Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Idea of Self-Esteem from a Christian Perspective

I cannot imagine interpreting these simple words more clearly than what they overtly suggest; a Christian is to esteem others better than self: “Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself” (Philippians 2:3, New King James Version).
The unavoidable subject of self, the grist of introspection, the ever-present personage, must at least be acknowledged if not outright adored.   Self-Esteem might therefore range from mere acknowledgement to worship and many views about how one treats self is the crux of psychology.  Christianity and her views on Self-Esteem are counterintuitive to wellbeing and psychology because it presupposes a need to correct selves before helping selves.  Essentially, the secular view makes no distinction between behavior and wellbeing, asserting one’s intrinsic right to feel good irrespective of morality, whereas the sacred view acknowledges a connection between a clear conscience and wellbeing.  Examining the idea of Self-Esteem through the lens of Christianity therefore clouds before it clears and hurts before it heals.
Self-Esteem before redemption is really a contradiction in terms and thus a self-fulfilling prophecy of doom and nothingness; Scripture presupposes an altogether broken image of self that cannot reasonably be esteemed.  Madness, of course, is implicitly inferred should one seek to esteem one’s self in so disfigured a condition.  To me, a nonsensical distinction is made by Jordan, Whitefield & Zeigler-Hill (2007) when they tried to distinguish between implicit and explicit expressions of Self-Esteem as read by one’s intuition; regardless of overt or covert Self-Esteem, and whether one is cognitively or intuitively fed self worth knowledge, it seems disingenuous and meaningless to the overarching point—apparently assumed by these authors—of whether Self-Esteem is normal or foreign to human experience.  The important point to be made about Self-Esteem surrounds the idea of the validity of attributing worth to the self or not; Jordan et al. seems to presuppose the worth of self without any commentary as to the self’s condition or purpose.
The Scriptures stridently preach against selfishness—so much so that some might tend to believe that God is against the self—nothing, of course, is further from the truth.  Upon a deeper and more thorough analysis of all of Scripture one is almost sure to conclude God’s incredible love towards the human self.  Only because of Scriptures’ presumption of sin, and mankind’s general denial of such an assessment today, is there cause for disagreement.  In fact, so pervasive and undeniable an influence did the Scriptures once have, that even G. K. Chesterton (1959, p. 15), writing over one hundred years ago on England’s mostly Christian soil, became dumbfounded when he put his pen to paper and realized he could no longer argue from the then hitherto established premise of mankind’s inherent sinfulness.  He threw up his hands (so to speak) and wrote:
Modern masters of science are much impressed with the need of beginning all inquiry with a fact.  The ancient masters of religion were quite equally impressed with that necessity.  They began with the fact of sin—a fact as practical as potatoes.  Whether or no man could be washed in miraculous waters, there was no doubt at any rate that he wanted washing.  But certain religious leaders in London, not mere materialists, have begun in our day not to deny the highly disputable water, but to deny the indisputable dirt.  Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.
If it were a fledgling issue then, it is undeniably an entrenched one now; furthermore, it has leapt the pond, and invaded the American conscience.
Postmodern America is quickly becoming horizon-less and undistinguishable, a country and society no longer defined as independent and free; her indisputable dirt is now disputed both historically and futuristically.  Definition is the hallmark of exercise and fitness, sharpness of contrast and vision; to blur the lines or parameters is to cloud purpose and meaning.  The narcissistic bent of the idea behind self-esteem is perhaps insidious enough and deceptive enough to not be easily characterized or defined by its true nature.  The inalienable rights philosophy that was spawned by the Enlightenment and put into practice by the forefathers of this nation was understood in context with the idea that all men were fallen, fallible, and fundamentally selfish.  Thus, for every right affirmed there was a restriction enforced; a check and balancing mechanism built into our self-governance model.  Self can therefore be esteemed, yet not to the extent that a self becomes more important than a society of selves.  The lone elevation of self ought to only occur within the context of the whole elevation of mankind.
