Parents want their children to be happy. That’s why there is so much emphasis on self-esteem in child-rearing literature. Experts (and charlatans) advise us to affirm our children relentlessly.
But this emphasis on self-esteem misses the deeper point and the ultimate path to an abiding joy and peace.
We all need affirmation. There is nothing weak or psychologically damaged about our yearning for assurance that the world is better off with us in it. That we are missed in our absence. That our contribution to this life is significant.
God created us to need affirmation. In fact, God created us so that we have to receive the affirmation we crave from some source beyond ourselves.
Please do not hear this to mean that God created us to suffer chronically low self-esteem. On the contrary, God created us so that he can permeate us with a joy and peace that show self-esteem to be the pale simulacrum of happiness that it really is.
Our very physical existence depends upon receiving things from beyond ourselves. The environment provides the food we eat and the water we drink. We are not self-sustaining creatures.
As it is with our bodies so it is with our souls. As the Psalmist writes, “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God.” (Psalm 42:1; ESV) God supplies the very stuff of life, both physical and spiritual.
The water that slakes the soul’s thirst is the enduring sense of our significance. Without it, we slip into despair. God designed us to receive a sense of worthiness freely from him, but our problem is that we seek it from other sources.
Some of us slavishly seek others’ approval, doing things we hate to do for fear of rejection. Others feverishly accumulate academic and career achievements always haunted by the prospect of failure around the next corner.
The capricious, often selfish whims of others and the ups and downs of the marketplace cannot provide for us an enduring sense of significance. In both cases this strategy to find approval makes us captive to what other people think of us at any particular moment.
Some will say, “Don’t worry about what others think about you. All that matters is what you think about yourself.” In other words, the height of self-esteem is to assert your own inherent value come what may.
While parents rightly want their children to have a positive sense of their abilities and their physical appearance, we do children a disservice by elevating self-esteem to the point we presently do.
By giving awards for simply showing up and trophies for merely wearing the team uniform, we teach children—and deceive ourselves into believing—that our children (and we) can experience the fruits of affirmation by self-assertion.
The extreme example of this is Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of the eternal recurrence. In The Gay Science, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and The Will to Power, Nietzsche proposes the idea that every single instant of our lives will occur again infinitely.
Some postmodern commentators suggest that Nietzsche is not talking about how time works. Instead, he is telling a parable about finding significance in a valueless universe.
On this view, the height of human existence is to assert the significance of each moment of our lives so forcefully that we would will to live that moment again and again for eternity.
To put it crudely: I am inherently wonderful because I am me. Exactly as I am. At every moment. Lonely. Nauseated. Cruel. No matter. I do it and say that it is good.
No one wants to go there. Certainly not genuinely caring parents as they do all in their power to secure their children’s happiness and to shield them from despair.
But this is what the emphasis on self-esteem misses entirely: We actually grow in peace and joy, contentment and hope, when we fail.
When I have to say that I do not like what I have done and cannot fix it. I do not like who I have become and I cannot change it. That is when I discover the mercy that has already been offered.
The lesson of The Cross is that God meets us precisely in our failures, at our very worst. And it is there—where we admit our powerlessness to make ourselves infinitely love worthy—that we discover that we are infinitely loved.
On The Cross Jesus does much more than affirm us for who we are. In his death and resurrection he affirms us for who he can make us. He makes us his beloved.
It is in the midst of our failures that we will discover our enduring value. When we cannot bear what we have done or who we have become or how our life has turned out or what we have lost through neglect and indifference, then we are in a position to receive an infinite, eternal significance from an unwavering, unrelenting source.
Following Christ means that we are free from what others think about us. And we are also free from what we think about ourselves. Looking at The Cross we rely entirely on what Jesus Christ thinks of us.
(Image from: solutionsfocusedpolitics.wordpress.com)