Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about self-esteem. I think low self-esteem and high self-esteem are an elevated self. A self that thinks of itself more highly than it ought to. Let me explain.
There are two lenses through which we esteem ourselves. One is through the modern secular lens and the other is the traditional lens.
Modern secular lens
The modern secular view tells us to look deep within ourselves – to our skills, talent, gifts, education, experience, qualifications, gender, feelings, etc., to esteem ourselves. This is pop psychology at its zenith.
The Traditional lens
The traditional view tells us to look around ourselves – to our community, race, country, ethnicity, tribe, family name, clan, etc., to esteem ourselves.
In looking in or around ourselves, we have all it takes to succeed, develop good habits, endure the vicissitudes of life, and self-actualize.
Yet when we use these lenses to look deep inside us, or around us, we see only two things – either, we have all the things we need which lead to high self-esteem, or severe lack of those things which leads to low self-esteem.
A person with high self-esteem looks deep inside or around and finds out that
- I am good.
- I am worthy of love.
- I have the skills, talents, and gifts.
- I am qualified
- I belong to the right race.
- I have the right gender or I’m in the right body.
- I have a vision for my life.
- I was born into a wonderful family. I come from the right stock.
- I made the most of my opportunities.
- I am a winner.
- I will amount to something worthwhile.
- I have the relationships I need to make it in life.
- Anything I set my mind to do comes to pass.
- I love myself.
- I am somebody.
- I take full responsibility for myself.
These are just samples of thoughts in the mind of a person with high self-esteem. Notice the “I”? Rightly so, by psychology standards, this person is at the top of the human chain because he has an elevated sense of esteem.
A person with low self-esteem looks deep inside or around and finds out that
- I am not good.
- I am not worthy.
- I don’t have any skills, talents, and gifts.
- I am unqualified and disqualified.
- I belong to the wrong race.
- I have the wrong gender or I’m in the wrong body.
- I don’t have a vision for my life.
- I was born into a poor family.
- I have squandered most of my opportunities.
- I am a loser.
- I will never amount to anything worthwhile.
- I don’t have the relationships I need to make it in life.
- Anything I set my mind to do, fails.
- I hate myself.
- I am nothing.
- I take no responsibility.
These are just samples of thoughts in the mind of person with low self-esteem. Again, notice the “I”? Most people with low self-esteem don’t think they are narcissistic. They rightly believe it’s the person with high self-esteem who is narcissistic forgetting that narcissism goes both ways. Those who don’t think they are narcissistic actually are.
I think, all the -isms in our world, be it racism, colonialism, ethnicism, genderism, classism, are fruits of an elevated sense of esteem. Even when the oppressed (victims of -isms) get their freedom, they eventually become the new oppressors. Their elevated sense of esteem (low self-esteem) comes to the fore. All the while, it lay dormant because of the power the oppressor had over them. The lion was in a zoo, safe and tame, but the wild was inside the lion. When the cage opened, the lion came out and devoured its keepers. Victims of ism’s embrace, new ism’s, and the vicious cycle ensues. An oppressed soul can become worse than the oppressor’s.
But there is an alternative view.
The gospel of grace
The gospel of grace offers a unique identity not anchored deep in ourselves, or around ourselves, but an identity outside of ourselves. In the gospel of grace, we don’t look deep inside us (modern secular) or around (traditional), but outside ourselves to find our esteem.
A verse from Paul sums up how this works
2 Corinthians 5:17
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old passed away; behold, the new has come.
In the gospel of grace, Christ is your identity. In Christ, you become a new creation. Your esteem is in Christ, who is of eternal value – his value is perpetual, lasting, and going on without ceasing. Christ’s value does not change with time, transcends your social context, gender, race, or otherwise, and gives you new meaning. You do not cease to exist when you are in Christ, but you become a new person.
If a person with low self-esteem embraces the gospel of grace, the gospel of grace imputes them with a sense of boldness and resolve. When a person with high self-esteem embraces the gospel of grace, it imputes them with a sense of humility, kindness, and generosity,
In a practical sense, the person with low self-esteem now takes chances and makes the most of his opportunities, is not afraid to fail because failure does not define who they are, faces life head-on, considers others more highly than themselves. The person with high self-esteem now serves others, lays down his life for others, opens doors of opportunities for others, lifts up others, are generous with their resources, uses their privilege to fight for the weak, oppressed and marginalized, and considers others more highly than themselves.
What if our churches, marriages, businesses, societies, and nations were full of people with a gospel of grace identity? What happens when people, in the words of Paul, don’t think they are better than they really are. Honest in their evaluation of themselves? (Romans 12:3 NLT) What if, in this COVID-19 crisis, we observed social distancing protocols not because we are mandated by the government, but because we consider others more highly than ourselves? This, I believe, is only possible if we embrace the identity – the new creation which the gospel of grace makes possible.
Last, this identity is free but costly. It came at the cost of Jesus’ life and it will cost you – in a good way.
Jesus was the one person who had a correct and sober view of himself. No man who walked on earth had a sense of esteem. His high self-esteem was borne out of the fact that he knew his father loved him. He knew his father was for him, would never let him down, and loved him. Yet on the cross, all that came crashing down. His heavenly father crushed his sense of high esteem when he turned his face away and abandoned him. On the cross, he experienced what low self-esteem feels like.
On the cross, he also bore the judgement for the sins of our high self-esteem. As we all know, people who have high esteem are very self-righteous, proud and critical of others. Yet on the cross, Jesus suffered the punishment for the sins of our high self-esteem. On the cross, Jesus became us. He took our elevated sense of being, be it low self-esteem or high self-esteem, crushed it, and gave it back to us a new creation. In the new creation, you don’t lose you; you become a new you – a glorious you – a God favoured you. In the new creation, you cannot have low self-esteem because Jesus gave himself for you. In the new creation, you cannot have an oversized esteem because Jesus humbled himself for you.
This I think is an identity that would serve our world well.
That’s what grace looks like.