Finding a way to get along with ourselves is tricky business. I naturally have more concern for my own well being than for anyone else’s. But I am also at war with myself. I disappoint myself and fall short of my aspirations regularly. Where is the system that will help me create a peace accord in the midst of that internal, infernal strife?
A popular candidate is self-esteem. “If I can only learn to appreciate and celebrate myself, I can be at peace.” The major problem with this solution is that it has no answer for my regular and bothersome shortcomings. Do my good deeds outweigh my bad? Does my standing as a child of God justify my abundant failings?
I have written about self-esteem in several articles. I have described its failure to pass scientific or scriptural muster. I have even dared to suggest that the latter-day obsession with self-esteem fulfills parts of the prophecy in 2 Timothy 3:1–2:
“This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come. For men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy.”
Paul’s prophecy to Timothy seems to me like a pretty good description of our times. Much of the prophecy also seems to describe our state of self-esteem.
I believe that God, that heavenly psychologist, prescribes a remedy very different from self-esteem. Recently I started a verse-by-verse study of the scriptures to see if I had understood God’s prescription for us. I started by carefully analyzing the first book of Nephi to find every indication of attitude toward self, healthy and unhealthy, recommended and forbidden. I hoped to see how God would have us reconcile that yawning chasm between our aspirations and our performance.
A person might ask whether the authors of scripture are too time-bound to offer real solutions for our modern times. I’m just simple enough to believe that those who have given us scripture have been able to express timeless truths. I believe them. I think they have special claim on our attention.
In any case, since the Book of Mormon was written especially for our time and our challenges, it has unique claim on us. While finishing my study of scripture may take many more years, I have been impressed with the clarity with which three truths have emerged from my study so far.
The first point emerging from the Book of Mormon is that we should be quite matter-of-fact about ourselves. For example, King Benjamin was clear about his service to the people. But he described his service neither to boast in himself nor to accuse the people (Mosiah 2:15). He wanted to inform them.
Nephi declared that he was born of goodly parents and highly favored of the Lord. He was as matter-of-fact about observing that he was “large in stature” as he was in observing in the same breath that he had “great desires to know of the mysteries of God” (1 Nephi 2:16).
There is, of course, a difference between being matter-of-fact and being proud. In the recommended state of mind, we are always mindful of the source and the purpose of any resources we have. “And all these gifts come from God, for the benefit of the children of God” (D&C 46:26).
For those who have musical talent, they should be as matter-of-fact about that blessing as they are about the color of the sky or the warmth of the sun. Our gifts command no special attention. They are only cause for gratitude to the Great Giver of Gifts.
For any who have talent, money, knowledge, or charm, God invites us to recognize the source and put the resource to service.
The scriptural contrast to such matter-of-factness is the self-absorption that threatens to destroy people: “. . . on the other side of the river of water [was] a great and spacious building; and it stood as it were in the air, high above the earth. And it was filled with people, both old and young, both male and female; and their manner of dress was exceedingly fine; and they were in the attitude of mocking and pointing their fingers towards those who had come at and were partaking of the fruit” (1 Nephi 8:26–27).
Great and spacious pride is centered on our own merits and loveliness. The authors of scriptures talk surprisingly little about their own merits. Their praise had a different target, which is the focus of my second discovery.
My biggest surprise was the regularity and intensity of scriptural praise for God. While I could not find a single case where a scriptural exemplar esteemed (honored, revered, admired) him or herself, the scriptural message was brim with praise for God
. . . the tender mercies of the Lord . . . (1 Nephi 1:20)
. . . gave thanks unto the Lord . . . (1 Nephi 2:7)
. . . he is mightier than all the earth . . . (1 Nephi 4:1)
. . . known the goodness of God . . . (1 Nephi 5:4)
One verse may capture the essence of Nephi’s many joyous outbursts:
“Nevertheless, I did look unto my God, and I did praise him all the day long; and I did not murmur against the Lord because of mine afflictions.” (1 Nephi 18:16)
Appreciation and awe for God appear to be the context for all goodness and progress in the scriptural accounts.
