Science in Christian Perspective



The Bases of Self-Esteem

Department of Psychology
Westmont College
Santa Barbara, California

From: JASA 30 (June1978): 59-66.

Within the Christian community there has been a history of ambivalence about the appropriateness of feeling good about one's self. Various hymns have emphasized the wretchedness of man ("Amazing grace"), and even the subhuman quality of man ("would He devote that Sacred Head for such a worm as I?"). Countless sermons have been delivered urging the renunciation or destruction of self as a pre-requisite for God's approval and blessing. Recently there has been a growing dissatisfaction with this perspective and calls for reanalysis of biblical perspectives on the meanings of self, self-centeredness and self-esteem. In view of research literature relating negative self-concepts with such things as delinquency, antisocial behavior, and both social and psychological maladjustment, such a reanalysis seems warranted.

Proper understanding of the nature of self-esteem requires an understanding of both the biblical and social

This article is an adaptation of an introductory chapter in Self-Esteem, the first in the new Christian Perspectives on Counseling and the Behavorial Sciences series published by the Christian Association for Psychological Studies, 27000 Farsnington Road, Fannington Hills, Michigan. Used by permission.

psychological foundations of self-evaluation. In this article we examine the basis of selfesteem, the effects of sin, the relationship between self-esteem, pride, and humility, the important role of the Christian community in supporting and changing self-esteem, and familial and cultural influences on self-esteem.

Foundations of Positive Self-esteem

The biblical roots of positive self-regard may be traced initially to the creation account. In contrast to a view of man's origins which regards man as a chance mutation or impersonally evolved, the Genesis account suggests that from the beginning man was both very special and highly regarded. God created man in His own image, gave him major responsibility, provided abundantly for his needs, and considered His creation very good.1 Hardly the picture of a despicable worm! This is the picture of a being that the perfect judge has placed the highest value upon. And yet this is a picture of man before the Fall, still perfect and not yet God's enemy. Is there a scriptural basis for positive sel-festeem after the Fall?

Quite clearly there is. Referring to God's creation considerably after the fall, the psalmist speaks with awe about both the Lord God and His creation. "What is man that thou are mindful of him, and the son of man that thou dost care for him? Yet thou has made him a little less than God, and dost crown him with glory and honor."2 The tense used with reference to God's evaluation implies a present, continuing act. Even after the fall God continues to evaluate positively, or "crown man with glory and honor".

An even more convincing basis for human worth is found in the act of redemption. God did not turn away from man in disgust and consider him worthless once he had sinned. Rather, he sacrificed His Son for us while we were still very much His enemies!3 It might be argued that this simply reflects Cod's incredible mercy because He loved us when we were worthless. Earlier in this same passage of Scripture, however, we are told that Christ died for the ungodly while we were still helpless, not worthless!

This points up an important distinction that perhaps has been misunderstood: to be a sinner is to be helpless, not worthless. Cod's mercy is expressed both in not destroying man and in providing help for the helpless, or those unable to meet God's standard of perfection on their own. God distinguishes between ungodliness and worthwhileness, between sin and the placing of positive value upon the human personality or self. Bruce Narramore referred to this when he said:

The first thing I'd like to do is suggest that we need to understand the biblical meaning of the concept of self.
The Greek word ego means I, the total personality . . . . The ego is the whole man, the total person.
The flesh theologically is the rebellious sin principle. We fail sometimes to differentiate between the self and the flesh, or the self and the old sin nature, or the self and the old man . . . . They are distinctly different aspects of the human personality . . . . It's very clear that man has deeply fallen, but we tend to confuse righteousness and value. You see, according to Scripture we can be of immense value and worth to God, and still be very, very sinful. But sometimes we say since we are totally depraved or totally sinful we are, therefore, worthless.4

The underlying dynamic for man's self-esteem, or human worth, is the unconditional love of God, expressed in his redemptive act. "We love, because He first loved us".5 We not only love God in reciprocation but we also can love ourselves because God validates our worth simply by loving His creation without conditions attached.

The establishing of our self-worth in God's unconditional love suggests two additional concepts important for a biblical understanding and personal experience of self-esteem. The first is that self-esteem is primarily shaped and sustained through social reinforcements. It is developed in an interpersonal context. Biblically, the interpersonal nature of the self is originally implied in the initial creation act ("let us make man in our image"),6 and in the creation of a helpmate ("It is not good that man should be alone").7 It is basic to man's nature, then, to require relationships for self-development. Evaluation necessitates a judgejudged relationship. Selfesteem is initially rooted in the evaluations of significant others: "And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good";8 "By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us".9 Eventually it becomes partially internalized so that self-judgments are made, as in the case of Adam and Eve after their sin, but it still continues largely as a function of feedback from others. In contrast to the valuing process of our society which gives reinforcements, at least for men, on the basis of achievements, i.e., conditionally, God's love is unconditional. He continuously values us, so we can value ourselves.

