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Self-Esteem and the Love of God

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Nov 19, 2013 | In Reviews

It is possible to make a circle through four rooms in my home, and I frequently pace that circle when I’m praying a Rosary or trying to work out ideas for a column. On each circuit I notice a large photograph of my youngest son surrounded by six of his nieces and nephews (of which there are now ten, the oldest of which is about half his age). It is a joyful reminder to me of the important things in life, and it always strikes me as good that they all look happy to be photographed.

Of course, most kids are happy to be photographed, and many people of all ages enjoy watching goofy videos of themselves on cell phones and tablets. Not to mention looking in the mirror! It seems that we are very interested in ourselves. And so we should be.

But sometimes this interest has a downside. We may be less happy than we could be because we are actually not so much interested in as preoccupied with ourselves. We may dwell too much on either our goodness or our deficiencies. We may always feel we have something to prove. We may insist on being the center of attention. And at the very same time, we may suffer from feelings of worthlessness, before others and even before God.

This is paradoxical, because the very bedrock of our self-worth is God’s infinite love for us. Or to put the matter more personally, I am enabled to possess a truly healthy sense of self-worth and a deep personal happiness when I recognize that God made me for Himself and that He loves me not only infinitely but personally.

Unfortunately, there are many reasons why a person might lack this sense of God’s love, even if he or she has a deep religious faith. It can be caused in us by abusive parents or by divorce, by psychological incapacities of various kinds, and by our own sins—even if we are fighting with those sins. In fact, some of the sins which are most difficult to eradicate, such as struggles with impurity, involve natural psycho-somatic responses which can create or add to a sense of shame. Like Adam and Eve, we sense our utter nakedness, and the Devil exploits our shame to make us hide from God (Gn 3:10). Then there are people who are either ignorant of God or have been carefully taught to reject the very idea of God. Their sense of self-worth will necessarily depend on things which are far less sure than God’s love.

Even when we understand that we are made for God and that He loves us, there can still be complications. Precisely because we are made for God, we feel incomplete until we are united perfectly with Him. This is supposed to spur us to seek fulfillment in the right place, but very often we interpret it wrongly. We frequently tinker with the wrong things to “cure” our discontent. We may turn to material possessions or drugs or alcohol. We may insist that others must change, exaggerating their perceived deficiencies as causes of our unhappiness, when in fact they are not the cause at all. We may constantly change our occupations or other aspects of our situation, only to have the same restlessness return. We may feel sad, depressed or even desperate, all because we misunderstand this deep yearning within ourselves.

The modern secular world tends to deal with this problem by constantly teaching us that we are all wonderful, even in ways that are demonstrably false. What we might call the reflexive school of positive self-esteem proceeds by concealing the truth that we are both flawed and weak. But since reality rears its ugly head repeatedly in everyone’s life, the gap between what we are told about ourselves and our “performance” in the real world constantly reminds us that something is still wrong. The reflexive school of positive self-esteem too often reduces self-knowledge, breeds selfishness, and fosters unreasonable expectations. Seven devils enter into a well-swept but totally empty house (Mt 12:45)!

Against this modern background, the Christian is inclined to ask how it is possible to build self-esteem without fostering damaging illusions. Fortunately, it is precisely this question that Fr. Michel Esparza answers in his new book from Scepter Press, Self-Esteem without Selfishness: Increasing Our Capacity for Love.

The Secret to Balance

Fr. Esparza’s book is divided into two parts. In the first, “Pride and its Difficulties”, the author treats the problem of self-love intellectually. He identifies the nature of love; the genuine need for self-love; the problems posed by distortions such as pride and false humility; the potential impediments to both love and self-esteem arising from deficiencies of desire, knowledge or capacity; and the proper approach toward the ideal balance, which he calls “humble self-esteem”.

This part of the book presents an analysis necessary to grasping the nature of the problem and its solution. It should help a reader to recognize false conceptions which are holding him back. The author also explains why God is at the center of this discussion, and that we cannot possibly have an unshakable basis for “humble self-esteem”—still less accept our own faults without hating ourselves—if we do not recognize God’s unconditional love, that is, the infinite delight He takes in me. As important as this is, however, I would suggest that Part One does not yet speak primarily to the heart and the spirit. We learn from it, but we may not yet be led in it to experience God’s embrace.

That is why Part Two is so important. Entitled “Towards a Definitive Solution”, the second half of the book remedies these necessary weaknesses of human reason. Building on the earlier material, Fr. Esparza now explores the reasons of the heart: Our conversion to love, all of the various manifestations of God’s love for us, and the power of God’s mercy. Here we are more likely to experience the beginnings of a sweet surrender to the Divine bands of love, a love which can be frustrated in us not by our sins, not by our constant failings, not by our bad habits, not by the deficiencies which make our personal reformations so distressingly slow—not by any of these, but only by our refusal to permit God to love us.

Only by my refusal to permit God to love me.

Michel Esparza is a medical doctor who also holds a doctorate in Philosophy from the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross. Ordained a priest in 1986, he has extensive experience in the spiritual direction of those who have difficulty trusting in God’s love. Those who are troubled by pride, low self-esteem, frustration at their own weaknesses, a compulsion to seek the affirmation of others, broken relationships, or a lack of confidence in God’s very real and very personal love, should read Self-Esteem without Selfishness. Fr. Esparza can help.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Andrej - Aug. 12, 2016 11:52 AM ET USA

    "[criticism from other cardinals and bishops]...was exceedingly rare in the period from about 1960 to 1990. You have to have lived through the past sixty years or so of the history of the Church in the West to realize just how remarkable all of this is." That is really interesting, I was too young to know what the bishops and cardinals were up to in previous decades, but that certainly is a sign of orthodoxy asserting itself..

  • Posted by: cvm46470 - Nov. 19, 2013 11:41 PM ET USA

    How the Holy Spirit works! This topic mirrors what was discussed in our women's prayer group just tonight - a better balance between focus on our sins and failings, and joy in the love of Jesus that covers those sins. Thanks for the review. I'll be ordering a copy - through your link of course.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Nov. 19, 2013 8:53 PM ET USA

    Important material in the age of Facebook, broken families, wannabe gangstas and declining church attendance. Christ's open invitation to share in his divine life requires a certain generosity on the part of the recipient. Paradoxical as it might seem; it's only proper. An eternity with God could not be endured with even the slightest "lack of confidence in God's very real and very personal love." Neither this veil of tears.