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Self-acceptance in Christ – Part 1

Self-acceptance in Christ – Part 1

Part 1. An Interaction between biblical theology and self psychology
(the good, the bad, and the ugly) regarding the issue of self-esteem

By Bruce E. Atkinson, PhD
Special to Virtueonline
February 21, 2024


In the integrative field which I call Biblical Psychology (which includes Christian Counseling), there has been an ongoing debate about the role of self-esteem in the lives of believers in Jesus Christ. Is high self-esteem even the good thing that the secular world insists that it is? And for Christians, where do spiritual disciplines, self-denial, and the application of the Cross in our lives fit into the picture? What about the value of humility and not thinking too highly of yourself as Paul advised?

In 1984 I was attending Fuller Theological Seminary, working toward graduate degrees in both the School of Psychology and the School of Theology... and I was wrestling (both personally and academically) with this issue of self-esteem. What I discovered in both my study of theology and clinical research in the behavioral sciences was a mixed bag of expert opinions, with a lot of hints but no unequivocal answers to my questions. I sought to reconcile the various views, many of which appeared to be in opposition to each other. Over time I did discover several perspectives (regardless of their differences) that had some redeeming value for Christians who were struggling with the issues of self-esteem and self-worth.

According to the Psychology Today website: "Possessing little self-regard can lead people to become depressed, to fall short of their potential, or to tolerate abusive relationships and situations. Too much self-love, on the other hand, results in an off-putting sense of entitlement and an inability to learn from failures. It can also be a sign of narcissism, in which individuals may behave in a self-centered, arrogant, and manipulative manner. Perhaps no other self-help topic has spawned so much advice and so many (often conflicting) theories."

It is a verifiable fact that even Christians can drift into a personal hell of self-condemnation, self-hate, and despair (clinically this is usually associated with depression), or conversely the individual may become a master at denying their faults and exaggerating their virtues. Or, as with Bipolar Disorder, they may swing back and forth between the two opposite poles. Neither extreme is remotely descriptive of what it means to be "in Christ"-- having been saved, being sanctified, and starting to experience that "peace which passes understanding" (Phil 4:4-13). Biochemically speaking, anyone can potentially have a serious mental disorder, but true Christians do have spiritual resources to cope beyond that of others.

Paul was clear that the fruits of the Spirit as we mature include positive experiences such as love, joy, and inner peace (Galatians 5:22-23). How can a person who hates themselves have peace and joy? On the other hand, Paul also taught: "Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you." (Romans 12:3)

Therefore, in the midst of a class on the integration of psychology and theology, it was my decision to write an essay which would seek to reconcile and resolve the apparent differences in these perspectives. This current two-part article on VirtueOnline is an updated version of that essay.

Positive Psychology and the Elevation of Self

"Positive Psychology" is a term which refers to a highly popular psychological theory developed by Dr. Martin Seligman and others. It focuses on positive experiences (those things which create happiness and enjoyment) and positive traits of an individual (like resilience, appreciation of the good things in life, and compassion). Seligman and others before him were successful in moving the field of psychology away from its clinical emphasis on identifying symptoms of mental disorders (diagnosis) toward focusing on positive characteristics of human functioning.

Some of the roots of positive psychology can be found in the writings of early psychologists such as William James (1842 -- 1910, the 'father of American psychology'), Abraham Maslow (1908 -- 1970), and Carl Rogers (1902 -- 1987). William James argued that in order to study optimal human functioning thoroughly, one must consider the subjective experience of an individual. What makes a person happy? What motivates them and gives them the confidence to work toward specific goals? In his classic book "The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature," he looked at how religion impacts both external success in life and also the subjective experience of the individual.

Abraham Maslow proposed a hierarchy of human needs, with self-esteem situated just below the highest level of self-actualization. According to Maslow, we have five categories of needs: physiological, safety, love, esteem, and self-actualization; the higher needs in the hierarchy begin to emerge when people feel they have sufficiently satisfied the previous lower need. Maslow promoted the belief that individuals with high self-esteem are better equipped to fulfill their potential and contribute positively to society.

