How We’re Sunk by Self-Esteem
How We’re Sunk by Self-Esteem
There’s one area where American high-schoolers consistently rank first out of all the high-schoolers in the world. It’s not reading. Last year we ranked 24th in the world, behind Slovenia and Macau. It’s not science. We’re #25, behind Portugal and Vietnam. It’s not math. We’re #39, behind Latvia, Malta, and Slovakia.
American students consistently rank near the bottom of the developed world in every area except for one: self-confidence about their math skills. We’re the best in the world at believing we’re the best in the world! We’re #1 in self-esteem.
That’s the result of the self-esteem movement that was launched in the 1960’s. Teachers and parents believed that their kids would do better in school and in life if they just felt better about themselves. It didn’t quite work out the way they hoped. Our sky-high self-esteem hasn’t made us perform any better than we did before. It hasn’t even made us feel any better about ourselves. The psychologists and psychiatrists in our church tell me that the rates of depression and anxiety have gone through the roof over the past few decades.
Thinking better about ourselves doesn’t work. Thinking more about ourselves doesn’t work. We need a new strategy.
That’s what King Nebuchadnezzar discovered a few thousand year ago. If there was anyone in history who had a reason to have high self-esteem, it was him. He built the greatest empire the world had seen up to that point. It went all the way from Egypt in the West, to Iran in the East. From Turkey in the north, to Saudi Arabia in the South. He built the biggest city the world had ever seen, and it was beautiful. One of the seven wonders of the ancient world was the hanging gardens of Babylon. He was kind of a big deal. And he knew it:
As he was walking on the roof of the royal palace in Babylon, the king exclaimed, “Is this not Babylon the Great that I have built to be a royal residence by my vast power and for my majestic glory?” (Daniel 4:29-30)
You get the idea that this is what Neb does every night after work. He goes up to his roof with a glass of wine, admires his creation, and says, “Is this not Babylon the Great that I have built to be a royal residence by my vast power and for my majestic glory?”
There’s two big components of self-esteem you can see here:
Obsession with our own performance
Nebuchadnezzar says, “I built Babylon … by my vast power.” And it’s true. Babylon never would have existed if it weren’t for Nebuchadnezzar. But as God is reminds him later, “You never would have existed if it weren’t for my vast power.”
How often does God need to say the same thing to us? When you get a win in your career or your family, what do you think? “It happened because I’m smarter than other people. Because I’m more hard-working than other people. Because I’m more disciplined than other people. Because I’m more holy than other people, and that’s why God blessed me.”
When you get criticized for something, what do you think? Your wife says, “You never do anything romantic anymore!” What do you say? “That’s not true! I gave you flowers on Valentine’s Day!” even though that was a year ago. We’re so often obsessed with our own performance.
Obsession with our own glory
Nebuchadnezzar says, “I have built a royal residence by my vast power and for my majestic glory.” He’s built Babylon as a monument to himself. He’s doing everything so people will be impressed by him.
Isn’t that the reason why we do so many of the things we do? Why are we busy and over-committed? So people will be impressed. Why do we go on diets? We say it’s for health, but if we’re honest, it’s so people will be impressed. Why are we shy sometimes? Why do we second-guess ourselves? Why do we avoid doing things where we might fail? It’s because we’re scared that people might not be impressed. We’re so often obsessed with own glory.
Just like Nebuchadnezzar. As he launches into his nightly superhero-movie-villain monologue, it says:
While the words were still in the king’s mouth a voice came from heaven: “King Nebuchadnezzar, to you it is declared that the kingdom has departed from you. You will be driven away from people to live with the wild animals, and you will feed on grass like cattle for seven periods of time, until you acknowledge that the Most High is ruler over human kingdoms, and he gives them to anyone he wants.” (Daniel 4:31-32).
God’s saying, “Hey, you want to keep bragging about your performance and your glory? You think you’re more than a man? Well, I’m going to make you less than a man. I’m going to make you into an animal.”
Because that’s what an over-inflated self-esteem does to you: it turns you into an animal. Animals only look out for themselves. They don’t love. I know you think your dog loves you, but he doesn’t. He’s only manipulating you for your doggy treats. An animal is incapable of loving you, or loving God. He can only look out for himself.
And it takes seven years living naked in the forest before Nebuchadnezzar finally realizes that:
At the end of those days, I, Nebuchadnezzar, looked up to heaven, and my sanity returned to me. Then I praised the Most High and honored and glorified him who lives forever: For his dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom is from generation to generation. … At that time my sanity returned to me, and my majesty and splendor returned to me for the glory of my kingdom. My advisers and my nobles sought me out, I was reestablished over my kingdom, and even more greatness came to me. (Daniel 4:34,36)
Nebuchadnezzar finally learned to look away from himself, and look to God’s glory, power, and provision. As a result, he was exalted higher than he had ever been before. Because the promise of Jesus in Matthew 23:12 has always been true, and always will be true:
Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.