Self-esteem is generally understood as the overall evaluation a person makes of his or her own attributes and self worth. Because we are social beings at the core, however, our self-esteem inescapably includes input from others. We measure ourselves against others in order to discern who is smarter, better looking, healthier, richer, slimmer, funnier, and on and on it goes. If we were to line-graph our self-esteem over time, there would be an overall trend but viewed up close, the line would appear as a seismic pattern of squiggles with spikes up and down at intervals. Self-esteem affects relationships and performance both positively and negatively. Companies who pay celebrities to endorse products or brands are prone to purchase a product called “disgrace insurance.” In case the celebrity becomes involved in a scandal, the company wants to distance their product from any association.
People seek help for low self-esteem in a variety of ways that include self-help books, classes, professional counsellors (the most effective), but sadly many choose to simply numb their feelings of inferiority with self-medication such as alcohol. The “cheap and easy fix” used down through time, however, has been the human default to criticism. People have long used words as weapons to devalue others in order to elevate their own status, shift blame, and excuse their sins. It began in Eden with, “It’s the woman’s fault” and “It’s the snake’s fault.”
When Christ was on earth he was constantly criticised by the religious leaders of the day. They always seemed to be at the periphery of his work, muttering contempt and watching hawkishly as he mingled with and ministered to all types of people. His actions threatened their meticulously constructed social walls built to keep them distinguished from the “low life” in society. They held themselves in high esteem because they had never fallen to the depth of depravity as had sinners and publicans. The Pharisees and scribes were at it again on the day they said of him, “This man receives sinners and eats with them!” Luke 15:2. How in the name of God dare he be so accepting of social deviants? He was giving the impression that God was not a true judge of character. Outrageous!
Jesus responded by telling parables ending with one about two lost sons. The younger son decided that family life had become too restrictive and that he deserved his freedom so he went to his father and demanded his inheritance “now.” In essence he was saying that he was ready to be independent of his father as though the father had died. The son’s self-esteem could not have been higher. The father granted the request knowing full well that his son was not at all prepared for the consequences of this decision but also knowing that he could not convince his son otherwise.
The son travelled to a country far away as though to make it difficult to be followed. There, over time, he indulged every whim and wasted every part of his inheritance on extravagant living and prostitutes. Abandoned by “friends” after the money was gone and confronting a famine plaguing the land, he was forced to do the unthinkable, as a Jew, for work - feed pigs. In this wretched state he had more in common with pigs than he had with humans. His self-esteem had never been so low. He had plenty of time to reflect on the health, wealth, and bravado with which he had left home in contrast to his present condition. He, of course, remembered his father and how he had accepted his son’s choice, though it broke his heart. Had his father been bitter and hostile in his farewell, the son might never have returned home but now the memory of the father compelled the son’s heart homeward.
The exhausting long journey began. At last familiar landmarks appeared and in the distance the son saw someone running toward him. Closer, closer, the son could finally see it was his father. It was the run of welcome! Who else, but dad would be so eager to shorten the distance home. And when they collapsed into each other’s embrace, all the failures were sealed in the past. Without hesitation, the father covered his son with the best robe, provided new sandals, and a ring implying success. But more significant was the father’s covering of forgiveness, which restored the son’s self-esteem. Then the father called for a celebration with the best of food to be enjoyed by all.
The story appears to have a happy ending but there was an older son who, upon returning home, heard the sounds of celebration and asked for an explanation. When told, his thoughts raged with anger. His father had received a sinner and now celebrated with him! Outrageous! The older son refused to go to the party. But in the midst of all the celebrating, the father noticed that the older son was missing. He equally loved two sons. The son gone for so long had returned, but now the older one was missing. He left the party and went in search of the son to extend an invitation. The older son’s prideful self-esteem was revealed in his refusal to come. His words exposed his true motive for staying at home over the years - duty, not love. He had worked as a servant, not a son. He believed that only duty and toil deserved celebration, not repentance. It was clear that if he had been the first one to see his brother returning, he would have refused to let him come home. The father’s heart broke again but consistent with his gracious character, he extended the royal robe of acceptance and forgiveness to cover the older son’s shameful self-righteousness.
The story ends without our knowing what the older son decided but more importantly we know the character of the father who represents our heavenly Father. We can find ourselves behaving as both sons but in either of these roles God still offers us “garments of salvation” and a “robe of righteousness,” Isaiah 61:10. When our vacillating self-esteem is replaced by the security of God’s esteem we can trust our standing before God. His love, acceptance, and forgiveness of us establish our worth once and for all.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/2964