The Diagnostic Problem at the Root of Self Esteem Teaching

Several episodes of the television series M*A*S*H dealt with the problems that the doctors had with treating the disease Korean Hemorrhagic Fever. It was a real disease that troops from the United States and other allied nations faced during the Korean War from 1950 to 1953. In one of the episodes, the doctors were faced with the problem of replenishing bodily fluids from patients during a phase of renal overdrive. They faced court-martial if they used what had proved to be a fatal treatment of administering hypertonic (high salt) intravenous saline solution during this phase. Instead, they found that the correct treatment was to administer isotonic intravenous saline solution – saline at the same concentration as human blood.

This illustrates one part of the problem of the self esteem teachings that have been part of the culture at large and some churches for the better part of a generation. It was based upon the study of abused children, who had been shamed and beaten down emotionally. The treatment was based upon the idea that they had something that was called self esteem that had been damaged. That this also falls under a logical error called the materialistic fallacy, in which an abstract construction of thought –self esteem or, in some works, self image — is treated as a material reality, does not seem to have occurred to them either. The idea is that something that they call self esteem or a self image is an entity which has been damaged, like an arm bruised and damaged from twisting. The remedy was, or so it was thought, to give them lots and lots of self affirmations and to have them learn how to give them back to themselves. Somehow this became trendy to do with children and even adults who had not been in an environment as severely abusive. The unintended consequence was to give many a false sense of self importance.

Instead, the Biblical answer seems to be not to give them or anyone lots and lots of self affirmations. I think that Solomon calls this kind of thing flattery throughout Proverbs, and treats it as a kind of deceit. For myself, I’ve generally preferred a realistic compliment for a job well done or extraordinary effort or a realistic correction for something on which I was mistaken or could have put in more effort. The honesty and respect this entails was always preferable to the often syrupy flattery that the other approach entails. For instance, I can remember a certain pastor who once or twice put his arm around my shoulders and tried to give me some ‘affirmations.’ Though I do not believe that he was malicious, I found this pretty creepy since he barely knew me at the time, and wondered if someone else had put him up to this in some way. I am very glad that within several years I had left that church and went to the Chapel Hill Christian and Missionary Alliance Church in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, where I have always felt treated like a respected, responsible adult and brother in Christ.

It’s been documented that these kinds of ‘affirmations’ offered to the abused do not help them but in some way do the opposite. I think that the idea was that abused needed to be provided not with heaping helpings of what others think that they have missed – like the doctors who were giving patients with Korean Hemorrhagic Fever in renal overdrive a hypertonic intravenous saline solution – high amounts of salts — to replace the salts in their blood that they thought needed to be replaced. Rather a more realistic and stable environment of love and respect with realistic doses of truth – like the isotonic saline solution with normal amounts of salts that proved to be the correct treatment – is also the correct treatment for those who have come through an abusive environment.

Certainly what we need to be providing others in our churches and families in our culture at large is realistic love with honest compliments and appreciation and honest corrections. I don’t think that piling it on thick with the ‘affirmations’ offered either to others or to oneself really helps anyone in the long run, and it feeds selfishness, conceit and an odd vulnerability to and craving for more and more flattery. The Bible is actually pretty clear about how the environment of Christian growth is, ‘ . . . speaking the truth in love . . . ‘ (Ephesians 4:15), and not any kind of exaggerated flattery.

Here are some more scriptures that talk about the kind of atmosphere that needs to be fostered. Some of these would make excellent subjects for sermons and teaching (of course as part of the larger context of the passages in which they are contained), and I do not believe that I have ever heard and preaching and teaching which dealt in depth with applying them to our lives.

“Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. . . Do not be proud . . . do not be conceited” (Romans 12:9, 16).

“If anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself. Each one should test his own actions. Then he can take pride in himself, without comparing himself to others” (Galatians 6:2-3).

“Show proper respect to everyone; Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honor the king” (I Peter 3:17).

Finally, while an atmosphere of love and respect is something that brothers and sisters in Christ can provide for each other, and parents and siblings can provide within a family, believers in Christ ultimately need to find their satisfaction in their relationship with their heavenly Father through Jesus Christ, “ . . . who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ” (Ephesians 1:3). The knowledge of one’s identity in Christ, what it means to be in that relationship, and God’s goal of transforming us into the likeness of Christ (II Corinthians 3:18), will do more than all the human flattery and ‘affirmations’ that can ever be given within a lifetime. Knowing who you are in the light of the Word of God is reality.

All scripture references taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION, copyright 1973, 1978 by the International Bible Society and used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.


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