On Encouragement

pilgrim's progress

by Tina Olesen

To follow up on my last post, what’s the alternative to building children’s self-esteem? Won’t they get discouraged if we never praise them or pat them on the back? The danger of flattery leading to pride means we want to avoid all insincere, over-the-top compliments and applause. However, avoiding any kind of honest encouragement would not be right. So, what’s the right kind of encouragement for children?

When I think of encouragement, I often think of the scene from John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, where the Interpreter shows Christian a vision of a fire burning against a wall. Someone was always throwing water on it to quench it, but the fire burned higher and hotter anyway. When Christian asks what it means, the Interpreter tells him that the fire is the work of grace that is wrought in the heart, and it is the devil trying to extinguish it. The reason the fire burns hotter and higher is that on the other side of the wall, there is Christ with a vessel of the oil of grace in His hand, secretly casting it continually into the fire. Is it not encouraging to think that Jesus fuels the flames in the heart?

The scripture reference Bunyan gives for this passage is this: “And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me,” (2 Cor. 12:9). We want to encourage children in the all-sufficiency of Christ and His strength, not in their own natural abilities. To be of use to the Lord, the natural must be submitted to the spiritual. Under the control of Christ, any talents He has given us can be laid at His feet and used for His glory, and not our own.

Encouragement can be helpful if a child is succumbing to fear in the face of a new challenge or when something seems too difficult or overwhelming. They may need to be gently admonished to make an attempt, to persevere, or even to ask for help. Expressing your pleasure when they finally grasp something is fine, as long as it isn’t excessive or phony. Children should be encouraged to give thanks to God for accomplishments and victories, and not to credit themselves.

We would not want to encourage each other in an evil manner. Encouraging children toward self-reliance, rather than toward reliance on God, would qualify as evil encouragement. Think of the dismal picture of the tower of Babel. “You can do anything you put your mind to!” Our courage is rightly placed in Christ, and not in our own abilities.

To encourage someone literally means to build up their courage in the Lord. Encouragement can help them to face challenges, trials, and obstacles. It may mean the difference between a child succumbing to fear or overcoming by faith. We are exhorted in scripture to encourage one another or “stir up” one another to faith, love and good works. This is encouragement to trust in and obey the Lord, not to put their faith in themselves.

A wonderful example of encouraging one another is the story of Mary and Elisabeth’s meeting in Luke 1. Can you imagine what a blessed encouragement to faith in God that meeting was for both women? Each woman was challenged to remain true to God while many around them would disbelieve or even scoff at what God was doing in and through their lives. Yet they believed, and knew the truth, and boldly proclaimed it to one another. That is also what we are to do for each other.

Encouragement includes admonishment. It can mean entreating or urging someone to trust and obey God when they are facing temptation. Spurring one another on can feel like a sharp spur in the side sometimes. It may even hurt, although you know you really needed that kick in the pants from a friend who loves you. “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin,” (Hebrews 3:12-13).

Jesus’ words of encouragement to His church abound throughout the New Testament, and are too numerous to repeat here, but these are among the encouraging things He has said:

“Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me.”

“In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”

“Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation.”

“Do not fear what you are about to suffer… Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.”

“I am coming soon. Hold fast what you have, so that no one may seize your crown.”

“Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent.”

“Surely I am coming soon.”

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!

Let’s encourage our young soldiers for Christ to be ready to be faithful unto death by teaching them to love and esteem Jesus above themselves. The real way to encourage this is by living out our own relationship of trusting, loving, and obeying Christ, before their watching eyes.

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The Vanity of Self-Esteem

narcissus caravaggio

by Tina Olesen

I’m not really sure who popularised the notion of self-esteem as being an essential need of every human being, but I know who was behind it: the father of lies. It seems to have picked up steam in popular psychology in the 1960s and ballooned from there.

Abraham Maslow, an American psychologist, included self-esteem in his “hierarchy of needs” theory which many of us may recall from Psychology 101. What I don’t recall hearing about in that class was that Maslow probably developed this theory out of his work with monkeys. Maslow thought that some needs took precedence over others, such as thirst over hunger. From this idea he developed a theory that when one’s physiological needs are met then other psychological “needs” will arise, and he put these so-called “needs” in a hierarchy of importance. Self-esteem was a “need” placed near the top of what Maslow thought it would take to fulfill one’s potential. His faulty premise for thinking was that self-actualization was the purpose of life.

Not surprisingly, near the end of his career Maslow tipped over into transpersonal psychology. He began to explore the idea of “self-transcendence”. In Toward a Psychology of Being, he said, “We need something ‘bigger than we are’ to be awed by and to commit ourselves to in a new, naturalistic, empirical, non-churchly sense…” Sadly, Maslow completely missed the point that we were made “to be awed by and to commit ourselves” to Jesus Christ.

One only has to look at the example of Christians like Corrie and Betsie ten Boom to debunk Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. When sisters Corrie and Betsie were imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp, they were often hungry, sick, cold and exhausted. In the midst of their suffering in that horrific place, they displayed remarkable courage, faith, patience, and love for their fellow prisoners. Their lives glorified God and drew people to Jesus Christ, thus fulfilling their true purpose.

The premise for living for the Christian is to exalt and magnify Jesus Christ, not to promote and actualize ourselves. As John the Baptist said of Jesus, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” Paul put it this way to the Galatian church: “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ lives in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.” Concerning ourselves with seeking self-actualization or self-esteem is completely anti-Christian, besides being totally counterproductive. Jesus tells us why: “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it… Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will keep it.”

It’s quite astounding to see how much acceptance the notion of self-esteem has gained in parenting and educational circles, and how far reaching its influence has been. In the last few decades, “low self-esteem” quickly became the explanation or excuse offered for nearly any kind of bad behavior in a child. She’s pouting? She’s just feeling bad about herself. He’s bullying? He doesn’t like himself so he hurts others.

Parents felt guilty if they didn’t heap enough flattery on their child: “You’ll hurt his self-esteem!” It was as if the child’s whole future hung in the balance if he didn’t gain a favourable view of himself. Some educators began to worry about children getting a poor self-concept if they got a low mark on something or didn’t win an award, which resulted in the equal distribution of undeserved praise. Everybody’s special and everybody’s a champion… really?

Excessive self-consciousness is the bad fruit of the self-esteem movement. This phenomenon is well-documented in social media today. Not only are many kids overly concerned with how they look, but they may spend hours carefully crafting an image fit for their web presence, taking “selfies” that will boost their online appearance. Idolatry of the self is where self-esteem psychology logically ends up.

As a culture, we’ve lost our healthy fear of pride. It seems we’re no longer repulsed by Narcissus. The danger of “getting a swelled head” used to be something people guarded against. Of pride, C. S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity:

“..It was through Pride that the devil became the devil: Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind… it is Pride which has been the chief cause of misery in every nation and every family since the world began… pride always means enmity – it is enmity. And not only enmity between man and man, but enmity to God.”

Thomas Watson said rightly that “All Christian growth is finally growth in humility.”

Humility isn’t beating yourself up or always talking about your faults – that would just be another form of excessive self-concern. Oswald Chambers accurately observed, “There is nothing more awful than conscious humility, it is the most Satanic type of pride… Jesus Christ presented humility as a description of what we shall be unconsciously when we have become rightly related to God and are rightly centred in Jesus Christ.”

Rather than concerning ourselves with building self-esteem, we ought to be humbling ourselves under the mighty hand of God. “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble,” (1 Peter 5:5, James 4:6). Jesus Christ is the definition of humility.

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