In Defense of Self Esteem and Other Self-Help Needs

I am currently reading one of those books that people read in secret. You know, those books that would make us look bad and weak and inadequate if people saw them on our shelves? The title of the book does little to help my ego: How to Win Friends and Influence People. You are probably already drawing inferences about why I could be reading such a book — and that, right there, is my point.

I have often sat with among friends and spoke ill of self-help books and the people who read them. It is already tempting to start justifying why I am reading and agreeing with Dale Carnegie in How to Win friends and Influence People. I feel that I should at least explain why I am reading a book with such a “self-helpish” title, but I will not do it, because to do that would be to go against the point of this post. So I put my reputation at your mercy.

Hierarchy of Needs Pyramid - Maslow's Theory IllustratedWell, I said that in order to say this: I think the whole notion of “self-esteem” has received an unfairly bad rap from Christians who want to remain faithful to the Bible. Numerous articles and blog posts and even books have been written to explain why “self-esteem” is an unbiblical concept and an unholy pursuit. I, too, have written my share of tweets and Facebook status updates in the past to that effect. But allow me to play the devil’s advocate and tease out something that I think is important about the idea of “self-esteem”. Allow me to defend self-esteem and, hopefully, still remain faithful to God’s Word.

Why would anyone want to read a book about improving your self-esteem and feeling better about yourself? Why would Joel Osteen sell millions of copies for titles such as Your Best Life Now and Become a Better You? Well, the easy answer is that Osteen and other writers like Myles Munroe or Rhonda Byrne (of The Secret ) are responding to a real need in the world.

People are searching for significance, we want to know and feel and believe that we matter. We crave recognition and we cringe at the notion of being forgettable or dispensable. We yearn to know that we count, and we will do anything and go to any length to attain this significance, and that is why for many of us, the first and easiest step would be to bury our faces in a How to Stop Worrying and Start Living (also by Carnegie).

I hear someone like Victoria Osteen advising people to worship God “for yourself”, and I have to admit that I get her. I can see where she is coming from and what she is trying to get at. I don’t know where her heart is, but my best guess is that she genuinely wants to help people. Many of the people who write self-help books also want to help people — and they do it the best way they know how.

Whether or not they also want to make money and become rich is another matter altogether.Just because I want to make money and be rich through journalism doesn’t make my other motives in pursuing this career (e.g. to speak truth to power and keep the government accountable) any less noble.

So, to the extent that there is a real need for personal edification and validation in the world, to the extent that there is a real need to succeed and win and avoid failure in life, to the extent that we are hardwired to want to be respected and “esteemed”, I fully support the notion of self-esteem. You see, the problem is not self-esteem, or our longing for it, the crux of the matter is HOW we go about satisfying this goal.

What’s even more disturbing is when we begin to speak as if the need does not exist, or worse, as if it should not exist. It is one thing to say that self-esteem should not be our ultimate goal or even a primary objective in life. But it is an entirely different thing to say that it doesn’t matter or that it is a wrong goal. There are many things we yearn and long for in this life, and most of these things cannot be attained by directly pursuing them. Things like contentment, or peace.

There are people who pursue contentment by acquiring things, because they think when they have enough things and enough relationships, they will finally be content. I believe the psychological term for this ultimate end is self-actualisation. They will finally be self-satisfied. Such people are pursuing a noble goal, but they are pursuing a misunderstood goal using the wrong means. To help such people, we should not disparage their goals and longings, instead, we should re-route and re-wire how they think about such longings.


This is where and how the Word of God helps us. The Bible does not just provide us with principles to apply when we want to achieve our personal goals. The Bible is more radical, it gives us new goals and new ways to think about old goals. The Word of God sets us right by renewing our thinking, and eventually our lives, to God’s will (His means and ends).

So, is self-esteem evil and is it wrong for a Christian to want self-esteem? I would respond by saying those are wrong questions. The questions assume that we are settled on who a Christian is in the first place. We may discover that if we stepped back from the question and explored what it means to be a Christian, we will discover a message that renders the question of self-esteem moot or irrelevant.

That message is the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and this is the message that should define our posture as we explore all subjects regarding human needs and wants and longings in this world. The Word of God is a good place to begin. In fact, it is the only place to begin. And if we trust in the God who authored this word and revealed it to us, we may also discover that this Word is also a good place to stop. Because it is the only place worth staying in.

For the fame of His name


PS: This will be among my last posts on Alien Citizens. No, I will not quit blogging, but I am planning to take a slightly different road, which begins by closing shop over here. I will update you all on the great migration. Have a blessed day, friends.


