James 4.10: “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.”
There is a very tenuous relationship between self-esteem and the ability to love. On the one hand, a person who has been relationally crippled may be unable to reciprocate love because they feel that they are not a lovable person. They may reject any positive response as not being deserved.
On the other hand, a high-self esteem is not the automatic solution to this problem. Many people who have a high self-esteem are rather narcissistic. Consequently, they do not experience love as love, but they experience it as reflecting their own inflated sense of greatness, that they are being treat as they are because they are such a great person.
The problem with these positions isn’t, however, that of low or high self-esteem in and of itself. In fact, for the most part, self-esteem is more the result of the realities of our life than a cause. The problem occurs, however, when we begin to draw an “oughtness” about our self-esteem: that we ought to feel bad or good about ourselves. This “oughtness” of self-esteem leads to the colonization of personal identity in such a way that our feelings about ourself become an integral part of our identity. It is our sense of identity, not self-esteem by itself, that determines whether we will receive love or not.
These messages of “oughtness” are sent through various means. In some of the sin-focused evangelical churches, they inculcate a sense that one ought to feel like a bad sinner so that one can then receive the grace, love, and forgiveness of God. Far beyond simply recognizing the reality of our sins and repenting from them, they inculcate a sense of devaluation of ourselves. On the other hand, the “self esteem” movements of the late 20th century that still has a lingering influence today promoted the opposite message: you ought to feel good about yourself. It is not wonder then that my Millenial generation has been demonstrated to have higher degrees of narcissism than the generations of the past.1 The self-esteem movement may be in part a response against the guilty and shaming that sin-focused brands of Christianity had inculcated, to the extent that the sharp division we see between the “godless progressives” and the “hateful evangelicals” may in large part stem from this anthropological conflict of how we ought to see ourselves as humans and the differing social values that emerges as a result.
Other times, these messages of “oughtness” get implicitly conveyed through repeated interpersonal interactions. If a person is always regarded with judgment and disgust, they will habitually internalize their low self-esteem from each of those judgments into their identity. Similarly, if a person is only praised, they will habitually internalize that high-esteem. Consequently, they will become unable to receive from others the opposite of what they experience. This internalization takes on the form of an oughtness, even though no one may have said “You ought to think low/high of yourself.”
Here is where the problem comes down: as the Cartesian shift to the experience of the individual diffused more throughout the fabric of Western society, influencing our anthropology and psychology through the lens of of individual, internal experience, we did something. We replaced interpersonal identity with personal identity and with that, we came to believe that the basic capacity for interpersonal relationships stem from our own personal identity: what I feel about myself will determine how I will relate to others. However, the truth is that we as humans are by default created to be interpersonal; our sense of our personal identity both emerges from and molds our interpersonal relationships in a form of reflexive causality. Once we started focusing on personal identity, we then disconnected the way personal identity was caused by our interpersonal relationships, but instead made our interpersonal relationships a function of our personal identity. We existentially regarded personal identity as the beginnings and foundations for interpersonal relationships, which meant that my relationships to others is dictated by what I (ought to) think about myself.
So, when this individualistic emphasis of identity was combined with the Biblical messages of repentance and humility, it morphed what was an Scriptural message about an interpersonal dynamic with God into a statement about personal identity. Recognizing your sins before God got turn into recognizing and thinking about yourself as a sinner. The repentance was intended to give life by bringing ourselves to God so that He would then lift us up had instead spiritually enslaved the people. Consequently, the anthropology and worldview of the Pharisees that Jesus and the kingdom of heaven resisted was reinculcated through the name of Christ. Furthermore, as the “self-esteem movement” increasingly fomenting psychological resistance to the Gospel, both because of confusing it with its distorted form AND because it has trouble with most any conception of sin.
Repentance and humility is not supposed to be about a universal evaluation of ourselves as reflected in our personal identity, but it is to how we relate and respond to God that opens us to receive the exaltation of life that God Himself has in store for us, instead of what we think we should have in store for us that our focus on personal identity has inculcated in us.