Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: self-esteem

The way to happiness

Image by dima_goroziya from Pixabay

The Bible demonstrates again and again how futile it is for a person to think he is able to understand and decide by himself how to live a successful and happy life. But we keep trying.

Four centuries ago, René Descartes, elevated this human propensity into a philosophical belief systemn which says that a person can discover everything he needs to know by his own reasoning ability, beginning with the simple concept, cogito, ergo sum (I think, therefore I am). This philosophy has slowly percolated through western thought and it is now the foundation of our thinking that tradition and historical principles are a form of slavery. We should not accept any belief or authority that does not come from our own mind.

We Christians are no better. Too often we know just enough of the Bible to pick the parts that authorize us to live as we want to live. We don’t want to accept any authority that comes from outside of ourselves. We think that being Christian makes us better than other people, and we are disdainful of those looking on who don’t see us that way.

Let’s go back to the beginning. We are made of dirt, there is nothing good in us. We think of David, Jeremiah and Paul as great men of God, but listen to how they saw themselves: “verily every man at his best state is altogether vanity” (David, in Psalm 39:5); “O LORD, I know that the way of man is not in himself: it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps” (Jeremiah 10:23); “For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing” (Paul, in Romans 7:18).

Jesus said: “there is none good but one, that is, God” (Mark 10:18). Therefore, if there is to be any good in us at all, it will have to come from God. That is why He gave us the Holy Spirit, not to make us perfect, not to make us feel good, not to exalt us above others, but to enable us to become what He has planned us to be, so that we can be a testimony of His goodness.

The apostle Paul was not gentle towards our feelings of self-esteem: “For I say, through the grace given unto me, to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think soberly, according as God hath dealt to every man the measure of faith” (Romans 12:3). “For if a man think himself to be something, when he is nothing, he deceiveth himself” (Galatians 6:3).

Believe it or not, this is the recipe for a useful and happy life. The old ways, the old teachings, respect for our elders and for authority, allow us to develop our ability to serve others. We don’t need to beat our head against the wall trying to make others accept our vision of reality. Contentment and inner peace come from accepting God’s revealed vision of reality and seeking approval from God.

But what do I do when I come to the real test?

In my later youth I was given a lengthy aptitude test based on questions with multiple choice answers. I looked at it, decided I would ask myself at each question, “How would I answer this if I had a real interest in mechanics?” And lo and behold, the test results said that I would be best suited to a career as a mechanic. I asked for another chance to take the test and this time I asked myself, “How would I answer this question if I had a real interest in accounting?” and now the test showed that I should really study to become an accountant. I suspect that most people who take such tests manipulate them in some such manner, probably without realizing they are doing so.

There are similar tests to help Christian young people discover their talents and interests in order to determine the purpose and direction of their life. What happens when the test says one thing and the Holy Spirit says something else?

The same goes for tests to determine our temperament. What do I do if the Holy Spirit asks me to do something for which I am completely unsuited by temperament? It might help to remember that the four temperament theory is based on ancient Greek thinking about which bodily fluid has the greatest influence on our nature: blood, phlegm, black bile or yellow bile.

There are even tests to show whether I and the person I am thinking of marrying are compatible with each other. How helpful is it to know the results of that analysis when conflict arises in a marriage? Look around, how many really happy marriages are the result of finding the most compatible partner? Husbands and wives grow to resemble each other over the years, that is a result of commitment and of little sacrifices made day by day. The Holy Spirit is the great enabler to help us make the changes needed for our mutual happiness.

Moses was a prince in Egypt and according to Josephus a great military leader in the Egyptian army. He was sure he had just the right abilities and aptitudes to deliver the Hebrew people from their suffering. It didn’t take long to discover that was not going to work. He spent the next forty years learning how to be a shepherd, then God called him to go back and lead his people out of Egypt. Now Moses knew for a certainty that he was not the man for the job, still God insisted that he go. And so he went, and this time it worked.