The second implication of God's unconditional love is its unchanging nature. In human relationships positive feedback from others, which is basic to positive self-esteem, is not always consistent. We don't always achieve sufficiently to win unbroken regard. Those who love us don't love perfectly. God's love is steadfast,'° and therefore provides a stable source of positive regard which carries us through the vagaries of human relationships, and allows us to stand somewhat independent.

While God's love is unconditional and unchanging our experience of it is not always consistent. The major obstruction, biblically, in our experience of God's love is sin. Likewise the conditional nature of human valuing processes and much of the struggle to experience positive self-esteem may be traced to the effects of sin.

The Effects of Sin

Our discussion to this point has emphasized the interpersonal nature of self-esteem. The Scriptures, as well as contemporary psychology, root self-evaluation in relationships.

The original sin was fundamentally a violation of relationship. It was not only a negating of God's authority and truthfulness, but it was also a negating of his character. In the process of God-negation, man who was made in the image of God negated himself. He could no longer look at himself with unconditional self-regard. In violating his relationship with God he cut off his central source of self-esteem and became self-centered.

Adam and Eve became knowledgeable, but knowing was painful. Their first act was to hide. Ever since that act the human race has naturally tried to hide what is bad from God, and from itself. Ego defenses are fundamentally attempts to guard ourselves from negative truth. In the act of redemption and the continuing process of forgiveness, God's grace allows us to face the truth about ourselves and restore the relationship. Nevertheless, because we are fallen, even the redeemed employ techniques designed to insulate themselves from truth and to hide from God at times.

Intertwined with hiding came blaming and violence. "Passing the buck" started with Adam and Eve." In an attempt to get out from under the painful, bright spotlight of negative self-knowledge and to escape responsibility for breaking the relationship with God, both Adam and Eve tried to place the blame on someone else. The attempt was both to escape judgment and to preserve positive self-regard, even if the preservation was self-delusional. In our day we characteristically blame parents or circumstances which "determined" the way we are. The irony is that those who rely most heavily on such ego-defenses are characterized by extremely low self-esteem or extremely active compensation in the form of arrogance. By blaming others and deluding themselves they block off the major sources of self-esteem found in positive relationships with God and others.

Cain's murder of Abel exemplifies the lengths to which attempts at self-justification and preservation of self-regard can go. The biblical incident is particularly fascinating in view of studies showing that low self-esteem is associated with delinquency and anti-social behaviors! Apparently God had established standards regarding offerings. Instead of accepting God's evaluation and changing his offering, Cain looked at Abel as the cause of his rejection. Perhaps his reasoning went that if he could remove Abel God would accept his offering, or, at the very least he would be rid of the painful comparison. Because self-esteem is based in interpersonal feedback, it is customary for people to look for those who are similar to aid in self-evaluation and to avoid or get rid of those who are not similar.12 Similarity breeds attraction at least in part because it allows us to receive feedback which confirms our way of thinking, feeling and behaving. Making, or at least choosing others in our own image helps us to maintain that self-image.13

Another effect of sin is to create depression. (This is not an assertion that all depression is due to sin). Ronald Rottschafer points out that self-esteem and depression are interrelated.14 The psalmist suggests that the lack of integrity or covering up of sin results in depression, and by implication, negative self-esteem.15 His body groaned, his soul (psyche) was cast down, and he was overcome by guilt. The New Testament reminds us that a double-minded man is unstable in all his ways.16 The implication is that a person who has not clearly decided his loyalties or who has not been purified of his sin but hides it, will be unstable in his faith, his behaviors, and his self-perception.

Indeed, the pervasive effects of sin are clearly presented in Romans 3:11 is where we see that human understanding, motivation, relationships, behavior, communication, emotions, perceptions and relationship with God are twisted and negative due to the power of sin. The way in which we feel about ourselves and go about trying to establish our own self-esteem, as well as the way in which we respond to others' needs are all affected negatively by sin.

Self-esteem and Pride

Scripture indicates that pride is one of the sins most abhorred by God,17 and was the root sin behind Lucifer's abortive coup attempt. For this reason Christians have been quick to suspect the notion of self-esteem as a cover-up for arrogance. We are told that there is no good in ourselves, and that we must be emptied of self. There is a confusion about self as personality and self-centeredness as an expression of the flesh or sin-principle.
In order to understand the relationship between self-esteem, pride and humility properly we must look at the biblical pattern of God-man interaction, the notions of perfection and goodness, and the concepts of works and grace.

