I have been thinking recently about “self esteem.” It’s a concept about which I have moved from indifference to a regular disdain. My opinion has always been that the modern obsession with self-esteem is related to the abundant narcissism in our families and culture. But recently, as I’ve become more familiar with some of the research involved, I’ve realized that there is something that doctors are observing here that reorients us towards the gospel.

Terrance Real, a psychiatrist at Harvard, defines self esteem in this way: “It is the capacity to cherish oneself in the face of one’s own imperfections, not because of what one has done or what one can do.” He goes on to describe how developmental theorists describe the most important component of healthy parenting as “unconditional positive regard.” According to doctors, it is the “gleam in a parent’s eye” that is internalized by children and becomes the foundation for healthy self regard in the future. When this “gleam” is interrupted by violence or neglect, children search for “self esteem props,” or counterfeit ways to replace the missing unconditional affection.

I have seen this personally in action with my 16-month old son. There have been precious moments where I can tell that he is, in such a healthy way, imbibing the affection and love of my wife and myself. The opposite is, I am sad to say, also true. Moments of frustration, anger, and disappointment are clearly internalized in a powerful way.
Dr. Real locates the problem differently than I would. While I would look back to the Fall for the root cause, he sees sociology and culture as the real culprits. But it is important not to throw the baby out with the bath water. After all, does not the work of Jesus internalize within us the unconditional affection of the Father? Does not God in Jesus and in the indwelling Spirit, offer Himself unconditionally? I am reminded of Romans 5, “The love of the God is poured out into our hearts by the Holy Spirit.”
The problem with my own anti-self-esteem position was that it was really something else hidden by a pious mask: my own desire to use the Bible’s teaching on sin [the Law] to wage war against myself, particularly against the person that I feel like I should not be. In doing so, I unintentionally muted the Bible’s teaching on love [the Gospel], contributing to the further dismemberment of the person that God had pronounced his affection for without condition. It prolonged the establishment of the internal “gleam in the eye” of my Heavenly Father. And without this foundation of love, there is no basis for self-sacrificial acts of love. If I am truly loved by the Father, why then would I continue down paths of addiction, narcissism, and sin in a vain search to realize that love?
To be sure, there is still much to disagree with in the current self esteem movement. Anything that fully localizes the cure within the self is ultimately insufficient. But I wonder if at times we are too quick to judge. And when we do, we miss out on moments of harmony with the natural sciences. More importantly, I am further convinced that just shouting the Law louder is not a strategy for healing broken people. I found there were parts of myself that wanted to shout the Law louder, in order to participate in a pious looking ritual of self-punishment and release. Instead, internalizing the Gospel, which at its core, is God’s “gleaming eye” for his people, is a promise of healing, hope, and restoration.