The fruits of the self-esteem movement may well be the fulfillment of prophecy
Old Scratch must be especially proud of some victories. Getting the wicked to sin is nothing, of course, but any time he can get God’s people to do evil and call it good, he fills another page in his scrapbook. I fear that many of us appear prominently in those depressing pages.
God describes the symptoms of latter-day sickness. Among them are
“lovers of their own selves,”
“having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof:”
(2 Timothy 3:2, 4, 5)
God’s advice is “from such turn away” (2 Timothy 3:5).
Elder Mark E. Petersen has given insight into this condition. “What does it mean to be ‘lovers of our selves’? In short it simply means to be selfish—self-centered and self-seeking” (The Way to Peace, p.33). Elder Petersen describes the consequences of this spiritual malady: “All the evils of life: crime, immorality, divorce, unkindness, dishonesty, avarice, pleasure-seeking, war—in fact the whole list of offenses involved in man’s inhumanity to man. Selfishness is one of the main reasons why some love pleasure more than God, and why they are content with a form of godliness while denying the power thereof.”
Elder Victor L. Brown, in commenting on the passage from 2 Timothy, observes that, “Too many people have adopted a self-serving and self-centered attitude toward life. Such people think primarily in terms of themselves and what they can get out of a situation, with little or no regard for the feelings, needs, or rights of others. Such a self-seeking attitude divides friendships, destroys marriages, breaks up homes, and grieves the Spirit of the Lord so that it withdraws. A self-serving, self-centered view of life is not consistent with—in fact, is contrary to—the gospel of the Master, who taught us to love God above all else and our neighbor as ourselves.” (“Insights from June Conference,” Ensign, Oct. 1975, 71)
Elder Maxwell refers to this as the “culture of narcissism” that is so prevalent in the last days (We Will Prove Them Herewith, p. 78).
Who are the sick?
All this sounds like a description of those “other guys,” the ones in high school (or business or at church) who seem to think they can do it all. I am amazed that more Latter-day Saints have not recognized the self-esteem movement as an effort by Satan to sell the dark doctrine of self-centeredness as holy gospel. Self-esteem as popularly taught is indistinguishable from self-celebration, pride, arrogance, and egotism. The fruits of the self-esteem movement may well be the fulfillment of the prophecy in Timothy about latter-day lovers of their own selves, boasters, proud, and unthankful.
Taking the measure of self-esteem
“The Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale is perhaps the most widely used self-esteem measure in social science research” (Department of Sociology, University of Maryland). Consider the items that indicate high self-esteem in this popular scale:
- “On the whole, I am satisfied with myself.”
- “I am able to do things as well as most other people.”
- “I feel that I’m a person of worth, at least on an equal plane with others.”
- “I take a positive attitude toward myself.”
- “I feel that I have a number of good qualities.”
All of this seems innocent enough. “I respect myself. I feel good about my talents.” There is only one thing wrong with it. It is contrary to the counsel of the One who created us. In fact it was the Pharisee—the emblem of spiritual failure—who saw himself in such glowing light.
“God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess” (Luke 18:11–12).
President Benson taught the Church about the dangers of pride. “Jesus said he did “always those things” that pleased God. (John 8:29) Would we not do well to have the pleasing of God as our motive rather than to try to elevate ourselves above our brother and outdo another?” (Beware of Pride, Ensign, May 1989). Jesus recommended the attitude the publican had.
“And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner” (Luke 18:13). The publican knew he of himself was desolate. But he knew to trust in God.
Notice the similarity between the publican’s self-renouncing attitude and those items in the Rosenberg Self-esteem Scale that are associated with low self-esteem:
- “At times I think I am no good at all.”
- “I feel I do not have much to be proud of.”
- “I certainly feel useless at times.”
- “I wish I could have more respect for myself.”
- “All in all, I am inclined to feel that I am a failure.”
Self-sufficiency versus heavenly humility
Recognizing that we are all spiritual failures is the beginning of getting the needed spiritual help. Jesus’ defining Pharisee/publican passage is not an isolated instance. Notice the same theme in many scriptures—in fact, in all scripture.
“Save they shall cast these things away, and consider themselves fools before God, and come down in the depths of humility, he will not open unto them.” (2 Nephi 9:42)
“And they had viewed themselves in their own carnal state, even less than the dust of the earth.” (Mosiah 4:2)
“I would that ye should remember, and always retain in remembrance, the greatness of God, and your own nothingness, and his goodness and long-suffering towards you, unworthy creatures, and humble yourselves even in the depths of humility, calling on the name of the Lord daily.” (Mosiah 4:11)
“Do not say: O God, I thank thee that we are better than our brethren; but rather say: O Lord, forgive my unworthiness, and remember my brethren in mercy—yea, acknowledge your unworthiness before God at all times.” (Alma 38:14)
“We are unworthy before thee; because of the fall our natures have become evil continually.” (Ether 3:2)
“I give unto men weakness that they may be humble.” (Ether 12:27)
Jesus himself took no credit to Himself. He did not even allow Himself to be called “Good Master” (Matthew 19:17).
