It's not all about you.
How’s your self-esteem today? If you’re over 50, you might not have given the matter much thought. If you’re under 40, you’ve probably heard that you should give the matter a great deal of thought. If you’re under 30 — odds are you’ve been urged to think about your self-esteem constantly, because, it is — or so you’ve been told — the source of all other goods. You’ve grown up on cautionary tales about the terrible things that people do as a result of low self-esteem.
I’d say that the cult of self-esteem is an inversion of the proper orientation of the Christian; that orientation should be of the disciple to the master, that is, of the Christian facing Christ. And, yes, I use the word “cult” quite deliberately. The deliberate cultivation of self easily translates into an inflated sense of self, leading to the pathology of narcissism. Social scientists Twenge and Campbell document this “cult-of-self” in their disturbing study, The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement.
What is the appeal of the exalted sense of self? And what effect does the imperial self have on Christian living? C.S. Lewis offers an incisive account of how the self-esteem cult/pathology of narcissism shows a lack of Christian imagination: “…if we consider the unblushing promise of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling around with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in the slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
In other words, because we are so accustomed to thinking of ourselves as spiritual orphans who are resigned to their fate, we settle for the idol of self rather than take to heart the promises of Christ. But I fear that Lewis does not go far enough. I think that the pathology is deeper than he indicated above, and the damage—no, the true horror—of the imperial self is much, much worse. Let me explain.
During a homily at a university, I once caused panic, gasps of indignation, and a near stampede to the counseling center when I said, “God does not care about your self-esteem! God wants to make you holy and give you joy. If we were rooted in God as the first satisfaction of our hearts, then worrying about feeling good about ourselves would not seem so very interesting.”
Holiness and joy —that is what God offers us. We, who have been made in the image and likeness of God, we who through baptism have been consecrated for resurrection and destined for glory, are offered an eternity of ecstasy, if only we would follow the path of obedience to our Father’s house. But, just like Adam and Eve, we believe not the invitation of God, but rather the lies of the serpent. We believe the serpent who tells us that God is holding out on us. We believe the serpent who tells us that God does not have the best for us. We believe the serpent who tells us that we can be happy only if we become our own god.
And because we believe the serpent, we tear down the temple God has made of us. Because we believe the serpent, we gouge out God’s image and likeness that He has put in us. Because we believe the serpent, we tear off from ourselves anything that would remind us of God, so that we can try to be our own god. Believing the serpent—what does that get us?Do we want to know? Do we really want to know? The result of our believing the serpent is what we see hanging on the cross—man, who is the crown of creation, now beaten and mutilated almost beyond recognition. That is our handiwork.