WHAT TO DO?

As a pastor, I have spent my career working in contexts where most of the people I deal with need a self-esteem boost.  As a missionary in East Africa, I worked primarily with theology students and church leaders and only a few church people–but again, the majority of people I worked with needed some help in loving themselves.  At one point, I was a part-time chaplain  in a correctional facility for young offenders and discovered that most of the youth I was working with needed a major infusion of self-esteem.  Some of the staff probably would have benefited from some help in that department as well.

Basically, I understand and can deal with low self-esteem.  I approach people with an awareness of the issues and difficulties that can cause the lack of self-appreciation.  I have studied, researched, practised and developed some ways of helping people improve their self-evaluations and have used my skills as a pastor, preacher, teacher and counsellor to help them. And because right now, my self-esteem is fairly healthy, I can write that I have helped people develop a better view of themselves without feeling too uncomfortable.

The low self-esteem thing is something I can deal with and am comfortable dealing with.  However, I have to confess that I have real problems dealing with the other side of the issue.  When the self-esteem crosses the barrier and gets too self-focused and too self-impressed, I begin to have serious problems.

Partly, that is because the nature of my contacts is that I don’t see it too often and often when I see it, I am not really in a position to do anything about it.  But mostly, the problem is that when people have an overly inflated view of themselves, they alternately scare and anger me–and neither fear nor anger are particularly good things to base a relationship on.

Sometimes, I have been able to deal with the person when they begin to realize that their problem is really an underlying lack of self-esteem that they are trying to cover up.  Once they see their over-compensation for what it is, we are in territory that I am comfortable and familiar with and know what to do.

But in general, I really don’t know how to deal with the other side, either as a helper or as someone who has to be in relationship with such people.  I tend to avoid such people since they are a serious vexation to me.  I also tend to avoid  them because they make me angry and I have to confess that my anger comes out in some unpleasant ways that benefit neither me nor the other person.  When I have to be around such people, I find myself being very uncomfortable and looking for a way out before my anger gets the best of me and the situation.

That is probably a weakness in my personality and training and professional life–after all, not everyone is going to suffer from low or acceptable self-esteem. Given that self-esteem can be distorted and become too strong, there is a need for people who understand and can deal with this distortion–God loves these people as much as he loves all the rest of us and wants them to be healthy as well.

But I can truthfully say that up to this point in my ministry, this has not really been part of my calling.  My gifts and abilities and experience have all been focused in other areas.  I might joke that I am glad I haven’t been called to deal with many over-inflated egos, but in the end, the more prosaic truth is that I recognize my limits and until God sees fit to call me beyond those limits, I don’t really have to worry about what I can’t do.

I would like to think that if God really needs me to intervene in the life of such a person, he will give me the skill and knowledge and courage to do so and I would be willing to hear and follow his call.  But up to this point, he has not called me in that direction so I am comfortable continuing with what I have been called to and have been doing.  I have enough self-esteem to know that I can do lots of things and not enough to think that I have to do everything.  I am sure that God is still working in me, though, so who knows what he plans.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE OTHER SIDE

Fairness is important to me.  When we were teaching this concept to our kids, in involved things like teaching them to share equally, not to take more than was rightfully theirs and so on.  If they were dividing something to share, the rule was that the one who cut or divided had last pick–all this in an attempt to ensure fairness.  We never really defined what being fair meant but in my mind, it means that no one should get an advantage that they didn’t deserve.

In my approach to life means that no matter what I believe, I do have to look at the other side(s).  I tend to get irritated at “unfair” writing, speaking and thinking which picks a side and simply assumes that everything else is wrong.  I don’t believe that everything is equally right but for me fairness demands that everything be given equal treatment and consideration–all of which means that I get really frustrated with election campaigns, advertising, and a lot of religious stuff.

And so, I need to write about something to be fair.  I have been writing a lot about low self-esteem and the need to give ourselves more value and challenge the debilitating myths that make us think we should see ourselves as worthless and unimportant and unworthy.  Over the years of my ministry, I think this is the default position for most conservative believers, the position that we are encouraged to adopt if we want to be “good” Christians.

I will most likely return to that theme many times as I work on this blog–but my sense of fairness demands that I write something about the other side.  I need to look a bit at what happens when our self-focus becomes too strong and too powerful and we develop an overly inflated ego. I have known a few people whose pride has become so powerful that it takes over their lives and relationships and become as serious problem as low self-esteem.  I have even been accused of this myself more than a few times.