Let’s not think that we are smarter than Moses, or that intensive self-examination will reveal God’s plan for our lives. That is God’s territory. We will do much better to chuck all the self-help books and just listen for God’s voice. And when we hear, we must do what He asks, however improbable or impossible it may seem. The purpose after all, is to glorify God and help other people, not to preserve our self-esteem.

Is Christianity a subculture or a counterculture?

Subculture, a cultural group within a larger or predominant culture but distinguished from it by factors such as class, ethnic background, religion, or residence, unified by shared beliefs or interests which may be at variance with those of the larger culture. A group within a culture, distinguished from it by features of custom, conduct, etc.

Counterculture, a culture having values or lifestyles that are in opposition to those of the current accepted culture. A movement that actively rejects the values of the prevailing culture in favour of other ones.

The definitions above come from two dictionaries. In each case the first definition is from the Canadian Oxford Dictionary and the second from the Nelson Gage Canadian Dictionary. In simple terms, what these definitions are telling us is that people within a subculture are marching the the drums of the zeitgeist, heading in the same direction, but wearing a different uniform. People who belong to a counterculture are marching to the sound of a different drummer and heading in a different direction.

Which definition best describes evangelical Christianity today? Zeitgeist is a German word that has entered common usage in English. The Nelson Gage dictionary defines it simply as the pattern of thought or feeling characteristic of a particular period of time.

Here are some characteristics of the zeitgeist, which will also be characteristic of a subculture, but not a counterculture; followed by Bible passages that indicate what the Christian attitude should be:

Consumerism, a lifestyle in which buying and consuming goods is the prime interest. “And he said unto them, Take heed, and beware of covetousness: for a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth” (Luke 12:15).

Materialism, a tendency to care more for material possessions than spiritual needs. “But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you” (Matthew 6:33).

Self-esteem, a good opinion of oneself. “Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves” (Philippians 2:3).

Egocentric, seeing everything in relation to oneself. “Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake” (Matthew 5:11).

Individualism, emphasizing the importance of individuals as opposed to that of a group. “Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labour. For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow: but woe to him that is alone when he falleth; for he hath not another to help him up” (Ecclesiastes 4:9-10). “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” (Psalm 133:1).

Pietism, an emphasis on a personal relationship with God independent of a relationship with fellow believers. “No man hath seen God at any time. If we love one another, God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected in us. . . . If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen? (1 John 4:12, 20). “ I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called, with all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love; endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:1-3).

Self Help or Helping Others?

In my younger years, before I was a Christian, I read most of the well-known self-help books on the market. I was disappointed with the whole lot of them.

In The Power of Positive Thinking, Norman Vincent Peale took a verse from the Bible and told me to recite it over and over, much like a Hindu mantra, and promised that would put me in touch with a powerful inner force that would transform my life. I found a Bible, looked up the verse and found that the Reverend Mr. Peale was twisting the verse to mean something very different from what the Apostle intended.

Then there was Napoleon Hill’s book Think and Grow Rich. I have been thinking for seventy-two years now, when do I get to the growing rich part? Seriously, even as a non Christian, it felt to me that something was out of kilter with the thinking promoted in this book and others like it. The basic theme was how to manipulate other people for my own advantage.

Many books and training courses are offered to teach me how to get along with the difficult people in my life, at home, at work and at church. What I really need is a book to teach me how to avoid being that difficult person.

Um . . . yes, I guess that book has already been written — a long, long time ago.

The Bible is not a self-help book or a manual of best business practices. Its central theme is the reality of the sin problem and God’s desire to reconcile sinners to Himself. The Bible teaches me that I am not the most important person in any group of people, not even a group of two! I have been called to serve, not to be served. Our children do not need to be taught self-esteem; they have quite enough of it to start with. We need to teach them that happiness comes from helping others.

