I’m reading (actually re-reading) a book by Dallas Willard called Renovation of the Heart. In it, Willard describes the process of transformation that God brings about in the life of the believer, and he says that this process must begin with the recognition of our sinful depravity (what he calls “radical evil in the ruined soul”).
The only path of spiritual transformation today still lies through this illumination [of the lostness of our soul]…. When the prophet Jeremiah, for example, says, “The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick: Who can understand it?” we have to recognize from our heart that we are the ones spoken of, that, indeed, I am the one described. Only then is a foundation laid for spiritual formation into Christlikeness.
I was very intrigued by what Willard goes on to say about this necessity of recognizing our lostness and depravity, because his perspective certainly flies in the face of a value our culture holds tightly:
The initial move toward Christlikeness cannot be toward self-esteem, because of confusion about what self-esteem means, and because, realistically, I’m not okay and you’re not okay. We’re all in serious trouble. That must be our starting point. Self-esteem in such a situation will only breed self-deception and frustration–as is now increasingly recognized, by the way. For the realities of our soul will still be what they are and will still have the consequences for evil that they naturally do–regardless of what we or others may say to “pump ourselves up” and really, to conceal and deny who we are. A high opinion of ourselves will only make those consequences more difficult to deal with.
It certainly seems counterintuitive to say that the starting point for transformation–which is to say the starting point for deep and abiding JOY–is actually in recognizing our sinfulness and in acknowledging our total inability to please God. But if we do indeed start at this place, we find that the more that we acknowledge the depth of our sin, the more that Christ’s Gospel becomes really good news. And the more that we understand of the Gospel, the more we come to realize what incredible worth we have in the sight of God. So Willard is not proposing a stoic, strict rule of no self-esteem. Rather, he is attempting to loosen the hold of self-focused-esteem and point our attention to the greater esteem that comes from being fully known and fully loved by God.