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Do You Think God Cares About Your Self-Esteem?

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Fr Robert McTeigue, SJ - published on 11/20/14

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.

The corpse on the crucifix is what we look like when we follow our own wisdom and not God’s wisdom.  We have to look at the ugliness of the cross, we have to look at the unnecessary violence heaped upon human loveliness and say, “I chose to make this ugliness rather than accept the holiness and joy God offered me. This ugliness has happened because I chose it, and it continues to happen because I refuse to stop choosing it.”

The tragedy of the cult-of-self-esteem/pathology-of-narcissism is twofold. First, we destroy the image of God within us; second, we reject the gift of God given to us in His only begotten son, the Word-made-Flesh Who is Jesus, Who comes to make divine what God first made human. We reject what God has made us and we reject what God would make of us. We reject the sovereignty of God and the generosity of God. We dare not believe that God can be enough for us, and we anxiously flail about as we strive to make ourselves enough for ourselves. The cult of self-esteem cheats both God and man.

We surely need some clarity here.  No one capable of introspection can assume natural human innocence—we all have faced the demands of the selfish self, ready to destroy self and others. At the same time, we dare not succumb to self-loathing; we who are made in the image and likeness of God ought not to deny God’s generosity and wisdom in making us intelligent, free, and bodily. Certainly, we must not deny that we have abused our intelligence, freedom and bodies—we have rebelled against the way God has made us, we have rejected our ingrained orientation towards truth, goodness, beauty, and love. Above all, we must humbly admit that we are loved sinners. We are foolish enough to be in need of rescue and cherished enough to have been offered rescue by God.

What have we learned so far? We have learned that self-fascination is a toxic illusion. We have learned that self-denigration is a rejection of creation and salvation. We have learned that we are blessed by a free but very costly gift of God—the saving work of His Incarnate Son, Jesus. And we must admit that we live in a culture that would have us forget who we are and whose we are; we live in a culture that would have us live, paradoxically, as self-sufficient orphans—those who have nothing and no one and who must scramble to make satisfactory idols of ourselves.

Is it any wonder, then, that Shakespeare, in his play, “Hamlet”, wrote: “What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?”

Of all God’s creatures, we have the capacity to make ourselves miserable; of all God’s creatures, we have the capacity to receive from Him the gift of Himself and prospect of becoming like Him. How very much greater that is, for better and for worse, than the cult of self-fascination/self-affirmation that is the idolatry of self-esteem and the pathology of narcissism.  We have the capacity to reject or accept a divine gift! How much greater that responsibility is than the project of admiring the selfishly made, self-admiring self that is the object of the cult of self-esteem.

Surely, every one of us knows a child who is now being marinated in the toxic brine of narcissistic self-esteem. In light of these reflections, how might we address such a child? Perhaps we could say something like this:  “My dear child—you are just like everyone else.  You are made in the image of God, and have the great and terrible power of saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to your God-given calling to become a citizen of Heaven. And, you are unique—only you can give your ‘yes’ or your ‘no’ to God. If you look to God as the first place to find all the truth, goodness and beauty you desire, then you can find everything you want while forgetting about yourself. And that is the best and truest freedom.”

My friends, what a gift we can give our children! We can teach them to forget themselves, make room for God, and thereby receive all that they desire and were made for. And we should not be surprised by this great gift.  For our Lord told us, “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.  What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? Or what can one give in exchange for his life?” (Matthew 16:25-26)

When I next write, I will talk about why I am not looking forward to the Season of Advent.  Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.

Father Robert McTeigue, S.J. is a member of the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus.  A professor of philosophy and theology, he has long experience in spiritual direction, retreat ministry, and religious formation. He teaches philosophy at Ave Maria University in Ave Maria, FL, and is known for his classes in both Rhetoric and in Medical Ethics.

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