The Church Shouldn't Promote Self-Esteem


The First Baptist Church in Beckley, West Virgina, organized a conference to help young girls build self-esteem in defiance of a beauty culture which fixates upon superficial features. The Register-Herald reports:

Contemporary Christian musical artist Karen Spurlock will be leading worship at the event.

“Having three girls of my own, I am very aware of how early little girls begin to evaluate themselves and others in superficial ways,” said Carrico. “It occurred to me that so many women suffer daily by comparing themselves to others, and it all starts between the ages of five and 10.”

Part of the reason girls are so imprisoned by the beauty culture, Carrico said, is that they mistakenly equate being “pretty” with their self-worth.

One goal of the Christian-based conference is to assure girls that beauty is not in the eye of the beholder but in the “eye of the Creator,” Carrico said.

“The only way to help girls see past all this is to teach them that pretty is fine, that’s awesome, but it’s not beauty,” she said. “Their belly may not be completely flat today, or ever, and that’s OK, because God created us in His image, so…deal with it,  you’re perfect.”

Certainly, girls and young women ought to be encouraged to look beyond the superficial. That said, should any self-evaluation result in the conclusion that you are perfect?

Promoting self-esteem has become a primary goal of education and community activities involving children. The now cliché participation trophy stands as a hallmark example. Adults teach children to feel good about themselves not due to cited merit, but as a means to spite the evaluations of popular culture. However, unearned pride can be just as destructive as a lack of confidence. Rather than teach children to err on one side to spite the other, we ought to encourage honest evaluations based on objective criteria which help guide efforts at improvement.

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In dealing with my four-year-old son, I have come to recognize his abundance of self-esteem. Like most people at any age, he evaluates himself with remarkable leniency. My task as his father is to rein in his sense of self-worth and temper it with discipline, not to stagnate his growth with constant affirmation of his alleged perfection.

We may benefit greatly from consideration of the important difference between confidence building and self-esteem. I want my son to be confident of his abilities as they develop. Like all of us, he needs to believe in his own ability before he can perform. We build such confidence through instruction, coaching, and practice. Currently, he’s going through swimming lessons which test the limits of his trust. Getting back in the water over and over again, incrementally demonstrating that he can first survive and maybe even have fun, has been key. But the ability to swim says nothing of a person’s worth. Feeling confident in one’s abilities or secure in one’s rights should not equate to an evaluation of worth, especially from a Christian perspective.

Missing from The Register-Herald’s coverage of the church conference for girls is any mention of sin, holiness, or redemption. Any critique of the beauty culture remains incomplete without considering these vital topics. Sure, God created us in his image. But that hardly means we’re perfect. The same scriptures which reveal that we were created in God’s image also say we fell from that state of perfection into sin. That should have an appropriately devastating effect upon our self-esteem. Rather than counter the beauty culture with false claims of perfection, we should counter it with the revelation of our wretchedness. The church’s message to the girls of Beckley, West Virginia, ought to be, no matter how attractive the most popular girl in school may be, she stands unworthy under the judgment of Holy God. The focus then shifts from an irrational and futile attempt to boost self-esteem to the eternally important consideration of the salvation offered by Jesus Christ. The beauty culture stands as a manifestation of idolatry, and cannot be combated without focusing worship back where it belongs.