St. Isaac the Syrian in his seventy-second homily tells us, “As soon as Grace sees that a little self-esteem has begun to steal into a man’s thoughts, and that he has begun to think great things of himself, She [Grace] immediately permits the temptations opposing him to gain in strength and prevail, until he learns his weakness…and seeks refuge with God in humility.”
Our problem that we need to be saved from is self-esteem, thinking great things of ourself. These great things, according to St. Isaac, are actually the everyday things that we normally think we can do without divine assistance and the comforts we expect as a result of the things that we do. So, for example, I expect that, with a little effort, I can get out of bed in the morning, go to work, do a good job, earn a living and enjoy a few of life’s comforts: a warm, dry place to live, comfortable clothes, a car that works, some fun on the weekends, maybe even sexual fulfillment. We consider this normal, and any diminution in this expectation we consider a failure, an oppression, a falling short of normal.
However, St. Isaac, and generally the whole Orthodox Spiritual tradition, considers such an attitude towards one’s life to be evidence of self-esteem. Doesn’t St. James say something similar in his epistle?
Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, spend a year there, buy and sell, and make a profit”; whereas you do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapour that appears for a little time and then vanishes away. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that.” But now you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.
You see part of our problem with overcoming temptation is that we don’t understand what temptations are for, what they are meant to accomplish in our lives. We wrongly think that temptations exist to test us to see if we will be “good.” We still haven’t believed the words of Jesus who said: “There is no one good but God.” Temptations come not to test us to see if we will be good; rather, temptations come to show us that we are not good and that we need to flee in humility to God for refuge. Temptations come because we think we can make it through the day without God’s constant help. Temptations come because we think a comfortable life is normal, rather than a gift from God. This is what the saints call self-esteem.
Have you ever noticed that when things don’t go as you expect (your car breaks down, your basement floods, your boss yells at you, your spouse or children betray you) have you ever noticed that at such moments we almost always say to ourselves, “what did I do to deserve this?” Think about how these words reveal our self-esteem. First, these words reveal that I think that it’s normal for things to go well for me, and when they don’t go well for me, something must be wrong. Second, such a question reveals that I could/should/might/ought to have done something to avoid the problem—as if life were under my control. This is not how the saints think.
The saints realize that because they are sinners living in a fallen world full of other sinners, things should normally go wrong. The bad result is normal, to be expected. If I should happen to get through the winter with a dry basement, it is a gift to be thankful for. Self-esteem, on the other hand, says that the basement is dry because I figured out how to seal it. But humility says that God helped me seal it, yet even then I may not have done it correctly: God must continue to help me. If my child lies to me and disrespects me, a saint says “Of course she would not trust me, I am a sinner.” Self-esteem says, “what’s wrong with her?” If I get publicly humiliated at work for a mistake someone else made, a saint says, “God knows I have made other mistakes that I did not get rebuked for; God knows that I need humility and He is granting it to me.” Self-esteem quotes the words of the first Adam and says it is someone else’s fault.
Self-esteem is that perspective we hold of ourselves and of the world that says I am basically good and, if I do the right things, life will work out well for me. This, by the way, is the same worldview of Job’s three friends, the ones of whom God said “they have not spoken of me what is right.” And, of course, life itself teaches us that self-esteem is not the way to go. Even when we try very hard and do indeed do the right things (as far as I can perceive it), things often go terribly wrong. And so we blame others, maybe even God.
But if we can learn to live with low expectations, “if, in every place, and under every circumstance, and on every occasion, in all that you undertake, you set labours and grief as the aim of your resolution,” then the number and intensity of the temptations in our life will dramatically decrease. St. Isaac tells us, “all thoughts that dismay and frighten you will take flight from you, since these are customarily engendered in men by thoughts that look to comfort.”
However, low expectations of ourselves and of our experience in this world are only helpful if we have high expectations of God. When we look to God to be our help and to save us, then difficult times will no longer be trials, a diminution of the smooth sailing that most people expect their life to be; but rather the bumps and failures and difficulties of life will be nothing more than just life, life for a sinner in a fallen world. Moreover, every difficulty will for us be yet another opportunity to draw near to God to be saved, another chance for “patience to have its perfect work” in us (as St. Jame’s puts it in his epistle).
