In The Big Ego Trip, Glynn Harrison traces the history of self-esteem’s current power within modern society. Self-esteem is a word that we all know and use. But what have been the effects on God’s people? And what should our response be?
Harrison describes how he has seen first-hand the effects of the self-esteem movement in the church. He describes a presentation he attended which related low church attendance figures to low self-esteem in the church (p. 16). Self-esteem ideology has gained acceptance with church leaders as legitimate and helpful. In fact, since the 1960s self-esteem has done as much to reshape Christian culture as it has secular culture (p. 18). The ‘baby boomers’ have moulded the Christian message to mirror their culture by creating a new spirituality centred on self. Christian lifestyle was no longer shaped around ‘an ethic of self-denial’ but instead on ‘an ethic of self-fulfilment’ (quoting Wade Clark Roof’s work, p.69). Due to the influence of self-esteem ideology pride is no longer a sin. Instead the real sin has now become not loving yourself enough (p. 16). Christian culture is now awash with self-help aids and merchandise with a Christian veneer. ‘Forget “we are weak but he is strong”; now you could get the T-shirt: “I may be little but to God I am big stuff!”’ (p. 68).
Harrison describes how the self-esteem movement has resulted in a church where we are all ‘checking our feelings, evaluating our image and comparing ourselves with others, rather than looking where we are going. As a result life is a roller-coaster of anxious self-absorption, experiencing prideful self-satisfaction when we match up, and woeful inadequacy and shame when we don’t.’ (p. 155) Harrison describes how this is a dangerous road. Indeed it is in direct opposition to the message of the gospel. In constantly attempting to rate and change our sense of worthiness, we are leaving behind the message that there is nothing intrinsic in us that leads God to love us. It is simply his amazing grace.
Harrison suggests some very helpful interventions to try and wean ourselves away from this self- obsession. Specifically he suggests that we stop rating ourselves. We should also stop transferring specific ratings (‘I’m a great footballer!’) to global ratings (‘Wow, then I am a great person!’). Instead we should accept our identity as a loved child of God and lift our eyes to serve only his glory. (p. 165)
Harrison suggests that in order to stop rating ourselves and to give ourselves a reality check we should try to seek out opportunities for critical feedback rather than avoiding them. And we should refuse to connect specific criticism (‘Your teaching was poor today’) to the global (‘You are a failure’). (p. 196)
Another helpful point that Harrison makes is that there is more than enough grace for everybody so we don’t need to rate and compare ourselves with others. Seeing others achieving or having importance in our church family does not mean we should be jealous or fight for more for ourselves. There is more than enough of God’s love and favour for all of us. ‘In the abundance of God’s grace there is not limited good.’ (p. 192)
We need to ensure that instead of being motivated by the pursuit of our own glory and attempting to flourish outside of Christ, we ‘live lives motivated by something greater’ (p. 191). Harrison describes how counter-intuitively we should celebrate the gifts that God has given us as we view ourselves in ‘sober judgement’: ‘Let God love you and take delight in your work!’ (p. 197).
There is danger in any ideology that moves the church away from the gospel and this can be seen with self-esteem. There is the sin of pride that comes when we are trying to achieve self-esteem, but also the gloom and shameful inadequacy when we don’t match up. The pursuit of self-esteem in our churches encourages a culture where it is all about ‘me’ and ‘self’. Instead, Harrison says, the gospel has a message that brings great freedom: ‘Life isn’t about you!’ (p. 12). We need to be reminding ourselves and our church families that ‘we are all part of something bigger than ourselves. It’s not about you or me … God’s purpose is to bring glory to his Son.’ (p. 192) Harrison describes how combating the see-sawing feelings that come with a life motivated by self-esteem may take a lifetime of hard work. He describes a friend who struggles with an unhelpful need to find status and esteem in his professional life. Now, before any significant meeting or presentation, he sits and prays that only God receive the glory, and that he would ‘fit in’ not ‘stand out’ (p. 197).
Harrison’s work is an insightful mix of secular and biblical critique. The ideas that Harrison has to aid the church’s fight against the power of self-esteem are gospel-centred and practical. Self-esteem is something that we need explore more, particularly in relation its effects on specific issues (like exploring the impact of self-esteem ideologies to parenting).
I came away feeling convicted that the God’s people need to be encouraged to love sacrificially in contrast with a self-obsessed secular society. God’s call for his people to be other-centred is increasingly counter-cultural. Furthermore, I felt a missional challenge: society’s obsession with self-esteem could be a great missional opportunity. Harrison quotes Paul Vitz describing the self-esteem movement as ‘a religion’ through which society is struggling to find significance and self-worth through increasing self-esteem (p. 46). But, as we have seen, this ideology is a failure with self-esteem and narcissism delivering nothing but disappointment and sadness. What sweet relief the gospel could bring to our society!