When we lived in Montréal, I often took note of a sign on the wall of a passageway in the metro system that said: “Be the most enthusiastic person that you know.” That thought has percolated in my mind for years. Most everybody will show enthusiasm if you get them onto the right topic. So . . . do I really want to outdo everyone else in enthusiasm when I talk about my work, my hobbies, my yard, my grandchildren? I don’t believe anybody else wants me to do that either.

I don’t know what was going through the mind of the person who made that statement, but finally, the thought that goes through my mind is that the best way to be known as an enthusiastic person is to be enthusiastic in encouraging others.

The self-important self

Nelson Gage Canadian Dictionary

The dictionary pictured above lists 80 hyphenated words beginning with self; the Canadian Oxford Dictionary lists 200. What a bunch of self-centred, self-satisfied, self-important bores we have become!

We think that good self-esteem is essential for happiness. We study self-help books to help us attain self-fulfillment, self-actualization and self-realization. There is a little problem though — everyone else is  engaged in the same quest for self-empowerment and has little time or interest for admiring our enhanced self-image.

Jesus invites us to step off this merry-go-round and follow Him to find true happiness. He says the first step in following Him is self-denial. This should not be confused with self-abasement. Jesus is simply inviting us to turn our attention from self to Him and to allow Him to lead us.

Some Christians talk about self-discipline, self-control and self-restraint. These may produce results that somewhat resemble self-denial, but they hold a snare for the unwary. What those words really imply is control of self by self — and self gets the credit! That is self-deception. We cannot turn to God without turning away from self.

Jeremiah was moved to write: “O Lord, I know that the way of man is not in himself: it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps.” (Jeremiah 10:23). God also revealed to Jeremiah: “For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, saith the LORD, thoughts of peace, and not of evil, to give you an expected end” (Jeremiah 29:11). God’s plans are always going to be better than ours. Why not abandon all those efforts for self-improvement and allow Him to lead us?


Joy is the second quality listed as part of the fruit of the Spirit.  If I am a Christian, yet find that joy is lacking in my life, it cannot be the fault of the giver.  God’s gifts to His children are given liberally.  Therefore, if there is a lack of joy in my life, I must search for the cause within myself.

If we seek to be happy, to have joy in our lives, we will not find it through positive thinking or an enhancement of our self-esteem.  The apostle Peter gives some pretty basic instructions.  “For he that will love life, and see good days, let him refrain his tongue from evil, and his lips that they speak no guile: let him eschew evil, and do good; let him seek peace, and ensue it” (1 Peter 3:10).  In other words, our happiness (or joy) will not come from pointing out the faults and weaknesses in others, or by disguising our true nature, but by doing all that is in our power to honestly be at peace with everyone.

“Rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep” (Romans 12:15).  “They that sow in tears shall reap in joy” (Psalm 126:5).  “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning” (Psalm 30:5).  Why do the Scriptures speak of a connection between tears and joy?  Isn’t it for the simple reason that if we harden ourselves to painful emotions we grow a shield around our heart and the joy that God wishes to give us cannot penetrate that shield?

Worry has a very insidious way of robbing us of joy.  I am very concerned about brother so and so, or sister so and so, their attitudes, the things they are doing.  I am concerned about the political situation, about health care, about the rise of false religion and occult practices, about the decline of spiritual life in the church.  There is so much to be concerned about that it just wouldn’t be right to put on a happy face and say that I am living in the blessings of God, would it?

Let’s look at it this way, worry and concern are close kin to unbelief.  The reason that things are so bad around me is that so few people truly know the joy that God gives.  If I let their unbelief hinder me from experiencing the joy of the Lord, I am part of that problem.  A BIG part.

“Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation; and uphold me with thy free spirit.  Then will I teach transgressors thy ways; and sinners shall be converted unto thee” Psalm 51:12-13).

Who is the victim here?

A young mother comes into the coffee shop with her three-year-old daughter.

– Do you want a doughnut?

– No.  I want to go home.

– Mommy can buy you a chocolate milk.

– No.  I want to go home.

Mommy sees some friends at one of the tables and goes to talk to them.  Then she returns to the counter to order a coffee for herself.