Pride is characterized by an exaggerated desire to win the notice or praise of others, and the rigid taking of a superior position in which others' opinions are virtually never regarded as good as one'.-; own. Humility is characterized by accurate self-appraisal, responsiveness to the opinions of others, and a willingness to give

The underlying dynamic for man's self-esteem, or human worth, is the unconditional love of God, expressed in his redemptive act.

praise to others before claiming it for one's self. Biblically, pride is expressed in attempts to claim glory due to God for one's self and in the attempt to justify one's self in rejection of God's redemptive process.

From what we know of the components of positive self-esteem, humility is the biblical counterpart, not pride. The ability to face one's self and to assess and accept both strengths and weaknesses accurately, while being responsive to, but not overly dependent upon, social approval are basic ingredients of non-defensive self-esteem. On the other hand, psychologists since Adler have associated both pride and excessive self-disparagement, which some might regard as humility, as indications of basic feelings of inferiority or low self-esteem.

The biblical position is not that we shouldn't feel good about ourselves, but rather that we should love ourselves, '8 and accurately assess ourselves.18 The critical distinction is between goodness and perfection. In his act of creating us in His image, God gave us intrinsic capacities which can be developed by human effort, enjoyed, and felt good about. The problem comes when we don't accept God's evaluation or His plan and, in attempts to justify ourselves spiritually and morally, start thinking of ourselves as overly good, or capable of becoming perfect. Pride, then, is based on an unwillingness to accept God's moral judgment of us as imperfect. Its dynamic is rooted in feelings of rejection or inferiority and expressed in over-compensation aimed at becoming so superior that one can delude himself into thinking he is perfect, without God. Pride may not be based on conscious rejection of God but may arise from a background of rejection and the failure to be exposed to and experience God's unconditional love.

Humility and positive self-esteem are not based upon self-negation or the "emptying of one's self". They are based upon affirmation of God's regard toward us and a right relationship with Him in which imperfection, weaknesses and strengths can he accepted or confessed and changed as appropriate. The biblical history of God-man interaction is not one of God manipulating "empty shells", devoid of personality, in robot-like fashion. God doesn't act in place of personality, but through personality. Christ's incarnation and human development are affirmations of this. The pattern of interaction is one of mutual influence: God acts and man responds. This should not be too surprising if we take creation in God's image and the Scriptures seriously; if the Old Testament left doubts about God's personality the incarnation removed those doubts. There is no doubt that Jesus Christ regarded himself positively. He could not have made the assertions he did if that weren't the case. On the other hand, he was marked by perfect humility. The biblical injunctions to "have this mind in you which was also in Christ Jesus"20 and to "be imitators of God as beloved children"21 are directed at Christ's whole personality. We are to be marked by humility based on accurate and positive self-appraisal. For the Christian basking in God's perfect love is able to accept his imperfections more completely, acknowledge his sin, and face himself free from fear of rejection.22

Many Christians, it seems, hold to a form of humility associated with negative self-esteem in contradiction to the biblical pattern. Bruce Narramore refers to this as "neurotic humility". He says that "it's really a reversed form of pride. It's a pride in our omnipotent badness . . . . 'I am so bad that God's goodness even can't control it'."23 Associated with this negative selfregard are depression and a sense of emotional unbelief or anxiety about eternal salvation, according to Narramore.

Whereas pride is inevitably connected with an achievement or power basis of self-esteem, humility frees man from the bondage of striving to gain approval by always looking superior in the eyes of others or one's self. The fundamental dynamic behind humility is Grace. The Scripture consistently emphasizes that neither spiritual salvation nor human value are rooted in works. Rather, they are founded upon Grace. Fundamentally, there are two ways in which one can gain and maintain self-esteem: the first is through power or achievement; the second is through love and relationship. For the most part our society socializes us into the former. Grace relieves us of that pressure, and also of the temptation to pride.

An understanding of Grace is essential for humility within the church. One suspects that there is a lot of pride circulating in nonobvinus corridors of the church at the same time that self is decried. For example, the use of spiritual gifts seems to be an area where people who negate their self in other areas subtly get involved with pride. When one realizes that the spiritual gifts are not earned but given through grace, the emphasis shifts from how spiritual I am to how I can best use my gift. As a matter of fact, a close look at both the gifts of the Spirit and the fruits of the Spirit reveals that the gifts really don't make any sense, perhaps don't exist, unless they are seen as interpersonal. They are not something privately possessable and conducive to pride, in the sense of a child showing off his new toy which some other child doesn't have with a tone of "I'm better than you" in his voice.

