"The most important person in the whole wide world is you and you hardly even know you. The most important person in the whole wide world is you, come on we'll show you! Find out about the things you feel and do cause you're the most important person in the world to you!"
This was the opening jingle to "The Most Important Person," a series of government-sponsored mini-cartoons from the 1970's that dealt with various childhood issues. Maybe you've seen them? They came up in conversation a couple weeks ago at church and my husband remembers watching them as a kid, though I don't remember them myself. YouTube has some episodes, so here's one, for the uninitiated (I apologize in advance if this gets that catchy theme song stuck in your head!):
So why did they come up in conversation in church, you may ask? Because we are reading the book of Romans, and one of the big ideas in Romans is the fact that, well... you are not the most important person in the whole wide world. In fact, you aren't all that great. Actually, you can be pretty wretched.
Sound harsh? Maybe. It certainly wouldn't make famed Saturday Night Live character Stuart Smalley very happy (google him if you must, it's worth it!). But that's okay, because it's important to reflect upon something that we don't often think about - and that is, the fact that the popular notion of "self-esteem" isn't really biblical.
Self-Esteem, as most people of my generation understand it anyway, is the idea that it is a good thing to believe that you are good, special, and important. This estimation of value is not connected to any sort of religious system, it is yours simply because you exist, and not recognizing it opens you up to being taken advantage of, or devalued, or abused by other people. So, if you want to be a healthy human being and live up to your potential, it's key that you think highly of yourself, and if you don't, you should make efforts to affirm yourself until you do.
Now this doesn't sound bad on its face, and it's not entirely wrong, but it comes with some pretty significant flaws.
First of all, back to the little song jingle again. It doesn't take a college degree to figure out that it's not possible for us all to be the most important person in the world. The idea doesn't even make sense. And if you think about it, it's more than a little confusing to tell kids that they are the "most important person in the world", and then expect them to share their toys with others. Why should they? Aren't they more important? Of course those seem like rhetorical questions because no parent really wants their child to be the selfish one on the playground, but when it comes down to it, isn't that the lesson that is being taught? (And yes, I know that most kids today aren't watching these little 70's videos, but there are plenty of other avenues where they receive the same message.)
What about what happens when that child grows up and becomes an adult who actually lives like they are the most important person in the world? Like the kid who doesn't want to share, they become self-centered and narcissistic, often leaving a trail of emotional, financial, familial and even legal destruction behind them. We are deeply disturbed when we see parents abandoning their children in favor of a new life with less responsibility, or CEO's robbing from their companies at the expense of the little guy, or highly-paid athletes and celebrities openly disregarding their role-model status and making outrageous choices. But why are we bothered by any of that? Isn't that exactly what they are supposed to do - put themselves first?
What about when the affirmations stop working? You have been told all your life that you are good, and you should trust yourself, but yet you find yourself hit with the realization that you have done something terrible. Maybe you didn't meant to do it, but that doesn't matter because the damage has been done, and you know it's your fault. At that moment, no amount of affirmation is going to fix your problem or make you feel better. You can tell yourself that "you're good enough, smart enough, and doggone it, people like you" until you're blue in the face, but that doesn't take away your guilt. So now, not only have you failed to live up to your own "healthy" self-esteem, but you have failed at affirming yourself back into your delusion. The positive self-talk that was supposed to make you feel better has now left you worse off than you began.
And what about the biggest "why" of all? Why do I have intrinsic value, outside of an understanding of being God's creation? If there is no God that made humanity, if we are all just the product of random chance, then why do I have any more value than a rock or a tree root? Because some other equally-valueless person says I do? What if I don't believe them? Why shouldn't I just end my own life when life gets hard? And conversely, what if I do believe them, but I then decide that I have value and other people don't? Or what if I decide that it's only people of my race/gender/nationality that have intrinsic value, and I have the power to harm those who are not like me? On what basis can anyone judge my actions?
Stuart Smalley has no answers to these questions. Fortunately, the Bible does.
The story of humanity is a love story between God and his creation. From the first chapter of Genesis, we see a God that created man and woman in his own image, and called them "good" - their value is given by God himself. However, two chapters later his creations made the decision to choose evil, and this caused a breach in the perfection of the world known as "sin." This sin had now come between humans and God, but it did not cause God to stop loving them. He provided a religious system to help them atone for their sins, and then later provided Jesus Christ as the ultimate and final atonement. God valued human life so much that he watched his own Son suffer and die so that humanity could be reconciled to him.
And so yes, this does mean that you are indeed very special and important. But it does not mean you should think highly of yourself. It means you should think highly of Jesus.
We are often told that we should think highly of ourselves, and that we are good people, but one of the problems with believing you are good is that nobody really knows what good means, anyway. And how good is good enough, and who decides? Even Bin Laden can point to Hitler and say "hey, I'm better than that guy." Using other people as your standard of "goodness" is rife with problems, but these problems fade away when we use Jesus as our standard. When we think highly of Jesus instead of ourselves, we realize that his standard is one that we can never meet through our own effort, no matter how hard we try. However, rather than this condemning us, it can actually be freeing. How? Let's see.
There are many Bible passages that inform this topic, but I'll stick with Romans. In Romans 7, the apostle Paul is talking about his struggles with sin and he says "What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?" (Romans 7:24) Here's Paul, one of the greatest men in scripture, calling himself a wretch because he recognizes his own brokenness. This flies in the face of every self-esteem affirmation! But then he goes on to say "Thanks be to God - through Jesus Christ our Lord... Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death." This is the idea of grace - that God grants us favor because of our relationship with Christ, not because of anything we can do on our own.
We aren't good enough, but that's just fine, because Christ is. We should not have self-esteem. We should have Christ-esteem.
Christ-esteem has answers where self-esteem does not. If we place our value in our relationship with Christ (and teach our children to do so as well) and not in our own happiness, we will be motivated to be loving, giving, gracious people - not selfish children and destructive adults. If we place our value in our relationship with Christ, when we make mistakes it won't destroy our self-image because we already recognize that we are imperfect, but perfectly loved. If we place our value in our relationship with Christ, we will immediately recognize that our lives have purpose, and so do the lives of other people around us - even those who may hate us. As Christ gave us grace, we will give grace to them, and there is no room for selfish pride, abuse, or the devaluation of human life.
It may sound like a paradox, but God's truths often do. If you want to feel better about yourself, you need to start by realizing that you are a wretch who desperately needs Jesus. You are not the most important person, you should not think highly of yourself, and you will never be "good enough" on your own. But that's okay, because when you place your faith in Christ, you'll discover that God doesn't expect you to be "good enough" anyway. He only wants you to be His. And once you are, there is great security in that identity, there is great ferocity in that love, and there is no limit to what he can do in your life.
And that feels pretty good.