I was talking to a pastor friend today. I mentioned that the problem with collectivist ways of feeling good about yourself, e.g. identifying with your whiteness, blackness, ancestry, nationalism, or any other kind of tribe or group, even your sect of Christianity, is the absolute wrong way to achieve self-esteem.
Instead, I said, you have to do something if you want to feel good about yourself. If you believe that honesty is important, then you have to DO the truth. If you believe that courage is important, then you have to DO courageous things. If you don’t live up to what you actually think is right, then you probably should feel bad. If you do what you know you ought to do based on the realities of life and the values you cherish (really cherish, not just say you cherish), then you will feel and should feel esteem for yourself. Would you feel esteem for someone who lived that way? Of course you would, unless you don’t actually value those things.
My friend was quick to point out, “Well, we should esteem ourselves based on God’s acceptance of us.”
Yes, that is true. We get our identity from the gospel. God made us in his image, and furthermore, he loves us even though we have really messed some things up. He sent his Son to die for us so that he could justify us and adopt us as his own children. There is esteem there to be accepted as a gift.
I still think that if you believe what you say you believe about what is good, especially assuming you derived those opinions from your good Father in heaven, that you won’t, and probably shouldn’t feel esteem for yourself if you do not live up to them. You might protest that what I am asking is too difficult, that I am asking you to be perfect (Although it was Jesus, not me who said, “Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect”). You might protest that you wouldn’t need a Savior if you could do all that. Maybe so, but I’m not wrong, and millions of unhappy, self-loathing Christians know it.
Without diving too deep right here, I’ll say that I think that God actually means for us to be like Jesus. He wants us to know who we are, to live according to the principles he has given us in Scripture, and in what is obvious in creation. As humans, let alone Christians, we are always given the choice between moving towards life, and moving towards death. Humans have to choose to live, or they choose to die. Choosing to live means to accept the reality of the Logos, the reason, the substance, the laws with which God created the universe. Man was made in the image of God to live. In fact he said that we should “produce, multiply, subdue earth, and rule over it.” I believe he built us to get a kick out of living, to find joy in, not merely surviving, but constantly choosing to rise higher.
We must choose what promotes our lives and leaves our death behind, starting with a relationship with God through Christ, but also seeking our good and the good of others. Taking responsibility for the talents, resources, gifts, and chances that we are given, and building upon them according to the laws of truth, justice, mercy, love, and industry, is how we act like the God who put us here to rule in his image as his delegates. All this we do for our own sakes, for HIS sake, and for his glory.
If we learn to live in the way he created us to live, no one will have to convince us to esteem ourselves. Our esteem will have nothing to do with comparison to others, or power over others, or association with a group (American, Black Lives Matter, Blue Lives Matter, Southern Baptists, Antifa, LGBTQ+, White, Black, Brown, Asian, Southern, Northern, Atheist, white collar, blue collar, or any kind of group imaginable). Rather it will be the just evaluation of righteousness and human being. That is, being human.