We are fools for the sake of Christ, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute. To the present hour we are hungry and thirsty, we are poorly clothed and beaten and homeless, and we grow weary from the work of our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we speak kindly. We have become like the rubbish of the world, the dregs of all things, to this very day. – 1 Corinthians 4:10-13
I was a kid in the 90s, and let me tell you: Self-esteem was a big deal. Especially in early elementary and middle school, I remember that the adults in my life placed a consistent focus on the importance and potential of each child. We sang songs like I am somebody. We talked about the important role that our generation had to play in creating peace and overcoming environmental destruction. We were told that each one of us could accomplish anything if we put our minds to it.
The benefit of this focus on self-esteem was that I definitely grew up with a sense of my own innate value as a human being. Even if maybe it was a little bit patronizing to be told all the time that I was the future, it was comforting to know that I had an important part to play in the world. Thanks at least in part to this childhood focus on self-esteem, I’ve always had a healthy sense of agency. What I do makes a difference.
Yet, as I grew older, I discovered that it is possible to love myself too much. There’s a kind of self-love that is deadening and self-destructive. It is never satisfied, always tearing at itself with hunger for more – more praise, recognition, assurance. It’s amazing how quickly so-called self-love can reveal itself as despair and self-loathing.
I would never want to tell my seven-year-old self that he is not important and valuable. Of course he is. Each one of us is a unique, beloved child of God. We have to know this truth if we want to be in relationship with God and other people. After all, how can we show love to others if we can’t even be compassionate with ourselves?
Yet, paradoxically, I have also found that I grow best when I acknowledge that I really am nobody. I’m not important, not special, not deserving of special treatment of any kind. To be a nobody in this sense means that I don’t even have time to hate myself; I’m too busy looking for how I can serve others. The more I am re-formed in the image of Jesus, the more I become willing to be a fool for the sake of Christ, so that others might be wise. The more deeply I dwell in the love of the Spirit, the more ready I am to become like the rubbish of the world, the dregs of all things.
In my experience, the deepest form of self-esteem comes when I no longer even look at myself. Instead, turning my attention to the lives of others, I am able to become a reflector of Christ’s love, joy, and mercy. It is in these times of unselfconscious service to others that I am most completely bathed in the light of Jesus, filled with his love and power. I know that God cares for me, so I am free to care for others with reckless abandon.