The advice of St. Isaac is not the advice you get in the world. The world teaches us the opposite. The world teaches us that a comfortable life is normal, that it is normal to be fulfilled, content and satisfied. And the world teaches us that if you are not experiencing such a happy life, it’s someone’s fault, and probably not yours. And even though it’s not your fault, the world teaches us, that it is up to you to do something about it, to affix blame on someone, to fight for your rights, your right to a normal life as the world defines it.
The advice of St. Isaac and the saints is very different. Here we are advised to have low expectations of this life. To expect things to be difficult, to go sideways when you least expect it. Jesus, did say, “In this world you will have tribulations.” However, our low expectations of this world are to be matched by a very high expectation that God loves us and will be good to us and will work every circumstance for our salvation. That is, in whatever life in this fallen world throws at us, God will give us the Grace to become more like Christ through it. God will be near us and help us. God will not abandon us.
Thank you! What an important message and one everyone in the modern Western world needs to hear! I printed that out to reread and begin to adopt this attitude more and more instead of thinking I deserve better. No, I don’t!! Thank you so much for this.
Thank you, Father! I don’t want to over state it but this is one of the best things I’ve read since I’ve been Orthodox. Let me just say I needed this; it resounded with me. I’m printing it and sharing it with my children (11, 9 & 6) — reading it to them and talking about it. The timing of the message and what we have been growing in our spiritual walk as a family is serendipitous for certain.
I’ve never commented here, but this is one of the most helpful articles you have written. God bless you.. Keep up this theme! I think that one of the biggest problems for higher expectations is that we do not believe that “this is not our home.” The other day I was thinking in the shower, it’s not that this world is not our home, in the sense of this earth, but this present earth. The Resurrection of all will take place on this earth, it is our home, and the meek will inherit it, but not as it is now. I, in moving from Calvinism into Orthodoxy, have failed to appreciate the fact that while we believe in genuine free will, it is not at the expense of really believing, “if God wills we will do this or that.” I have sacrificed Providence in some ways that I need to examine. I’ll never forget my wife being assigned the book “When Bad Things Happen to Good People”. I helped her write a review/essay of the book and said it should be title, “When Good Things Happen to Bad People”. Really, the second title is more fitting but I have reacted against it. John Owen in The Mortification of Sin, talked about how God allows besetting sins (ongoing sin) to afflict believers because otherwise they may never see their need for Him. They would think they were fine if one sin would just go away not realizing God wishes for them to be perfect. Owen’s book apart from some heretical views is surprisingly Orthodox. During the liturgy today I was thinking about how often I expect that moments of closeness to God will come while I am relaxed, like floating in the ocean on vacation. But then the thought came, that this can be true of my heart while my body may be fully exhausted and not in a state of relaxation. The sin here, the sin I deal most often with, is sloth. And sloth is really just the desire to have your own equilibrium, you internal peace, uninterrupted or manageable. The bummer is, that is impossible, and so we demand/expect things to be the way we need them to be. The failure is in not realizing the heart can be content while the body would otherwise not be. The heart and the body are not aligned. Death is still motivating the mind. Please continue some posts in this vein. You’ve had me thinking helpful thoughts all day today.
Welcome back Fr. Michael!!!!!!! I’ve been waiting eagerly to read your next blog and I am very grateful that the Lord has given you so much wisdom to share with us! My favourite part of your reflection is “Temptations come because we think a comfortable life is normal, rather than a gift from God”. I often catch myself falling in the temptation of self esteem, because I fear living an uncomfortable life. 2020 has shown me a lot of discomfort, but I have experienced that truly “whatever life in this fallen world throws at us, God will give us the Grace to become more like Christ through it. God will be near us and help us. God will not abandon us.”! Thank you for being a good and faithful shepherd like Christ is, and for guiding your flock to the right path!
