The Greatest Love of All
Several years ago, Robert Schuller sent me a copy of his book Self-Esteem: The New Reformation. (Actually, he sent it to thousands of preachers, but it made me feel better about myself to think he'd sent it to me personally.) In that book and other writings, Schuller redefined the gospel in terms of self-esteem. Jesus came to give us us back the proper view of ourselves that God intended for us from the beginning. Schuller defined sin as "any act or thought that robs myself or another human being of his or her self-esteem." He suggested that "a person is in hell when he has lost his self-esteem." Thus salvation is being saved from this loss of self-worth, "To be born again means that we must be changed from a negative to a positive self-image--from inferiority to self-esteem, from fear to love, from doubt to trust." Well, if that is the gospel, then perhaps we should see Whitney Houston as a new-gospel singer as she croons, "Learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all."
Not only was Schuller wrong, he could not have been more wrong. The central act of Christianity is the cross where Christ "made himself nothing" (NIV) or "emptied himself" (NET) as He died on the cross (Phil 2:7). The cross was not about self-esteem; it is about shame (Heb 12:2), a shame that we also bear as we follow Jesus outside the camp (Heb 13:13). We are given a new identity as children of God, and that does indeed recast how we view ourselves (1 John 3:1-3). But God calls us to "share in His holiness" (Heb 12:10), and our self-esteem often takes a beating when we see just how short of that we are able to come. Paul is not pumping us our self-esteem when he says, "What a wretched man I am!" (Rom 7:24). The fact that God loves us and that Jesus died for us and that the Spirit indwells us DESPITE our wretchedness does not change the fact that we are indeed wretched. And the greatest love of all is learning to lay down our lives for others (John 15:13, 1 John 3:16).
I really enjoy reading Experimental Theology, the blog of Dr. Richard Beck, a professor of psychology at ACU. In his most recent blog, he dealt with the idea of self-esteem and Christianity as it relates to the second great command. "Love your neighbor as yourself." Beck suggests that as it is often taught in churches, Jesus is teaching two things here: (1) we must love ourselves and (2) we must love others as ourselves. Thus as Schuller argues (though not to the same degree), the gospel is concerned about pumping up our self-esteem as a platform for loving other. I liked the way he addressed that idea--
Actually don't think Jesus has this very recent, Western psychotherapeutic situation in mind. I don't Jesus is saying anything at all about self-esteem in the second Greatest Commandment. And it worries me a lot that churches are leading with messages of self-love. I don't think Americans need to hear a message that starts like this: "The first thing you need to do is work on loving yourself. And when you've got that down then you can turn to loving others." Because, as best I can tell, a lot of Christians are spending their whole lives just working away on the first part of that equation. Year after year American Christians are spending all their spiritual formation energy on learning to love themselves. And that seems a bit screwy.
What I actually think Jesus is trying to say in the second Greatest Commandment is that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves. As I argue in Unclean, Jesus is trying to blur the boundary between Self and Other. Jesus is trying in the second Greatest Commandment to form an identity relationship between Self and Other, to see our lives as intertwined. The hallmark of this fusion is empathy, the ability to stand in another person's shoes and ask a simple question: "If this were me, what would I want?" Basically, "love your neighbor as you love yourself" is just another version of the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
Click over to Experimental Theology and read his entire post; I think it will be informative. Let me sum up with how Beck sums up, "The secret, I think, isn't to try to go from a low self-esteem to a high self-esteem. The secret is to just stop playing the self-esteem game altogether. The key is to get out of your head." I like that... I'm just not very good at it.