I.       Historical overview of the concept about self (both secular and sacred perspectives).
Self-esteem is a psychological term coined relatively recently in the history of psychology, and is—for many Christians and the ancient world—an incompatible conceptual construction about the self in relationship to others and the cosmos.   Not that the self has held no value, but that the self historically was rarely viewed alone or evaluated independent of larger group contexts.  In fact, (Han, Mao, Gu, Zhu, Ge, & Ma, 2007, p. 1) recently said:
Western philosophy, from the time of Descartes onwards, has proposed the “self” as a delimited individual that represents an entity of subjectivity and is distinct and separate from others.  However, this perspective on the self is not taken for granted by all human communities.
While it appears true that antiquity has judged self too irrelevant, today’s view about the self is too prominent (at least in Western society); the very focus on the self as a subject unto itself is the problem.  American culture, in particular, has magnified and even deified rugged individualism (self).  The Chinese culture, contradistinctively, has magnified the society and the culture above the self.  Both focuses magnify the good and bad in respectively either the self or society.
Into these disparate focuses psychology has flourished as either psychoanalysis or multicultural psychology; ever learning but never coming to the knowledge of the truth is any discipline in any form dealing with the self and bodies of selves without Christian influence.  Attempts at integrating Christianity and psychology, and more specifically, psychoanalysis dealing with the ego or self, has been occurring almost from the start of the history of psychology (once Christians began to enter the psychology field).   Nevertheless, “a paradigm-replacement, within the world of psychoanalysis” was the consensus contribution of Heinz Kohut (Gorday, 2000, p. 446).   Kohut’s theology, as well as his psychology, informed his overall philosophy, and his model of self-psychology was designed to displace what he saw as a flawed and insufficient model of psychoanalytic ego psychology.  In the end, empathetic sentiment plays a significant role in salvation, and the fall of man (tragic man) is to be pitied.  Man’s narcissus bent is near irresolvable, yet force of therapy can be exercised to overcome its influence.    
II.      The value of the individual vs. the group.
The Reformation/Enlightenment period of human history elevated self above the tyranny of the group, yet it also isolated self from the comforts and protection of the group.  Western society then spawned psychology and the religions of introspective and individualistic analyses.  With or without the Reformation’s overt impact, the Enlightenment lit the individual and the individual’s separate and distinct creativity.  The autonomous self, however, was never designed to be, indeed, an autonomous self; I believe God’s purpose through the Reformation and the subsequent Enlightenment was to free and educate the self in order to reorient the self properly within a community context.      
III.    A Christianized Humanism and a Humanized Christianization.

Cook & Hillman (2006) studied 24 Christian college students and 24 state university students regarding moral choices; their questions were designed to determine their sentiments along the lines of whether “justice” or “care” is the important thing in dealing with others.  The authors of this study clearly held a bias toward care, feeling justice was administered without feeling.  They essentially indicted the Christian college students in both groups—that seemed to them anyways—as emphasizing justice blindly and unfeelingly.  Unfortunately, the questions posed within their research design were inadequate; the complexity of loving the sinner but not the sin involves a thoroughgoing mind of justice with an enormous heart of mercy that cannot always be seen in the exercise of either function.

IV.    The Christian Doctrine of Self.

Jesus Christ, the lamb slain from the foundation of the world, the Savior of the world, was without blemish; indeed, only the perfect and healthy specimen could be sacrificed.  Thus, the best sacrifices are the healthiest sacrifices, and therefore the healthiest specimens of self make the best sacrifices of self.  We esteemed him (Christ) stricken and forsaken because we do not see things as they are; likewise, we esteem ourselves too highly.  Strawn & Alexander (2008) asked “to what extent does our image of self shape our image of the divine, and, reflexively, how does our image of the divine shape and influence the image we create of ourselves (p. 341).  In other words, does our view of him shape us or does his view of us shape him?  We see through a glass dimly, so let us not be too adamant; nonetheless, we are undeniably shaped both ways, objectively and subjectively.  Self is never an isolated being; God has so designed mankind to be known only in relation to him.

