So you also, when you have done all that is commanded you, say, “We are unworthy servants.”— Luke 17:10
What grade would Jesus receive in a college counseling class today? Would He even pass? To counsel someone to call himself an “unworthy servant” would be asking for an F, as it would collide headlong into the prevailing self-esteem gospel.
Another Bible translation gives Jesus’ words even more force: “worthless servants.” That label would summarily deposit someone at the lowest end of the self-image continuum.
In Jesus’ day, there was no self-esteem dogma as celebrated today. Only a few decades old, it was birthed in the latter twentieth century in upper academia. Since then, it has thoroughly penetrated the cultural consciousness. No surprise, as it nurtures a universal yearning to regard oneself highly.
Everyone Is “Awesome”
Thinking oneself wonderful, it is assumed, is vital to a settled psyche. Indeed, a word once reserved to image God — “awesome” — is now used to image us as well, not to mention chicken sandwiches. Furthermore, an expanding litany of dividends supposedly follows an awesome sense of self: achievements, status, inner peace, better hair days. Conversely, as self-esteem slips, personal distress surges — anxiety, insecurity, unhappiness. In short, lift the self-image, and good stuff follows.
With so many positives promoted by so many worldly sages, who would dare question the value of a soaring self-image? Why would Jesus, all-knowing about the human condition, even question it? Talk about angling for a poor grade in counseling class.
Jesus’ perspective on self-esteem was two thousand years ahead of what psychology is re-thinking. Modern doctrine may sound uplifting, but real life has left it floundering. At the risk of demeaning self-esteem, it isn’t related to much in the way of personal and social well-being.
Even worse, chasing self-esteem for its own sake can lead to some un-Christ-like “selfs” — self-centeredness, self-absorption, self-seeking— all of which stunt virtues like humility, modesty, and empathy. Unbridled self-esteem naturally morphs into self-focus.
What Did Jesus Mean By “Unworthy Servants”?
In that social hierarchy, servants occupied the bottom layers. They garnered little esteem from themselves or from others. Theirs was a single duty: obey. Hardly a path to a flourishing self-view.
Did Jesus really intend to call His followers society’s inferiors? Not in the least. Elsewhere and often, He stresses the inestimable worth of all His Father’s children as adopted sons and daughters. “Even the hairs of your head are all numbered” (Luke 12:7). Jesus never questions the infinite value of a person.
Why, then, does He use such striking language? To underscore His words. Routinely, Jesus engages in hyperbole, such as, “And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away” (Matthew 5:30). Potent counsel demands potent language.
Unworthy Of Self-Worth?
His counsel: When you do what is expected of you, do not expect approval. Don’t seek praise when acting praiseworthy. Be dutiful with doing your duty. That is your reward.
The modern mindset says otherwise: Achievements and victories deserve accolades and applause. Jesus disagrees. To translate Him into modern jargon: Don’t expect a star on your chart or a participation trophy for acting right.
If you’re raising an admirable child, don’t broadcast your success to everyone else. If you’re financially well-off, don’t feel superior to those who aren’t. Whatever your accomplishments, be slow to speak of them, if at all.
Whoever you are, whatever you possess, however well others may think of you, know that it all originates from above. God gives and He sustains. The faithful servant never forgets this.
To teach good, or couched in trendy value-neutral language, “appropriate” behavior, psychologists tout using tangible incentives to children — stickers, tokens, money.
Suppose a parent wants her preschooler to learn to make her bed each morning. She searches the internet for “sticker charts for bed-making success,” and taping the top-rated chart to the refrigerator door, she follows its formula: Award stickers initially for every bed-making attempt, and once the habit develops, start tapering the stickers, as Dawn is now motivated to make her bed without yellow smiley faces.
That’s how it’s supposed to unfold, anyway. Some studies, however, assert that as material rewards fade, so does the motivation. Once the carrot is withdrawn, cooperation slips.
Jesus knew. Doing what one ought to do doesn’t need to be sustained by stickers, rewards, or recognition. However much appreciated, they are not to be the prime movers of virtuous conduct. Moral actions become ingrained when pursued for themselves.
A Robust Self-Image
Does a robust self-image undercut virtue? Not necessarily. A robust self-image, though, is shaped by who makes the call. If Ray Guarendi declares that Ray Guarendi is a super guy, mine is a plainly subjective judgment. What’s to say that I’m all that accurate? After all, my self-image is tied to self-interest. As such, it is built on sand, to rise or fall with my emotions or circumstances. It is too unstable to fulfill all the promises made in its name.
On the other hand, if my Creator, the God of the Universe, declares my worth and my self-image as unassailable, then it is transcendent, as it does not rest upon anything I’ve done or will do. Whether I consider myself a wunderkind or a worm does not alter God’s judgment. The call is His, and He has made it unconditionally in my favor.
Psychologists talk of “cognitive dissonance,” the holding in one’s mind of two apparently conflicting ideas simultaneously. Being an “unworthy servant,” yet one with infinite self-worth, would seem to create cognitive dissonance. How can both be true?
In fact, they are both true. They complement one another. An unworthy servant is not a worthless human being. On the contrary, Jesus says He is the one Who serves worthily.
Being a worthless servant is the path to being a worthy disciple.
More About Jesus The Master Psychologist
Dr. Ray Guarendi directs us to the root of all healthy counseling: the words of the Redeemer.
Rightly regarded as America’s leading Catholic psychologist and family counselor, EWTN’s Dr. Ray Guarendi details here the fundamentals of Christian psychology in his incomparable down-to-earth style.
In some teachings, Jesus is two millennia ahead of what psychology is only now coming to understand. In others, He directly contradicts what today’s psychology preaches. In these pages, Dr. Ray explores the teachings of both modern psychology and Jesus Christ to identify the therapy tools worth employing ― and those we should avoid. Most notably, he helps us understand that every tool and counseling guideline worth pursuing can find its roots directly in the words of Christ.
Jesus knows our minds far more intimately than we do, and He knows the rewards we receive for following the paths He advocates. Indeed, in tackling any interior or exterior difficulty, there is certain knowledge that with Christ’s guidance comes reassurance and peace of mind, if only we know the path.
Dr. Guarendi’s experience as a father of ten and his mastery of the New Testament enable him to provide recommendations for dealing with numerous daily issues, including:
- How to overcome jealousy and other passions
- What it means ― and doesn’t mean ― to turn the other cheek
- How to turn negativity into a harnessed virtue ― without changing your nature
- How to transform your natural qualities into supernatural qualities
- The benefits of having problem children
- How to improve your self-awareness
- What the old adage “know thyself” really means
- How Jesus turns self-esteem mantras on their heads
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