
During her high school years she dated many different boys and was promiscuous with most of them. She recently broke up with a boyfriend and is now seeing you for counsel. From her perspective she is suffering from low self-esteem.
She has read In Search of Significance and several other self-help books, which is how she came to her conclusion. She became a believer two years ago, but has grown very little, due to lack of connection with her local church.
Question #1 - Is her problem low self-esteem? Why did you answer that way?
Before I say, “Yes” or “No,” let me transition to a biblical definition of self-esteem. It’s important we view all of life through a biblical grid, even the label self-esteem.
Low self-esteem is a secular term, not a biblical one. It means someone has a low evaluation or low view of his/her own worth. In biblical language this term is called shame, as understood from the Genesis account of the fall.
In order to help Sally, it would be better to relabel her problem biblically. The truth is that Sally has a problem with shame, as all sinners do (Genesis 3:7; Romans 5:12).
But unlike secular approaches, addressing low self-worth from a biblical standpoint does not focus on one’s thoughts about themselves. Let me explain.
Shame is a result of sin. It first shows up in the Bible in the Genesis story of Adam and Eve. Before sin, they were both naked and unashamed (Genesis 2:25).
However, after they sinned they realized they were naked and they felt a sense of shame for the first time in their lives (Genesis 3:7). Due to sin they lost God’s covering, which is how we all are born. We all are born with an innate, Adamic sense of shame.
We have lost God’s covering, which has left us vulnerable, exposed, naked, and fearful. Sally is no different. She is in Adam, which means she is in sin. What she feels is shame and it’s important she understands this.
I need for you to like me
Her reaction to her nakedness is to try to cover herself and I emphasis “try” because her attempts are a futile effort. Adam and Eve used fig leaves in their attempt to hide their shame or what our world would call low self-esteem.
Sally is no different from the rest of us. Rather than reaching for fig leaves, she seeks to cover up by asking questions:
- What will people think of me?
- What will God think of me?
You can see this reflected in her focus on self-esteem. She wants a life where she feels good about herself and she will feel good in proportion to how people think about, respond to, and affirm her.
She needs to be liked; she wants others to embrace her. She thinks if she is accepted and liked by others, she will not feel shame, or according to her definition: she won’t suffer from low self-esteem.
Real problem – Godless solution
The feeling of nakedness is real for Sally. There is a reason she feels internally uncomfortable. She does not feel normal because she is not normal.
Adam and Eve were only normal before the fall. After the fall they felt bad inside–biblical shame. This is why Sally must find a way to cover herself.
Her thoughts of God are diminishing as she thinks more and more about how she feels. Shame will turn you inward, not upward. While God is diminishing in her world, people are growing bigger. This is because people are perceived to be a nearer threat.
For example, Sally’s childhood was filled with fear of her father. God was marginalized because of the imposing threat of an angry dad. His sin added to her shame. This can be called victimization shame.
As a result, she slowly began to seek man’s approval as a way to feel better about herself. If man (daddy) can make me feel bad, then a good man (boyfriends) can make me feel better.
Her logic makes sense to her and the culture affirms this notion–hangout with people who make you feel good about yourself. It seems like a good approach and people are easier to interact with and get your needs met than Almighty God.
Find someone to love you
She craved male attention and affection, which is why she has had several boyfriends and had sex outside of marriage. Though she did not want to, she was willing to give up her body to keep her relationships. She was desperate for affirmation.
People became her favorite idol. She needed others to think highly of herself. This backfired, as all false idols do. Idols not only disappoint, but they end up ruling us.
Sally is beginning to see that her approach is not working, which is why she came to counseling. She does not understand the depth of the problem, though she does realize it is a problem.
In order for Sally to overcome her shame, we will need to deal with the real issue: like Adam and Eve, sin has separated her from God.
The secular approach for dealing with the separation from God problem is to increase one’s self esteem. Wrong labels lead to wrong solutions.
Unfortunately, her approach is like pouring gasoline on a fire. She already has a fear-of-man-problem (Proverbs 29:25). Focusing on her self-esteem will only elevate her fears because she will need people’s opinion of her to increase. This will make people bigger than they already are.
She does not need bigger people in her world to affirm her. She needs a bigger God who can love her the way He’s always desired to love her.
Back to your question: One might argue that low self-esteem is the same as shame, therefore Sally’s problem is low self-esteem. That would be incorrect.
Low self-esteem requires others to approve and affirm her. Biblical shame requires her to establish her relationship with God, to the point where she does not need people to love her, which releases her from being ruled by people.
Since her problem is a God-Sally problem, I think it is unwise to frame the problem as low self-esteem. Sally’s problem is shame due to brokenness in her relationship with God.
How you define a problem will determine how you resolve a problem. It is universally understood that the solution for low self-esteem is to elevate your opinion of yourself. This approach not only moves you farther from God, which was the devil’s lie to Eve, but it requires other people to help you feel better about yourself.
The solution for Biblical shame is to think less about yourself and more about God, which the devil does not want you to do. Only when Sally can affirm her worthlessness before God, can she access the grace that will restore her to God (Romans 3:12).
This is the counter-intuitive nature of the Gospel (1 Corinthians 1:18-25).
For further study
- If you would like to know more about our study course, click Distance Education
- The classic treatment of this topic is from Ed Welch’s, When People are Big and God is Small
- You may also be interested in Ed’s other book, What do you think of me? Why do I care?
- Read my article, Loving Me–the hidden agenda of self-esteem
- Read my article, His Needs-Her Needs are not real needs
-  I slightly altered the content so it would read like a narrative for website publication. ↩