Self-Esteem

Steve Baskin wrote the following in an amazing article in Psychology Today:

The self-esteem movement has done an entire generation a deep disservice. It started with the best intentions. In 1969, Nathaniel Brandon wrote a paper entitled “The Psychology of Self-Esteem” that suggested that “feelings of self-esteem were the key to success in life”. Hearing this, many people started to find ways to confer confidence upon our children. This resulted in competitions where everyone gets a trophy and no one actually wins. “New games” attempted to engage children without any winners or losers.

(https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/smores-and-more/201112/the-gift-failure)

What is self-esteem?  Psychologists define it as a person’s overall sense of self-worth or personal value.  Too little and you become depressed; too much and you are classified as narcissistic.  Where is the balance?  What is healthy?  How do we tell the difference between our own sense of self-worth and our own understanding of our abilities—good or bad?  Is it possible to think “I’m good at doing this one thing” but still hold the belief “I am worthless.”?  I posit that not only is it possible but extremely common.

I grew up with a drug problem.  I know it’s an old joke, but I was drug to church–dare I say–more than average.  Three times per week in a “normal week”–twice on Sunday and again on Wednesday night–was the minimum expectation.  During the summer I usually attended two or three different vacation bible schools (Harmony, High Hill, Westside, maybe even First Baptist Ashburn); and at least one week in the summer we went to Revival for six nights in a row.  (For those of you, who did not grow up Southern Baptist in the Deep South, think of Revival as a week of penitence along with hell-fire-and-damnation evangelistic preaching.  I dreaded it every year.)  We even attended “M Night” once a year.  (Don’t even ask.)  If Billy Graham had a campaign, we watched it nightly on our black and white television.  We had mandatory family devotions and were expected to have our own private time of scripture reading and prayer.  I point all that out to say that I was marinated in church and scripture growing up.

The Bible, however, is a really, really, big book with lots of amazing stories and lessons, men of faith and men of failure, the great redemption of mankind in the person of Jesus Christ.  It’s big.  There’s too much to absorb.  So when a troubling verse crossed my path as a young child, I didn’t know to stop and think “I wonder what that really means?” or “Is there an implication here that I’m just not getting?”  In other words, there was so much to learn, absorb, and process that I got into a habit of glossing over something I didn’t understand.  There was just so much information that was straightforward that I didn’t spend time on the complex.

Here’s a perfect example.  Matthew 22: 37-39 says:

And he said to him, “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 a second is like it:  You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  (ESV)

I think I understand the first two verses:  And he said to him, “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. That seems straightforward right?  Love God.  Love God a lot.  While we could debate what “love” means all day, the gist of the verse is easily understood.  In addition, it’s the first and great commandment.  In other words, DO IT!   It’s verse 39 (and a second is like it:  You shall love your neighbor as yourself.) that I didn’t understand.

I remember my second-grade school teacher, Mrs. Bacon teaching us the Golden Rule.  We’d pretend to be putting on gloves while we said, “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.”  The pantomimed gloves were to somehow represent and imprint the message on our brains.  The first time I read Matthew 22, it reminded me of the Golden Rule; except there’s one BIG difference.  The Golden Rule says to treat others as you want them to treat you.  I get that.  I understand that.  The second most important commandment that Jesus mentions, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” is different in a HUGE way.  The huge implication, the part I didn’t understand and couldn’t get past is this:  Who loves themselves?

As an adult, I cognitively know that how I want to be treated and how I love myself are not the same; but how do I inculcate this love of myself without being prideful or boastful?  Pride and boastfulness were never allowed in my family of origin.  It is downright “unchristian” to be prideful or to boast and God forbid a parent should boast about their child or congratulate them for an accomplishment.  That would be too close to a parent bragging on themselves, which presumably was also “unchristian”.

By the time I was applying to Emory College I was terrified that I would not get in.  I believed I was a country hick and might not make it with the fancy folk at the big university. Current high school students may laugh to hear that the University of Georgia was my “back-up” since it is nigh impossible to get in there now unless you have a 4.2 GPA and have started your own non-profit to save the planet or cure cancer.  After I arrived at Emory, however, I slowly began to realize that I was well qualified and well prepared for the academic expectations there.

How does one reconcile a realistic view of one’s abilities and an internal belief that you are of no value or worthless or unlovable or stupid or not a man or…..any host of other core lies that men believe about themselves?

It’s taken 55 years to discover the answer but I think I finally understand.  Jesus loves me, my past, my present, my future.  He’s not the big judge in the sky, hammering a gavel down every time I mess up.  He already knew/knows/will know everything I’ve done/did/do/will do.  (How do you reference time when you are writing about a God outside of time?)  In spite of His all-knowing, Christ died for me on the cross to redeem me.  Why would He do that?

He loves me.

Jesus Christ, the Son of the Most High loves me.  He loves me with all the radiance of a million galaxies and all the endurance of eternity.  He loves me to the core of my being.  He loves my brokenness and my glory.  He loves my struggles and my victories.  He loves……me.

Just a few years ago, I didn’t really, really, believe that Jesus loved me down in the depth of my heart.  I knew it in my head, but in my heart I still believed that God was sitting behind his judge’s bench, ready to wag his finger and punish me. If I had a stray thought, or was not 100% completely, brutally honest, I believed he would be angry.  Just to “shade the truth” was immoral and deserving of God’s judgment.

I know for a fact that I’m not the only one who believed this way.  While I was traveling and singing with the Hawpond Messengers in high school, another gospel group with which we frequently sang used to perform a song “God’s Gonna Gitcha for That”. (every wrong thing that you do, God’s gonna gitcha for that!) I can still hear the lady singing it.  It’s ridiculous, I know.  Even then I thought the song was ridiculous.  I knew in my head that Jesus loved me.  After all, he died for me, didn’t he?  In my heart of hearts, however, part of my core lie was I believed I was unworthy of love.  From that false belief, I lived a life of self-loathing.   When I asked the question “Who loves themselves?”, it was from this root of self-judgment and self-flagellation.

Once I began to believe that Jesus truly and without reservation loves me, I began to see myself as “lovable”.  How can I hold a higher judgment that the Almighty?  I can’t.  If Jesus loves me then I am by definition lovable.

So then does loving myself lead to arrogance? to narcissism? Does it violate the family values with which I grew up?  No.  There’s a simple reason that loving myself and seeing myself as lovable doesn’t lead to arrogance and boasting:  I did nothing to deserve that love.  I am loved by Jesus, not because of anything I have done, but because He is love and love is part of His very character.  I did nothing to earn his love and therefore there is no basis for boasting.

Ultimately, for me to have a healthy self-view, I had to accept Christ’s view of me.  I am lovable AND it has nothing to do with me, but everything to do with Jesus.