I don’t have as much experience with the problem of over-developed pride as I do with under-developed pride but I have observed an interesting thing about some of the people who show this trait.  Underneath that over-developed love of self and the boasting and the constant self-focus that can drive people away is often a deeply submerged lack of confidence and a very bad self-image.  Yes, I am saying that an over-inflated ego often comes from the same place as the low self-esteem that I am more familiar with.  The pride and boasting and superiority are sometimes a defense for the problem that I see all too often.

But some people who have low-self esteem follow the path of trying to compensate by building a beautiful facade which they carefully place over the fear and insecurity that is their real life.  Then, they use this facade like an army tank to defend their shaky view of themselves.  It seems that they work on the premise that “The best defense is a good offense” and blow up or run over everyone and everything they perceive to be threat to their scared and poorly developed self hiding inside the tank.

There are probably people with this over-whelming pride who come from a very different place.  Some, for example, have come from such privileged backgrounds which have sheltered them from the realities of life and they never develop a balanced and sober view of themselves.  Some may have such serious emotional damage that they are incapable of  seeing anything but themselves.  A few may get so disoriented by their distorted belief systems that they really believe they are more important than anyone else.

But my experience has been that many of us believe deep down that we are pretty much worthless and unimportant.  Some of us, perhaps most of us, let ourselves accept this as our reality and wallow around in the swamps of low  self-esteem.  A few go a different way, trying to convince themselves of their value by building an elaborate self-image to compensate for their poor self-esteem.

In both processes, the end result is the same–we don’t get a real and honest view of ourselves and therefore we have an equally distorted view of others and even God.  I don’t think one distortion is any worst than the other–and both need to be exposed to the powerful light of God’s love and grace and acceptance so that we can discover who and what we really are.

May the peace of God be with you.

KNOWING SELF

A long time ago, I was taking a pastoral counselling course.  The course had a stated purpose and an unstated purpose.  The stated purpose was to help us become better at counselling, something that pastors are called upon to do a lot but which we aren’t all qualified to do.  The unstated purpose was to help us discover a lot more about ourselves so that we could actually provide some honest help to people.

During one class session, one member of the class mentioned that he felt like he was a pastoral version of a politician of that time who had a reputation for being weak, wimpy and ineffective.  I looked at him in surprise and before I thought it through, told him that he wasn’t at all like that politician but was actually a perfect match for a different politician, one who had a reputation for being aggressive, brash and something of a bully.  After falling silent for a few minutes, the student abruptly got up and walked out.

The next day, he was back in class.  After apologizing for walking out, he looked at me and thanked me for my comment, telling the class that at first, it made him mad and then it opened his eyes to his real nature, which he had been trying to hide from himself but was obviously not hiding from anyone else.  Once he began to challenge his carefully constructed and basically ineffective image, he could begin to deal with who he really was and begin an honest journey to becoming who he was meant to be.

I was confused and even a bit scared by the process.  My comment hadn’t been made out of any great psychological or theological insight.  It was more of an offhand remark based on what I was seeing, meant more as a funny observation than anything.  But somehow, it penetrated his self-image and opened some important doors for him.

For me, it was a perfect example of what Paul is talking about when he says in Romans 12.3, “… rather think of yourself with sober judgment in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you.”  (NIV).  Many of us are sadly lacking in this sober judgement.  A lot of us who have been part of the more conservative part of the church for a long time have been taught and learned well the lesson that we are pretty much worthless and have no redeeming value.

That particular heresy has damaged our ability to see ourselves as we really are and therefore seriously hampered our ability to grow and develop healthy relationships with ourselves, others and God.  The antidote is to allow ourselves to develop a sober estimate–which in this context, means a balanced and realistic understanding of who and what we are.

For most of us, this will require some help.  We have often lived with the distorted image and pressure to maintain the distorted image for so long that it is so much a part of our thinking that we don’t know what to begin.  Of course, we need to be careful where we look for help–there are lots of people who want us to maintain the worm theology we have been so carefully taught.

