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The Gospel of Self-Esteem

Greetings All!

     This week's "thought" comes to you from Prof. Archibald Hart, PhD.  He is professor of psychology at the Graduate School of Psychology, Fuller Theological Seminary.  Hart is the the author 24 books, including: "Thrilled to Death: How the Endless Pursuit of Pleasure is Leaving Us Numb."

     This particular thought deals with the American obsession with self-esteem and offers us some balanced and helpful insights. Many of the things he points out will not come as a surprise to you, since both experience and common sense would affirm the statements and findings he cites. As with many widely embraced cultural trends, they can tend to go to unwise and even counter-intuitive excesses and extremes before people realize the claims of their wonder-working power were grossly exaggerated.

     This article comes from "Faith and Culture," a book that offers a collection of articles on hundreds of topics relating faith to culture.  It is by Kelly Monroe Kullberg and Lael Arrington. If you are looking for a book with short and interesting articles across a span of topics, this is a book you may consider purchasing. This particular article is entitled: "The Gospel of Self-Esteem."

The Gospel of Self-Esteem

     "Is high self-esteem all its cracked up to be?  If you suffer from low self-esteem are you doomed to failure?  What new picture of self-esteem is emerging from the science of psychology, and how does it agree with God's Word on the subject?  In the upheaval of the late 60's and early 70's, the concept of self-esteem took off. "If only we can help people to feel better about themselves, we will solve many social problems and mental illnesses" became the driving force that sent teachers, parents, and even the states of California and New York in the 1980's scurrying to set up commissions and task forces on self-esteem. It became a national preoccupation that has now ended as a hopeless quest.  Research now conclusively shows that such efforts do little to improve social problems, academic performance, success in the workplace, or even to enhance our happiness.
     The bottom line is that while everyone intuitively recognizes the reality of "self-esteem," there is no evidence that by boosting these self-feelings one can accomplish more in life.  Research psychologists have now clearly demonstrated that self-esteem is the CONSEQUENCE of accomplishing something significant in life, not the CAUSE of accomplishments or failures.  In his 1994 presidential address to the American Psychological Association, Martin Seligman, a significant leader in the new "positive psychology" movement, denounced several "sacred cows" of psychotherapy, one being that in order to reduce mental illness we should try to increase the self-esteem of our children.  He stated: "undeniably, depressed people have low self-esteem. But bolstering self-esteem without changing hopelessness... accomplishes nothing."  He received a standing ovation!  His research shows that teens from the ghettos have the highest self-esteem ratings of any group, not the lowest!  The problem is that their self-esteem is "unwarranted."  As we teach and counsel others, we must caution one another to identify and address the myths that have penetrated the whole concept of self-esteem. Sermons abound on how one is to "love oneself," but we need to carefully interpret Matthew 19:19. We must be mindful that our participation in newly emerging worship styles is radically God-centered and not unduly influenced by the self-esteem movements emphasis on my needs and my feelings.
     Perhaps we need to pay more attention to the wisdom that Paul expresses in Romans 12:3 which tells us all we need to know about the self-esteem problem even though its focus is not on low self-esteem, but rather on an inflated and distorted sense of self.

"For by the grace given to me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you."  Romans 12:3
     Paul outlines the essential ingredients for building a Christian understanding of what I call "authentic self-esteem," an understanding and acceptance of yourself for who you really are. There is nothing wrong with being imperfect. Sometimes feeling bad acts as a stimulus to do better or try something different.  It can prompt confession, change, and courage.  One of the biggest mistakes you can make as a parent is to always protect your children from pain or failure. By cushioning them from feeling bad, the self-esteem movement has made it harder for us to feel good. It has encouraged cheap success. From the words of Paul I deduce that the essence of a healthy self-attitude must be based, first, on an honest and truthful self-understanding and image ("Think... with sober [honest] judgment); then, second, on a willingness to accept that you are who you are, created in God's image ("in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you"). All other self-feelings lead to self-hate. Your attitude to yourself (which is what self-esteem is really all about) must be based plainly and simply on thinking about yourself with complete honesty. You must own your flaws and your strengths.  It must never be dishonest (Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought"), not exaggerated or distorted.
     Many psychologists have pointed out that the struggle often is with an "internal filter system" we develop early in life that tends to deny our successes and hoards the memories of failures. Self-honesty requires one to be diligent in challenging these denials. After all, in God's kingdom there is always forgiveness and restoration.  No matter how inadequate you may feel about yourself, or how insignificant your life may appear to be on the outside, you should always remember that the grace of God covers every shortcoming.  You will always be precious to him, however you feel about yourself.  One can never go beyond the reach of his grace and forgiveness. Here lies the key to how you should feel about yourself: Your self needs to become more and more transparent to itself as you become less and less self-conscious. This is authentic self-esteem. You need to know who you are, how you have been redeemed, and how precious you are to God -- NOT because you are wonderful, but because he has made you his child."
     As I mentioned, experience and common sense would lead us to many of the same conclusions.  I once had a foster daughter who did not do well in school.  All of a sudden, in one marking period, she went from failing to straight A's. She came home ecstatic!  But we wondered how it had happened, since she hadn't studied any harder nor done any more work then she ever had?  It did boost her feelings about herself for a short three or four weeks, but she soon began to realize she got an "A" pretty much no matter what she did, and was allowed to re-take tests as many times as she needed to get it. She even came to feel somewhat betrayed and foolish and resent their manipulative attempt to play with her mind and "boost her self-esteem" by giving her grades she did nothing to deserve. In essence, it back-fired, since like most kids she knew it was all a game.  She knew, and we knew, that despite what studies at that time were saying, there is no evidence that by boosting these self-feelings one can accomplish more in life...  self-esteem is the CONSEQUENCE of accomplishing something significant in life, not the CAUSE of accomplishments or failures."
     Just some wise, insightful, and much needed food for thought, Pastor Jeff