James Dobson &The Gospel of Self-Esteem

By Martin and Deidre Bobgan
[The following consists of further extracts from the book by Martin and Deidre Bobgan--Prophets of Psychoheresy II, available from Eastgate Publishers, 4137 Primavera Road, Santa Barbara, Calif. 93110. This 310-page book critiques the teaching of James Dobson. All notes and references have been omitted from this article; for these we refer our readers to the book.]

The concept of self-esteem dominates Dobson's work. It began in his first book, came to full bloom in his second book, and serves as a major presupposition throughout the rest of his writing and speaking. In Dare to Discipline he says:

"Self-esteem is the most fragile attribute in human nature; it can be damaged by a very minor incident and its reconstruction is often difficult to engineer."

The major theme and purpose of Dobson's book Hide or Seek: How to Build Self-esteem in Your Child is increasing self-esteem. He says:

"It has been my purpose to formulate a well-defined philosophy--an approach to child-rearing--which will contribute to self-esteem from infancy onward."

One of his primary objectives for What Wives Wish Their Husbands Knew about Women is to "point the pathway toward greater self-esteem and acceptance."

For Dobson, self-esteem, self-worth, self-acceptance and their related self-words are crucial, not only for the individual but for society as well. He contends that "low self-esteem is a threat to the entire human family, affecting children, adolescents, the elderly, all socioeconomic levels of society, and each race and ethnic culture."

As with most promoters of self-esteem, Dobson equates low self-esteem with feelings of inadequacy, inferiority, self-doubt, and an inadequate sense of personal worth. He continues his litany of woe for a society which does not do all it can to increase personal worth and self-esteem. He says:

"The matter of personal worth is not only the concern of those who lack it. In a real sense, the health of an entire society depends on the ease with which its individual members can gain personal acceptance.

"Thus, whenever the keys to self-esteem are seemingly out of reach for a large percentage of the people, as in twentieth-century America, then wide spread `mental illness,' neuroticism, hatred, alcoholism, drug abuse, violence, and social disorder will certainly occur ... Personal worth is not something human beings are free to take or leave. We must have it, and when it is unattainable, everybody suffers."

He contends that social problems are the direct result of people unsuccessfully trying to deal with inferiority, or feelings of self-doubt. He was even named a law after himself. "Dobson's Law" says: "When the incidence of self- doubt is greatest, accompanied by the unavailability of acceptable solutions, then the probability of irresistible social disorder is maximized."

He further declares, "Inferiority even motivates wars and international politics." In fact, he attributes the attempted genocide of the Jews in Germany to an inferiority complex.

Things get reversed when discussing inferiority. Suddenly, the most egotistical people are excused with a diagnosis of inferiority. It begins to sound like Isaiah's prophecy--"Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter" (Isa. 5:20).

Not only that, Dobson declares that inferiority feelings are "the major force behind the rampaging incidence of rape today." Thus low self-esteem is viewed as the cause of all kinds of problems, and high self-esteem is considered to be an absolute necessity for survival.

The self-esteem movement began back in the third chapter of Genesis. Adam and Eve answered the Lord with the first example of self- justification. First, Adam blamed Eve and God, and then Eve blamed the serpent. The fruit of the knowledge of good and evil spawned the sinful self, with all its self-love, self-esteem, self-acceptance, self-justification, self-righteousness, self- ctualization, self-denigration, self-pity, and other forms of self-focus and self-centeredness.

To psychologists such as Dr. Dobson, the self is both the center and evaluator of experience, and its needs must be met. Lest this sound selfish and self-centered, the proponents of the self assure us that only through meeting the needs of the self can people become socially aware and responsive.

The logic follows this pattern: only when a person loves himself can he love others; only when a person accepts himself can he accept others; and only when his needs are met can he meet the needs of others. This logic is the underlying justification for most of what goes on in humanistic psychology, and it spills over into almost every other issue of life.

The Lord Jesus Christ does not command self-love, but rather love for God and love for one another. Rather than promoting self-love as the basis for loving others, the Bible says that God's love is the true source, and God's love is self-giving. Therefore, when Jesus calls His disciples to deny self and to take up His yoke and His cross, He is calling them to a self-giving love, not a self-satisfying love.


