In the English language, we use the word “love” to describe many feelings. I tell people I “love” hamburgers, but I mean something different when I say, “I ‘love’ my dog.” And that can’t even compare to what I mean by saying I “love” my wife!

Centuries ago Bernard of Clairvaux described four levels of love[i]. The first two levels can hardly be called love from any biblical standpoint, but unfortunately, they describe many marriages in our world today.

The first level is “to love myself solely.” The goal here is self-love or narcissism, which is when a person loves himself or herself so much he or she is not interested in the needs of the other person.

The second form of love is not much better: “To love you for my sake.” This form of love is rooted in selfishness as one person uses the other for personal gain. Sadly, this is the most common type of “love” that I see in problematic marriages.

The third form of love is a huge jump in quality from the previous two: “To love you for your sake.” This form of love respects the value of the other person and wants good things for him or her. It looks out for the other’s interests. For most, this form of love sounds like the best there is—a mutually respectful relationship where each serves the needs of the other.

The highest level of love

But Bernard of Clairvaux thought there was a fourth level of love higher than this: “To love myself for your sake.” This is a self-respecting kind of love that invites us to recognize our worth and then offer the best of ourselves for the benefit of the other.

This last form of love sounds much like Jesus’ teaching regarding the second greatest commandment: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-39). If you don’t love and respect yourself, then you won’t have a very high standard of love for those around you.


The world suggests we need more self-esteem. As a therapist, I understand the importance of self-esteem and the significance it plays in people’s lives.

But I believe what’s even more important is “God-esteem.” This is what we believe about ourselves when we realize and accept our worth in God, not because of what we’ve done to obtain His approval, but because of what Jesus did for us on the cross.

God-esteem is humbling because it can’t be earned, yet it is liberating because it frees us to offer our lives to God, not out of obligation or payment, but in loving response to His gift of grace.

One significant outcome of a love relationship with the heavenly Father is the identity and worth provided for us through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Listen to the words of Titus 3:4-7:

But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.

Did you hear that? Despite our sinfulness we have been reborn and made new in Jesus Christ. More than that, we have become heirs of the King. Therein lies our identity; I am an heir of God, a person of surpassing value. Through Jesus I have a worth that doesn’t have to be earned but is simply a by-product of God’s saving grace.

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What it means for your family

At the core of a healthy Christian marriage are two people who fully submit themselves to God. When you accept your worth in Jesus Christ, you can honor your spouse, cope with struggles, and even disagree about your family life, without fear of personal rejection, because your identity is secure. You are not dependent on your partner for your sense of self, but on your God.

God-esteem is tangible in marriage in many ways:

  • Partners won’t idolize themselves for the acceptance of the other.
  • Momentary disappointments or conflict will sting a little less.
  • The fear of “not being enough” fades away.
  • Boundaries are easier to set (because I’m not ashamed of speaking up for my needs).
  • Service is easier to do (because I’m not keeping score).
  • Apologies come more quickly.
  • Forgiveness is easier to grant.
  • Self-respect and humility balance each other.
  • Partners remain calmer in spite of the stresses of life (because they have a constant source of love, hope, and identity).

Beyond marriage, it is my observation that God-esteem is critical in stepfamilies because rejection is so common. If you are a stepparent, for example, you need to know your identity is in God when your spouse is confused about your needs and is more attentive to his or her children than to you.

You need to know you have a worth that cannot be taken away when a stepchild repeatedly ignores your attempts to join the family or refuses to even acknowledge your presence in the room. And a biological parent needs a healthy dose of God-esteem when her adolescent children choose to live in the other household.

Your foundation matters

Without question, these scenarios would bring tremendous loss and sadness, but for those with God-esteem, at the end of the day, the circumstances won’t define the parent’s identity or worth. God will. And we can trust God to bring good out of each of these heartbreaking situations.

Jesus said that when you build your life on the strength of the Scripture and trust what God says about you, rather than what your problems say, you will be like “a wise man who builds his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock” (Matthew 7:24-25).

God said you were made in His image. He knows the number of hairs on your head, and He has kept all your tears in a bottle. With His power, God formed you in your mother’s womb. The God of the universe called you by name and made you an heir to His kingdom.

When the winds and storms of your stepfamily life come crashing around you, take a moment and remember who you are in Christ. And when the storms fade and everything clears, your house will still be standing strong.

Copyright © 2018 by Ron Deal. Used with permission.

[i] Carroll D. Osburn, The Peaceable Kingdom: Essays Favoring Non-Sectarian Christianity (Abilene, Tex.: Restoration Perspectives, 1993), 127-28.