The Winemaker

image courtesy of
image courtesy of

I guess he hadn’t completely broken off ties with his family. For in this scene, we find Jesus still hanging out with his mum and even attending a wedding together. I wonder, was he a mama’s boy? John doesn’t tell us. But he does tell us that there was a wedding, and that the wedding was apparently under-budgeted. For we see the wine running out just as the happy-hour crowd is streaming in. We are not told what he was doing at the moment. We can try to speculate. Maybe he was chatting up a bride’s maid (I know, that doesn’t sound very Jesusy). Perhaps he was part of a mini-dancing contest; or maybe he was just relaxing at a corner table with his new-found friends and students enjoying the cake and the ambiance. We are really not sure, but we know that whatever he was doing was interrupted by a strange statement from his mother,

“They have no more wine.” (John 2:3)

He could have feigned ignorance and asked, “What are you telling me for? It’s not my wedding and I am not the wedding committee chairman.” Actually, he sort of said something similar (v. 4) but Mary ignored it.

He could have taken this as an exit cue, “I guess it’s time to leave then, isn’t it?

But he didn’t, even before these five stage-setting words left Mary’s lips and landed on Christ’s ears, they both knew that she was no longer talking to her son, but her master. She was giving Jesus the reins. Take over. Fix this. Do what you came to do, what you do best – the impossible. It’s time to flex those muscles son… I mean… Lord. You have to pause and admire Mary’s faith. Jesus had never performed a miracle, never walked on a puddle or healed a sniffle. At least not that we know of. But she was handing over a whole wedding in jeopardy to him, and you know just how crazy wedding plans can get.

You have to admire Mary’s faith because it is this kind of faith that’s missing in many of us, believers.

We’ve all been there; impossible deadlines, tragic headlines, dying relationships, shocking medical reports, and now weddings wading in impending doom. We’ve been there, we’ve witnessed our best laid plans hitting solid walls, we’ve wept as our best friends betrayed our trust, we’ve helplessly stood by hospital beds as heartbeats slowed down and death smacked its lips. We’ve been there, and we’ve been desperate. We have needed that glimmer of hope, that healing hand, that knight in shining armor. Only to find blank stares and no answers. And we have given up. Many times, countless times.


The answer to that why is simple, but it is not simplistic: We never spoke to Jesus about it; it never even came across our minds. Like Mary’s statement, a phrase like, “My girlfriend dumped me” doesn’t sound like something we would say to Jesus. It’s too open-ended. We half-expect him to respond with a blank “so what?” Yet, Jesus still attends weddings and He still turns water into wine. He still transforms empty shells of people into hope-filled souls. He still heals marriages and mends friendships.

So, instead of running around in desperation, dare to look up for affirmation. He won’t ignore you. Consider running your concerns by Him, however vain they sound to you. Mary did, and we know what happened. Water-jars were transformed into wine-jars as parched taste-buds were suddenly soaked in a divine taste of wine.

Give him your tears, and watch Him turn even that into wine.

Give Me a Perfect Marriage or Give Me Death!

“If we refuse to move, physically, morally, or psychologically, short of perfection, we will not have what we can have.” – Francis Schaeffer

The highlight of my 2013 reading list (so far) has to be the book True Spirituality by Francis Schaeffer. In this book, he talks about the various challenges that the Christian faces in his quest to be truly spiritual and live for Jesus in the everyday moments of his life. In Chapter 11: Substantial Healing of the Total Person, he  uses an insightful illustration about marriage. I thought I should share it with you. I found it quite helpful:

I am not to say, “I must be thus,” and if it is not thus, there is nothing but psychological despair. Some people are totally caught in this, but all of us have something of it within ourselves, swinging pendulum-like between conceit and despair. This is true not only in the psychological area, of course; it is true in all relationships of life. One does not have to have had much pastoral experience to have met married couples who refuse to have what they can have, because they have set for themselves a false standard of superiority.

They have set up a romanticism, either on the romantic side of love or the physical side, and if their marriage does not measure up to their own standards of superiority, they smash everything to the ground. They must have the ideal love affair of the century just because they are who they are! Certainly many of the multiple marriage and divorce situations turn upon just this point. One couple refuses to have less than what they have set as a romantic possibility, forgetting that the fall is the fall. Another may want sexual experience beyond what one can have in the midst of the results of the fall.

You suddenly see a marriage smashed – everything gone to bits, people walking away from each other, destroying something really possible and beautiful – simply because they have set a proud standard and refuse to have the good marriage they can have.

We wait for the resurrection of the body. We wait for the perfect application of the finished work of Christ for the whole man. We wait for this, but on this side of the fall, and before Christ comes, we must not insist on “perfection or nothing,” or we will end with the “nothing.”

There’s enough in there to munch on for weeks!


