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Are Your Relationships Driven by Self Esteem, or Humility?

Updated on July 9, 2011

For more on the discussion of self esteem, character, and humility in the workplace, listen to Kevin Swanson's Generations with Vision radio program titled "Whatever Happened to Character?"

We've all been around someone who is saturated with self confidence and self esteem. It oozes out in his handshake, drips from the angle of his chin, gleams in his eyes, and splashes all over the floor when he catches a reflection of himself in a store window or gets validation from your admiring eye. Your conversation with him is moistened by the knowledge that you are talking with An Important Person, and every topic that comes up is related, or becomes related, to his accomplishments or future plans. Often this Important Person with loads of self esteem will make you feel a little inferior in some way, though you know not how, yet you never doubt that this Person is impressive. People with high self esteem have no trouble gathering an admiring throng about them, landing all sorts of wonderful jobs, and filling their resumes with laud and honor. In fact, a recent Newsweek survey asked corporate managers to rate the most desirable qualities in a prospective employee. First on the list was experience, but a very close second (by only half a point) was self confidence. Third was good looks.

However, most of us count the people we love best as those who serve themselves least. We naturally enjoy the company of one who cares to know what's inside our hearts just as much or more than caring to tell what's inside his or her own heart. We love the quiet, sweet spirit of a friend or sibling who is content to admire without being admired back, to listen without being listened to, and to serve without being served. We are more than ready to praise and uplift these people, because they deserve our esteem by the very default that led them not to seek it.

Contrary to what culture preaches, high self esteem (aka. PRIDE) does not encourage healthy relationships, but rather harms them. Though an employer might look for self confidence in a potential employee, in the long run that employee will often prove himself to be so self-possessed and self-confident that he is unteachable and cannot receive negative feedback or instruction. My father is a small business owner and this is one principle that has proven itself again and again when he is hiring employees: those who are ready listeners and eager learners prove better employees in the long run than those who are self confident and independent.

Humility and Love Has Nothing to Do with Self Esteem!

According to the Bible, the real success of a relationship is based upon how much lowliness of mind and selfless love are the driving force behind all that is thought, said, and done. In fact, Philippians 2:3-4 identifies the best kind of relationship as the relationship in which each member esteems the other more highly than himself.

Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others.

A few verses later, Paul, the author of Philippians, describes the lowest self esteem he knows: God humbling Himself to become man and submitting Himself to unimaginable tortures to save the ones He loves. Love does not seek its own, echoes 1 Cor. 13. The fictitious Important Person of the first paragraph has no idea how to esteem others highly, because there is no room in his mind for anyone else's interests, needs, or desires but his own. All his energy for relationships is channeled into building connections with people who will boost his self esteem or who will push him towards more success or popularity.

Jesus was the opposite. His relationships with the people closest to Him were marked with humility and graciousness. The people He chose as His closest friends were often clueless about His greatness, made awkward remarks at inopportune moments (Matthew 17:4-5), came from lowly fisherman lineage, had no connection with church or political leaders, and bickered amongst themselves about who was better. Jesus wasn't necessarily going to be highly esteemed or admired because of the quirky crowd of friends He had gathered around Himself, yet these were the men He associated with, and died for. He literally "made Himself of no reputation."

Keep a Humble Heart

If Jesus' relationships were characterized by humility and self-sacrifice, then ours should be too. There is an overwhelming amount of Biblical principles for relationships that involve humility.

"Esteem others more highly than yourself..."

How much thought energy do you spend focusing on your own talents or pursuing your own comforts? As I wrote in a previous article, self esteem is overrated. The idea that self esteem matters is one of the biggest lies of the century. In its place should be the only esteem that really matters: the highest of esteem for God, and next, high esteem for others. Instead of looking inward when you are working through a relationship, look outward. Look at the other person's good qualities and choose to forgive their bad ones. Focus on the magnificent genius of God in making the other person as unique as He did. Look for more of the other person's talents, gifts, and strengths to marvel at every time you meet him or her. Stop looking at yourself and your desires, wondering how highly the other person esteems you, and start thinking of how highly you can esteem the other person. What are their struggles right now? What are their desires or needs? What are their strengths? What is admirable or honorable about them? Forcing your mind to focus more on the other person than yourself is the first step to esteeming others more highly than you esteem yourself, because you won't even be thinking about yourself!

