Emmitsburg Council of Churches

Self-Esteem, Selflessness and Freedom

Father John J. Lombardi 

Ever feel like a "spiritual dinosaur" when you talk about self-denial while everyone else is chatting "self-esteem"? …Do you feel tired or trapped by the "feel-good movements" in today's culture? …Had enough of the psychobabble engendered by the self-esteem movements in schools?

There's hope; consider: "Last year alone there were three withering studies of self esteem released in the U.S., all of which had the same central message: people with high self esteem pose a greater threat to those around them than people with low self esteem, and feeling bad about yourself is not the cause of our country's biggest, most expensive problems."

Lauren Slater wrote the above in a New York Times Magazine article (Feb 3, 2002),entitled, "What's Wrong With Self Esteem" (notably, she's a psychologist and therapist). Other excerpts:

  • "Self esteem is overrated and… it may even be a culprit (to poor social skills) not a cure."
  • "Sometimes self esteem may be bad for your health…Some therapists may be cultural retailers for the self-esteem concept…Sigmund Freud never claimed we should be happy, and he never claimed confidence was the key to a life well lived."

Self-esteem movements have nearly conquered America and the world-and parts of the Catholic Church. From public-school textbooks to Catholic retreat centers to eastern mysticism movements, self-esteem has become a marketable movement subduing both America's mind and money. Why?-- Consider: if you were marketing a product wouldn't you sell something everybody wants: happiness, feel-good sentiments, meaning in life, belief in self? Translated: referring things, events, and personal relationships around the self provides an endless mental and metaphysical market for various perpetrators to harvest and manipulate.

Because the "self" is a bottomless pit demanding unending nurturance, novelty and seeming necessities, and because Americans generate and cater to a ceaseless demand for more (more money, mental-stroking, egoic majesty) the movement rages on.

We can see the self-esteem movement affecting school children (never criticize them since you're part of a program funded to build their inherent esteem); psychology (all people are good and perfectible), philosophy (truth is subjective as the self discerns all meaning); morality (there are no absolutes since the self-as-subject judges what is right and helpful); religion (since all people are good God accepts us just where we are; there is no personal sin and thus no need of grace)…families (since children should not be corrected-- or rarely so, families are in disarray).

Wait a minute: just where in the Bible are we called to have esteem in our own self, worth and personal makings? Whatever happened to esteeming God?

Paul Vitz, a Catholic psychologist, in his excellent book, Psychology as Religion: the Cult of Self-Worship (Eerdmans: 1994), writes: "Psychology as religion is deeply anti-Christian. Indeed it is hostile to most religions. Psychology as religion has for years been destroying individuals, families and communities."

Considering the pervasiveness of self-esteem movement and philosophy have you ever asked: Just what is the "self" everyone is talking and preaching about?, and, Whose "esteem" is being pushed or practiced? These questions are rarely answered explicitly-and therefore you should immediately be suspect, because the "answers" given may challenge your Religion. For instance:

ETHICS/MORALITY: Self-esteemists are in extremis by preaching there are few or no moral norms or commandments; this would be too oppressive for sensitive, unstable and seeking souls in today's world; after all, esteem and morality should not come from outside and above but inside. Ted Koppel observed this sea change in morality and said the Ten Commandments have become the ten suggestions. In other words: if it feels good do it…SPIRITUALITY: instead of gritty and biblical ascetical practices (fasts, sacrifices and crosses),self esteem preaches self-love, self-promotion and self-glorification. Thus there is no need for purification and penance in prayer and spirituality; only room for catering to self's infinite needs and desires with a "spiritual menu of fulfillment"…LIFESTYLE: any kind of sexual, moral or physical lifestyle is o.k as long as it doesn't directly hurt anyone else . Therefore homosexuality-in orientation and action--is promoted (after all, God would never make anyone that way and then force them to change), and ditto for serial marriages, free sex and cohabitation. Materialism and "the gospel of wealth" is praised because the "self" is subject to happiness from the outside-creaturely comforts, foods and possessions-thus: "the more the merrier."

Sound familiar? These sensational secularistic promises are nothing new-- this is the story of the Old Testament, which narrates, in essence, God endlessly pleading with the Jews-"Don't forget Me and 'marry the pagan culture' with all its seductive promises and gods,"-so have many wed themselves to the false, powerful allures of modern idols and become blinded to the very contrariness of "self-esteemism".

John Ankerberg and John Weldon, in their pamphlet, "The Facts of Self-Esteem, Psychology and the Recovery movement," pungently observe: "In fact the very 'self' that modern psychology exalts is the fallen self, whose exaltation God teaches will result in self-destruction. It is the selfism of modern psychology and culture that leads to widespread social desolation about us…The psychological concept of self-love leading to esteem and the biblical concept of self-denial leading to self-enrichment are diametrically opposed…The teaching of the Bible, human history and personal experience tell us that it is principally holiness that leads to emotional wholeness, and not vica versa. In fact, when emotional wholeness is pursued for itself, it rarely leads to personal holiness."