– Can Mommy sit down and have a coffee with her friends?

– No.  I want to go home.

Mommy gives up and leaves the coffee shop.

Who was the victim in this episode?  Did you say it was the mother?  I think the child is every bit as much a victim as the mother.  Authority in North American homes has shifted from the parents to the children and the results have not been pretty.

Years ago, North American parents were told that babies needed to learn to sleep and eat on a fixed schedule.  They were told that showing much affection to their babies would leave them ill-prepared to face the harshness of the real world.  They should not be hugged and kissed or picked up and held whenever they cried.

In 1946 the first edition of Dr. Benjamin Spock’s Baby and Child Care appeared.  Dr. Spock was a pediatrician who had studied psychoanalysis in order to understand children’s needs.  He recommended that mothers be more flexible and affectionate.  Treat each child as a unique individual, feed her when she is hungry, tell her how special she is.

The first approach to child nurture was too rigid and uncaring.  Dr. Spock’s advice sounded like a great improvement, but it has resulted in numerous scenes like the one above (witnessed by my wife a few years ago).

Parents in France never signed on with either North American extreme.  Mothers in France are loving and affectionate, yet expect their babies to quickly adapt to sleeping through the night.  As soon as possible, they are put on a regular feeding schedule.  The child learns very early, with very little fuss, that he is not the boss, Maman is.  Baby will be loved and cared for, but the other people in the house need to sleep, too.

Maman is the boss in the kitchen, too.  She decides what the family will eat and Junior will eat what everyone else eats.  The diet is much more varied than a typical North American diet and Junior is expected to eat what is on his plate.  Yet Maman understands that Junior needs time to learn to enjoy a new food, so she only insists that he taste a little bit of everything on his plate.  She knows that it might take up to a dozen tastes before Junior decides that this new food is really OK.  So Junior finds this new food on his plate from time to time and knows that he needs to at least taste it.  There is no whining: “I don’t like this,” nor loud commands: “You have to eat it anyway!”

In many such little ways, a child is constantly, yet gently, reminded that Maman and Papa are the ones in charge.  It works.  The child knows the rules, feels secure, and actually has more freedom than many young North American children.  It doesn’t sound like there are many “helicopter mothers” in France, hovering over their little darling for fear that he might come to some harm.

Parental authority is undisputed in France.  North American parents don’t believe that they have such authority, or are afraid that they might somehow ruin their children’s lives if they attempt to exercise such authority.  In this way the children become victims and the results show up as the child grows older, develops learning difficulties, becomes more anxious, more rebellious.  The typical North American solution to these problems?  A pill.  But that’s not a solution, just another problem, another victimization of our children.

Children, obey your parents in all things: for this is well pleasing unto the Lord.  Fathers, provoke not your children to anger, lest they be discouraged (Colossians 3:20-21).

Self-esteem versus reality

I think of this topic every time I look for a birthday card for one of my grandchildren.  It is difficult to find a suitable card, most are full of language stoking the little darling’s self-esteem.  I would rather choose a goofy card than one that tells them how special, unique and wonderful they are.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a typical grandpa and think all my grandchildren are wonderful.  But I am fearful of filling them with self-important ideas that will be a stumbling block later in life when they go to work for someone who is not their grandpa.

An experiment was conducted some years ago with a group of school children.  They were divided into two groups and given a simple math quiz.  After the quiz, one group was told “You are very smart.”  The second group was told “You worked very hard.”  Then both groups were given a more difficult quiz to complete.  The ones who had been told how smart they were appeared to freeze when they encountered a difficult problem, afraid to reveal that they weren’t so smart after all.  The ones who had been told how hard they had worked simply went to work and tried to solve all the problems.  They scored much higher than the “smart” group.

This experiment reveals the snare I see lurking behind the emphasis on building children’s self-esteem.  Writers of books for children today are told that the children must be shown to be solving their problems and conflicts without the help of an adult.  We are raising children today who recognise no authority other than themselves.  Most psychologists seem to think this will lead to a generation of clear-thinking, resourceful adults.  The evidence so far shows this great social engineering experiment to be a disaster.