Face the facts. What is there in yourself that requires so much mental focus? Strive to keep that lowliness of mind that is so precious in the sight of God.

"Do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others."

Being able to serve others, especially those who you may consider "beneath" you, is another way to cultivate humility in your relationships. The verse quoted in this title is just a rephrasing of the golden rule we are so familiar with: "do unto others as you would have them do unto you." If you haven't taken the time to put yourself in someone else's shoes, then do so now. If you were that person, what would make you blessed? Sometimes your idea for serving someone might not really please them or help them at all. Perhaps you are making them uncomfortable because you haven't really thought about how best to meet their needs. Stretch your mind a bit to think outside the box of self that you usually think in.

Look for ways to serve that won't bring you limelight. Is there a messy task? Something menial, simplistic, or boring? Perhaps there is a need that you can meet that would require you to get down on your hands and knees in the dirt (either literally or figuratively). Are you willing to risk ridicule or disgust from those around you in order to serve someone else more effectively? Sometimes humble service requires a level of empathy that you may be embarrassed to give, or don't even know how to give. Learn how to weep with those who weep, even if it makes your nose run and eyes red. Think of Christ, who "emptied Himself." Paul emphatically desired the same, saying, "Even if I am being poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrifice and service or your faith, I rejoice and share my joy with you all." (Philp. 2: 17). A few verses later, Paul wants to make sure the Philippians know how special Paul's young intern, Timothy, is, speaking of this humble young man in glowing terms. "For I have no one else of kindred spirit who will genuinely be concerned for your welfare. For they all seek after their own interests, not those of Christ Jesus." May it not be said of us that we sought after our own interests.

John Calvin
John Calvin

"Hold men like him in high regard."

Paul is speaking of Epaphroditus, who went to such great lengths to serve the church that he nearly died of illness. Such examples of sacrificial humility should be praised and studied, as Paul commands, though often people like Epaphroditus are hard to find because they don't parade themselves or make a show of their service. They do not serve others to increase their own self esteem or to earn brownie points, so they are often easier to identify by their worn-out bodies and tattered clothing than by the hero's cape blowing from their shoulders.

Often the men who have done most for the kingdom of God are the ones who are the most sickly, unknown, fatigued Christian workers you can find. John Bunyan was imprisoned during the years he wrote Pilgrim's Progress, William Carey had a lunatic wife and was often ill while he blazed the first path for the Christian gospel in India, John Calvin suffered from dysentery and all sorts of physical weaknesses because he was too busy shepherding his flock to take care of himself, and Joni Eareckson Tada would never have had the influence she has had if God had not brought her to such extreme physical handicap as He did. A recurring theme in the Bible is "that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called: but God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; and base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are: that no flesh should glory in his presence. But of him are ye in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption: that, according as it is written, He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord."

If you are going to glory in something, or to highly esteem somebody, then let it be the Lord, and those who the Lord highly esteems, like Epaphroditus.

Is Self Esteem Ever Profitable in a Relationship?

If we are still asking this question, then we haven't really understood man's position in the universe yet. It is far more blessed to give than to receive, far more beautiful to honor than to receive honor, for we are human and fallible, and our most charitable works are just filthy rags (Is. 64. 6). We are nothing except for what God has put into us.

To be given high esteem from another is to be given something we do not deserve, but to give ourselves high esteem is to steal, lie, and cheat to get something we now deserve even less. It's true that the opposite end of the spectrum has the down-and-out dredges of humanity who are so consumed with self-hatred that they cannot lift their hands to worship Christ, much less to see a reason to keep living from day to day. These are the ones who need to get their focus off themselves just as much as the Very Important People of the first paragraph. Any sort of mental obsession with self is not edifying for any relationship, nor healthy for any individual.

God's jealous desire to receive all glory, laud, and honor is an appropriate one, because He deserves it! When we obey Him and give Him what is due His name, we are joining the everlasting alignment of all creation towards heaven's throne room. Our little spheres of influence in this world fall into place as we realize that they, too, are aligned under the natural and moral law that God established before you were even a gleam in your mother's eye. Imagine the liberty of relationships when you don't have to worry about pleasing self, not offending self, keeping self happy and well-fed, building self's esteem up so self doesn't throw a tantrum. Instead, remember your Creator in the days of your youth. Humble yourself and He will lift you up. Build up the body of Christ—the Christians in your local church is a good place to start—and take care to be carefree about taking care of yourself.


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