Because my life and work involve me primarily with groups of believers, I can say that I have seen such support within the church and its groups.  When believers gather together and care for each other and really pray for and with each other, the Holy Spirit has a fertile ground to work at helping people see and understand and grow.  When a group affirms some aspect of our being, we need to listen carefully.  Forget about the false modesty that requires us to attribute everything to God.  Listen to the group tell us that we sing well or understand Scripture well or are really caring or make people feel comfortable or always know just what to do or say.  Listen and ponder–use those comments as revelation from God about who we really are and what we can really do.  These shafts of light are one of God’s ways of showing us who we are.

We can also formalize the process by find a counsellor or mentor or spiritual guide, someone who is gifted by God in helping people discover themselves and therefore their path to growth and development.

The bottom line is that knowing self begins by rejecting the pressure to define ourselves as worthless and begin developing a realistic and sober self-understanding.  We are seeking to see ourselves as God sees us, which is the beginning of a sometimes scary but always exciting journey.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHAT YOU SEE…

There have only been a few congregations I served as pastor where I had an actual office outside of our home.  It was nice to have a place for work separate from home–it seemed to keep things a bit more organized, at least in my head.  The work things that needed to be finished or started or whatever were at the office, instead of sitting somewhere in our home.  Mind you, with the invention of laptops, that separation got harder to maintain, since the work was on the same laptop I was using to surf the net or play games.

Anyway, one office I had was particularly well designed, I thought.  It was at the corner of the building with one window facing the parking lot and another facing the way people walked to enter the building.  I had a perfect view of who was coming into the building.  Since I was the only person there except for Sundays and Bible Study night, that normally meant they were coming to see me.  As I watched people come in, it was always interesting and revealing to discover how they were feeling as they walked into the building and notice the transformation as they put on their public face when they arrived at my door.

Most of us like to think that we are pretty good at keeping our thoughts and feelings to ourselves.  And while some people are pretty good at this, most of us are nowhere as good at as we think we are–and we are not good at it for a very basic reason.  We aren’t good at hiding how we feel because in the end, we generally don’t know all that much about what we are feeling and thinking.

The real irony is that when we won’t recognize our own stuff, we are generally broadcasting to the rest of the world a very powerful message about where we are that many others can see.  And so when we stick on a public face, it is plastered over a very clear message that keeps poking out of the disguise, which is confusing and perplexing to a lot of people.

As a pastor, I often find myself in the position of seeing the discrepancy between what people are consciously projecting and what is peeking out that they don’t want seen–or don’t know they are feeling.  Sometimes, it is appropriate to ignore the discrepancy–when we are supposed to be discussing the schedule of worship services for the next year, seeing the difference between what people show and what is underneath isn’t an appropriate topic.  It might be significant and might have an effect on the ease of carrying our out stated task but it generally isn’t wise or necessary to address it then.

Other times, it is important to address it.  Since I do some counselling, there are times when it is my job and responsibility to open the issue and help people confront the difference in what they think they are feeling and what they are really feeling.  It is often a real surprise to people that they have this whole other set of feelings that that either aren’t conscious of or are sort of aware of and feel slightly guilty about.  Ultimately, until people can see and address the deeper, more truthful feelings and realities, there is not much any counselling can do to help people deal with whatever prompted the request for counselling.  I sometimes spend a lot of time helping people understand what is going on that they don’t want to acknowledge.

We human beings have an almost infinite capacity for self-deception, a capacity that creates a great deal of trouble for everyone.  And along with that ability is an almost universal inability to avoid showing other people not only what we want them to see but also what we don’t want to acknowledge or show but show nonetheless.

Rather than self-knowledge, we are often better at self-denial.  This self-denial is not some kind of virtue, however.  It is a real and serious problem because it keeps us from really experiencing life, relationships and God.  It limits our ability to grow in faith and damages our ability to form healthy relationships with others.

It is much healthier in the end to heave the self-denial thing and discover who we really are. After all, we were created in God’s image so there must be something worthwhile there.

May the peace of God be with you.

DENYING SELF

I am the pastor of small, rural congregations.  All of our buildings are old–at least 100 years and one is getting close to 200.  While all have been updated and upgraded to some extent with new-fangled things like electricity and somewhat efficient heating systems–a couple of them even have restrooms–they are still old buildings, designed and built in a era when personal comfort was something looked on with great suspicion.  People who wanted to be comfortable when worshipping God were soft and probably in serious danger of committing sin.