A.     Self Esteem vs. Christ Esteem.
Humanity without Christ is seeking self-esteem and self-worth; humanity with Christ is trying to esteem him and finding one’s worth in context with him alone.  Eric Johnson (1989, p. 226) “suggested that SE [self-esteem] is an unavoidably religious experience” and that “post-Christian” cultures (the ones we are living in today) are fundamentally self worshippers.   There is a fundamental demarcation between selves and gods, however, that is entirely misunderstood by the unredeemed (that cannot see the kingdom of God)—let alone—have a sense of spiritual reality; it is also sorely clouded by educated yet unspiritual Christian psychologists worldwide.  They often see too little and do not have the requisite spiritual knowledge (obtained only through obedience).  Their knowledge about spiritual and psychological matters is often way too grounded in academics alone—a necessary component of the full breadth of knowledge that is needed and often neglected by many Christians, no doubt—but not the sure foundation of revelation upon which all constructions of the truth must be premised.   Of course, Scripture says it best: “For through the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think; but to think so as to have sound judgment” (Romans 12:3, partial, NASB); and this sound judgment needs to understand just how easy it is to deify our mortal selves if we are not careful.
Now, “to have sound judgment” is the key to not allowing one’s self to become inflated with pride and deifying one’s self.  Indeed, people who think too highly of themselves are legion, whereas people who genuinely think too little of themselves are quite rare.  Scripture always presupposes this inherent and inordinate self-esteem because God is not fooled by posturing; an entrenched and destructive self centeredness is the essential reason for redemption.  Myers & Jeeves (2003) said:  “There are additional streams of evidence, but the point is made: the most common error in people’s self-images is not unrealistically low self-esteem, but rather self-serving pride; not an inferiority complex, but a superiority complex” (p. 163).  Thus, the positive thinkers are not correct, and the internal locus of control idea is ludicrous except to realize one’s actual helplessness; even most of the supposed learned helplessness scenarios are contrived and artificial.  “Behold, I have found only this” said Solomon, “that God made men upright, but they have sought out many devices” (Ecclesiastes ).  In other words, God has made men straight, but men insist on becoming crooked; on using what little control they have for evil purposes and thereby irreparably inclining themselves to the point of helplessness (a learned helplessness).   The truth is almost always foreign to our way of thinking, and self denial (a healthy version of a learned helplessness) is the most positive course of action anyone can take (but only under God’s care).   Expressing one’s self on this side of crucifixion too often lulls the unwitting soul to think more highly of himself than he ought, and, left unchecked (uncrucified), it will delude its owner to think that this caricaturized version of his soul is a healthy thing.
Myers & Jeeves also referenced C.S. Lewis (p. 166) saying basically that this “‘Christian religion is, in the long run, a thing of unspeakable comfort.  But it does not begin in comfort; it begins in [dismay], and it is no use at all in trying to go on to that comfort without first going through that dismay.’”  In other words, ultimate goals might use temporary means that seem to be diametrically opposed to each other, and God is able to do many things like this that seem odd to us from our puny perspective, but, in the end, when it matters most, God’s clear intentions manifest.  “In recent years, a growing body of research suggests that low self-esteem predicts depression” (Orth, Robins, Trzesniewski, Maes, & Schmitt, 2009, p. 472); aside from the obvious fact that everything tends towards depression and inversion (living within a cosmos context ruled by the downward pull of gravitational force), how can one really know the causal direction?  Which comes first, the low self-esteem or the depression?  Seems the depression is physical, whereas the self-esteem issue is mental/feeling-based.   G. K. Chesterton (1959, p. 31) said: “A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed.  Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert—himself.  The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt—the Divine Reason.”  In other words, healthy doubt about self is, indeed, healthy, whereas, doubting God is always detrimental to one’s wellbeing.
