We are all aware that, at the heart of the Christian life, we are judged not by what we do but by want we are. The key virtues – prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance challenge us, despite their old fashioned names. But I would like to look at some minor virtues, and today I have chosen the virtue of self esteem. That may seem a perverse. After all we are encouraged to see ourselves as perennial sinners, constantly falling short of the glory of God. But I want to argue that self esteem is one key to the Christian life.
Some years ago, when I spoke more frequently to secular audiences, I introduced them to LIPS. It stood for Limited Image Performance Syndrome. The claim I made was that our performance is directly related to our self image – and we all have one. We have an interior idea of what we are capable of accomplishing, and what is beyond our capacity. We rarely act below our image level and, equally rarely, do we exceed it. My argument was that if we wanted to raise the performance of those we lead, the essential first step was to help them to raise their image to a higher level.
Jesus gives us an enlightening example. He describes himself as meek and humble of heart. Everything that he has comes from the his father. But what a father! He tells us that he is one with the father, that those who see him see the father, and when push comes to shove he simply and categorically says “Before Abraham was, I am.”
We cannot quite match that. But we can remember that we are made in the image and likeness of God. That we are appointed as God’s ambassadors. That we have all necessary help directly from God to do our work. That we are so dear in God’s eyes, that he sent his son to suffer and save even when we were mired in sin. It’s not a bad start, is it?
Despair is the opposite; it is a great sin. I do not speak of clinical depression, which is another matter, but of our conscious rejection of God’s gifts to us. We refuse to accept the value which God gives us, and we self-indulgently substitute the value we give ourselves.
False guilt can be very damaging. For example, parents whose child turns out badly will certainly ask themselves what they did wrong. But which is more likely to improve the outcome: indulging in feelings of guilt for what cannot be helped, or exorcising the baggage of guilt and getting on with tackling the constructive steps which may be open to them today? If we forgive others, we can forgive ourselves.
Many sociologists and criminologists have identified low self esteem as a major factor in criminal behaviour. But, well short of the criminal, we can see in ordinary people, including ourselves, how anxieties, fears and loss of sense of control can lead to inappropriate behaviour. A fact which any teacher will confirm from daily observation.
It is interesting that psychologists have identified a cluster of qualities in people who have high self esteem. They tend to be confident, to have high self respect, to view problems not as something unmanageable but as a challenge they can meet. They do not regard their failures as “written in their stars” but as something for which they can take responsibility and about which they can do something constructive. They tend to be relaxed and they tend to be courteously mannered.
Saint John Paul reminded us, when he spoke about the moral life, that our sins not only do their direct damage, but they lead inevitably to increase our tendency to sin – we are creatures of habit. So, in our nightly examination of conscience, we must not be concerned only with identifying our sins and repenting, but we must also consider, and rejoice, the little steps, however small, through which we have done better and grown a little in virtue. In that way we begin to replace, in our consciousness, the habit of sin with the habit of virtue.
As Christians we have no business going around with heads lowered and sad expressions on our faces. On the contrary, we should dance.