Incarnation and Community

Although all of the preceding may be received as conceptually correct and biblically true, it is still possible for genuine Christians not to experience positive self-esteem. The biblical emphases upon incarnation and the caring community are critically important for the emotional experience of positive self-regard.

The incarnation of Christ demonstrates God's love and valuing in physical, practical terms. He moved among the despised and rejected of society giving them hope and a basis for believing they were worthwhile. He met people in their weaknesses and gave strength. His judgments were aimed at hypocrisy or the covering over of sin, the removal of which would result in new freedom and self-esteem. The hypocrites crucified Christ because they did not understand the way of Grace and were unable to face themselves in honesty.

They were undoubtedly an insecure, achievement-oriented and depressed group who had deluded themselves into thinking they were perfect. Comparison with perfection left not only their positions but their tenuously bated self-regard in jeopardy.

Throughout the New Testament Paul emphasizes the importance of incarnating Christ's love. After urging the church at Ephesus to be imitators of God in Ephesians 5 he instructs them to walk among the believers with sacrificial love. In Colossians 3:12-15 he urges the believers to be kind, meek, compassionate, patient, forbearing, and loving. Not only was this essential for corporate harmony but these characteristics are fundamental to individual self-esteem upon which corporate conflict or harmony pivots. In numerous places we are instructed to judge not, to forbear, and to consider our own sins and weaknesses. Such an orientation is critical if a church community is to build and encourage positive self-esteem in its members. I suspect that the commandment to avoid judgment, or negative feedback that is emotionally charged, is given for the following reasons: (1) It fosters self-delusion. In Romans 2, after describing a great deal of wickedness in the previous chapter, Paul immediately warns the Roman believers not to get puffed up through social comparison but to accurately reflect themselves in comparison with the perfect standard. (2) It lowers the other person's self-esteem and results in dysfunctioning within the body. The cycle is definite; the principle on the human level is reciprocation. Judgment begets judgment and conflict; praise elevates esteem and fosters harmony. Judgment brings out natural ego-defenses that are emotionally employed unless a person is sufficiently spiritually mature and of high enough self-esteem to identify with Christ in his response rather than imitating the judger. Unfortunately most of us are not at that level of ego-strength or spiritual experience, and so churches split.

The operating principle, then, for the Christian community is love and forgiveness. In the incarnation of Christ's life in the body people will be freed from defensive striving for self-regard, will not make the church a place of power struggle and manipulation, and will be free to fully develop in the context of significant and consistent positive relationships. The church must avoid becoming "a museum for saints" in which caring relationships cannot be built because people cannot be real and share their problems and needs for fear of being judged.

Parent-Child Relationships

It is in the context of the parent-child relationship that social feedback central to self-esteem normally begins.
Results of several studies support the commonly held assertion that acceptance of the child by his parents, as measured by parental warmth either in early childhood or more reflectively later on, is positively correlated with high self-esteem.25 Acceptance is communicated by parents in a variety of ways. For the young infant it involves gentleness in handling, time spent holding the child, time elapsed in meeting expressed needs, appropriateness of the attempts to meet needs, expressions of delight and the amount of spontaneous, non-need-oriented interaction such as in play.

For the older child it involves gentleness of responses to transgression and in discipline, time spent encouraging and responding to the child's ideas and positive behavior, and use of praise and other language indicating delight and acceptance.26 Language becomes a powerful tool in the shaping of a child's self-image as the child applies his new language to himself as he experiences it being applied by the most significant people in his world. The impact of parental feedback is especially critical during early childhood because parents are viewed as omniscient during most of the formative years of the self-concept.

Several studies support the notion that self-esteem is at least partly due to identification with the parent (usually the mother) 27 The results could also be explained in terms of differences in the way that mothers relate to and reinforce their children. Regardless, the evidence is consistent that high self-esteem mothers tend to have high self-esteem children and vice versa. It seems that the biblical dictate to love one's neighbor as one's self applies doubly to the necessity of loving one's self and one's closest neighbors!

There is also evidence that those who are higher in sex role identification are higher in self-esteem ,28 as are those who mature earlier in adolescence, and that the sources of self-esteem as mediated through socialization agents are different for boys and girls.29 Among white middle-class student males it appears that self-esteem may be based more on what is accomplished and external sources of evaluation, while for females social self-esteem may not only be more stable but appears also to be less related to approval needs in an academic achievement situation and more centered in social adequacy.'° These differences, of course, may be traced back to differences in the way which parents may set standards and give positive feedback for boys and girls. It is too early to tell what kind of effect current attempts at unification of socialization for the sexes during childhood will have upon the bases of self-esteem, though the stress on moving females more into male roles may lead to women becoming more achievement or power oriented.

