The Times of London once asked leading British intellectuals to write an article that answered this simple question: “What is the biggest problem with the world?” G. K. Chesterton submitted his essay on a postcard,
Over the last thirty years, therapists have taught us to “like ourselves a lot” and to hold a “high opinion of our capacities.” They taught us that people with high self-esteem tend to be socially well-adjusted and those with low self-esteem tend toward social deviance. (Their teachings came in the form of proclamations not proofs.)
Yet cracks are forming in the self-esteem movement. Lauren Slater, a leading psychologist and writer, casts doubts on today’s self-esteem crusaders,
There is enough evidence from 20 years of studies to conclude that people with high self-esteem pose a greater threat to people around them than people with low self-esteem, and low self-esteem is not the source of any of our country’s biggest problems (The Problem with Self-Esteem).
Chesterton would whole-heartedly agree with Slater’s observation, that “Low self-esteem is not the source of any of our country’s biggest problems.”
Because we are.
The self of self-esteem
For centuries, men and women gained high self-esteem through great accomplishments. But achievement-based esteem came at a great cost: the snobbery of the talented (Thank you Lord that I’m not like this tax collector) accompanied by the stubborn fact that few of us ever achieve the success we desire. So many despaired.
Into the gap, modern self-esteem was born (as a quasi-religion) in the humanism of the Enlightenment; and the religion came of age during the Romantics. It was in this age that the “great thinkers” rejected the notion of original sin and (instead) embraced the non-Christian belief that human nature is essentially good.
Rather than looking to personal achievement, we simply pronounced —with the stroke of a pen—the goodness of human nature (contrary to all Christianity teaching). Instead of snobbish accomplishment-esteem, we “humbly” proclaimed, “I am a good person.”
But self-proclamation esteem (“I am a good person”) sounds an eerie echo of achievement-based esteem: self-conceit. Researcher Nicholas Emler said,
The fact is, we’ve put antisocial men through every self-esteem test we have, and there’s no evidence for the old psychodynamic concept that they secretly feel bad about themselves.
These men are racist or violent because they don’t feel bad enough about themselves.
The gospel tension of humility and esteem
The first sin recorded in human history occurred when Adam and Eve grasped for self-esteem. They listened to the temptation, “You will be like God.” We face the same trial.
There is a tension. We long to be appreciated … valued … or seen as heroic or important. Yet these heroic feelings slip from our grasp in the very moment we reach out to them. We either fall short of our aspirations, or we don’t believe our own propaganda, or the subsequent self-important conceit separates us from others.
The gospel has always been God lifting the lowly and never God affirming the highly. The gospel has always meant an honest self-evaluation; no mere self-publicity. When faced with public slander, Thomas a Kempis gave advice that baffles the modern mind:
Do not take it to heart if people think badly of you and say unpleasant things about you. You ought to think worse things of yourself and to believe that no one is weaker than yourself (emphasis added).
The growth of the gospel
The growth of the gospel did not happen among the high and noble; the gospel exploded among the poor, slaves, outcast, and socially marginalized. It increased not because these people were great or had high self-esteem; it spread because they knew they weren’t. And they didn’t.
The gospel is not God affirming the greatness of the great; it is God pouring his greatness into the lowly. The gospel is not God crowning the virile prince; it is God turning the boyish shepherd into a king.
The gospel is not God saving the worthy; it is God saving the unworthy. Who know it. Jesus said, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor. Sick people do. I have not come to those who think they are righteous, but to those who know they aren’t.”
We need the ultimate confidence
The gospel is difficult yet the burden is light; the gate is narrow yet the invitation is wide. Christianity has never been about self-attainment (that would be a heavy burden); it has always been about self-denial (and thus the narrow gate).
It is only when we let go that we can receive. God wishes to pour out in abundance a stream of living water of God-esteem in our hearts. We simply must release self-esteem.
In the end, the gospel provides us with ultimate confidence. We are loved—not merely pitied, but loved—by the Most Beautiful; and honored by the Most Honorable; and gifted by the Most Gifted. We exchange our idols of self-esteem for the glory of son-ship. G. K. Chesterton described Christianity this way,
“We become taller when we bow.”