And, surprisingly enough, God’s goodness is also the answer to our persistent imperfection. King Benjamin may have expressed this most clearly. He suggests that, as we come to know the goodness of God, we simultaneously become serenely aware of our own nothingness. This serenity in the face of our weakness is quite a surprise for a people who equate a sense of nothingness with despair and depression. Yet the opposite is true. When we realize that God is able, we are relieved of the intolerable burden of saving ourselves. This discovery is not painful; it is liberating.
Note King Benjamin’s clear connection between self-nothingness and salvation:
“For behold, if the knowledge of the goodness of God at this time has awakened you to a sense of your nothingness, and your worthless and fallen state—
“I say unto you, if ye have come to a knowledge of the goodness of God, and his matchless power, and his wisdom, and his patience, and his long-suffering towards the children of men; . . .
“I say, that this is the man who receiveth salvation . . .” (Mosiah 4:5–7).
When we feel soul-flooding awe for God, we also feel relieved, humbled, hopeful, and peaceful. If you have felt it, you know what I mean. You know it is good. The more we turn our lives over to Him, the more we feel love, joy, and peace.
The third message of scripture appears to be that blessing fellow humans is the instinctive response of those who have tasted of the love of God. Three examples will illustrate:
“And as I partook of the fruit thereof it filled my soul with exceedingly great joy; wherefore, I began to be desirous that my family should partake of it also; for I knew that it was desirable above all other fruit.” (1 Nephi 8:12)
“Now, it came to pass that when I had heard these words I began to feel a desire for the welfare of my brethren, the Nephites; wherefore, I did pour out my whole soul unto God for them.” (Enos 1:9)
“And thus, in their prosperous circumstances, they did not send away any who were naked, or that were hungry, or that were athirst, or that were sick, or that had not been nourished; and they did not set their hearts upon riches; therefore they were liberal to all, both old and young, both bond and free, both male and female, whether out of the church or in the church, having no respect to persons as to those who stood in need.” (Alma 1:30)
The attitude of those who are filled with God stands in sharp contrast to those in the great and spacious building who are filled with themselves, who dress perfectly and mock others.
Recently I was in New York City on business. I decided to stop in at Saks Fifth Avenue. I rode the escalator up several floors. I found an overcoat that appealed to me. It was priced at $1,800. “Well, maybe I’ll buy a tie.” $120. This felt closer to the great and spacious building than to the tree of life. I cannot pay almost $2,000 for a coat for me while I know so many who have no coat at all. I left Saks without making any purchases.
All scripture is open to various interpretations. My interpretations and convictions are based on my understanding of scripture and on my own life experience. That experience teaches me that whenever I have celebrated myself, I have felt my well being shrink. I have felt dishonest. I grieve that “the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do” (Romans 7:19). In contrast, whenever I throw myself on his merits, mercy, and grace, I find a peace that passes understanding.
Some might ask about the special case of those who have been abused and mistreated. Don’t they need to recover their self-respect and self-regard? My answer is a simple “No.” They, more than any of us, need to go directly to God. It is true that they must not blame themselves. But they must not celebrate themselves, either—no sense trading one disease for another. They, like the injured one on the road to Jericho, need to be carried to the inn of healing. We offer our compassion and resources to them. We show our regard for them as offspring of God. But, more than anything else, we point them to him who is mighty to save and heal (2 Nephi 31:19). Self-celebration is only a diversion from the journey of healing.
Maybe I’m entirely mistaken about self-esteem. Maybe it is the key to human wellness. But my reading of scripture and my experience in life converge to convince me that I am unwise to put my trust in the arm of flesh. I’m taking my chances with God.
“O Lord, I have trusted in thee, and I will trust in thee forever. I will not put my trust in the arm of flesh; for I know that cursed is he that putteth his trust in the arm of flesh. Yea, cursed is he that putteth his trust in man or maketh flesh his arm.
“Yea, I know that God will give liberally to him that asketh. Yea, my God will give me, if I ask not amiss; therefore I will lift up my voice unto thee; yea, I will cry unto thee, my God, the rock of my righteousness. Behold, my voice shall forever ascend up unto thee, my rock and mine everlasting God. Amen” (2 Nephi 4:34–35).