The Stanford psychologist, Robert Sears found that high self-esteem was significantly related for both sexes with academic achievement, small family size, early birth position in the family and high warmth on the part of both parents. For boys, high self-esteem was associated with low father dominance in the marital relationship.

Stanley Coopersmith, author of a highly regarded book, Antecedents of Self-Esteem, found that high sell-esteem was related to close relationships between parents and boys, as indicated by parental interest in the boys' welfare, concern about companions, availability for discussion of problems and joint activities. Parents of high sell-esteem boys were also less permissive. They set high standards of behavior, and were consistently firm in enforcement, though they were less punitive in style. They tended to use rewards and non-physical punishment for discipline. In addition, family governance for high self-esteem boys was more democratic with parents encouraging input from the boys and allowing dissent and persuasion within the context of well-defined guidelines for privilege and responsibility. Finally, a significantly greater propor-

The development of positive self-esteem is seen as critical to the most positive forms of human experience and interaction as understood biblically and psychologically.

tion of boys came from families marked by divorce or separation.

Both Sears and Coopersmith found that those with high self-esteem had higher goals and were more successful in achieving them. The parents of the boys in the Coopersmith study placed greater value on achievement than on adjustment or accommodation to other persons. This reflects the sex-based differences indicated in the Hollander study, and is also consistent with Sears' finding that low self-esteem was associated with femininity, which, in turn, is not associated with achievement as a base of self-esteem. The fact that a non-achievement base is associated with lower selfesteem is undoubtedly a reflection of societal values, as well as possibly due to the greater difficulty in discriminating evaluation that is not contingent upon specific responses. At least one study partially contradicts these findings and concludes that praise of the person rather than praise of task performance is generally positively related to self-esteem.3' This is consistent with another study which suggests that privileged adolescents of parents intensively engaged in academic work have lower self-esteem.32

Nevertheless, it certainly seems true that competence and confidence are closely interrelated, each fostering the other.33 In our society the greatest reinforcements come for competence in task achievements, at least for boys, though at least minimal levels of interpersonal competence must also be demonstrated for positive feedback.

Community and Culture

Perhaps the most powerful influence shaping the valued characteristics of Americans is the media. Through the presentation of various "heroes" and the selection and reinforcement of certain behavior, standards and characteristics, television in particular feeds into and actually defines the "ideals" which become part of our ideal self. Most children watch television for 2-3 hours per day, and 78% of America's families use the TV as a babysitter.34

There has, of course, been extensive debate as to whether TV conditions responses and creates socially undesirable responses, or allows for the cathartic release of emotions and aids the society's adjustment. Beginning with early studies of vicarious imitation35 and considering more recent conclusions, the results seem reasonably conclusive: TV acts as a model and shaper of responses.

What kind of models or ideals are being presented? Liebert et. al, indicate that the single most characteristic value presented by TV is violence.36 It has been estimated that in 1968 the average American child between 5 and 15 sees the violent destruction of more than 13,000 persons on TV. Despite some promises made by major broadcasters in the early 1970's, things seem to be about the same, with the addition of increasingly explicit sex and the presentation of both romance and broken families as the norms! (ideals?) for life. Liebert found that the most powerful group on TV was the white American male, usually middle-class, unmarried and involved in violence as an aggressor. Women are increasingly portrayed with a kind of feminine machismo: slick, single, aggressive, and power hungry. Other misconceptions and consequently distorted values involve racial and ethnic groups, occupational roles, normal family life, and the routine of living.

In summary, contemporary American television tends to offer a distorted view of real life and to place value, by virtue of characteristics portrayed and rewarded on the screen, on power and success, with manipulation of others the way to the goal. Stable and mature love in the context of friendships, marriages and family life are grossly under-represented, and therefore undervalued. To the extent that television shapes our values and consequently our self-images, it leads us away from the biblical basis of self-esteem and into a misleading search for esteem that can be only unstable and negative in results.

A second major influence upon self-esteem is that represented by the intertwining of education and capitalism. It should be understood that capitalism, or perhaps more correctly, greed for money, also is a major determinant of what is shown on television. At any rate, the American educational system strongly rewards the characteristic of achievement, as demonstrated in the 1950's by McClelland and his colleagues. Human value comes to be measured in terms of how ouch one produces. We subtly come to judge ourselves comparatively in terms of salary levels. Simple decisions as to who should be treated first in the hospital, for example, come down to perceived value as judged by evident material success or economic class. The result, of course, is that those who, for one reason or other can't achieve adequately are surrounded with negative feedback and come to view themselves negatively. The problem is not only that an unstable basis for self-esteem is created through the emphasis on achievement, but that modern industrial production techniques (factory or office) make it difficult for a sense of achievement even to be experienced. Work is fragmented, routinized and separated from end creation or is aimed at such artificial ends that it becomes meaningless and also unable to confer a sense of accomplishment. Some find themselves so identified that they face continuous obstacles in gaining the tools necessary to achieve or to reach economically valued positions, such as in the case of rejected minorities (the aged, poor, racial minorities, and physically handicapped, for example). Unemployment rates among Blacks in central cities are typically 3-4 times higher than for comparable white groups, among those looking for work!

