I’ve been working on a manuscript by R. Scott Sullender, a psychologist at San Francisco Theological Seminary. Scott’s book is entitled Ancient Sins . . . Modern Addictions and is a wonderfully clear and refreshing review of addiction in the light of the Seven Deadly Sins. Here’s an excerpt in which he discusses what really constitutes healthy self-esteem.
It is difficult for many people to know where the boundaries are between low self-worth, healthy self-esteem, and too much self-esteem. Many times, these boundaries are determined by cultural and religious norms.
The normal, healthy valuing of one’s self is not a sin. Sin lies in the distortion of this normal human need in either direction—as too little self-esteem or too much self-esteem. Perhaps another way to talk about the distinction between pride and self-esteem, then, is to introduce the concept of honesty or truth. A healthy self-esteem is rooted in an honest self-appraisal. In contrast, pride as an over-inflation of one’s importance is rooted in dishonesty. In this sense, the sin of pride is inherently dishonest—no one is really that wonderful all the time. This is a denial of our human condition. The same argument can also be made from the other end of the continuum; extremely low self-esteem is also essentially dishonest because no one is that bad all the time. Low self-esteem is also a violation of our essential worth, both as naturally bestowed upon us in creation and as confirmed to us in divine revelation. In light of modern psychology, the sins of self-esteem are two-fold, a dishonesty in both directions: the sin of pride and the sin of low self-worth. If we use honesty as the measure of self-appraisal, one could be genuinely great or genuinely not so great. The sin lies in the inaccurate self-estimate. Indeed, the sin of pride, understood as an over-inflated view of oneself, does have this element of dishonesty or untruth. By definition, pride is essentially deceptive.
If too much self-esteem and too little self-esteem are both sins, how do we understand healthy self-esteem, especially from an informed theological perspective? For Christians, I would suggest that a healthy self-esteem lies in the biblical model of balance: love for God, love for others, and love for self. Jesus commands his disciples to love God and “to love others as yourself.” There is an implicit assumption of self-love, not more than is appropriate but in balance with loving God and loving one’s neighbors. The triangle of love—love of God, love of neighbor, and love of self—suggests a balance wherein each point of the triangle is both necessary and reinforcing of the two other points. The triangle is only as strong as its weakest link! The love of God helps keep our love of self in check. The love of neighbor reminds us that we are always in community, never in isolation. And the love of self helps us avoid co-dependency and fanaticism. The key is balance. A healthy self-esteem is not found in isolation, as our individualist Western culture often implies, but in balance with and ultimately reinforced and strengthened by our love of God and neighbor. This view of what constitutes a healthy self-esteem takes into account both the sin of too much self-esteem and the sin of too little self-esteem. Although the sin of pride is generally associated with too much self-esteem, this addiction is rooted in and sustained by errors in both directions.