Blog Break (25 Feb 13)

Three reads to enrich your week. The first one is lengthy but timely. The second is brief and to the point. And the third one is, well, just read and find out:

  1. THE IDOL OF ‘OPEN’ OPTIONS: “We worship the god of open options. And he is killing us. He kills our relationships, because he tells us it’s better not to become too involved. He kills our service to others because he tells us it might be better to keep our weekends to ourselves. He kills our giving because he tells us these are uncertain financial times and you never know when you might need that money.”
  2. In I CHOOSE PEACE, Serah Njambi reminds Kenyans (with the General Elections a week away) that peace is not just a prayer that we make or a dream that we have, it is also a practical choice that we make. “We are a generation that knows our country’s history just as well as we are aware of the LadyBird Series fairy-tales. We often forget the price that was paid for liberty and so we trash it at any opportunity without thinking of the implications.”
  3. Finally, in LEAVING (CHRIST)IANITY, Michael Patton takes us through the stages that many people go through on their way to apostasy, losing their faith or simply leaving Christianity. “Ignorance. Pity. Shame. These are all word descriptions she associated with Christianity. However, through these superficial word descriptions, it was evident that the best root word to describe her feelings was “betrayal”.  She had been betrayed by the Church, because they duped her into a belief not unlike that of the tooth fairy or Santa Claus.”

Overall, may God inspire, comfort and admonish you through the reading of HIS WORD this week, friends.

Blog Break (22 Feb 13)

Here are three interesting reads to wrap up your week:

  1. In WHY THE AFTERLIFE BORES US, Russell Moore exhorts us to be a little more hopeful and enthusiastic about how life in heaven is going to be like. “We talk about all the questions we’ll ask about why this or that happened. We never think about whether we’ll be too busy to care about that, just like we’re too busy in the prime of our careers to ask our kindergarten teacher why she had snack time after recess rather than before.”
  2. THE LAST LAUGH, Are you a scoffer? Know of one? Then this is for you: “Scoffing isn’t new, or Solomon would not have had so much to say about it. But the internet age provides so much more opportunity: Every time a political or religious or entertainment figure does or says something a little out of the ordinary (such as take a sip of water during an important speech), the snarks have a field day.”
  3. Finally, in PERMISSION TO ACHE, Chelsea Kolz reminds us why it is important for us to never minimize the hurts of others in our attempts to comfort them. “Because my mother refused to diminish my pain, I grew through it. I started to recognize the longings of my heart as longings for God.”

Have a blessed reading time, friends.


Blog Break (15 Feb 13)

Here are three links to spruce up your weekend reading:

  1. In THE COMING ELECTIONS, Pastor Murungi of Trinity Baptist Church, Nairobi, appeals to Kenyan Christians (and Kenyans in general) to acknowledge the sovereignty of God in government, to assume responsibility for that government and to vote wisely. “Our great hope must not be in a new Government, as important as it is. The hope of Kenyans must be in the gospel of Jesus Christ, which can alone change the wicked heart.”
  2. WHEN MY LOVE GROWS COLD by Tim Challies, “I love Aileen and for that reason I love to spend time with her. What’s amazing is that the more time I spend with her, the more I love her. And the more I love her, the more time I want to spend with her. And the more time I spend with her, the more my love grows. And the more my love grows, well, you get the idea.”
  3. Finally, WHEN CHRISTIANS GET US DOWN AND LET US DOWN, David Murray exhorts us to find our solace in Jesus Christ, who was also let down, disappointed and abandoned by hypocrites. “The key to rebuilding our faith and our feelings is to think less about Christians and more about Christ.”

Have a blessed reading time.


Blog Break (28 Jan 13)

Here are three links to some enlightening and encouraging reads to start off your week:

  1. AUGUSTINE: ON EVIL is a summary of Augustine’s ontological description/explanation of evil. For those who often have to deal with the question of why an all-good and all-powerful God would allow (not create) evil, it is my hope that this article will enlighten and encourage you. “The point is that evil and good are related, but that the relationship is not symmetrical.  Evil (nothingness) is dependent upon good (existence), but good does not depend on evil.  So it is correct, by Augustine’s reasoning, to say “There can be no evil without good” whereas it is mistaken to say “There can be no good without evil.””
  2. D. A. Carson’s FOR THE LOVE OF GOD devotional for 26th January explores the mysterious nature of God’s providence: “Providence is mysterious. It must never be used to justify wrong actions or to mitigate sin: Isaac and his family are more than a little sleazy, Judas is a deceitful wretch, Haman is vile, and the Roman court trying Paul is more than a little corrupt. Yet God sovereignly rules, behind the scenes, bringing glory out of gore and honor out of shame.”
  3. Finally, in 13 REASONS CHRISTIANS DON’T HAVE TO BE AFRAID, Jonathan Parnell, quoting John Piper,  reminds us that fear is really just a distrust of God’s sovereignty, power and goodness.

May you find rest in God’s sovereignty. Have an enlightened and fearless day, friends.