The devaluing begins way back in the educational process when such individuals begin to fail because they don't meet the middle-class standards of achievment. In one classic study of teacher expectations it was shown that teacher expectations strongly and subtly influence the performance of children.37 Children that teachers expected greater intellectual gains from showed significant gains, and were described as having a better chance of being successful and happy in later life. The children were randomly assigned to the experimental groups so that intellectual promise at the outset was merely in the mind of the teacher. Furthermore, children whom the teachers perceived as "slow track" were not only rated negatively, but were rated even less favorably if they showed unexpected gains. It is exactly these kinds of expectations which tend to be expressed toward lower class and minority children, thus, beginning a vicious negative cycle in which, for many, death becomes the only relief.
In addition to achievement, both the media and our educational system highly value physical beauty. Dobson points out the pernicious effects of this valuing upon the self-esteem of countless people.38 Research evidence exists which indicates that the mesomorphie or athletic body type is rated most favorably and that heavy children report less positive self concepts than their more athletic peers.39 Finally, the media in particular tends to foster an attitude of disdain and rejection toward those who are physically or functionally different, such as the physically handicapped or mentally retarded. At least these persons are met with anxiety by those unsure how to relate, and at the most, they are actively scorned and rejected with consequent effects upon their self-esteem.

Self-Esteem and Other Characteristics

Levels of self-esteem seem to be associated with a wide variety of other personal and interpersonal characteristics. Persons high in self-esteem are more active and expressive in group discusssions, not particularly sensitive to criticism, show little anxiety, and are much less afflicted with psychosomatic illnesses than low self-esteem persons. Those with low selfesteem feel isolated, unlovable, too weak to overcome their deficiencies, and unable to defend themselves, as well as afraid of angering others or drawing attention to themselves in any way.40 In addition, low self-esteem children have been found to have higher anxiety levels, and to receive generally more negative reactions from peers.41 Intelligence and curiosity are positively associated with self-esteem,42 as are self-disclosure43 (except for results from one conflicting study which shows highly neurotic and cycloid individuals disclosing more personal information), field independence,44 and lower vulnerability to delinquency.45 Finally, those with low self-esteem are more likely to be submissive and dependent, more vulnerable in interpersonal relations, more concerned about what others think of them, and more likely to have their feelings hurt .46 Self-esteem seems to operate at least partially as a mediating variable 47 which interacts with significant stimulus characteristics in affecting such responses as trust.48

In summary, self-esteem affects a wide variety of characteristic feeling, behavior and motivational patterns. The development of positive self-esteem is seen as critical to the most positive forms of human experience and interaction as understood biblically and psychologically.

Changing Self-Esteem

If positive self-esteem is so important for healthy psychological, interpersonal and spiritual functioning, it is critical that we identify some of the factors or strategies which might be used to make one's self-esteem more positive.
Affirmation: The first strategy would be to increase the level of approval or acceptance expressed toward an individual. This would have to be done in relation to realistic, objective assessment if it is approval of achievements or performance, and must be done genuinely and not too abruptly if it is the expression of affection and acceptance. Baron theorizes that large deviations in social reinforcement from an individual's social self-concept, whether positive or negative in direction, result in negative feelings.49 The perception of substantial discrepancies leads initially to behaviors on the part of the individual to reduce the difference. The behaviors may include such things as avoidance of the reinforcing agent, attempts to bring the agent under control, and increases or decreases in behaviors which have typically brought reinforcement, depending upon the positive or negative discrepancy currently being experienced. If the feedback received from others continues to deviate substantially from the individual's social self-concept over a prolonged period, the person will change his self-concept. In addition, Baron suggests that more moderate discrepancies in a positive direction will produce positive feelings. Initial research results have tended to confirm these predictions.

