I don't think this a mainstream Christian teaching, but that message stuck with me for a very long time. It's incredible how one little message, as off base as it may be, can shape the way you view yourself. The term "self-esteem" was a bit of a dirty word to me growing up, and I avoided it. In fact, any "self" word, unless it was self-denial or self-control, carried bad connotations for me. In all my formative years, I shunned the concept of self-esteem as New Age hocus pocus. As I grew older, I rarely talked about my self-esteem but couched the concept in euphemisms like "worth" or "significance" found in Christ. Mentioning any problems with my self-esteem felt too focused on me and not focused enough on the Savior in whom my worth was found. If I had a "self-esteem" problem, it was more likely that what I really had was a pride and sin problem.
I think even the healthiest of us struggle with self-esteem. We have all received messages through our lives that have told us we are not good enough at this or not important enough for that. Too fat, too skinny, too stupid, too nerdy, too bossy, too sensitive. How can anyone deflect all the messages that are thrown at us all the time by everyone and everything around us? But even more so, when the very foundation of your belief system is based on the message that you are inherently wicked, how can you possibly develop any kind of self-love?
For years, I believed my worth was entirely found in Christ. Without Christ, I was worthless and depraved, my good deeds were like filthy rags. These were the more sophisticated messages I absorbed as I grew into an adult. As a child, I just knew I was a sinner that needed to be saved. As I grew in my faith and in my study of Scripture, I internalized these foundational messages about my origins to immunize myself against pride and any truly self-centered esteem I may have for myself. The term "self-esteem" no longer seemed a dirty word, just a very worldly way of trying to fill the hole of depravity in ourselves that only Christ could fill.
My "self" esteem was actually "salvation" esteem. So when I lost my faith, I also lost my source of value.
When your self-esteem is built upon a strong foundation of self-denial, self-deprecation, or even self-loathing, and is designed by materials that come from a source outside yourself, you are at risk of collapse. If your self-worth is built from someone else's view of you - a significant other, a parent, a deity - and that external source of worth falters or disappears from your life, you will be lost. When I my source of esteem disintegrated, I had no idea who I was or where my value came from. Without Christ, I believed I was nothing! I went through a period of time feeling very lost and purposeless. I had faced the fact that I didn't believe in God anymore, but even though I could see my past worth had been based on something unreal, I was still left with an emptiness I could not fill. It still seemed so self-centered and arrogant to assume I could find worth from within myself, but if it wasn't in God either, could I possibly be worth anything at all?
I no longer found worth in Christ but still saw myself as intensely wicked. I wanted to explore aspects of myself that had always been deemed sinful and displeasing to God, but I couldn't do so without hating myself for having those feelings or questions. Without the Bible telling me these things were wrong, I was able to evaluate so many things through a different, more objective lens, but not without guilt and shame.
I've talked about it before, because it was such a liberating moment, but things began to change with the simple lyrics to a song* I had been listening to:
But luckily I held out long enough to see
everybody really makes their own destiny.
It's a beautiful thing.
It's just you and me, exactly where we belong,
and there's nothing inherently wrong with us.
Suddenly it all fell into place. Not only could I put away the judgment and guilt I'd heaped upon myself for all those years, but I could put away the very notion that I was born depraved and sinful. I had the capacity to make decisions for myself, good or bad. I had the sense to figure out what made something good or bad. I began to redefine all "good and evil" in very basic terms - is it harmful to others or myself? Are there negative consequences that will outweight the benefits? Realizing that I was capable in and of myself to make good choices and be a good human being were the first seeds of true self-esteem building for me.
I look at my children now. I see myself in them, different parts of me in different ones. I see the lack of self-esteem in one child in particular. How could I look at this little human being that I've brought into a harsh world full of harsh messages that will tear her down and try to destroy her and not put intense focus on building her self-esteem? I see the seeds of self-loathing already sprouting, and there's nothing I want more than to choke those seeds out and plant new seeds of self-love in their place. I want to teach my kids to take care of themselves, something I struggle to do myself. I can't imagine anything more important to focus on than a healthy self-esteem that comes from believing they are inherently good and are the masters of the decisions they make. They may make bad choices and do bad things, but that does not make them bad people.
Not all people of faith believe themselves to be so inherently wicked, but that is the message of the Bible - that the heart is deceitful and desperately wicked. That's the bad news that has to be accepted before the good news of Jesus on the cross can be needed. Some people are far better at not internalizing that message as deeply as I did, but I can't take that chance with my own kids. I can see which ones would internalize that message and define themselves by it, the way I did. So I must - it's my responsibility as a parent - fight against not only the messages the world will send my children that they are too much of this or not enough of that, but also the message they are not inherently good. I must put positive self-esteem at the top of things to develop in them, so that they can easily tap into the good they recognize in themselves when choosing between right and wrong. And when they inevitably must forgive themselves for taking the wrong path, their genuine sense of self-worth must be intact.
*The Black Sheep & the Shepherd by Quiet Company