I have grimaced and groused my way through many a bad sermon in my lifetime, but I have only walked out on one sermon. And I remember vividly what torqued me off. The associate pastor at the church where I was attending was filling in for the senior pastor, who was on vacation. The text for his sermon was Matthew 22:34-40:
“But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
Here’s where things went awry. The thesis of his message was “You can’t love God or others unless you first love yourself.” In other words, self-esteem is essential to loving God. The topic and delivery of the message had smoke coming out of my ears as a uncomfortably squirmed in my seat. About 40 minutes through the meandering message, the youth pastor then looked in my direction and stated: “We have a Seminary student in the audience. Don’t you agree?” Flummoxed as every eye in the congregation turned squarely toward me, I gave some sort of non-answer, got up and walked out.
In hindsight, it was 100% the wrong thing to do, and I don’t take any pride in my actions. On the other hand, I’m still vehemently opposed the thesis of that message. Can you love God or others if you don’t love yourself? Absolutely. Because Jesus’ statement in Matthew 22:39 is qualitative – not quantitative. We love our neighbor in a similar manner as we would love ourselves – not in terms of the capacity to love ourselves. Unfortunately, I’ve heard this horrible therapeutic interpretation of Matthew 22:39 several times since that one sermon.
The issue of the Christian’s “self-esteem” is thorny because “self-esteem” is a modern psychological concept. While the terms “love yourself” and “finding yourself” are commonplace in the modern lexicon, the self-esteem movement is relatively new, credited to a slew of 1960s psychologists (including Morris Rosenberg, Stanley Coopersmith and Nathaniel Branden). Self-esteem can be most simply defined as what we think about ourselves. Many psychologists of that time period linked low self-esteem to common psychological problems, such as suicide and depression. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, “self-esteem” somehow meandered into the mainstream American lexicon. Politicians began to blame every teen problem from teen pregnancy to drug abuse on low self-esteem. Public schools began equating academic achievement with self-esteem. Then the self-esteem movement became a parody in SNL skits (Stuart Smalley) and The Offspring songs.
For the sake of argument, let’s presume self-esteem is a valid concept (or else this blog post would be over). There are generally two ways that individuals generally measure their self-esteem. Principally, we can measure our personal value on what other people think of our performance. In our childhood, we initially seek to measure up to our parents’ rules or face the time-out corner. In our educational career, teachers and parents review their child’s future based on grades and test scores. In our jobs, our worth is often judged on our boss’s annual review and how many TPS Reports we can produce in an hour. Even in church settings, pastors get caught up pursuing their congregation’s desires instead of seeking God’s heart. The mantra of this viewpoint is: “You are what you produce. You are what other people think you are.” Here’s the problem: We can never cope with the enormous pressure of coping with others’ standards. After all, we are all full-time rebels and rule-breakers that cannot meet God’s standards … Much less anyone else’s (see Romans 3).
In response to the pressure of “measuring up” to society’s standards, many choose to instead chart their own course and please themselves. The rebellious teenager within us desires to respond the pressure of the world’s standards by sending up a righteous middle finger to the world while throwing “Anarchy in the UK” on the car radio. Increasingly often, the acceptable solution to the crushing pressure of meeting society’s expectations is to eat, love and (sometimes) pray in an extended wine-infused vacation to Tuscany, Italy to “find oneself.” The self-help section of your local Barnes and Noble is filled with guides on how to stop being a victim and “take charge” of your life. In an overtly therapeutic American culture, this is presumed to be the more noble and valid path. The mantra of this viewpoint is: “Who care what other people think? … Please yourself!” But yet again, there’s another problem: We do care what others think and we can never please ourselves. We wind up meandering in a circular path.
Fortunately, there is a third path to how we determine our self-esteem: Our self-esteem must be based on a new paradigm that God has established through the work of Christ. While we are abject failures that cannot meet God’s standards, Christ died for us and we now bear the righteousness of Christ, becoming fully pleasing to God (Romans 5:1). Although we were hostile enemies and estranged aliens to God, we have now been adopted into family of God and are joint heirs with Christ (Colossians 1:21-22). The wrath of God has been completely satisfied by the cross of Christ, and we are fully loved by God (1 John 4:9-11). In summary, our old lives have been washed away by the precious blood of Christ and a wholly new life has begun (2 Corinthians 5:17). In Christ, we are fully accepted, fully adopted, fully loved and fully reborn. We have a new identity in Christ. And we discover that all the world valued in us was cheap and hallow and all that Christ values is genuine and noble. We view ourselves through the lens of Christ … Not the world.
Now I’m going to zig when you think I’m going to zag for a moment … I actually think that self-esteem is a huge issue. As a former youth minister, I’ve spent my share of late nights counseling kids that confessed that their greatest desire is to end it all by swallowing an entire bottle of pills. As a former guidance counselor, my wife has dealt with a litany of middle school age girls who cut themselves in hopes their parents will actually bother to notice them. I’ve broken down while hearing the story of the kid who says he hides in his room unloved and unnoticed while his parents violently and physically fight to the brink of divorce every single night. I’ve listened to the young ladies who weep over their parents’ decision to openly choose work and pleasure over her shining moments. There’s an epidemic brewing in the next generation of youth, who largely feel unloved, unvalued and generally worthless. But this generation doesn’t need to spend a lifetime chasing the approval their inattentive parents or engaging on a circuitous journey to find themselves. This generation needs a self-esteem grounded in the knowledge that the God of the universe inclines to hear our cry and is mighty to save. Proper self-esteem is grounded in the love of Christ … Not in the love of others or ourselves. We need Gospel and not gimmicks.
I’m discovering how much our lives mirror the path of Ruth from the Old Testament. Like Ruth, we are wandering foreigners praying for a redeemer to have mercy and grace upon our destitution. Like Boaz, Jesus is our glorious redeemer, who provides for our every need and invites us to dine at His table forevermore. And like the relationship between Ruth and Boaz, the reason that Jesus provides is true graciousness and compassion – not because we are lovely or have anything to truly offer in return for His love. The overwhelming beauty of that story resonates with me: Jesus has loved the unlovable … And we love Him in return. Our self-worth must be grounded in the great love that God has lavished upon us … not our love of ourselves. 1 John 4:10 rings true: “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”
Frankly, I have been through moments of severe depression in my lifetime where all I want to lock myself away from all of civilized society and eat an entire bag of cool-ranch Doritos while watching reruns of Law and Order. In the midst of these moments, I can pause and know that my God still loves me enough to send Jesus to die for unlovable me. In spite of my idolatry, my egotism, my pride, my anger, my callousness, my jealousy, my impatience and the litany of other sins residing in my heart, God forgives me … God loves me.
One prayer that I find myself praying over and over throughout my life is: “God, make me love you more.” And in the providential moments where is discover that God is perpetually saving me from the pit and the miry clay, I find myself compelled to love Him all the more, singing a new song of praise to Him in adoration.
We love because He first loved us.