Certainly it must insult God to wave away the scriptural recommendation of humility and replace it with the self-esteem psychobabble. When we subscribe to the power of self-esteem instead of faith in Christ, we have “a form of godliness but [deny] the power thereof” (2 Timothy 3:5).
The closest thing I have seen to a scriptural defense of self-esteem is Matthew 22:39: “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” The popular logic is that we must love ourselves in order to love our neighbors. There are two problems with using this scripture in support of self-esteem.
First the second commandment follows the greater commandment to “love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind” (Matthew 22:37). While Satan teaches that “we can’t love anybody until we love ourselves,” God teaches that there is no love until we love Him wholeheartedly.
Second, the command to love thy neighbor as thyself is given to those who are self-absorbed. It might be paraphrased as, “Okay. You’ve figured out how to look after yourself. Can you show the same kind of concern for your neighbors?” It clearly does not direct us to perfect our self-love before moving on to the love of others. Further, the new commandment that Jesus gave sets a much higher standard “that ye love one another; as I have loved you” (John 13:34). In this new commandment the standard of comparison is not our love for ourselves but His love for us. Breathtaking!
Self-esteem as pseudo spirituality
In the self-esteem movement Satan has provided us all of the positive feelings of pseudo spiritual experiences with none of the gratitude. God has been extracted from our successes. That must make someone laugh endlessly. “Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!” (Isaiah 5:20).
C. S. Lewis observes that “the moment you have a self at all, there is a possibility of putting yourself first—wanting to be the center—wanting to be God” (Mere Christianity, p. 53). Worshiping ourselves is idolatry at its worst.
Misunderstanding the scriptural solution
This whole line of reasoning against self-esteem is easily misunderstood. The solution is not self-hate. It is self-forgetfulness. The remedy is to “be humble—delightedly humble, feeling the infinite relief of having for once got rid of all the silly nonsense about your own dignity which has made you restless and unhappy all your life” (C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, p. 114).
Humility is not gloomy. It is lightened by faith and energized by God. It is both hopeful and peaceful. Ammon beautifully mixes humility with joy: “Yea, I know that I am nothing; as to my strength I am weak; therefore I will not boast of myself, but I will boast of my God, for in his strength I can do all things; yea, behold, many mighty miracles we have wrought in this land, for which we will praise his name forever” (Alma 26:12).
To be humble does not mean that we are despairing. In fact we rejoice more! But we know where to attribute all credit. To claim credit for our triumphs is rank presumption; to acknowledge God is heavenly wisdom.
The scientific test of self-esteem
Self-esteem fails every scriptural test; it is contrary to God’s counsel. How does it fare in scientific tests? Some decades ago, self-esteem seemed to be essential to well being. So earnest people worked to inflate everyone’s self-esteem.
The scientific tide has turned. Recent, more sophisticated research shows that efforts to improve self-esteem have been counterproductive. As Seligman (2002) observed: “’Get in touch with your feelings,’ shout the self-esteem peddlers in our society. Our youth have absorbed this message, and believing it has produced a generation of narcissists whose major concern, not surprisingly, is with how they feel” (p. 118). Seligman recommends that we turn our focus outward. The healthiest people focus on appreciation and contribution rather than self-celebration.
The real-life test
Think of the people you most admire. How are they unique? Are they those who jabber endlessly about their own remarkableness? For me they are people who are focused on serving and blessing others. Are they able to do this because they are so self-confident? Nope. They may enjoy talking about their projects but they squirm when we praise them. Their focus is on serving.
The liberating alternative: A different kind of confidence
Forgetting ourselves and focusing on God is wonderfully liberating. “The scriptures call it confidence “in the presence of God” (D&C 121:45). Such heavenly confidence is infinitely better—and more justified—than self-confidence. It is the heavenly antidote to besetting mortality.
As C.S. Lewis observed, “the more we get what we now call ‘ourselves’ out of the way and let him take us over, the more truly ourselves we become” (Mere Christianity, p. 189). This is the core message of the gospel. We are all afflicted with terminal mortality. We can try to disguise our fallenness and trumpet our puny accomplishments or we can let Him make us into new creatures who appreciate His creation and love to do His work.
You know which is better.
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