The implication is that the Christian community can have an important role in changing self-concepts through the medium of acceptance, but that care must be taken not to initially overwhelm, and to be genuine in one's use of such reinforcement. The Christian has a powerful change message that should speak to the millions who feel negatively about themselves. The directional dynamic shifts the primary basis of positive esteem from the stresses and uncertainties of seeking approval from others to that of pleasing God and receiving His perfect evaluation of well-done as well as his non-contingent reinforcement of Grace. This is certainly, in part at least, the thrust of Colossians 3:11, 23-24, and the experience of Paul, who experienced so much disapproval from others but centered his esteem in God's approval, as in II Timothy 4:7-8. Not only is the message that God unconditionally loves and will make a new creature out of the person,50 with behavioral and self-evaluational effects, but the medium is that of a caring community which extends specific positive reinforcement over an extended period of time in the context of caring interpersonal relationships. 51

Alteration: Another strategy that can be used within the general church community, small groups or in one-to-one relationships is to change the basis of evaluation. As we have mentioned already, the values espoused by the society which are used as content for self-concepts and the basis of evaluation are mainly power or achievement oriented. This is in radical opposition to the biblical standard of self-esteem, though the Bible certainly makes ample use of contingent reinforcement.52 The church community ought to be a crosscultural reinforcement center, where individuals are reinforced for shaping their ideals and self-images counter to the culture if those values conflict with biblically understood values. If the church can begin to reject some of the materialism and success/achievement-orientation which it seems to have quietly accepted during this century, it will become both an
alternative for the culture at large and a dynamic supporting community for its members. Such a position will inevitably lead to conflict with the culture at-large, and may lead to the effects of social comparison and change-attempt that Jesus experienced when he tried to move the basis of acceptance from achievement to love. Nevertheless, consistent with Scripture, individuals accepting and supported in such values will experientially verify the reality of God's love and the benefits of positive self-esteem based on stable sources.

On a more individual scale we can assist others by helping them to choose more appropriate social comparison standards. People who think poorly of themselves because they can't play sports like professional athletes will be helped, for example, to change their evaluation standard to other non-professionals of their age, or to enjoyment of the activity and awareness of other more effective means than that to gain selfesteem. In addition to changing the social comparison standard we can help in the selection of more appropriate evaluation criteria. It is not necessary, for example, to do everything perfectly in order to receive positive reinforcement. The perfectionist must be aided in adopting a more realistic criterion. This may involve systematic social reinforcement for other than perfection, conversation, or even specific forms of therapy in the extreme.

Acquisition: Finally, on a practical level, we can concentrate on helping individuals acquire new skills or improve old ones. Through the process of competency acquisition confidence will increase, new efforts that will in turn bring reinforcement will be tried, and self esteem will be elevated. Within the church community older members of the congregation could be very positive influences upon adolescents in the acquisition of various occupational or professional skills, for example. A given church or churches might sponsor adult education nights aimed at the sharing of practical skills for members, within the context of the caring Christian community, and without the usual negative correlates of education based on achievement and evaluation stresses.