Children raised in this way are singularly ill-equipped to deal with failure.  Yet failure is a part of every person’s life and prepares us for success.  If a child cannot admit having made a mistake, he cannot learn from that mistake.  When a child cannot be corrected or see the lesson to be learned from her mistakes, she cannot learn.

Adaptability is essential to growing up.  When a child cannot accept that there are consequences to her misbehaviour, she cannot adapt and become more mature.  When she cannot accept having mistakes in her school work marked with a red x, how can she correct the mistake and learn?

A further complication is that our self-esteem culture does not favour the development of good parent-child relationships or teacher-student relationships.  Rather than empowering our children, the self-esteem culture is leaving them hurting, defensive, unable to really identify and acknowledge their feelings, or to find any healing for their hurts.

The self-esteem culture arises from a rebellion against the teaching of the Bible that we are sinful beings.  Yet, when one accepts this fact, there opens up a new panorama of ways to build healthy human relationships.  We are told to love our neighbour as ourselves, to esteem others as better than ourselves.  As counter-intuitive as this may seem in today’s society, this is actually the way to happiness and fulfilment.  Meditating on how wonderfully special and smart we are has never brought happiness.

That kind of thinking doesn’t earn respect either.  A child needs to know that the grounds for being respected are laid when he conducts himself in a respectable manner and is respectful to others.

Correcting a child will not leave him emotionally scarred for life.  Leaving a child uncorrected is apt to make him an emotional cripple when he has to face the real world.

Respect of Persons

“My brethren, have not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with respect of persons.” James  2:1.

The hardest thing for a person to conceal is his opinion of himself,  including his concept of where others rank in relation to him.

The world has developed a corresponding expertise in detecting hypocrisy in people who profess faith in the atoning blood of Jesus.  We can do our best to cover all outward evidence of our true feelings, but somewhere a little corner will be left showing and it will not go unnoticed.  Those who witness such an affair are likely to conclude, either sadly or triumphantly, that Christianity is more fairy tale than reality.

What do we see when we walk the streets of our cities,?  There are people whose clothes, grooming and confident demeanour speak of success.  Are we intimidated?  Or can we see the lonely and troubled person desperately trying to hide behind the mask of success?

There are other people who are obviously not so successful.  Perhaps we do not see them at all, our eyes slide right past them without even acknowledging that they exist.  They are used to this, but they do see us.  What do our actions tell them about the reality of the salvation story?

There are young people who dress and behave in ways intended to shock their elders.  What is our opinion of them?  Do we remember that these young people are more likely to be admitted to hospital as a result of an attempted suicide than for any other single cause?

Lonely people.  Unhappy, troubled, fearful people.  They are all around us.  Do we judge them too quickly by the masks they have made for themselves?

We are called to lift up the Saviour before a lost and dying world.  We mingle with the crowds, going about our business and perhaps we think no one notices.  But if we have respect of persons, we distort their view of Jesus.  The answer is not to put on a mask ourselves to conceal our attitudes.  That would also block the opportunity for others to see Jesus in us.

As Christian people we must dare to appear before the world without a mask.  Others may need to cover their true feelings and emotions to avoid being hurt by a cruel world.  We have the Comforter.  Others may not dare appear in public unless their mask is securely in place.  We have the armour of God, completely transparent, but completely effective when used.  Others may seek to quiet their inner turmoil with something that comes out of a bottle (liquid or pills).  We have access to the mercy seat, anytime, anywhere.

Sometimes it seems as though the whole world were trying to mend their shattered self-esteems, to heal their wounded egos.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if somewhere there was a group of people who just dropped out of this game?  Who would know that they have a Father in heaven who loves them and that is all that matters?  If this can shine through in those chance encounters as we go about our business, this is what the Lord can use to reveal Himself to a soul that is crying out for help.

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