After medication, perhaps the most common remedy for most behavioral and mental disorders is — and has been for almost half a century — some form of self-worth enhancement. It pervades our educational institutions, the psychotherapeutic and counseling systems, the personnel and motivational industry, advertising, and even the church.
I think the remedy is flawed. And its Christianized forms may involve damaging views of Christ and his cross. For example, it is profoundly wrong to turn the cross of Christ into a warrant for self-esteem as the root of mental health.
The operative phrase in the last sentence is “the root of mental health.” I believe that it is profoundly wrong to say that being loved by God brings mental health if what is meant by “being loved” is mainly that I should now have self-esteem — that “I am lovable,” or “I am worth loving,” or “God don’t love junk.” This way of speaking makes two mistakes.
First, it misses the reality and glory and wonder and freedom of grace, which is God’s absolutely free choice to set his love on whomever he pleases and raise up from stones children to Abraham if he wants to show us that stones will do fine (Luke 3:8). The other mistake is to belittle the immeasurably great experience of the love of God in and of itself — not because it signs off on my worth. In my way of seeing things, the love of God is God’s gift of enabling me to see him and be with him and enjoy him forever (John 17:24). If I try to take that divine, treasured gift of God to me and say that it makes me happy because it helps me feel good about me, something is profoundly wrong.
Your Unique Worth
However, in saying that the root of mental health is not self-esteem, but rather the enjoyment of God as God and his free grace as grace, I did not say that there is no truth in the concept of human value (though I choke on the phrase self-worth since the word self in front of the word worth seems to really push the issue beyond where the Bible takes it). Jesus said you are of more value than the birds (Matthew 6:26).
I take that to ultimately mean that humans have the unique capacity to enjoy God as God and reflect his worth and glory as no other creature can. Thus the worth of the human being is our God-given potential to make much of God by enjoying him and valuing him and cherishing him and his ways.
Must we believe that we are perfectible in order to hope in heaven as we ought? Yes. And everything hangs on what perfect would mean, and who is doing the perfecting. God does it (1 Thessalonians 5:23), and perfect means perfectly suited and fitted and completed to delight in God with the very energy and purity with which he delights in himself (John 17:26).
Did God Make a Mistake with Me?
Should we tell an abandoned person that they have great “self-worth” when they feel like a failure and a piece of junk? First, let’s chuck the phrase self-worth because it is so loaded with a psychologized, man-centered worldview that it probably will not help communicate what a feeling of God-centered significance really is. The issue is trust.
Has God blown it in this relationship? Has he made a mistake in making that person homely or nervous or blind or short or plump or average or unathletic? I think that the quick retreat to self-esteem therapy is hopelessly misleading and leaves the real problem unresolved, while perhaps helping people feel good because they are somebody (which our use of God just happens to serve to support).
The issue is: Do they love God as God in a way that satisfies them enough to pick up and go on? Do they trust his goodness and wisdom and power and riches to help them do what they must do? Do they rejoice in him because they are granted the ten-billion-dollar privilege of knowing him and being loved by him? Or must they have that vision of glory echo their own worth before they get any help from it?
I do not deny or hide that it is wonderfully significant to know God and to be used by God to make him known and loved by others. So I will say this at times and say it in a way that makes it plain that the wonder of it lies in the preciousness of knowing God and mirroring him well enough by my delight in him that others can see his worth in me and join me in enjoying him. Now that would be real significance!
I hope you can see and feel the world in which my thoughts orbit. The issue is: What is the root of mental health? My answer is, God. Or seeing God as God and enjoying him as God, which involves being forgiven by God and welcomed with utterly free grace. I personally believe that these truths are hijacked when they are used to make self-esteem the root of mental health. The minor evangelical adjustments to the world’s way of making people happy on the way to hell are not radical enough for me.