And in fact, research has consistently revealed that people with high self-esteem are more successful in both school and career, less depressed, less stressed, and tend to live longer than those who view themselves more negatively. Research has also repeatedly found that high self-esteem is correlated with greater initiative and activity, as well as with greater determination and stability in times of difficulty.

Carl Rogers was one of the founders of humanistic psychology and he developed "person-centered" psychotherapy. He emphasized the significance of a positive self-concept for personal growth and well-being. Rogers promoted his belief that the therapist needed to be non-judgmental, empathic, and to exhibit unconditional positive regard toward the client rather than providing advice. According to Rogerian psychotherapists, his client-centered therapeutic approach "allows clients to heal themselves in a safe space."

This pro-self-esteem emphasis in the culture quickly led to changes in the use of discipline in schools and homes, fueled by so-called child experts like Dr. Benjamin Spock. Spock was an American pediatrician and left-wing political activist whose book "Baby and Child Care" (published in 1946) is one of the best-selling books of the twentieth century --unfortunately. In schools, teachers were encouraged to reward children merely for participating, not for doing well. The over-emphasis on self-esteem and the minimization of discipline has led to generations of children being spoiled, entitled, and dependent even into their 30s...and many of the most talented among them have narcissistic traits.

Attempts to Integrate Christian Theology and Psychology

There is a growing body of research in the field of integration that confirms the common sense wisdom that believing one has intrinsic worth as a creation of God and is loved by God provides a powerful resource for resilience and strength when times are difficult. However, this helpful source of confidence cannot be labeled 'self-confidence' at all, but is rather 'God-confidence' (i.e., faith).

My own dissertation research was in this area. In a population of senior Christian females from assorted denominational backgrounds and socioeconomic status, it was found that greater spiritual/religious maturity (as measured by the Religious Status Interview) was positively related to fewer mental health symptoms (as measured by the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory-2). That is, in these women, the more spiritually-minded and religiously mature were less anxious or depressed. Is anybody surprised? But it helps in a secular culture to have scientific research verify what we already know from scripture and common sense.

Recognizing and accepting the spiritual reality that every individual is created in the image of God (Imago Dei) and is thus endowed with inherent worth and dignity can help a believer minimize self-rejection and the sense of worthlessness that can end in despair.

Christian teachings also emphasize the concept of God's unconditional love and His immense capacity for mercy and grace towards us. Understanding and internalizing God's love can foster a sense of security and intrinsic value, perhaps exemplifying what Jesus meant when He said, "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid." (John 14: 27, cf. John 14:2-3).

God's Incarnation into our world as a human being (Jesus) underlined the importance of each human being to God. As the Christmas carol O Holy Night (by Placide Cappeau) put it, "Long lay the world in sin and error pining, Till He appeared and the soul felt its worth."

This very God-man Jesus was given the dire responsibility as well as the privilege of saving humanity from ultimate annihilation (which it deserved). The Lord made this huge sacrifice during Passion Week, taking all human sin upon Himself and paying the just price. He died for each specific individual on that Cross. This is how much you and I are worth. But of course, each person must admit, as sinners, their need for the divine forgiveness and transformation that they can receive in no other way (Acts 4:12). Repentance is an honest form of self-rejection ("I blew it!") that reveals a desire for change... a desire that must occur prior to receiving salvation.

In addition to our creation in the image of God and the sacrifice made by God's Son for us, Christian doctrine underscores the importance of serving others and living a purposeful life aligned with God's will. Engaging in meaningful service generally enhances one's sense of purpose and, in turn, positively influences one's sense of worth as a co-worker with God in bringing His Kingdom to earth. As children of God, we have that immense privilege.

The Old Self Must Die as the New Self is Born

In these articles we must now turn inward with the help the scriptures and deal with some profound issues. The Apostle Paul wrestled (both personally and theologically) with the issue of the undeniable conflict between the flesh (our carnal selves-- "the old man") and the Spirit of God within us. In examining Romans 6, 7, and 8 we can see where "the flesh" as Paul uses the term has a much broader meaning than just referring to the desires and needs of our physical bodies. Psychologically, to be self-centered is very much "living in the flesh." Words like self-aggrandizement and even narcissism provide modern labels for this dynamic. (See my VOL article: https://virtueonline.org/narcissism-christian-psychologists-perspective ).

