“I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.”
Thus was the catchphrase of one Stuart Smalley, a Saturday Night Live character made famous by Al Franken in the 90’s. Stuart was the host of a self-help TV show, and periodically throughout the show, he would try and bolster his own self-esteem by looking deeply into the mirror and repeating that phrase again and again. It was a parody, of course, but like all good parodies, there was also an element of truth in it.
Like many of you, I feel like I grew up in the days of self-esteem. The days when classrooms, sports teams, and parenting philosophies began to shift in order to ensure that children had a good and healthy view of themselves. The purpose of this post isn’t necessarily to debate either the good or the bad results that have come from that movement; only to point out that many people living today were shaped by it. And though we might still parody phrases like those made famous by Stuart Smalley, the thought behind shaped the way many of us view – or try to view – ourselves.
The further question for the Christian, though, is not just how much esteem do you have in yourself, but how the gospel shapes the way you view yourself. For it should indeed shape it, as it should shape all things. How, then, is self-esteem shaped by the gospel? Perhaps in at least these three ways:
1. The Christian recognizes the source of every human’s worth and value.
What made Stuart Smalley’s catchphrase ironic was that based on the character, he actually was not very smart. And that a lot of people didn’t actually like him. Nevertheless, there he was, trying to speak something into existence that just wasn’t objectively there for him. At a base level, the gospel reminds us that our true worth and value is not based on our intelligence, in the number of friends we have, or how good we are at a particular thing. It’s bigger than that. Deeper than that.
We all have worth and value because we are all – every single one – created in the image of God. We are unique among all God’s creation in this respect. No zebra, daffodil, or star can make that same claim. But every human whether in the highest income bracket or the lowest socioeconomic background, whether educated at the finest institutions or deprived of the most basic levels of school, is actually tremendously and irreplaceably valuable. If we have any doubt of that fact, then we must only look again to the truth of the gospel that reminds us that Jesus died for us. This is the measure of God’s love for us.
2. The Christian can move forward in faith while acknowledging their past.
Sometimes we think that one of the ways we experience the freedom that comes in Christ is through forgetting our past. That’s not exactly true. Looking back at the apostle Paul, we find one who was dramatically changed by Jesus, but one who was well aware of who he used to be. At the same time, Paul was not held prisoner by that past. He was no longer threatened by it. He was no longer made insecure because of it. He no longer feared that someone would find out about it.
The gospel reminds us that we are made right with God not based on ourselves, but instead based on the righteousness of Christ. That means, when it comes to our past, we can acknowledge it as a reality, and yet still move forward without it weighing us down emotionally and spiritually. Ironically, our past can even become one of the means by which we glory in Jesus, for we remember how he has rescued and delivered us time and time again. So our past is a reality, but it is not the defining reality of who we are. Jesus is.
3. The Christian can progress from self-esteem into self-forgetfulness.
Should we acknowledge freely and openly that all of us have intrinsic value and worth? Absolutely. And should we also be able to move beyond our past, while still acknowledging it, because it no longer defines us? For sure. But there is a certain kind of maturity to our self-esteem that happens as we grow in Christ. The maturing of our self-esteem is, ironically, self-forgetfulness.
If we have a healthy self-esteem then we ought to be able to know and acknowledge that we are good at certain things. But by God’s grace, hopefully we are moving in the direction where we know ourselves more and yet think of ourselves less. That’s because more and more we find our gaze fixed first on God, second on others, and we see ourselves in relation to how we might serve them both.
For the Christian, self-esteem eventually moves somewhat out of our gaze, not because we have begun to think less of ourselves. No – our self-worth has been established at the gospel. But having experience the victory in that battle, we are free to move on from it. To move the place where we are no longer self-conscious, and instead, free to truly love God and love others without worrying so much about ourselves.
Friend, you are valuable today. The gospel tells us it is so. Accept the truth of it, not for the sake of our pride, but instead so that we might move into a life of true love and service to God and others.