Thursday, February 23, 2012

Tolerating Goodness through Self-Affirmation?

We tend to disdain the courage of whistleblowers when they’re in our space but admire them when they’re a good distance away. Writer Matthew Hutson mentions three well-known examples:

  • Copter pilot Hugh Thompson halted the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam and was ostracized by other soldiers.
  • Frank Serpico testified about corruption within the NYPD and was shot in a suspected setup by his fellow officers.
  • Joseph Darby turned in photos of the other Abu Ghraib guards misbehaving and was put under protective custody. (Psychology Today, Nov/Dec 2008, 32)
Why? Hutson reasons that the’ courage and moral rectitude of the whistleblowers deflated their co-workers’ self-esteem. He suggested,

  • There’s a perfect defense though: self-affirmation…it frees us to rethink our own disobedience and maybe even respond to clever behavior by emulating it.
But self-affirmation is what we normally do, and we never can seem to get enough of it. Surely, the soldiers who had ostracized Hugh Thompson congratulated themselves that they were really the smart ones, doing what needed to be done! We have an amazing ability to construe whatever we do as the right thing (Proverbs 21:2).

Besides, there are countless studies that demonstrate that good self-esteem has little to do with good behavior. In fact, it’s found that poor students have higher self-esteem than the good, prisoners have it over those who’ve never been behind bars.

While the late Professor of Psychology at Paton College, John G. McKenzie, asserts that we all need “self-respect, a sense of dignity, a sense of purpose; these are the very things which underlie all mental health,” he laments that these are hard to find:

  • Is it not a tragedy that in our modern world it is only in war that the individual regains his status? (Nervous Disorders and Religion, 1962, 154)
However, this “status” has proved inadequate to insulate the soldier against the deflated self-esteem that results from the presence of the good whistleblower.

How then can we tolerate the presence of the good without psychological deflation? Jesus taught that the way up is the way down; that the way to life is the way through death. He told a story about two praying men. For the religious leader, the way up was the way up - through “self-respect, sense of dignity.” He was well-practiced in effortlessly reciting his achievements, but he eventually proved himself a killer.  The other had such a low self-esteem that he couldn’t even look up as he confessed his sins, but it was this man who was forgiven. Jesus concluded:

  • I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted. (Luke 18:14)

How can eating humble pie represent the high road? How can debasing ourselves ennoble? The
Apostle Paul wrote:

  • God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Cor. 5:21)
We no longer need to build our self-esteem, since Christ has become our self-esteem. We ran after movie stars in the hope of merely getting their autograph. But the ultimate Star has died for us and has given us more than His autograph! He has promised us everything that is His, even His righteousness. What better affirmation could we have?

Humankind has always been psychologically threatened by the sight of authentic goodness, so much so that the religious and the civil leadership put Jesus to death. No amount of self-affirmation would have made a difference for them. They had something even better—the respect of their community. But like any drug, the more we have, the more we need. Self-righteousness is a vulnerable righteousness, always requiring another fix, another affirmation or compliment. And even with heavy doses of affirmation, we know that we are a parched wasteland.

In contrast, Jesus informed a woman who had given Him a drink of water that, if she drank His water, she would never thirst again (John 4:13-14). Such is the righteousness that comes from God. It penetrates our desert and revives us. Yes, we still carry about our insecurities and ego-issues like a leaky colostomy, but Christ has given us the means to cleanse it and to find peace.

I still carry around many of my old insecurities and nasty reactions. I still am inclined to become resentful and jealous. However, if I now have everything through Christ, I can laugh at myself and place all of my bruised feelings, hopes and dreams on Him!

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