The resource below was taken from the “Finding Your Confidence, Identity, and Security in Christ” seminar.
What is one of the most destructive messages we learn when life is hard for a pro-longed period of time? “It doesn’t matter what you do. You are powerless to create relief or obtain what you really want. Life is hard because you are too weak to make it good.” These are the messages of learned helplessness.
Much of what is taught in the name of self-esteem is meant to combat this mentality toward the hardships of life. Often, those who disagree with self-esteem theory (as this seminar does) discuss how “loving yourself more” as the solution to life’s problems ignores the sinfulness of people’s hearts. For those who are seeking a higher self-esteem as a way to sin less (i.e., learn anger management, quit looking at pornography, lie less, etc…) they need to hear why pursuing self-esteem would exacerbate their struggle by playing into the selfishness and self-centeredness that made sin seem appealing in the first place (James 1:14-15).
But what about those who are looking for relief from their struggle with learned helplessness because of suffering? Do they need to be cautioned against self-esteem theory for the same reasons or in the same way? No. Yes, they are still sinner and, yes, their sin would be exacerbated by self-esteem theory just like someone in anger management. But to have the same conversation in the same way would be to feed their sense of helplessness by heaping shame on top of guilt.
The empowerment that those who have grown timid and passive under suffering seek is good. If we speak to them about the dangers of self-esteem theory in the same way we do to those seeking relief from sin, we mislabel their search for motivation, a voice, justice, or decency as pride, selfishness, vengefulness, or entitlement. We feed the common misconception that to care for someone differently because of their suffering is to trap them in victimization or to allow them to wallow in excuses.
The gospel gives voice to the oppressed in suffering as much as it gives liberty to those trapped in sin (James 5:1-6). The gospel gives reasons to press on for those discouraged by suffering as much as it gives reasons to stop to those blinded by sin (James 1:2-4, 14-15). The Bible does not feel compelled to choose between caring for people in their sin and their suffering.
It should be stated clearly, any discussion of the short-comings of self-esteem theory that only cautions how it feeds the self-centeredness of sin is incomplete. This omission would make such a work “harsh;” not because the tone would necessarily be rude, but because the action steps provided would implicitly require people to take responsibility for their suffering.
This seminar has sought to affirm the differences that exist between sin and suffering; because both sin and suffering present unique challenges to our pursuit of identity, purpose, confidence, security, and wisdom. But it has not done so by writing ten chapters (five for sin; five for suffering), because every person is both a sinner and sufferer. There are not two separate audiences who need separate approaches, but one audience who needs to think through these issues from both angles.
Why create a separate appendix to make this point? Here are four reasons I’ve chosen to highlight this point.
- In this conversation people often talk past one another. If you have read or heard debates on this subject, doubtless you got the sense that the two sides were not talking about the same thing. Often, from my perspective, that has been the case and the failure to distinguish how the gospel speaks to sin and suffering is the primary reason.
- To prevent a misapplication that would perpetuate false guilt. Unless this point is made clearly then many who need to grow in identity, purpose, confidence, security, and wisdom because of suffering would feel condemned for their struggle. If this happens, it would give them an immunity to God’s hope and should, therefore, be guarded against.
- To help us affirm and redeem a good motivation in self-esteem literature. It would be easy to hear a presentation about why someone is wrong and assume a malicious motive is being assigned. That would be unfair and unhelpful. I am both grateful for and indebted to those who have studied how suffering affects our sense of self; many of whom did so from a vantage point of self-esteem theory.
- To advocate for the further examination of how the gospel speaks to suffering. In my opinion, if we did a better job as a church of showing how the gospel impacts the experience of suffering, then there would much less of a “market” for self-esteem literature. In order to win our culture (which is so much more important than winning a debate) we will need a well-developed alternative that addresses the entire human condition more than a well-developed argument that addresses a variety of deficiencies.
If this post was beneficial for you, then considering reading other blogs from my “Favorite Posts on Self-Esteem” post which address other facets of this subject.
If this post was beneficial for you, then considering reading other blogs from my “Favorite Posts on Suffering” post which address other facets of this subject.