Book Review – Self-Esteem (Joanna & Alister McGrath)

Self-esteem is a topic that preachers cannot ignore. We know that there are many who feel “worthless” and that the gospel must in some way address this. But does it do so by simply telling us we are in fact great so need not feel bad, or by telling us that we are sinners and so are right to feel the way we do? Both approaches have been taken, and neither seems satisfactory as a Christian approach to self-esteem.

Joanna & Alister McGrath are well placed to contribute to this debate owing to their expertise in the fields of psychology and theology respectively. The early chapters function as a primer on the secular understanding of “self-esteem”.

They provide the following working definition of self-esteem:

Self-esteem consists of a global evaluation or judgment about personally acceptability and worthiness to be loved, which carries with it pleasant or unpleasant feelings. It is strongly related to the perceived views of the person by important others in his or her life.

They then explore the different things on which self-esteem is typically based – the roles we fulfill and our performance of them, our “pedigree”, the love of others for us, and our eternal significance. There is an interesting discussion of the different reasons we ascribe to our successes and failures (whether we see ourselves as the cause or whether we see external factors as having caused them) and how this relates to our self-evaluation of worth.

There is a chapter that explores the relationship between negative self-esteem and various mental illnesses and personality disorders. One important concept they explore is that of “attachment” and “separation” in a parent-child relationship. Feelings of abandonment lead to low self-esteem, whilst a sense of attachment brings positive self-esteem.

At the mid-point of the book, they bring in a Christian critique of the prevailing secular understandings of self-esteem. Christians should neither uncritically accept or deny secular findings. However, the main weakness they note in secular approaches is the denial of the problem of sin. A Christian understanding of sin is deeply counter-cultural. Christianity offers freedom, but sin brings bondage.

Secular approaches assume that we do not need to question the way we are. We need not seek anything beyond the realm of this world. And, for the Christian, this inevitably means that those who rely upon secular therapies will remain captive to sin.

Also, secular approaches such as cognitive behavioural therapy are simply content with attaining “realistic” goals, whilst Christ confronts us with absolute moral demands and calls us to be perfect. Rather than destroying the self-esteem of the Christian, our failure to achieve this has the positive effect of driving us to rely on the grace of God rather than upon our own resources. Thus our self-esteem is not based upon achievements (as in many secular approaches) but on grace.

The remaining section of the book is theological and practical, explaining that the cross is the Christian basis for self-esteem and confidence. In a great chapter on the cross, sin is likened to a disease, which God cures through the work of Christ on the cross. This healing is currently ongoing, and so our self-esteem should not be compromised by an awareness of sin. There is also a very helpful explanation of “justification by faith” in relational terms – we are in right relation with God.

The theme of separation and attachment is revisited in a chapter on the fatherhood of God. We find a deep longing fulfilled as we are reconciled to God and adopted. Another chapter works through the book of Philippians to explore how the gospel brings us a contentment and joy in all circumstances that comes as we follow Christ’s example of true humility.

The final chapter is very practical, explaining how Christians can help develop healthy self-esteem through affirming and accepting one another, and teaching on the significance of being “attached” to Christ. There is also a very useful section on the difficult topic of criticism. Our desire to affirm and accept one another does not mean that we will never criticise, but that it is done in the context of knowing one another deeply, being committed to one another, and is to be done simultaneously with affirmation and with a view to redirecting behaviour (rather than merely condemning).

This book is a good mixture of educational (on secular theories of self-esteem), theological and practical material. It will be of particular benefit to preachers and teachers who want to address issues of self-esteem, but are unsure as to what the best approach is. The answer is of course that the gospel, truly preached and rightly understood is central to helping people to develop a right evaluation of not just what they were but how God sees them and what he intends to do in them.

3 thoughts on “Book Review – Self-Esteem (Joanna & Alister McGrath)

  1. Mark I’m surprised you gave this such a positive review. I was listening to a CJ Mahaney preach just the other day on idolatry, and he slams the theraputic gospel big-time.

    I have to admit that the whole idea of ‘self’-esteem seems somewhat unbiblical to me. Our problem is not low self-esteem but low God-esteem. We are not empty love-cups waiting to be filled. We are to be lost in a purpose and a person that is much greater than ourselves so that we can be less focussed on ‘self’ and more enamoured with the glory and wonder of Jesus Christ.

    An interesting read that is counter to this book is ‘When People Are Big And God Is Small’ by Edward T. Welch.


  2. I think this book is far from being a “therapeutic gospel”. They do not reject the concept of “self-esteem” out of hand, but they are certainly critical of the way Christians have adopted a secular approach. And they are very clear that the only basis for confidence is in the cross.

    I would agree with you that the term “self-esteem” isn’t that helpful, and the church needs to be much clearer on the what the gospel is, rather than presenting the goal of Christianity as the being a “good self-esteem”

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