Until the advent of humanistic psychology and its heavy influence in the church, Christians generally thought of self-esteem as a sinful attitude. In the seventeenth century Stephen Charnock wrote: "Self-esteem, self- dependence, self-willedness, is denying affection and subjection to God." A.W. Pink quoted Charnock when he wrote:

"Well has it been said, `To dispossess a man, then, of his self-esteem and self-sufficiency, to make room for God in the heart where there was none but for sin, as dear to him as himself, to hurl down pride of nature, to make stout imaginations stoop to the cross, to make designs of self- advancement sink under a zeal for the glory of God and an overruling design for His honor, is not to be ascribed to any but to an outstretched arm wielding the sword of the Spirit'."

Also in the seventeenth century, Richard Baxter identified self-esteem with pride and conceit. And in the nineteenth century, C.H. Spurgeon described the poor in spirit (of the beatitudes) as having "an absence of self-esteem."

Dobson objects to such "worm" theology as sinking down before God in a humility that confesses its nothingness, for he confuses recognizing one's own depravity with self-hatred and personal disgust. He says:

"Nowhere do I find a commandment that I am to hate myself and live in shame and personal disgust. Unfortunately, I know many Christians who are crushed with feelings of inferiority. Some have been taught this concept of worthlessness by their church."

While groveling about in one's own worthlessness can be just as self- centered as parading about in pride, focusing on personal worthiness and self-esteem is not the way out.

Lest anyone suppose that a Christian who comes face to face with the reality of his own depravity is left wallowing in the mud of his own selfhood, we must recall the context of a proper low view of self. Jim Owen gives us a glimpse of a biblical experience of self and God:

"There are moments in every true believer's life, I believe, when they are so overwhelmed by a sense of their own sinfulness and vileness before the fearful and unfathomable holiness of God, so stunned by it, that it puts them on their hands and knees in unutterable shame and repentance."

"But it doesn't stop there. For then there follows such an overwhelming realization of the depth and breadth and height of God's mercy and grace given to us in Christ Jesus, that they just stay there, on the floor, adoring and praising and thanking Him in all humility and unfeigned gratitude."

Have Christians lost sight of the grandeur of God's mercy and love? Have Christians forgotten what the Cross is all about? Is that why the church is so infatuated with self-esteem and self-love?

Dobson does not stand alone. He is surrounded by a host of other psychologists and by a multitude of Christian leaders who preach self-love, self-worth, and self-esteem. While Dobson does not totally agree with all self-esteemers, he is in concert with many. One is Charles Swindoll, whom he quotes on certain theological issues.


To list the ministries and preachers who repeat the theme of self-esteem would consist of a "Who's Who" of "big names" in the evangelical world as well as a multitude of pastors who guide their flocks to this polluted stream. With them, the so-called need for self-esteem is no longer a question. It is an assumption, eating away at the very pillars of the church.

Dobson places a heavy emphasis on so-called needs, especially those of women and children. He stresses "unmet needs" and "emotional needs" of women. He believes that "ego needs" motivate more daily behavior than anything else.

He sees personal worthiness as one of those central needs, so central that he says, "...the human mind constantly searches and gropes for evidence of its own worthiness." Thus, instead of discouraging such self-seeking, Dobson encourages women and children to believe in their own worthiness.

Dobson parrots the secular faith in meeting needs. He quotes William Glasser as saying, "At all times in our lives we must have at least one person who cares about us and whom we care for ourselves. If we do not have this essential person, we will not be able to fulfill our basic needs."

This is, of course, not the Gospel Jesus preached. This is a secular gospel of meeting emotional needs, not a biblical Gospel. The focus is on me and my needs, not on God and His love and my love for Him and others.


Dobson also follows the humanistic psychologists when he differentiates between how women and men meet their so- called needs for self-worth. He says that "men derive self-esteem by being respected; women feel worthy when they are loved. In fact, Dobson is so certain about the importance of meeting so-called needs for self-esteem that he declares:

"If I had the power to communicate only one message to every family in America, I would specify the importance of romantic love to every aspect of feminine existence. It provides the foundation for a woman's self-esteem, her joy in loving, and her sexual responsiveness."

According to Dobson, self-esteem is fragile and easily damaged. He says:

"Every age poses its own unique threats to self-esteem ... little children typically suffer a severe loss of status during the tender years of childhood. Likewise, most adults are still attempting to cope with the inferiority experienced in earlier times."

Contrary to what Dobson says, research indicates that children are skillful at maintaining strong self-esteem from a very early age. In fact, they seem to be born with it. Even under the most adverse circumstances, children will value themselves and even build positive illusions to protect themselves from feelings of inferiority.

