Twenty years ago, California created a "Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem and Social Responsibility." It quickly became the butt of jokes: Writer Anne Taylor Fleming called it a "parody . . . born in a hot tub."
California was simply leading where the rest of the culture was headed: Americans consider "self-esteem" as essential for, well, everything. For many, promoting self-esteem is necessary to correct the negative self-image promoted by religion, especially Christianity.
They could not be more wrong: It is not fads or task forces; it is Christianity that teaches us how best to love ourselves.
No one communicated this truth better than Bernard of Clairvaux, the twelfth-century monk and theologian. Bernard's treatise, "On Loving God," is the topic of the latest installment in Ken Boa's outstanding "Great Books Audio CD" series on Christian classics.
As Boa tells us, by the time he was in his thirties, Bernard's advice was sought by both kings and popes. He founded 163 monasteries across Europe during his lifetime and is honored as the founder of the Cistercian order, better known as the Trappists.
However, Bernard's greatest legacy is his writings. Like few before or since, Bernard articulated a Christian faith that spoke to the heart without neglecting the importance of right belief. He could describe the Christian's relationship with God in rapturous and ecstatic terms but also hold believers accountable for deviations from orthodoxy.
This balance is as difficult in our times as it was in Bernard's, which is why his classic writings still speak to us—none more so than "On Loving God."
In Chapter 15, Bernard describes the "degrees" of love, beginning with what he calls the most carnal of love: loving ourselves for our own sake. This love is what the California task force has in mind when it speaks of "self-esteem." It seeks after its own desires and needs only.
Bernard regards this love of self as natural but limited: There is more to love than self-gratification and self-fulfillment. If we stop at loving ourselves, an important part of us remains unfulfilled.
That leads to the second degree of love: loving God for our sake. We love God, not only because He is worthy of our love, but because it is in our interest to acknowledge our dependence on Him.
If this sounds familiar, it ought to: It is the way most Christians talk about God. God is the One who "meets our needs" and is the Source of meaning in our lives. We cannot live without His sustaining grace.
The third degree is loving God for God's sake: when through prayer, "reading God's Word," and "obeying His commandments," we come to know God and find "Him altogether lovely"—consuming for us.
While too few of us arrive at this state, there is even one more degree of love, what Bernard calls the "perfect condition": loving ourselves for God's sake. We see and love ourselves as God sees and loves us—the kind of love that led to the Cross.
Bernard confessed that this "perfect condition" was "beyond [his] powers," and probably only experienced in heaven. This does not change the fact that the only self-esteem worth the name is what God offers us through Christ—something you will not find in any hot tub.
From BreakPoint®, May 20, 2008, Copyright 2008, Prison Fellowship Ministries. Reprinted with the permission of Prison Fellowship Ministries. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or distributed without the express written permission of Prison Fellowship Ministries. "BreakPoint®" and "Prison Fellowship Ministries®" are registered trademarks of Prison Fellowship