This month a teacher told her students that if they planned to give out Valentine cards, the cards must meet these rules: every card must be the same; every classmate must get one; and nothing must be written on them. She wanted to save any child from damaged self-esteem.
But recently Professor Baumeister at Florida State University studied levels of self-esteem among different groups of adults. He found the highest levels in … prison inmates! And the violent offenders had the highest perceived levels of them all.
Self-esteem is critically important. We are God’s creatures, bearing his image. Therefore it is right that we should carry ourselves with dignity and should be careful to honor the dignity and worth of our fellows.
But the Scriptures make clear that damaged self-esteem is not our greatest problem. According to the Bible we are the offspring of Adam and, although we bear the image of God, that image is marred; we are by nature sinners.
One consequence of that sin is that we have a proud desire to be independent from God — on our own in his universe. That was the error of the builders of the tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9).
The Genesis passage says the people moving eastward found a beautiful plain between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers and decided to settle there, build a city, and erect a tower that would reach to the heavens. The up-reaching tower was a symbol of man’s thrust for autonomy.
But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, and he discerned the people’s intent to seek complete autonomy rather than living under his mandate to settle the earth he had given them. So he confused their language and “scattered them over all the earth” (Genesis 11:8).
We see this impulse toward autonomy early in children. One of our grandsons, at the age of only four, said to his mother in a commanding way, “Mommie, I want you and Daddie to let me and my sister do whatever we want to do.” It was given as a first cry of the heart for absolute autonomy — “Don’t fence me in.”
Theologians have followed the Scriptures in noting this impulse to pride which at its center resists the rule of God and his son, Jesus Christ. St. Augustine called human pride, “the love of one’s own excellence.” John Calvin defined it as an “innate self love by which we are all blinded.” John Wesley wrote: “The first advice I would give those who have been saved is to watch continually against pride.”
To be graciously delivered from pride by God is a worthy request because, as Charles Spurgeon said, “Humility is the secret of fellowship, and pride, the secret of division.” It is true that wherever there is unresolved conflict, whether in home, family, community or church, secondary causes might be teased to the surface. But at the base, this pride will be found to lurk.
Heart pride is divisive. It erects barriers. On the other hand, where there is heart humility there is joy and good fellowship among the people whether in family, community, or church.
Which makes the words of the Apostle Paul to the young church in the imperial city of Rome my favorite instruction to any church on this issue: “For by the grace given me I say to everyone of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you” (Romans 12:3).