After examining the research on self-perception, Dr. Shelley Taylor, a professor of psychology at UCLA, wrote the book Positive Illusions: Creative Self-Deception and the Healthy Mind. She says:

"Before the exigencies of the world impinge upon the child's self-concept, the child is his or her own hero. With few exceptions, most children think very well of themselves. They believe they are capable at many tasks and abilities, including those they have never tried.

"They see themselves as popular. Most kindergartners and first-graders say they are at or near the top of the class. They have great expectations for their future success. Moreover, these grandiose assessments are quite unresponsive to negative feedback, at least until approximately age seven."

Though slightly dampened with reality, positive self-regard continues into adulthood. Here are some of the results of Taylor's investigations:

"Most adults hold very positive views of themselves. When asked to describe themselves, most people mention many positive qualities and few, if any, negative ones. Even when people acknowledge that they have faults, they tend to down-play those weaknesses as unimportant or dismiss them as inconsequential. ... Thus, far from being balanced between positive and negative conceptions, the image that most people hold of themselves is heavily weighted in a positive direction.

"Most people, for example, see themselves as better than others and as above average on most of their qualities. When asked to describe themselves and other people, most people provide more positive descriptions of themselves than they do of friends. Most people even believe that they drive better than others. For example, in one survey, 90 percent of automobile drivers considered themselves to be better than average drivers."


But while the research seems to indicate [and the Bible teaches] that both children and adults tend to esteem themselves more highly than they ought, Dobson believes just the opposite. He fully believes that feelings of inferiority and self-hatred run rampant through society. Here is his emotional appeal to parents to protect their children from the terrible "agony of inferiority":

"Thus, if inadequacy and inferiority are so universally prevalent at all ages of life at this time, we must ask ourselves, `Why?' Why can't our children grow up accepting themselves as they are? Why do so many feel unloved and unlovable? Why are our homes and schools more likely to produce despair and self-hatred than quiet confidence and respect? Why should each child have to bump his head on the same old rock? These questions are of major significance to every parent who would shield his child from the agony of inferiority."

When Dobson refers to the "agony of inferiority," he is not speaking of actual inferiority, but rather the experience and feelings of inferiority or low self-esteem. He believes that such feelings are excruciating. He further contends that "the most dominant force" which motivates people is avoidance of that pain. He says:

"You see, damage to the ego (loss of self- worth) actually equals or exceeds the pain of physical discomfort in intensity ... So painful is its effect that our entire emotional apparatus is designed to protect us from its oppression. In other words, a sizable proportion of all human activity is devoted to the task of shielding us from the inner pain of inferiority. I believe this to be the most dominant force in life, even exceeding the power of sex and its influence."


Dobson is among the "almost all psychologists" who "have come to take for granted" those "fundamental assumptions about motivation." Therefore Dobson blames low self-esteem for causing all kinds of problems and touts high self-esteem as an absolute necessity for survival. Thus raising children's self-esteem appears to be the motive behind all of his advice in Hide or Seek.

While some of Dobson's strategies and suggestions line up with biblical principles of child-rearing, the motives and goals differ. While the Bible tells us to love, value and esteem our children, it does not tell us to raise their self-esteem. We are to love, value, esteem, and instruct our children so that they will grow up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, so that they might become His loving children and His obedient servants. The self-esteem motive and goal are man-centered, while the biblical motive and goal are Christ-centered.

Like his humanistic counterparts, Dobson gives methods for boosting self- esteem. In Hide or Seek, which is based on the premise that self-esteem is a crucial need of every person, he has a section entitled "Strategies for Self-esteem," in which he suggests "ways to teach a child of his genuine significance."

In this section he stresses the method of developing self-esteem through achievement. He does this in an attempt to counteract negative responses from others which may be based on damaging evaluations of such things as beauty or intelligence.

Dobson stresses achievement as the road to self-esteem and suggests ways for parents to help their children "compensate." On the surface, such a strategy sounds admirable. But what might parents be communicating? Would children then learn that they can feel good about themselves if they are better than others? And should Christians base human worth on achievements and success according to the world's standards?

Compensation is the attempt to make up for a deficiency. A person may thus compensate for his inabilities in one area by achieving in another area. Dobson even attributes power for success to what he calls "the need to compensate." He says:

"The power behind these and other kinds of success almost invariably springs from the need for self-worth--the need to prove something about one's adequacy--the need to compensate!"