While I sometimes joke with people that the seats in our old buildings were designed specifically to be uncomfortable, I think that is much more a reality than a joke.  The Christian church has a long history of being at odds with comfort and ease.  I think this comes out of a desire to take seriously the words of Jesus that we find in Matthew 16.24, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (NIV)  In order to enable people to take up their cross, the church has perfected many ways of helping people deny themselves.

The seats in our older church buildings are a prime example, although seats themselves, no matter how uncomfortable, would have been seen as something of a temptation to an earlier generation of church leaders–many early buildings didn’t have seats at all.  I mean, after all, Acts 20 tells the story of a young man named Eutychus, who was sitting down during worship and managed to fall asleep.  Standing was a much better option for some church designers when it came to imposing self-denial.

Now, as pastor, I don’t normally have to sit in the pews in our church buildings, although the chair for the preacher which I get to sit in for short periods of time is not a particularly comfortable one.  But I do have some thoughts on the whole self-denial thing, whether it is forced or voluntarily chosen.  For me, we generally start the self-denial process in the wrong place, make some wrong assumptions and then, on the basis of this, end up doing some pretty pointless things.

When we begin the process with the denial stuff, I think we are bound for trouble.  As a pastor and a counsellor, I have realized over many years of ministry that self-denial needs to begin with the self–meaning that we need to have a much better understanding of who and what we are before we begin denying ourselves or others than we normally do.

Often, we are taught that we are worthless, evil and sinful from the moment we are conceived.  We are encouraged to see ourselves as beings with no redeeming features–our very best is still sinful and wrong and tainted and hopelessly evil.  And while that may be a very common and popular conservative-leaning Christian theology, it is simply wrong.

Humans are made in the image of God.  As the Psalmist tells us, we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139.14).  We come into the world with talents and abilities and possibilities and potentials that are divinely planned.  Certainly, we and all that we are affected by sin, both ours and the rest of the world’s.  But we don’t somehow become worthless as soon as we come into being.  We become beings whose whole life and potential is affected negatively by the reality of sin–but that doesn’t mean that we lose all the good and all the potential and all that might be.  It does mean that it will be harder to be who we were meant to be; that we probably won’t reach the heights that God planned for us; that our full potential will never be realized–but it doesn’t mean that we are worthless worms.

Before we begin denying self or giving in to the institutionally encouraged denials, we would probably be a lot further ahead emotionally and spiritually if we got to know who and what we are.  We can and need to look at how we are affected by sin–but we also need to know what we are and what we can be.  We need to be able to see what God has given us; to discover the fearful and wonderful way God has knit us together.

Before we even think about denying self, we should get to know ourselves.  After all, the God who knows us better than we know ourselves loves us as we are.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE GOD FACTOR

Our personalities are the result of a combination of factors, some of which we can control and some of which we can’t control.  But our personality is also always evolving, changing a as result of these same factors.  It is probably much more accurate to talk about what we are becoming than what we are when it comes to personality.  This is an important reality that has some significant implications.

If my personality isn’t static but is always changing and evolving, that opens the possibility of managing and directing the change.  And while that sounds good, it brings up several questions:  Who is managing the change?  In what direction is the change moving?  What is the purpose of the change?

Answering these questions is important–letting the changes in our personality happen and assuming that it will produce good results isn’t a wise option.  There are lots of people around who would like to manage the changes in our personality.  There are lots of groups and organizations that want to help us become what they think we should become.  And there are lots of reasons for the changes that really don’t help anyone in the long run.

Because I am a follower of Christ, I have to look at this whole process of personality development from a Christian perspective.  And for me, that means beginning with a couple of theological realities.  First, anything I am or am becoming here is affected by human sin–both mine own and that of everyone else in the world.  Secondly, only God, the Creator, really knows what I can be and was actually meant to be.

And so for me, personality development becomes a part of spiritual growth and development.  Who I am becoming can best be determined by God, which makes my personality development a process in which I seek God’s leading and then work at submitting to God’s infinitely superior wisdom and sense of direction.

But in order to get there, I need to learn how to deal with a great many issues and problems that I don’t always want to deal with.  There are, for example, genetic issues that have an effect on who I am becoming.  I struggle with mild depression on a regular basis.  While a certain amount of that depression is the result of what is going on around me, I am pretty sure that my brain is genetically wired in such a way that makes depression the go to response in certain situations.

