Monday, September 24, 2007

Sinking Sand

I remember my first Sunday school class very well. I must have been very young, because I distinctly remember a girl sitting next to me who told me she was six years old. I thought, "Wow! She's old!" I can still remember the songs they taught me, most notably the one that goes like this:

On Christ the solid rock I stand,
All other ground is sinking sand.

Children's song or not, this is a message of theological importance. There is no greater peace than the peace Jesus gives. It explains how men like Paul and Peter could be contented even in the very worst of circumstances, while others cannot be consoled no matter how well things are going their way. When our lives are not centered on Christ, we flail and flounder around for something that seems solid, permanent, dependable. Being fallen creatures, we will tend to settle for the first thing that tickles our fancy. For some it's money -- these folks worry about not having it, or acquiring it, or keeping it. For some it's their good looks or their intellects. But good looks are rented, not owned, and must sooner or later be returned to dust. A stroke, or a head trauma, or old age, or disease can take away a good mind. And even when otherwise healthy, a good mind can be captured by a false ideology and kept enslaved by vanity.

There is no gift of this world that will not someday be taken away. Only God can give the gifts that cannot be taken away.

But all this talk about God is just not trendy. Within the past 150 years or so, Freude, as in joy, has been more or less supplanted by Freud, as in Sigmund. Not theology, but therapy. The way to happiness is not understanding the Lord, but in understanding ourselves. We used to say, "He is able -- Amen!" Now we say, "Here's my navel -- ommmm!"

The opposite of the wisdom of the ages is the fad of the moment, and today the deep thinkers have decided that our problem is that we simply do not enjoy sufficient amounts of self-esteem. So we went on a national self-esteem binge. We decided it's something that should be taught at home, at school, and as the moral of any story or situation. Of course, it has found a home in the popular culture. Almost no one has given the cult of self-esteem a better, more earnest presentation than the singing group known as the Roches -- one of my favorites.

Everyone is Good

I would like to be a person
who does not judge,
Free to be me whatever that might be,
I don't want to hold a position, don't want to hold a grudge,
'Cause it seems to be the cause of a lot of misunderstanding
Heartbreak, misery

It's really a sadly beautiful song. On the recording, Terre Roche sings it, and she has a lovely voice, and a lovely face, and it really hurts to disagree with her. But sorry, Terre, you're not making any sense. What you're saying here, "I don't want to hold a position," is holding a position. You say it's the cause of a lot of misunderstanding? That's a judgment.

Everyone is not good, not even by the low standards we like to set for ourselves. We have cheaters. We have thieves. We have murderers, and torturers, you name it. We have Josef Stalin, and Pol Pot. We have the Enron executives, and the Ku Klux Klan, and Satan worshippers, and serial rapists.

One could even hope that people like this ought to have less self-esteem than they already do -- which in most cases is a whole outrageous lot. Yet, oddly enough, the truly unrepentant evil man is seldom plagued with the doubts that torture the rest of us. Pol Pot, shortly before he died, told an interviewer that he still believed in his cause, which required murdering a million of his fellow Cambodians. Hitler, likewise, thought that history would someday honor him for his contributions. What you and I see as a Holocaust, he saw as a cleansing -- getting rid of a scourge. Hitler had his faults, but the evidence would suggest he thought highly of himself.

But, gee, we shouldn't take a position. We shouldn't hold a grudge. World War II -- what a misunderstanding that was!

The more bad news is that we are doing a better job of teaching self-esteem than reading, writing, or arithmetic. Japanese students perform better at math than American students, but American students rate their own math skills highly, while Japanese students do not have a high opinion of their own knowledge. My musician friends tell me that young students nowadays do not want to hear any criticism; they only want to be told how good they are. Even when they're not. Especially when they're not.

Well, don't we all want to hear how good we are? Fine, but it sort of misses the point of music lessons. I have spent thousands of dollars on trombone lessons in my life, and I would have been shortchanged if every teacher I'd ever had only wanted to tell me how good I was. (Fortunately, that was never a problem!) Here's a promise: you can't get better at playing an instrument if you cannot withstand criticism. You are paying your teachers to criticize you. You can't progress unless you know where you're at, and you can't know where you're at by kidding yourself.

And kidding yourself is what the self-esteem movement is all about.

Here's a better approach. Think of it like this: Everyone is bad. As my pastor, Wally, likes to say, "Cheer up! You're worse than you think." You're a wretched sinner, and have no reason to feel good about yourself. Same as me. Same as Pastor Wally, or the Pope. Same as everyone except Jesus. All of our righteousness is only as filthy rags, which in Bible-speak means no cleaner than your dirty underwear -- and that's our righteous works. (Imagine how He must view our unrighteous works.) But fortunately, we can wear His righteousness and be secure in the knowledge that He will change us.

The self-esteem bromide then becomes unnecessary. The Lord thinks you're a sinner, and that's already the worst thing anyone can call you. Nobody else's opinion of you matters. But He also sent his Son to die for you, to redeem you. Now, that's a liberating feeling. When you are ready to give up on yourself, you can finally acquire some real help. He who would save his life will lose it.

Self-esteem, material well-being, human accomplishment, psychoanalysis, touchy-feely New Age nonsense -- all are sinking sand. They're nothing upon which to base a joyful life, or an eternity. Stand on the firm foundation, the solid rock.

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