The unregenerated self (by definition this is confined to the 'flesh') is regarded by Paul as a temporary thing, fated for destruction. Even for the Christian, this self must die so that the eternal born-again self-in-Christ can fully emerge.
"I tell you a truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds." (John 12:24)

(Next week we will address performance-based self-esteem and also examine in some depth the roles that the Cross and 'dying to self' play in the transformational process, a process which results in a Christian's sanctification... with self-acceptance occurring as a positive side-effect.)

REFERENCES AND RESOURCES (for both Parts 1 & 2)

Atkinson, Bruce E. "From Facelessness to Divine Identity: An Analysis of C.S. Lewis's 'Till We Have Faces.'" The Lamp-Post, Vol. 15, Number 1, March, 1991.

Atkinson, Bruce E., & Malony, H. Newton. "Religious maturity and psychological distress among older Christian women." International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 1994, Vol 4(3), pp. 165-179.

Bonhoeffer, D. The Cost of Discipleship. NY: MacMillan, 1959.

Teilhard de Chardin, P. T. On Suffering. NY: Harper & Row, 1974 (p. 35).

Goldbrunner, J. Individuation. University of Notre Dame Press, 1964.

Grounds, V. "Unselfing the Self: A Pivotal Problem in Psychology and Theology."
Paper presented at the Finch Symposium, Fuller Theological Seminary, 1984.

Horney, K. Neurosis and Human Growth: The Struggle Toward Self-Realization. NY: Norton & Co., 1950.

Jabay, E. The Kingdom of Self. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1975.

Jabay, E. The Search for Identity. Palm Springs, CA: Haynes, 1981.

James, W. The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. This book comprises his edited Gifford Lectures on natural theology, which were delivered at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland between 1901 and 1902. The modern publication in 2009 includes a forward by Reinhold Niebuhr.

Lewis, C. S. Mere Christianity. NY: MacMillan, 1960.

Maslow, A. H. "A theory of human motivation." Psychological Review, 1943, 50(4), 370-396.

Maslow, A. H. The Farther Reaches of Human Nature. NY: Viking Press, 1971.

MacInnes, D. L. "Self‐esteem and self‐acceptance: an examination into their relationship and their effect on psychological health." Journal of Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing, 2006, 13(5), 483-489.

May, Rollo. Man's Search for Himself. NY: Norton & Co., 1953.

McLeod, S. "Maslow's hierarchy of needs." Simply Psychology, 2017. Retrieved from https://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html.

Myers, D. G., & Diener, E. "Who is happy?" Psychological Science, 1995, 6(1), 10-19.

Myers, D. G. The Inflated Self: Human Illusions and the Biblical Call to Hope. NY: Seabury Press, 1981.

Niebuhr, R. The Self and the Dramas of History. NY: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1955.

Oates, W. E. Christ and Selfhood. NY: Association Press, 1961.

Osborne, C. The Art of Understanding Yourself. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1967.

Psychology Today website: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/self-esteem

Rogers, Carl. On Becoming a Person. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1961.

Scazzero, Peter. Emotionally Healthy Spirituality Day by Day (p. 103). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

Seligman, M. Learned Optimism: How to Change your Mind and your Life. New York, NY: Vintage Books, 2006.

Solomon, C. R. Counseling with the Mind of Christ. Old Tappan, NJ: Revell, 1977.

Solomon, C. R. The Rejection Syndrome. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1982.

Bruce Atkinson is a graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary with a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and an M.A. in theology. He has an M.S. in research psychology from Illinois State U. and a B.A. from Beloit College. He is also a veteran of the USAF medical corps and served a term in Vietnam in aeromedical evacuation. He is Moderator and a frequent contributor for Virtue Online and is a member of the Anglican Church in North America.

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