He declares: "Succinctly stated, compensation is your child's best weapon against inferiority." However, the very idea of compensation implies that we will feel better about ourselves if we are in some way better than others.

Rather than emphasizing biblical standards and behavior, compensation emphasizes comparing ourselves with each other, which the Bible calls unwise (2 Cor. 10:12). Furthermore, such compensation may lead to competitiveness which nurtures pride rather than love for others.

In his book What Wives Wish Their Husbands Knew about Woman, he declares the following:

"Feelings of self-worth and acceptance, which provide the cornerstone of a healthy personality, can be obtained from only one source ... Self-esteem is only generated by what we see reflected about ourselves in the eyes of other people. It is only when others respect us that we respect ourselves. It is only when others love us that we love ourselves. It is only when others find us pleasant and desirable and worthy that we come to terms with our own egos."


In response to this statement, Dr. Robert Smith says: "In John 12:43 is Christ's criticism of people who loved the praise of men more than the praise of God. Self-esteem philosophy teaches us that we must have the praise of men before we can function properly."

One of Dobson's primary purposes of writing Preparing for Adolescence was to help teenagers deal with feelings of self-doubt, inferiority, and low self-esteem. He declares that the adolescent years are "the most stressful and threatening time of life" with "scary physical changes," "sexual anxieties," "self-doubt and feelings of inferiority," which at times seem "unbearable." His first chapter is "The Secret of Self-esteem." Dobson dramatically describes the "Agony of Inferiority" or the "feeling of hopelessness that we call `inferiority'." He says:

"It's that awful awareness that nobody likes you, that you're not as good as other people, that you're a failure, a loser, a personal disaster; that you're ugly, or unintelligent, or don't have as much ability as someone else. It's that depressing feeling of worthlessness."

Dobson bemoans, "What a shame that most teenagers decide they are without much human worth when they're between thirteen and fifteen years of age. We all have human worth, yet so many young people conclude that they're somehow different--that they're truly inferior--that they lack the necessary ingredients for dignity and worth."

Here again, in Preparing for Adolescence, Dobson offers a number of suggestions to deal with inferiority feelings, one of which is compensation, as in Hide or Seek. He also suggests making friends. The purpose of friendship here seems to be that "nothing helps your self- confidence more than genuine friends." Why? Because, he reasons, "If you know that other people are like you it's much easier to accept yourself."

Dobson devised a short check-list called "Sources of Depression among Women." Of course, the top-ranking reason was "low self-esteem." According to Dobson, low self-esteem causes not only depression. He says, "Lack of self-esteem produces more symptoms of psychiatric disorders than any other factor yet identified."

Furthermore, he contends that low self-esteem leads to denial of reality which leads to both alcoholism and psychotic experience. Since he believes that women are suffering from an epidemic of low self-esteem, Dobson valiantly declares:

"If I could write a prescription for the women of the world, it would provide each one of them with a healthy dose of self-esteem and personal worth (taken three times a day until the symptoms disappear.) I have no doubt that this is their greatest need."

Is self-esteem a woman's greatest need? Then why is it absent from the Bible? Why didn't Jesus meet this greatest need of women? The essence of Christianity is "Christ in you, the hope of glory," not self-improvement or gaining self-esteem. It is giving, sharing, caring, loving, turning the other cheek, going the second mile, and obeying God's commandments because of Christ--because of what He has done and is doing in the life of the believer.


For Dobson, things get reversed. Even if he does not intend it, the focus always slips back to the advantage for the self. He says:

When the family conforms to God's blueprint, then self-esteem is available for everyone-which satisfies romantic aspirations--which abolishes loneliness, isolation, and boredom--which contributes to sexual fulfillment--which binds the marriage together in fidelity--which provides security for children--which gives parents a sense of purpose--which contributes to self-esteem once more."

Thus self-esteem becomes the reason to obey God. The goal of obedience becomes subtly swerved from a desire to please God to a desire to gain personal advantages. But if love and obedience to God are for personal (selfish), pragmatic reasons, rather than for biblical reasons, what happens when romantic aspirations are not satisfied, and isolation is increased, and there is no sexual fulfillment as a direct result of obedience to Christ? Such a promise for self-esteem and personal fulfillment could not have kept the churches alive throughout centuries of persecution.