As I studied education at BYU, King Benjamin seemed more and more outlandish to me. He dwelt on our carnal state, being less than the dust of the earth, our nothingness, and our worthless and fallen state. I felt that King Benjamin showed a curious misunderstanding of human nature and self-esteem.
As a newlywed glowing with the doctrine of fundamental worth, I resolved to help my sweet partner, Nancy, remedy her glaring deficiency in self-esteem. As life rolled on I should have been alert to obvious inconsistencies in my beliefs. The core article of faith in the doctrine of self-esteem is that you cannot love anyone until you love yourself. Yet Nancy reached out to struggling immigrants and the illiterate poor with compassion and resolve. She served two stints as Relief Society president with ministries that were remarkable in their sweet inclusiveness. Nancy is simply the best mortal Christian I have ever known.
Almost three decades have passed since that time at BYU when I judged King Benjamin by a foolish human fad. I have repented. In fact, as I recently finished a term as a BYU bishop, I realized that I had quoted King Benjamin’s once-spurned observations dozens of times in sacred interviews. (So, you now believe that we are worthless?) And there has been a total reversal in our marriage; the young groom who was once trying to improve his wife’s self-regard is now trying to learn from her self-forgetfulness.
As a sidelight, self-esteem has suffered miserably at the hands of research. As early as 1983 Susan Harter observed that the idea of raising self-esteem in order to improve performance is mistaken. It is wiser to get children doing good things and let the self-esteem follow.
The most deadly blow to the self-esteem movement was probably landed by its most ardent supporters. In the 1980s a group of true believers declared a state of esteem in California. Millions of dollars were directed to improving the self-appraisal of Californians. Fortunately the leaders of the movement gathered research data. The conclusion of the study was that “the associations between self-esteem and its expected consequences are mixed, insignificant, or absent” (Mecca, Smelser, & Vasconcellos, 1989). The experiment in social improvement was a bust. High self-esteem is as likely to be related to problem behavior as model behavior.
We shouldn’t have been surprised. God has never recommended self-esteem. Some have tortured the ancient commandment to love neighbors as self to mean that we must love ourselves. The context for the commandment might be more consistent with a recommendation that if the ancient children of Israel, who were so absorbed in their own needs, would turn their attention at least as much to their neighbors, they would be better off.
But Jesus has given a transcendent commandment: “A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another” (John 13:34). It is worth noting that the commandment to love as He has loved is wedged between His washing of the apostles’ feet and His infinite and eternal sacrifice in our behalf.
God recommends self-forgetfulness and discipleship rather than self-celebration and self-improvement.
Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any [man] will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.
For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it (Matthew 16:24–25).
If we cultivate a Christ-like mind, we ultimately gain the “confidence [that waxes] strong in the presence of God” (D&C 121:45). That is very different from self-confidence. It is a serene peace that God is in charge and that He knows how to accomplish His perfect purposes.
Father’s plan for growth is different from the human plan for growth. Rather than enlarge our management, rally our genius, and exercise our strength (as recommended by Korihor), we focus our faith, submit our wills, and beseech heaven for divine power. That is the relentless message of the Book of Mormon.
Somehow in my youthful (and presumptuous) study of King Benjamin, I had missed the context for our nothingness. “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—” (Mosiah 4:5). It is not our absolute nothingness but our total dependence that King Benjamin stressed. The realization of our dependence opens the way for the vital plea: “And they had viewed themselves in their own carnal state, even less than the dust of the earth. And they all cried aloud with one voice, saying: O have mercy, and apply the atoning blood of Christ that we may receive forgiveness of our sins, and our hearts may be purified;” (Mosiah 4:2).
Ammon marveled in a Redeemer who redeemed such undeserving souls as we: “Who could have supposed that our God would have been so merciful as to have snatched us from our awful, sinful, and polluted state?” (Alma 26:17).
King Benjamin promised that if we follow his counsel we “shall always rejoice, and be filled with the love of God, and always retain a remission of [our] sins” (Mosiah 4:12). We cannot save ourselves; we must be rescued by the Lord’s divine goodness. King Benjamin was right all along.
Mecca, A. M., Smelser, N. J., & Vasconcellos, J. (1989). The social importance of self-esteem. Berkeley: University of California Press.