Is self-esteem justifiable for a Christian ?
Esteeming others is highly recommended to the Christian: “, ” (Mt 22:39, Mk 12:31, Lk 10.27). But is self-esteem legitimate?
This is the dilemma posed by the book Self Esteem, the Cross and Christian Confidence (Leicester, Inter-Varsity Press, 1992, 2002) written by Alister Mcgrath, a theologian, and his wife Joanna, a clinical psychotherapist.
We propose to go through this book in some of the next Theo’s notes.
What is self-esteem ?
Self-esteem, i.e. to assess oneself on a scale of values, seems to be an inevitable human reaction to the image that everyone perceives of himself and that others are reflecting to him or that he thinks to receive from them.
It is more nuanced than self love that has more to do with self-realization and personal ambition.
Self-esteem and Christian humility
Counseling aims to “liberate individuals from the paralyzing habit of wrongly belittling themselves”, but does building a positive self image not venture to deny the reality of sin and the need of humility?
This is the position of some theologians  rightly opposed to anti or pseudo Christian movements of self realization, such as “positive thinking” . They feel self-esteem “as a pretext to worship ourselves” when we should be “regarding ourselves as criminals and putting ourselves to death every day.”
Minimum degree of self-esteem
The question then arises of the minimum degree of self-esteem experienced by children who are victims of severe facial deformities, and are still disfigured despite cosmetic surgery: they have a devalued self-image, relayed by the looks and sometimes the mockery of others.
One can only approve the response of psychotherapists. They enhance the self-esteem of these children by making them develop specific sports skills or others, to offset the devastating effects of the malformation, and to help them integrate into a group.
Limits of the belittling
Thus, this absolute denigration of the person (seeing oneself as a criminal), this requirement of voluntary humiliation (putting oneself to death every day) that are requested from anyone on a spiritual level, can they be set up as absolute requirements from those whose personal opinion, far from being a self-adoration, is already approaching the zero degree ?
The infirmity, a malformation, prolonged unemployment are already too often causing a kind of “social death”; should we then add a calculated and therefore legalistic personal killing which, for a Christian convert, would be added to the work of Christ ?
A balance to be kept
Esteeming oneself does not necessarily mean worshipping oneself, and “seeing oneself as a criminal” can have perverse effects in Christians encouraged by abuse education to fully belittle themselves and thus made unable to exercise gifts which could be useful for the Church or the society.
Furthermore do the proponents of this rejection of self-esteem apply it first without reserve to themselves, while their postion as known Christian writers gives them a very rewarding reputation in itself ?
Tensions resolved by Christs cross
The cross of Christ makes it possible to resolve these tensions between a negative self-image and a positive self-image as it moves the believer from separation from God to godliness.
And the theme of “personal human value” is present in many passages of the Bible.
Self-awareness and relation with others
Through self-awareness, linked to the development of language, everyone builds up a self-concept that develops in one’s relation with others.
Self-esteem is the result of the overall assessment of the person. He feels himself more or less acceptable, with pleasant or unpleasant feelings according to his way of reacting to the judgment of people who matter in his life.
Components of self-esteem
The social role, love of others, and desire for eternity are the components of self-esteem.
The role in the social context is characterized by the ability to make achievements in connection with others. It contributes to social inclusion and to the sense of belonging. Concentration camps have condemned many people to social death by depriving them of that role.
Love of others and desire for eternity
As much as and even more than social success, love of others preserves self-esteem and can mitigate the effects of failure.
The desire for eternity is expressed in the wish to leave behind something more lasting than the fragile satisfaction due to the work done or to the approval of some persons. Then we search for “an immutable and absolute criterion of acceptability“, perhaps the criterion “of being worthy of the love of an Eternal Being“.
The emphasis on self-esteem varies according to the interpretation that everyone actually makes of it.
Failure and negative self-esteem
A failure can be explained by an external cause or a personal weakness. But ascribing any failure solely to internal deficiencies of the person furthers cyclical negative self-esteem. “I am never successful because I’m stupid …” “I must be stupid, because I am never successful“. We therefore refuse any effort deemed unnecessary in advance.
Poor health, excessive submission, credulity toward negative judgments, poor education and a “tendency to denigrate others” to protect oneself by way of compensation characterize a negative self-esteem which can come up to mental disorders.
An elusive personality “suffers from chronically low self-esteem” and sees the others as “potential adversaries“.
A narcissistic personality feels superior and uses others to achieve his ends, while having to resort to psychiatrists.
An anxious personality built up scenarios to anticipate situations he considers as dangerous. “Protecting oneself … and avoiding any danger” or challenging hampers maturity and healthy relationships, without egocentricity.
A personality suffering from a persecution syndrome has delusions which resit to “any argument“. He builds up a sophisticated defense system to preserve his self-esteem threatened with disintegration “.
A more or less long-lasting depression can be triggered by events, an illness or the death of a loved one, a job loss.
Chronic depression is linked to low self-esteem: eg. a feelings of rejection, of worthlessness among women who had lost their mother in childhood, who are lacking marital intimacy or or who have no profession.
Depression interferes with memory, concentration, reflection and social relationships and can lead to self-hatred.
The absence of the mother during infancy appears crucial in the risk of depression as shown by the three stages of reaction of hospitalized babies: protest with weeping and looking for the mother, despair, detachment with withdrawal into themselves.
Thus attachment or separation have an influence on self-esteem and personality functioning. However, a perfect relationship with parents is not essential and its absence does not explain all potential psychological disorders.
Christian approach to self-esteem
The Gospel calls Christians to a Christian and responsible approach to self-esteem, which accepts just therapies as “an effect of the common grace”(Matthew 5.4-5) and takes account of the Gospel requirements in the areas of renouncing oneself, of moral absolutes, of the reality of sin and of salvation by grace.
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