One of the striking things about the self-esteem movement is its tremendous appeal to those both within and without the Church. Like their counterparts in the world, many Christian psychologists (and even many pastors, elders, and theologians) are claiming that a person must first learn to love himself before he can be expected to love others (including God). One minister has even called for a “Second Reformation” in which the non-self-affirming notes struck during the first one (with its “medieval” emphasis on sin) are no longer sounded.
Adams could not disagree more. The turn toward self is not a temporary one in preparation for loving others and God, as self-esteem advocates claim. It is rather a journey into spiritual solipsism that ends in moral heresy and, if taken to its conclusion, suicidal boredom. A voice crying in the wilderness!
With his ax on the root of the problem, Adams argues that it is simply not the case that we “need” all we are told we “need.” Actually, only one thing is truly needful, says Adams, quoting Jesus; all else is a matter of “desire.” And we most certainly do not “need” first to cultivate a love for ourselves before we can “love our neighbor as ourselves”; for we already love ourselves, says Adams, this time quoting Paul.
Readers coming from a grace perspective will particularly appreciate Adams’s response to the theological and biblical arguments offered in support of self-esteem teaching. It is simply not the case, he writes, that our being created in the image of God teaches inherent self-worth. Quite the contrary; it teaches the worth of Him whose image we are. Adams compares man to a photograph that in itself is just so much paper; but it is valued nonetheless because of the one whose image it bears. Neither is it the case that our value can be deduced from the fact that Christ died for us. Writes Adams: “Among the many other problems in the self-worth movement [this one] stands out for its close affinity with heresy.” Christ’s death reveals not our worth, but His grace. What took place on Calvary was not a good buy, but a sacrifice offered sola gratia, indeed, sola misericordia.
In his final chapters Adams makes the case that the Christian life calls for just the opposite of self-affirmation, namely, self-denial. He also defends traditional formularies and hymns (like “Amazing Grace”) that present a biblical, albeit “unflattering,” view of human nature.
Near the end of the book Adams allows himself to be drawn into a particularly revealing exchange with one self-esteem advocate. Observing that the self-image of many Christians is terribly low, this author complains that many “even wonder how God could love such a person as themselves…[and are] amazed that God forgave them their sins in the first place.” Writes Adams, “I am still amazed; aren’t you?”