How Christian is Modern Self-Esteem?

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,

Dear Sirs,
I am.
Sincerely,
G.K. Chesterton

Chesterton I Am

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.

My Ugly Remorse

Last Sunday night my mood turned ugly. I was talking with a friend and he said something that lit a fire in me. I ranted and raved; I said harsh things about someone not present, and the best efforts to silence me merely aggravated me.

I went to bed angry, and I woke up remorseful.

Remorse

Why had I said those things? I was embarrassed, contrite, and a bit ashamed of myself. I was in a mood to repent. Then I read My Utmost for His Highest,

 We trample the blood of the Son of God underfoot if we think we are forgiven because we are sorry for our sins. The only reason for the forgiveness of our sins by God is the death of Jesus Christ.

Chambers’ words aggravated me more. (Maybe my anger hadn’t dissipated completely.) Here I was genuinely sorry for my sin—in the mood to repent—and Chambers said my sorrow plays no part in my forgiveness. Not one tiny morsel.

How important is sorrow in our forgiveness?

Making a List of Our Sins

A few weeks ago, I spoke with someone who felt horrible about forgetting a commitment. She felt her accidental negligence caused unnecessary stress for a good friend. And it probably did.

deep sorrow

She felt bad (understandably) and kicked herself (metaphorically) for her mistake. She couldn’t shake the pain of disappointing a close friend. The oversight overwhelmed her thoughts and dreams. She couldn’t find a faucet to turn off the fountain of self-condemnation.

I suggested that her pain was triggered by an unrealistic expectation of her own perfection; that this one omission was possibly not an anomaly; and that she probably makes dozens (maybe hundreds) more mistakes every week. Her problem was a false, high opinion of her perfection.

I’m always good for a pick-me-up when you need it most.

I suggested that she make a list of every sin (and mistake) she had committed in the last week. A month would be better. I partly proposed a list to shake her self-punishing perfectionism, but mostly to help her recognize God’s unshakeable love of her in her imperfection.

That same day—literally a few hours later—someone sent me an email that condemned the “horrific practice” of listing our sins, claiming sin-lists are evils that rob us of freedom in Christ.

Who’s right? At the risk of making a mistake (that I could add to my own list later); I am.

Should We “Put On Our Own Masks Before Assisting Others”?

You probably don’t want to read today’s article.

About twenty years ago, I was having some personal struggles, so I visited a Christian counselor. After listening to my life’s story, the counselor reminded me of the instructions flight attendants offer before every flight,

“In the event of a sudden loss of cabin pressure, oxygen masks will fall.” Then they advise,

Please put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others.

02 masks r1

And their advice makes sense. At thirty-seven thousand feet, we’ll lose consciousness in twenty to thirty seconds. We need to put on our own oxygen mask first, or we’ll black out before we get a chance to help anyone else.

So I followed my counselor’s advice and took some time to put on my own mask. Can you guess what happened? Life got worse. Much worse. Especially for those around me. My biggest problem wasn’t too little self-concern; my problem was too much self-concern.

I bet yours is too. (Hey, I warned you that this article wouldn’t be any fun.)

How Do We Handle Betrayals?

Last week I woke up to an intensely vivid dream. In comparison, past dreams seemed like a hazy video on a scratchy black and white TV, while this dream felt like an IMAX theater with heart-throbbing surround sound and mountain-shaking sub-woofers.

I dreamt of a long-past betrayal, and I felt raw fury, pain, and shame wash over me. Again.

Saruman r1

Have you ever been betrayed? Few men and women I meet are unscathed. Sooner or later—and most likely sooner—we will all experience a betrayal.

I don’t mean a stab in the back; I mean a face-to-face, kiss-on-the-cheek treachery that leaves us reeling, bleeding, and bewildered; all this from the former ally who afterward smilingly asks, “What’s the big deal?,” suggesting, “Let’s grab a cup of coffee for old time’s sake.”

The depth of our former friendship increases the magnitude of our pain. The friend whose betrayal most brutalizes us is the comrade whose care most comforted us. As David once sang,

For it is not an enemy who taunts me—I could bear that; it is not an adversary who deals twistedly with me—even that I could bear. But it is you, my comrade, my companion, my close friend. We used to enjoy sweet intimacy. (Psalm 55:12-14)

It may have been a wealthy parent who willed you one penny, a callous gym teacher who called you a coward in front of other kids, or the partner who embezzled your retirement funds. Probably the worst is an adulterous spouse.

How do we handle the pain, fury, and shame of a personal betrayal?

What’s The Biggest Problem with Legalism? You. And Me.

I once belonged to a prayer group that prized ecumenical unity. We came from a wide variety of Christian traditions. We sang, “We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord.” Then we split down the middle due to ruptured relationships among our leaders.

We formerly prided ourselves on our exceptional unity; then our leaders attacked each other. We were embarrassed and a bit humiliated. Our highly prized treasure—good relationships in the midst of very strong differences—had slipped from our grasp.

Here lies Sam WilliamsonA fellow member heard of a Christian leader in a neighboring city who had committed adultery and raided the group’s bank accounts. Sitting next to me in a prayer meeting, my friend shared the story and then whispered, “At least we’re not that bad.”

“Great!” I thought, “that’s just what I want chiseled on my tombstone:”

Here Lies Sam Williamson

At least he wasn’t as bad as them

Avoiding The Pain of Regret

I am the son of a pastor. During my dad’s forty years of ministry, he did many great things; he probably committed a few stupid acts; and he occasionally had to make unpopular decisions. He passed away almost twenty years ago.

The “Smith” family was originally supportive of my dad during his Detroit pastorate (from 1963 to 1975). And then they suddenly opposed him. The Smith’s used to smile; now they scowled. My dad was unsure what he had said or done (or not said or done).

A sketch of my church in Detroit

A sketch of my church in Detroit

He asked repeatedly what had happened. They denied, repeatedly, any hard feelings.

Pastor’s kids know almost everything that’s happening at church. I knew something was wrong. Mr. Smith had once mentored me. Then he began saying, “Sam, you son of a pastor.” But he slurred the last word to sound like, “Sam, you son of a bastard.”

He thought it was funny.

One day, when I was about twelve, a Frisbee landed on the roof of the sanctuary. The roof was probably twenty feet high, maybe more. I knew a secret access—pastor’s kids know every nook and cranny of their church—so I climbed up to retrieve it.

Mr. Smith happened to be on the ground right below me. He looked up and saw me. He sneered, “I dare you to jump.” Even as a kid I was shocked at his hostility.

I admit I was tempted, tempted to shout back, “Why the ‘F’ don’t you work this out with my dad?” But I was afraid of getting in trouble for cussing. Instead, I did what any bewildered twelve year-old boy would do. I simply stared at him.

And I jumped.