B.    Conclusion: losing self (temporarily) to gain self (forever).
It is a craven fixation upon self that is the actual problem today, and almost as prevalent, is this common notion that self esteem is somehow warranted regardless of one’s behavior; however, the nature of genuine self esteem is intrinsically tied to one’s conscience and therefore self-esteem must be a byproduct, and not a product.  If one is moral, does good, than one will feel good about it; favor before God and man is the byproduct of character (behavior done over and over again).  In support of this thought a study was conducted that made a correlative connection between low self-esteem and rejection of Christianity; a connection that assumes the Christian position that nothing is right until one accepts its claims (Williams, Francis, & Robbins, 2006, p. 193).    True Christianity is paradoxical; one must go down to go up, and die in order to live.  Paul the apostle would have been considered by many pragmatists to have been an utter failure; most Christians today, if they honestly surveyed his life, would have thought him cursed and unfit—no apostle, and no Christian.  He considered himself to have been the chief of all sinners; yet he wrote nearly three quarters of the New Testament.  He called the other apostles nothing (himself included).  Think of all the therapy he must have needed!!!
In the end, to affirm what should never be affirmed: fallen man, leads to a repentance-less religion; a true prognosis can only be made under the light of a true diagnosis, and calling murder: murder, theft: theft, cheating: cheating is hard for the individual soul to do because the individual soul is most blind where it is most scrutinized.  Nobody wants to be ultimately unconditionally loved and esteemed anyways; we want reasons to be loved and esteemed.  G. K. Chesterton said it well again when he elucidated the ability of Christianity to notice and address all the needs of mankind, even the ones hardly imagined by other religions or philosophies of man (pgs. 98-99):     
Those underrate Christianity who say that it discovered mercy; any one might discover mercy.  In fact everyone did.  But to discover a plan for being merciful and also severe—that was to anticipate a strange need of human nature.  For no one wants to be forgiven for a big sin as if it were a small one.  Any one might say that we should be neither quite miserable nor quite happy.  But to find out how far one may be quite miserable without making it impossible to be quite happy—that was a discovery in psychology.  Any one might say “Neither swagger nor grovel”; and it would have been a limit.  But to say, “Here you can swagger and there you can grovel”—that was an emancipation.

The irony that God creates by allowing the proper development of our faculties, the fleshing out of all our first Adam traits, only to require that we relinquish our hold on them as we mature in Christ, never really abnegates us –but preserves us forever.  “High self-esteem contributes greatly to preschoolers’ initiative during a period in which they must master many new skills,” is no indictment on thinking too highly of oneself, but rather an innocent child learning even the degrees of a proper self worth in context and relationship to the worth of others within his sphere (Berk, 2007, p. 258).  The plasticity –the fluidity –of child development and immaturity (in general) is one of great highs and lows of ecstatic expressions of disproportionate joys and life-shattering and disappointing sorrows that never last long because of the shallow and still under-developed human nature.  Only when the child is no longer a child will there be a requirement to give back his soul to his Creator.  In the end, proper self esteem and the correct amount of empathy demonstrated can only be realized from God’s perspective.
As far as self-esteem goes, however, Jesus Christ clearly taught to esteem others better than ourselves and to actually deny ourselves altogether.  “Urging Christians to become engrossed in self by seeking to develop self-esteem is not a part of the solution to the human dilemma.  Since I am the problem, focusing attention upon myself merely magnifies, activates, and compounds the problem” (Matzat, 1990, p. 72).  The only way I see this idea of self-esteem and the empathetic and sympathetic sensibilities being proper is in the normal course of early child development; once developed –fleshed out and fully-orbed –then it must be sacrificed back to the Lord.  How many times do we have to see someone on a subterranean path of self-delusion disguised as a healthy expression of self-esteem?  How long will we allow empathetic synchronizations that only affirm someone in their headlong pursuit towards destruction, or a misguided and heretical sympathetic agreement with someone that never intends to lay down their sin or relinquish their selfish ambition before we learn to parse the differences between sentiments that follow righteous thinking and sentiments that are without foundation?
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