There are also environmental issues that affect who I am and who I am becoming.  I grew up poor and even now, I find myself reacting to certain circumstances in ways that come from this–I am uncomfortable spending money for things that break until after I have exhausted every possible way of repairing whatever it is–sometimes even spending more on the repair attempts than I would have spent on the new whatever.

So, given that my personality is being determined by so many factors that seem to be beyond my control, where does God’s knowledge and plan enter into the process?  God knows who and what I am meant to be–he is my creator and he had a plan and idea in mind for me, my life and who I can become.    And because God is a God of grace and love, he doesn’t force me to make any changes or to change in any particular direction–but God does seek to help by offering me direction and help and strength through the presence of the Holy Spirit in my life.  If I am willing to open myself to this divine intervention, I have the potential to become more and more what God wants me to become.  I won’t ever get there–there are too many factors at work making it too tempting to follow other paths to personality development that get in the way, leading me down different paths.

But in the end, a personality development process that seeks to discover and find God’s plan for who I am and am becoming seeks to me to be the only really viable process–at least I think this on good days.  Rather than let my personality develop in random, uncontrolled ways, opening myself to God’s direction provides a much better possibility for my becoming.

May the peace of God be with you.

THAT’S JUST WHO I AM

I have known some people whom I consider to be arrogant.  It isn’t a description I use often for a couple of reasons.  First, I seem to spend a lot of my time working with and relating to people who are struggling with such low self-esteem that arrogance simply isn’t going to happen, although strangely enough, many of them worry about becoming arrogant.  And secondly, I don’t use it much because when I am accused of being arrogant, it hurts and so I hesitate to describe someone with that word.

But I have known a few people whom I would consider arrogant.  Just to be safe, I looked up a definition of the word using the Oxford online dictionary.  It tells me the word is a adjective that describes someone who has or shows “an exaggerated sense of one’s own importance or abilities.”  So, it seems to me, it takes two things to be arrogant:  not being as good or as important as you think and refusing to see the reality of who or what you are.

I see this in practise now and then with people who seem to go out of their way to cause hurt and pain and difficulty and justify it be saying something like, “That’s just who I am–you can like it or lump it”.  But often, who they think they are and who they really are isn’t the same thing.

The gap between their claims and their reality is obvious, at least to me and often to others but the individual just doesn’t seem to see it or acknowledge it–and maybe even doesn’t care if the gap exists.  They are who they are and that is the way it is.

Well, it is true we are who we are–but being who we are isn’t a static and unchanging reality.  Human life is a process of change that begins at conception and for believers anyway doesn’t end until we are transformed by the power of God so that we can be part of the new heaven and new earth.  Our lives are built on the reality of change–we expect it and count on it and structure life around the changes.

We don’t expect much from a new-born.  They have to be cute, healthy, and smile at their grandparents before they smile at anyone else.  A teen who is cute, healthy and smiles only at the grandparents causes serious concern–they haven’t changed as they should.  Toddlers are expected to get really upset and even have tantrums as they discover parents won’t let them play with power saws.  Twenty-somethings who have temper tantrums have some obvious and dangerous issues–they haven’t changed as they should.

Since we are always changing, we really can’t use “We are who we are” as a justification for our behaviour or whatever.  This really is the path to arrogance–assuming that we are perfect the way we are.

But here is where it gets interesting, at least to me.  The arrogant refuse to listen to themselves and those around them and that allows them to develop an irritatingly inflated view of who they are.  Those who struggle with low self-esteem listen too much to those around them and develop a more socially acceptable but equally damaging deflated view of themselves.  It appears that when it comes to being who we are, we are damned if we do and damned if we don’t.

We can’t ignore how people see us but we can’t take it for Gospel truth–either way causes us trouble.  And then, even more confusing is the reality that we really can’t find a spot and stick with it because we are always changing–physically, as we know; emotionally, which we may or may not recognize and spiritually, which we probably recognize even less than  the emotional.  There is no steady state in life and so we really can’t use, “That’s the way I am” as a justification.

Some of the changes we are in charge of:  my weight is the result of choices that I make.  Some of the changes, we aren’t in charge of:  my age advances  no matter what I do.  And some of the changes we could control but choose not to:  my reactions to people around me sometimes need to be better but I am not always interested in making the necessary changes.

So, we are changing, whether we like it or not–but maybe we can and should be more conscious of and in control of the direction of our changes, which we will look at in the next post.

May the peace of God be with you.