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Esteem-Driven Engines: Humility and Self-Esteem

Stephen Pardue

Professor of Theology, Asia Graduate School of Theology
September 25, 2017

Theologians are not generally fond of quoting Kanye West, especially for the purpose of illuminating what it means to be humble, but that’s exactly what I’d like to attempt here.

In February of 2016, the rapper who is better known for his remarkable ego both on and off of the stage, made a series of remarkably self-aware remarks about self-esteem and humility. It all started with a tweet in the early morning hours of February 18, in which West expresses regret about previous statements in which he claimed to have “retaken the rap throne.” He notes that instead of thinking about rap as a zero-sum game of which he was the ultimate winner, it’s better to recognize that his merits are only relative. “Some rappers got the club,” he tweeted, “some got the radio… and some got the conscience…some got the streets… Everybody has something they do best.” He goes on to register that while this is a change of heart for him, the ability to change one’s mind is a mark of humility—something he is seeking to embody. Finally, he concludes the series of tweets by confessing, “My number one enemy has been my own ego,” and that “there is only one throne and that’s God’s.”

The entertainment world stood somewhat stunned. Here was one of the most bombastic entertainers ever, whose very art form depends heavily on the expression of radical self-assurance of one’s superiority over others, offering a sermonette on taking himself less seriously in light of God’s unparalleled reign. It’s hard to know how seriously to take these comments, especially given their contrast with West’s previous (and present) behavior and comments. But I want to argue that West actually gets a lot right here, and his words may offer a helpful view of how authentic humility and self-esteem might coexist.

The Rise and Fall of Self-Esteem

Self-esteem is a concept whose history in the modern world is precisely the inverse of humility’s. During the years in which self-esteem gained prominence, humility was being frowned upon; and likewise, in the years before the focus on self-esteem, humility was widely regarded as a keystone virtue. The first time we see something like “self-esteem” as a concept is in the writing of William James, a fascinating personality whom many consider the father of American psychology. In a groundbreaking work published in the 1890s, he offered the following formula: self-esteem is equal to a person’s success divided by their aspirations. While it would be wonderful, he reasons, to be a world-class athlete, a philosopher, a great explorer, and a saint all at once, given human finitude, this is simply not possible. In reality, all of us take a look at the variety of potentialities that we may pursue, and given various factors, we select one. And it is upon that identity, that self, that our aspirations hang—along with whatever embarrassment accrues to us when we are less than successful in achieving our aims.

This helps explain why an Olympic-level athlete feels disappointment at being the second best in the world at something. I, watching from my couch at home, feel no shame whatsoever that I do not swim like Michael Phelps, or run like Usain Bolt, or perform gymnastic routines like Simone Biles. But a person whose identity has been squarely shaped in relation to the aspiration to be the best in their sport is deeply threatened by the prospect of failure to reach that mark.

 

More than seventy years later, partly at the instigation of Nathaniel Branden, a writer who popularized the concept of self-esteem for Americans, self-esteem gets a makeover. The message was no longer that self-esteem was success divided by pretensions, but more along the lines of the Little Engine That Could: if you can think it, dream it, imagine it—you can do it. Since then, this idea—that “you are what you think you are,” or that you are “as good as you esteem yourself to be” has become a key way of understanding the ingredients of the good life. For decades, studies accumulated that seemed to make a connection between high self-regard and all kinds of success. Better educational outcomes, lower rates of criminal activity, higher income, and greater life satisfaction, just to name a few, were all shown to be correlated with high self-esteem. For years, self-esteem was the hot stock to buy, and humility, generally seen as a competitor, was in its worst bear market in decades.

This is all to the good, except that over the years, closer analysis demonstrated that previous claims about self-esteem’s power were greatly exaggerated. Throughout the late 1990s, study after study failed to demonstrate that self-esteem could do what Branden had promised—produce high academic achievement, low rates of criminality and deviance, higher earnings, and greater occupational success. In an exacting summary and analysis of the relevant data, a prominent social psychologist, Roy Baumeister, argued in 2002 that while self-esteem may be correlated with these outcomes, there is good evidence that it does not cause them. Instead, the evidence suggests that causation may go the other way—that people who do well at school and work, earn a lot, and don’t have criminal records, happen to have high self-esteem precisely because of all these traits. As it turns out, it is entirely possible for bullies and violent criminals to genuinely think quite highly of themselves, and evidence suggests that simply encouraging people to think more highly of themselves will not actually do much to help them flourish.

 

Sanctifying Self-Esteem: How Humility and Self-Esteem Can Work Together

Whereas William James defined self-esteem as “success divided by pretensions,” and Branden saw self-esteem as a belief that one is fundamentally competent and worthy, the biblical portrait demands a slightly more complicated view. Scripture clearly sanctions a degree of self-esteem in both the senses that James and Branden mean the term—for example, humanity in general (Psalm 8) and Israel in particular (Deut 4) are described as having special reasons to think highly of themselves. And yet, Scripture also demands a different mode as well as a different standard of self-assessment. Consider Jeremiah 9:23–24, in which the prophet highlights the value of a radically God-centered self-assessment:

Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the Lord.

The problem with inflated self-esteem, according to Jeremiah (and Paul echoes this thought in 2 Corinthians 10 and 11), is not so much the boasting itself, but its basis. As Jeremiah illustrates, in the context of divine judgment, whatever excellences may be the basis for our self-esteem and boasting are revealed to be simply insufficient. Only acquaintance and friendship with God are of ultimate or enduring worth. Rather than seek to measure ourselves against our imagined strivings (James), or blindly believe with all our hearts that we are competent and worthy in some abstract sense (Branden), Scripture demands that we assess ourselves primarily with reference to our proximity with our creator. All the things on which our self-esteem generally hangs—our brain, our rolodex, or our resume—are simply the wrong units of measurement. Using these to assess ourselves is no more helpful than measuring weight in inches, or time in gallons.

Of course, this does not mean blindness to our accomplishments or excellences. God does not ask us to be self-deceived or to try to trick ourselves into overlooking our good qualities. If you are a fast runner, or an adept salesperson, or a good friend, you are no closer to healthy self-esteem—or humility—if you attempt to “unknow” these things. Instead, the biblical story demands that all of these traits be relativized, put into perspective by our interactions with the Triune God.

In this context, humility and self-esteem actually turn out to be two sides of the same coin, rather than enemies. While humility prompts us to reckon with our createdness and sinfulness, self-esteem demands that we attend to another side of that reality: that we are designed to reflect and relate to our maker, and by his own good grace we are being drawn back into relationship with him. These truths should be symbiotic: the more we grasp our finitude and fallenness, the more we should be able to recognize the glory for which we were created. Likewise, the closer our fellowship with the Triune God, the more we are able to humble ourselves—as Jesus did—as we find a secure basis for self-confidence.

This is what Kanye gets remarkably right. Looking to our creator, the only true king, should relativize our good qualities, allowing us to recognize that even those excellences that gain us the admiration of others are not ultimate. Authentic humility is not in contrast with God’s care.

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