1Genesis 1:26-28, 31; 5:1 (R.S.V. used throughout).
2Psalm 8:4-5. May be translated "angels"; Heb., Elohins.
311nmans 5:8, 10.
4Remarks made in his Presidential address for the Western Association of Christians for Psychological Studies, West-mont College, May 1975.
5Jolsn 4:19. Unconditional love does not mean that God has no standards or requirements. Redemption is conditioned upon repentance. Nevertheless, God continues to love us even if we reject Him.
6Genesis 1:26. 
7Genesis 2:18. 
8Genesis 1:31. 
91 John 3:16.
10Psalm 36:5-10. 
11Genesis 3:11-13.
12Festinger, L. A theory of social comparison processes. Human Relations, 1954, 7, 117140,
13It is not clear that this holds for those with extremely negative self-images. In fact these individuals tend to interject blame and may look for others who are more dominant and dissimilar to help them maintain their poor self-image.
14Rottschafer, R. H. Self-esteem and depression. In section 4 of this hook.
15Psalm 32:1-5; Psalm 38.
16James 1:8; 4:8.
l7Proverbs 6:16-17; James 4:6-7.
18Mark 12:31; Ephesians 4:28-29.
19Romans 12:3; Calatians 6:3-4.
20Philippians 2:5.
21Ephesians 5:1.
227 John 4:18.
23Presidential address, Western Association of Christians for Psychological Studies, Westmont College, May 1975.
24Ephesians 1:15-16; Philippians 1:3-5; Colossians 1:3-5; I Thessalonians 1:7, 8. The difference between judgment and proper correction is that judgment involves a putting down of the other person while correction points out error but seeks to provide ways to build the person op. There is a biblically ordained place for correction that is motivated by such love. It is important to realize that both correction and judgment may make the recipient feel bad momentarily. That is not the test. The test is the extent to which the messenger is willing to become involved, to help.
25For example, Luck, P. W. Social determinants of self-esteem. Dissertation Abstracts International, 1969, 30, (2-A), 810; Sears, B. R. Relation of early socialization experiences to self-concepts and gender role in middle childhood. Child Development, 1970, 41 (2), 267289; Coopersmith, S. The antecedents of self-esteem. San Francisco: W. H. Freeman, 1967.
26It is important here to introduce the notion of non-contingent reinforcement, or reinforcement that is given simply for who the child is and not in relation to some set of behaviors. Praise might be regarded as contingent, or performance oriented reinforcement, while delight and acceptance refer to non-contingent. Baron, R. M., Bass, A. B. and Vietze, P. M. Type and frequency of praise as determinants of favorability of self-image; an experiment in a field setting. Journal of Personality, 1911, 39 (4), 493-511, found that praise of the person is generally more effective in enhancing self-concept than praise of task performance.
27Pederson, D. M. and Stanford, C. H. Personality correlates of children's self esteem and parental identification. Psychological Reports, 1969, 25, 41-42; Tocco, T. S. and Bridges, C. M., Jr. Mother-child self-concept transmission in Florida Model Follow Through participants. Paper delivered at American Educational Research Meeting, New York, February 1971.
28Connell, D. M. and Johnson, J. E. Relationship between sex role identification and self esteem in early adolescents. Developmental Psychology, 1970, 3, 268.
29Hollander, J. Sex differences in sources of social self-esteem. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 1972, 38 (3), 343-347.
30Douvan, E. and Adelson, J. The adolescent experience. New York: Wiley and Sons, 1966.
31Baron, B. M., Bass, A. R. and Vietze, P. M., op cit. (26).
32Rosenberg, M. Society and the adolescent self image. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1965.
33White, R. Motivation reconsidered: the concept of competence. Psychological Review, 1959, 66, 297-334.
34Liebert, B, M., Neale, J. M., and Davidson, E. S. The early window: effects of television on children and youth. New York: Pergamon Press, 1973.
35 Bandura, A., Ross, S. Transmission of aggression through imitation of aggressive models. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 1961, 63, 575-582.
36Liebert, R. M., et. al., op. cit. (34).
37Rosenthal, B. and Jacobson, L. F. Teacher expectations for the disadvantaged. Scientific American, 218 (4), April 1968, 19-23.
38Dobson, J. Hide or Seek. Old Tappan, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1974.
39Johnson, P.A. and Stafford, J. R. Stereotypic affective properties of personal names and somatotypes in children. Developmental Psychology, 1971, 5, 176; Felker, D. W. Relationship between self-concept, body build, and perception of father's interest in sports in boys. Research Quarterly, 1968, 39, 513-517.
40Coopersmith, S. Studies in self-esteem. Scientific American,
1968, 218, 96-106.
41Felker, D. W. The relationship between anxiety, self ratings, and ratings by others in fifth grade children. Journal of Genetic Psychology, 1969, 115, 81-86.
42Maw, W. H. and Maw, E. W. Self concepts of high and low curiosity boys. Child Development, 1970, 41, 123-219; Ringness, T. A. Self-concept of children of low, average and high intelligence. American Journal of Mental Deficiency, 1961, 65, 543-561.
43Jourard, S. M. The transparent self. Princeton: Van Nostrand, 1964; Vosen, L. M. The relationship between self-disclosure and self-esteem. Dissertation Abstracts, 1967, 27B (8B), 2882.
44Mossman, B. M. and Ziller, R. C. Self-esteem and consistency of social behavior. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 1968, 73 (4) 363-367.
45Reckless, W. C. and Dinitz, S. Pioneering with the self-concept as a vulnerability factor in delinquency. Journal of Criminal Low, Criminology and Police Science, 1967, 58, 515523. It should be noted that some studies such as Jensen, G. F. Delinquency and adolescent self-conceptions: a study of the personal relevance of infraction. Social Problems, Summer 1972, 84-102, contest the self-concept and delinquency relationship found by Reckless and his colleagues in several studies. A host of other factors including parent-child and marital relationships support the self-concept notion indirectly, though.
46Luch, P. W., op. cit.
47Ziller, R. C., Hagey, J., Smith, M. D. C., and Long, B. H. Self-esteem: a self-social construct. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 1969, 33 (1), 84-95.
48Ellisnn, C. W. and Firestone, I. J. Development of interpersonal trust as a function of self[esteem, target status, and target style. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1974, 29 (5), 655-663.
49Baron, R. M. Social reinforcement effects as a function of social reinforcement history. Psychological Review, 1966, 6, 529-539. Also, Baron, R. M. The SRS model as a predictor of negro responsiveness to reinforcement. Journal of Social Issues, 1970, 26 (2), 61-81.
50II Corinthians 5:17; Ephesians 4:22-24, ff.
51Colossians 3:12-17; Ephesians 4:1-19.
52Ephesians 2:10; James 1:12.