“We are and remain such creeping Christians because we look at ourselves and not at Christ.” This thought in our devotion today is a striking comment by MacDonald, and it should cause us to pause and reflect.
Two thoughts seem to emerge from this statement for our consideration, the first being, “We are and remain such creeping Christians because we look at ourselves...” The looking at one's self can be a daunting and hopeless task. We have discovered in the self-esteem age the truth of this statement. All the esteeming of one's self has not brought the promised reward, that of becoming a whole, self-actualized human being. Instead, it brought us a generation of people who are generally miserable and self-entitled. Self-focus as a life goal is always destructive, because we are human beings capable of doing good and bad things. So one is set up for the fall, so to speak. I can tell myself I am great all that I want but sooner or later someone will come along and put me down or criticize my work, and then I fall down into the basement of gloom and doom.
When we tie our identity to how we perform, connecting our egos to how well we do in life, we will be crushed “for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” In fact, this self-focus, this esteem building, causes us to take our identity and connect it to our performance in life, rather than take it from our relationship to God as one of his children. It puts the focus and pressure on us to always feel good about who we are, building up our egos, our pride, and undermining our true identity in Christ.
When the self-esteem movement crashed and burned in 1999, famed psychologist Albert Ellis, wrote these words in his book The Myth of Self-Esteem, “Is self-esteem a sickness? That's according to the way you define it. In the usual way it is defined by people and psychologists, I'd say it is probably the greatest emotional disturbance known to man and woman. In fact, it may even be worse than hating other people, which at first sounds worse but probably isn't.” We generally hate people because they do not play into our game of making ourselves feel good. They reject us, don't accept our opinions, or flatter us and so we become angry or crushed and we grow to hate. Or as Mary Lyon said, “Nine tenths of our suffering comes from other people not thinking as highly of us as we think they ought to.”
It is taken for granted in MacDonald's sermon that suffering a physical crisis is what will make us self-obsessed, and indeed it does, but our age is self-obsessed without a crisis. In fact, our self-obsessions have become our daily crisis! We fail to see how pride, ego, and self-esteem are all the same thing. High self-esteem is an exalted ego or pride, and low self-esteem is a wounded ego or wounded pride. We must remember pride, though wounded, is still pride, and the only cure is humility.
But, humility is the one thing our age wishes to avoid at any cost. Especially if it involves suffering, humiliation, or that dreaded of all acts, confession. As long as we hide our sins in the dark, where no one can see, our egos remain well intact. But let us confess our failures to a brother or sister, and the light of God shines down upon them; the ego is shown its true nature and dies by the Truth that wrestles us free from it. Many will say, “Well, I confessed this to God and don't need to confess it to anyone else.” But this often keeps the ego intact. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in Life Together, “Why should we find it easier to confess our sins to a Holy and Just God than to our brother who is as sinful as we are, if we do, we must ask ourselves one question; have we really been confessing our sins to God at all or have we been just confessing our sins to ourselves and granting ourselves absolution. Self-forgiveness can never lead to a breach with sin, only the judging, pardoning Word of God can do this.”
These are sobering words for self-esteem practitioners, as most will bristle at the act of being humbled through confession. “I will never be humiliated like that again,” we often hear the ego say when someone has spoken truth into the life of some soul who lives their life controlled by this pride. Yet, confession is where the Christian dies the public death of a sinner, and humiliation means to humble, so if we cannot ever be humiliated, we can never be humbled. But if confession is the way we are put to an open shame with Christ, we too will find ourselves crying out and saying “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” In the end, we may doubt, or, as MacDonald points out, “our feelings are gone;” still humility will win out in the end if we will with all our doubts, lack of feeling, and maybe even the darkness that surrounds us, simply cry out “Into your hands I commend my spirit.”
Misery can lead to hope and promise if we are willing to be miserable. In one of the toughest passages for our generation to read, especially those who have been raised on a steady diet of self-esteem, James says, “God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble...Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be miserable and mourn and weep; let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves in the presence of the Lord, and He will exalt you.” Did you feel uplifted by this passage? Probably not; it wasn't written to build egos, but to encourage humility. The point is that misery can lead to the exaltation of the soul, if it is God who does the lifting, rather than us exalting ourselves. It is interesting that the Greek word for I is ego. Paul writes in Galatians, “I (ego) have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer (ego) I who live, but Christ lives in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who love me and gave Himself for me.” Ego gets crucified, yet I still live, but now I live by Christ being in the place of ego. This is how we remain humble in difficult times of crucifixion, in trials and in good times. Fear not to be miserable, for it leads to the hope of the Gospel.