An interesting article but I have some reservations. Unfortunately healthy self-esteem is not widespread; most of us are very aware of our faults & weaknesses. At one time I was influenced by Malcolm Muggeridge, the thoughtful English author, who said he had to battle his ego to prevent it rising up & taking over. In some ways, he wrote, it was like a cold, dark dungeon in which one could be trapped. I wondered whether this was the secret to finding true joy and began to suppress my ego, almost obliterating it in the process. I remember going to someone’s wedding at this time & wondering who I was, so completely had I depersonalised myself. I had lost my ego and any sense of self-esteem. Muggeridge had led me down a blind alley in this respect. Later I learned that one must have a healthy ego, a healthy self-esteem, if one is to be of any use to oneself and family and others, and that one controls one’s ego by sanctifying it. It is not possible to feel loving and kindly towards others unless one first admires and loves oneself.
Dear John F. I don’t think high vs. low self-esteem are the only options.
I have been thinking lately about the tendency to black and white thinking. It is a common thing that rarely anyone criticizes. The political divide is black and white. Historically Protestant thought turns everyone into all-depraved or Elect. I won’t make a list, but I encourage others to. But we mostly do it to ourselves and they project it onto others. We are not either good or bad, but on a spectrum. Orthodoxy, better than most, see that people are in progress or regress. Losing the ego is in part losing an all or nothing view of yourself. Many people cannot stand any interior feeling of guilt or failure and are comforted back into all or mostly good by comparing themselves to others. Others see themselves as hopeless or they are energetically over-idealizing themselves. And there’s everything in between. But the realization, if we can remember it, and I mean myself, is that when we know that salvation was firstly coming out of the dominion of the world into the Family of God, and that starting here the work on our part begins, then having both bright optimism and a very lowly estimation of ourselves – actually complement each other. When we say we love ourselves, I’ve imagined once, giving my sinful self a hug, the part of me that I hate. This is more like what loving ourselves should be like in one sense, at least versus an all or nothing view. But the idea – if this was the idea – and I think it need significant examination to see – that we need esteem first to do anything good for others – it much like deciding to take and adopt black and white thinking. I’m sure this is not true for everyone. I don’t hate myself, but I hate parts of myself, and yet I love them though I’m grieved by myself. The real consolation is in God, not in me. One of the most encouraging verses in Scripture to me is Hebrews 6:10 because it states that God is not unrighteous to forget your work and labor of love. It ties God’s goodness/righteousness to the attention He gives to our effort. I know the context is labor for the good of others, but the same principle would apply to our efforts to become who He wants us to be, or our struggle against regress in general. Our struggle to not get worse, and to get better, not just in the moral sense, but in a lovingly loyal sense, God has a focused attention for, and from there the promise of blessing/wholeness. So, last, and I know this was unsolicited so I apologize for that, we are the chief of sinners but that knowledge doesn’t keep our souls in the dirt, it keeps our knees in the dirt. We don’t go around feeling like crap about ourselves, but the knowledge leaves us in humility and God gives grace to the humble. Though our outer self is wasting away, yet our inner self is being renewed day by day. Therefore we do not lose heart. From here we await the eternal weight of glory (2 Cor 4). So likewise ye, when ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do Luke 17:10). There’s this, keep your feet/body on the ground, don’t estimate it highly, and the God is not unrighteous to forget – all at the same time. The either/or false dichotomy is gone. But the demand that we acknowledge the goodness of humanity in the Image of God applies to ourselves yet in then end we are humbled that we came from dust and return to dust, and from there, by God’s grace we return again with incorruption. God bless you brother.
Forgive my typos, too much caffeine?
Thank you for this wisdom. It is truly a paradigm shift!
Thank you father Michael for shining a light on this ‘root’ of self-esteem which is truly a ‘stumbling block’ …. I appreciate your references and your connection to St Isaac.
The simplicity and depth of your teachings are precious.
Thank you Father for helping me see my own issues with self esteem. At our parish Bible study, we were talking about our sins / passions and what was the common theme with them. The answer was that we are looking to please ourselves. With greed, we want more. With lies, we want want to look better. With lust and gluttony, we want to satisfy ourselves. The same with the rest of the passions. Today’s society is the “me society” and th “I deserve” society. I hate to say it, but I don’t see anything changing soon. I guess though it can start with you and me through the grace of God. Thanks for spreading the Word.
Thank you, Fr.