Saturday, October 16, 2010

Pursuing An Accurate Sense of Our "Esteem"

Providing our children with self-esteem does not seem to be a problem in contemporary America. They seem to have plenty of it. I would argue that they have more of it than they deserve.

I remember a study that was done during the 1990s by a research group that was studying the state of American education. The group released a report comparing the math scores of U.S. and Japanese high school students. The results were not surprising. The Japanese students scored significantly higher than their American counterparts on an equivalent test.

What was notable was the response to a question asked of both groups of students right after they had finished taking the test but before they had seen the results. The Japanese students overwhelmingly expressed dejection and embarrassment for what they considered to be a poor performance on the test. The American students were confident they had aced it.

On hearing the reports of this study, one well-known critic of the public school system in America (I believe it was William Bennett) remarked, "I think its safe to say we’ve done a good job of addressing any worries we might have had about our children’s self esteem."

Don't misunderstand -- I get it about the self-esteem thing. There are children who live in a state of continual psychological torment by parents who don't care for them, school-mates who verbally and/or physically abuse them, and a culture who tells them their sense of worth lies in all the wrong things. This is cruel and should be resisted.

It is also true that the abusers of our childrens' self-esteem engage in their negativity largely because they suffer from low self-esteem themselves. It is a common human flaw that propels some of us to make ourselves feel better about ourselves by cutting down someone else.

So how does this relate to the topic of Christian Apologetics?

This past week Dr. Alex Mcfarland, the President of Southern Evangelical Seminary, weighed in on this topic in a way that surprised me a little. In his article, "Deriving Worth from the Right Sources," Dr. McFarland addressed the improper values that plague teens (especially girls) who are engulfed in a "photo-shopped world." While I agree with his main points, his corrective "Christian Response" was to ensure that our kids "understand that their worth should be grounded in the following realities" ...
  1. They are made in God's image
  2. Jesus personally cares about them
  3. The unconditional love present in their homes
  4. The accepting haven provided by their church
  5. Their status as a resident (and heir) of heaven
  6. Confidence that God truly has a plan for them
Now, it's tough to dispute any of these and I wouldn't try. I might simplify them in the following ways, however.
  • If this should be the Christian "response," it seems that listing numbers 2 through 5 is a bit redundant in that the are each entailed by number 1. This is not a criticism -- Dr. McFarland is simply clarifying and emphasizing what follows from the recognition of being made in God's image.
  • Number 6 is true as far as it goes but for me it evokes the flawed view shared by too many Christians that it is their job to discover what this "plan" is by breaking some secret coded message that God has hidden from plain view. Greg Koukl addresses this topic forcefully and repeatedly and I completely agree with this take on it. I won't go into it here but I believe we see God's plan by looking backward, not forward. Beyond that, Dr. McFarland's inclusion of the idea here is not negative, just superfluous.
So, as one who likes to keep things simple, I believe that all of the above are included in the first statement -- we are made in God's image. That is the aspect of our being that should give us a positive view of who we are and serve to remind us that the cultural standards we too often accept in a negative way are hollow, deceptive, and contrary to the image of God that should define our human value.

What bothers me about the list is the conspicuous absence of another concept that serves to balance the artificially high self-esteem that is being promoted in contemporary culture. It is this -- we are all sinners who live in a state of rebellion against God. Knowing and accepting this second truth will prevent forming the warped sense of ourselves that our culture promotes in the other direction.

My contention is that a well-grounded Christian should resist accepting the negative view of his or her self-esteem because they recognize that they are made in God's image. But they should also temper that positive view of themselves by recognizing their own natural bent toward rebellion.

In other words, a Christian should not focus on either the positive or negative pole of their self-worth. Instead, the Christian worldview demands adherence to an accurate picture of human nature that honors both -- that seeks the golden mean of a virtuous life. By doing so, we avoid accepting a culturally-defined standard and instead see an accurate, healthy picture of who we really are when we look in the bathroom mirror. And that's the way it should be.

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