I am currently reading one of those books that people read in secret. You know, those books that would make us look bad and weak and inadequate if people saw them on our shelves? The title of the book does little to help my ego: How to Win Friends and Influence People. You are probably already drawing inferences about why I could be reading such a book — and that, right there, is my point.
I have often sat with among friends and spoke ill of self-help books and the people who read them. It is already tempting to start justifying why I am reading and agreeing with Dale Carnegie in How to Win friends and Influence People. I feel that I should at least explain why I am reading a book with such a “self-helpish” title, but I will not do it, because to do that would be to go against the point of this post. So I put my reputation at your mercy.
Well, I said that in order to say this: I think the whole notion of “self-esteem” has received an unfairly bad rap from Christians who want to remain faithful to the Bible. Numerous articles and blog posts and even books have been written to explain why “self-esteem” is an unbiblical concept and an unholy pursuit. I, too, have written my share of tweets and Facebook status updates in the past to that effect. But allow me to play the devil’s advocate and tease out something that I think is important about the idea of “self-esteem”. Allow me to defend self-esteem and, hopefully, still remain faithful to God’s Word.
Why would anyone want to read a book about improving your self-esteem and feeling better about yourself? Why would Joel Osteen sell millions of copies for titles such as Your Best Life Now and Become a Better You? Well, the easy answer is that Osteen and other writers like Myles Munroe or Rhonda Byrne (of The Secret ) are responding to a real need in the world.
People are searching for significance, we want to know and feel and believe that we matter. We crave recognition and we cringe at the notion of being forgettable or dispensable. We yearn to know that we count, and we will do anything and go to any length to attain this significance, and that is why for many of us, the first and easiest step would be to bury our faces in a How to Stop Worrying and Start Living (also by Carnegie).
I hear someone like Victoria Osteen advising people to worship God “for yourself”, and I have to admit that I get her. I can see where she is coming from and what she is trying to get at. I don’t know where her heart is, but my best guess is that she genuinely wants to help people. Many of the people who write self-help books also want to help people — and they do it the best way they know how.
Whether or not they also want to make money and become rich is another matter altogether.Just because I want to make money and be rich through journalism doesn’t make my other motives in pursuing this career (e.g. to speak truth to power and keep the government accountable) any less noble.
So, to the extent that there is a real need for personal edification and validation in the world, to the extent that there is a real need to succeed and win and avoid failure in life, to the extent that we are hardwired to want to be respected and “esteemed”, I fully support the notion of self-esteem. You see, the problem is not self-esteem, or our longing for it, the crux of the matter is HOW we go about satisfying this goal.
What’s even more disturbing is when we begin to speak as if the need does not exist, or worse, as if it should not exist. It is one thing to say that self-esteem should not be our ultimate goal or even a primary objective in life. But it is an entirely different thing to say that it doesn’t matter or that it is a wrong goal. There are many things we yearn and long for in this life, and most of these things cannot be attained by directly pursuing them. Things like contentment, or peace.
There are people who pursue contentment by acquiring things, because they think when they have enough things and enough relationships, they will finally be content. I believe the psychological term for this ultimate end is self-actualisation. They will finally be self-satisfied. Such people are pursuing a noble goal, but they are pursuing a misunderstood goal using the wrong means. To help such people, we should not disparage their goals and longings, instead, we should re-route and re-wire how they think about such longings.
This is where and how the Word of God helps us. The Bible does not just provide us with principles to apply when we want to achieve our personal goals. The Bible is more radical, it gives us new goals and new ways to think about old goals. The Word of God sets us right by renewing our thinking, and eventually our lives, to God’s will (His means and ends).
So, is self-esteem evil and is it wrong for a Christian to want self-esteem? I would respond by saying those are wrong questions. The questions assume that we are settled on who a Christian is in the first place. We may discover that if we stepped back from the question and explored what it means to be a Christian, we will discover a message that renders the question of self-esteem moot or irrelevant.
That message is the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and this is the message that should define our posture as we explore all subjects regarding human needs and wants and longings in this world. The Word of God is a good place to begin. In fact, it is the only place to begin. And if we trust in the God who authored this word and revealed it to us, we may also discover that this Word is also a good place to stop. Because it is the only place worth staying in.
For the fame of His name
PS: This will be among my last posts on Alien Citizens. No, I will not quit blogging, but I am planning to take a slightly different road, which begins by closing shop over here. I will update you all on the great migration. Have a blessed day, friends.