Exactly: a huge problem in our modern world, Church and country is the uncamoflouged, ceaseless, and seemingly I-have-a-God-given-right for seeking for gratification and happiness for itself, aside from God's will, Christian holiness, and communal service and responsibility.

An anonymous writer wrote a very wise poem: "There is a thief; he is in my house. But this burgler does not steal without taking something behind. He takes from me my humility and leaves behind his pride. He robs me of my patience, and gives me to anxiety and intemperance…He pilfers my charity, bestowing upon me greed and hatred…He takes all that is virtuous and leaves only vice…I know his name: it is ego. I have seen his face and it is mine!"

So, what to do?

  • Esteem and love God above all: + Mk 12: "You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength…and your neighbor as yourself."…Thank God for any goodness, talents, esteem or meaning within your life-all are God-given, generated and preserved: "No one can receive anything except what has been given him from Heaven"(+Jn. 3:27) Thus: count, every day, the graces and gifts God has given you.
  • Image: St.Paul says in 2 Cor. 3: 18: "And we all, with faces unveiled, are being transformed into His image, from glory to glory, by the work of the Spirit." Illustration: You are a noble work of art awaiting liberation. Your passing, illusory, tenacious self is the outer part of a rough block of stone which you, culture and sinful addictions have built up, perpetuated and identified with, but which now oppress your soul and thereby hearkens liberation. The Sculptor-God-lovingly breaks away the outer stone (layers of self and sinful envelopments of clinging selfishness) and reveals the true, inner self--the soul, His creation--the "glorious statue within," which you gradually see needs purification form the crusty, greedy-self you've so identified with in the past. The unveiling is God purifying us (a negating, challenging and painful process of liberation), and the transforming is God building us up into His image, in a positive, divine and glorifying process in the Holy Spirit: by engaging us to God's very nature (see 2 Pt. 1:4). Simply put: we have to negate our very selves and some things we've grown accustomed to (self love, praise, possessions, Luke warmness) and affirm God's grace and supernatural life within and around us.
  • Self-denial: In rejecting certain wants and whims you will seek something else to rest in and take pleasure in: it should be God's glory and ways, which are objective (non changing), time-proven (by the saints who practiced them) and joy-giving (providing the soul deeper peace and rest and satisfaction. In this practice of saying "no" to self's endless quests, you are saying "Yes" to God and self-mastery. "Live by the Spirit and you will not gratify the desire of the flesh. For the flesh has desires against the Spirit…The Fruit of the Spirit is love, patience, joy, peace…(+Eph4:16/22)
  • Be aware of catering to yourself too much: The world and culture preaches: "you need this (material possession or mental praise)." Watch out and always remember: You don't need a lot-you need Infinity-God as the only sustainer of endless desire: St Augustine knew the unquenchable cycle of desire: "Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee, O God."
  • "We know that our old self was crucified with Him (Jesus) so that our sinful body might be done away with…if we have died with Christ we shall also live with Him" (+Rm. 6:6-8). While we may esteem-and even enjoy-- friendships, food, possessions, and parts of ourselves-we should reverence these in an ordered (as part of a divine order) and spiritual (not secularly agnostic) way, with God as cause and sustainer. St Francis of Assisi enjoyed both talented and maimed people, the Italian creation around him, frivolity (he's called a "holy fool" for jibing egoic and worldly ways), and thereby came to perfect joy: precisely because He was liberated by the Passion and Cross of Jesus, by biblical wisdom and spiritual disciplines and not secular, self-seeking wisdom.
  • Mt. 6:31 "Seek ye first the Kingdom of Righteousness and all things will be added unto you." Moderated Self-Fulfillment means: Avoiding the extremes of perpetual self-seeking (always thirsting for happiness in worldly things and ways) and the opposite extreme of total self-denial ("nothing or no one can make me happy"), embrace the path of temperance-God and His ways first, and other things will be added and helpful.
  • Realize like St. Matthew in the Gospel story today, true freedom means leaving sin (Jesus said to Matthew sitting at his customs post: "Follow me.'" +9:9). Perhaps Matthew's "customs post" represents our own self's addicted, customary lifestyle outside of God, while Jesus' simple command hearkens us into a new, freeing way: the way of renunciation of self and pronunciation for God and His ways. Matthew was attracted and attached to the Way of Jesus-are you?

Remember St. Bernard's counsel and wise, wise observation, when speaking of Jesus and himself: "When You created me You gave me myself. When You died for me You gave me back myself. Given and re-given I owe You twice over."

Read other reflections by Father John J. Lombardi