The secular self-esteem industry has become a cornerstone of modern culture. Countless books promote techniques of building self-worth and “feeling good about ourselves.” Similar textbooks also fill our schools, attempting to heal so many wounded souls from dysfunctional families and our broken culture. But the appeal is ambiguous and even dangerous.
The movement quickly degrades into absurdities. A particularly silly children’s book comes to mind: I Like Me!
Are these books useful, harmless, or mischievous?
It’s hard to “like ourselves” in a morally healthy way without the guidance of a few basics of the Catholic faith. God created us in his image and likeness. We have God-given dignity that others cannot destroy. But Original Sin and our personal sins besmirch that beautiful dignity. Without God’s grace, our fallen condition paralyzes us in despair and self-loathing. Jesus came into the world to save us from our sins because He loves us. He suffered and died for us. He instituted the seven sacraments so that we can continue to encounter Him after the Ascension.
Catholics—and a few non-Catholic Christians—should recognize the preceding as a summary of our Faith. The Apostles’ Creed and the seven sacraments form the “machinery” that buiilds authentic self-esteem and allows us to feel good about ourselves. Of course we frequently fall short, either through ignorance or malice. As a result we feed our self-esteem with arrogance, excessive self-confidence, and selfish behavior.
Such feelings of self-esteem are common to us all and likely filled the hearts of tax collectors in the time of Jesus. They thought so much of themselves that they had no scruple in lying and cheating, routinely skimming a few bucks off the top to supplement their income. Maybe it didn’t matter to them that the people hated them for their thievery. But in the recesses of their larcenous hearts, they knew they were crooks, and from another perspective, that knowledge is hard on one’s sense of self-esteem.
Jesus comes into town, and Zacchaeus, a notorious chief tax collector, seeks Him. The Gospel doesn’t report whether Zacchaeus lacked self-esteem. But he might have been dissatisfied in his current state, or perhaps just curious about the new itinerant preacher. Jesus responds to his quest and spots him up in the sycamore tree. He invites Himself as an honored guest of Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus is only too happy to oblige over the grumbling protests of the citizenry.
The Evangelist does not reveal the mental state of Zacchaeus before he sought Jesus. But in his material comfort, he must have been restless. The sin of his larceny must have haunted him day and night. It takes a lot of self-esteem to kill a conscience. Unless a conscience is moribund, every unconfessed mortal sin beats like Edgar Allen Poe’s “Telltale Heart.”
God’s grace works in mysterious ways. Perhaps Zacchaeus’s wife married him for his money, and in time he realized she was treating him the same way he manipulated the taxpayers. Or maybe he had a growing realization of the emptiness of wealth without virtue.
Whatever the background, Jesus touches Zacchaeus with his generous offer of friendship. In a grand act of repentance, Zacchaeus promises to reform his life through restitution and charity. In doing so, he gains the self-esteem that counts: “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of man came to seek and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:9)
But self-esteem in Christ does not mean all is well. Zacchaeus may have converted and received Jesus’ forgiveness, but he still had to pick up the pieces of his life. As unpleasant as those pieces may have been, he emerged from his encounter with Jesus with the knowledge that he was no longer a crook. In cooperation with Jesus, Zacchaeus purified his conscience and restored his integrity. Friendship with Jesus set him free, and he recovered his dignity.
Jesus reveals a delicate interplay between his grace and a human soul. There is a beautiful saying, “Whom you would change, you must first love.” Flowing from this is, “and they must know that you love them.” Jesus was not contemptuous of Zacchaeus, even though he was a sinner. Jesus offered him the affection of a friend. “[S]eek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For every one who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. (Mt. 7:7-8)
But we often fear Divine friendship. As Francis Thompson’s epic poem, “The Hound of Heaven,” has it, most of us at some point in our lives flee friendship with Jesus:
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him…
The consequences of our flight from Him are grim:
My mangled youth lies dead beneath the heap.
My days have crackled and gone up in smoke,
Have puffed and burst as sun-starts on a stream.
But Jesus, the “Hound of Heaven,” loves us and seeks us. Hence the poem concludes:
Halts by me that footfall;
Is my gloom, after all,
Shade of His hand, outstretched caressingly?
“Ah, fondest, blindest, weakest,
I am He Whom thou seekest!
It is a paradox of human existence that the more we seek self-esteem on our terms, the more elusive it becomes. Try as we might, the vanity of seeking peace without God and the Sacraments is futile. Jesus does not offer us self-esteem. He offers us peace of soul if we respond to His love and work the “Sacramental machinery” of our faith.
Saint Augustine sums up the machinery of our faith in more appealing terms: “You have made us for Yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”
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