Myths of self-esteem can hurt us

But there is a cure for thinking it’s all about me

Surrendering my life to God, long ago, was the wisest, most fruitful and most fulfilling decision I ever made. This, in part, is what Jesus meant when he said, “Whoever tries to keep their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life will preserve it.” (Luke 7:33)

The belief that we are the “masters of our fate” and “captains of our soul”, is embedded deeply in the psyche of the postmodern Western world. From this point of view, to think otherwise is to diminish our sense of self – to risk doing irreparable damage to our precious self-esteem. But the experience of countless people who, trusting in Jesus, have followed the path of willing surrender to God is this: by surrendering themselves they have truly found themselves – and the sense of purpose and fulfilment they have been seeking all their lives.

Of course, when it comes to surrendering ourselves, it is critically important that the one to whom we surrender is worthy of our trust. For many, the horrendous results of so-called holy wars and modern jihad would make surrender to any cause other than self-interest seem like a very risky proposition. Whether we are committing ourselves to citizenship of a nation, a romantic or business relationship, or to a higher power, mindless surrender without a moral and relational framework is never healthy. But when we place our trust in the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ and surrender ourselves to him we can be assured that we are safe.

In its noblest form, it is about unconditional love.

Being a Christian does not call for a suppression or denial of everything that makes us the unique human beings we are. Healthy identity exists in the context of the mutual giving and receiving of our individual uniqueness. Self-surrender incorporates concern for human justice and caring about and connecting with our neighbour. In its noblest form, it is about unconditional love.

Theologian Robert Hillman in his book Healing and Wholeness wrote: Ultimately, being true to one’s real self means … serving [Jesus Christ] in loving, free obedience and then serving others in his name, even to the point of being prepared to lay down one’s life for them. But it does not mean having low self-esteem and a poor self-image or being a “doormat”. In humble gratitude, the Christian stands at his or her full height as he or she is aware of being, in Christ, a unique, infinitely loved and gifted personality. Thus the hallmark of the healthy self is humility, but not self denigration … there should be a sober, realistic acknowledgment of strengths and abilities.

Hillman goes on to say that those who surrender themselves in this healthy way will have the confidence, with God’s help, to assert themselves when appropriate. But, in humility, they may also at times choose graciously to lay aside what may be considered their rights in order to fulfil a higher purpose.

“Myths” about self-esteem have become so deeply entrenched in popular culture that many accept them as truths

The perfect example of self-surrender, true humility and sacrificial love is surely Jesus, who “being in very nature God… humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:6-8)

Over the past three decades, enticing yet potentially damaging “myths” about self-esteem have become so deeply entrenched in popular culture that many accept them as truths and guides for life. They have infiltrated parenting, teaching, the media, celebrity culture, advertising and even religion. High self-esteem is touted as the key to achieving success and happiness. Not surprisingly, this has contributed to an escalating trend towards self-obsessed individualism, which I believe is against our very nature as human beings created by God. It is not in our best interests as individuals or as a society.

The “it’s-all-about-me” myth is an example of this. Taken to its extreme, it means wanting untrammelled freedom to do as I please, when I please, regardless of the wishes or needs of others and the consequences of my actions on them and wider society.

I can choose to acknowledge a power greater than myself and willingly surrender to living his way, that is, God’s way.

For those of us who follow Jesus and are called to be in the world but not of the world (John 17:16, 18), it is all too easy to be influenced by the self-focused messages that bombard us every day. Over time, Christian faith can be reduced to a life that is focussed on self rather than a life of willing surrender to God and service to others.

In contrast, the lives of many famous Christians we respect and admire exemplify willing surrender of themselves to God’s good purposes. A prayer attributed to St Francis, which begins “Lord, make me a channel of thy peace”, was quoted in full by Mother Teresa when she addressed the United Nations in 1985. Here is a snippet:

Lord, grant that I may seek rather to comfort than to be comforted,

To understand than to be understood,

To love than to be loved.

Who could doubt Mother Teresa’s deeply felt sense of self-surrender. No hint of a pre-occupation with herself and her self-esteem there!

Compare this with the viewpoint expressed in the song My Way, which emerged as a Frank Sinatra hit in the 1960s and is still popular today. The person depicted in the song not only boasts that they have been able to chart their course through life without leaning on other people but also proudly declares their independence from any power beyond themselves.

The contrasting worldviews expressed in these two lyrical examples epitomise a choice that confronts each one of us. I can carry on doing it my way as taught by the myths of self-esteem; I can be my own “god” and devote my life to exalting myself. Or I can choose to acknowledge a power greater than myself and willingly surrender to living his way, that is, God’s way.


Edited extract of Beyond the Myth of Self-Esteem: Finding Fulfilment by John Smith with Coral Chamberlain (Acorn Press; 2014). John Smith is an international speaker and commentator and founder of God’s Squad Christian Motor Cycle Clubs.

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Beyond the Myth of Self-Esteem: Finding Fulfilment

John Smith with Coral Chamberlain

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