May Your Confidence Wax Strong
By H. Wallace Goddard
(Meridian Magazine Myth of the Month, April 1999)
At the time when Nancy and I were married, I was finishing a degree in secondary education at BYU. It seems to me that Nancy, who tends to humility and self-effacement, did not respect or appreciate herself enough. Without her knowing it, I resolved to help her improve her self-esteem. I even wrote up a formal plan in a paper I turned in at school.
Almost three decades have passed since then, and I have learned a lot. In the intervening years I have watched Nancy serve her family with remarkable and healing kindness and patience. She has presided over Relief Societies in Utah and in Alabama, where her enduring symbol of service was reaching out in love and patience to poor and forgotten sisters. When she was Primary President, every child was noticed and cherished. I am no longer trying to raise Nancy's self-esteem. I am trying to learn from her modest, gentle, Christ-like example to be a servant to all.
How de we reconcile temporary dogmas of self-esteem with such clear messages from Jesus such as:
Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any [man] will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it. (Matthew 16:24-25)
In my experience, such assaults on the self-esteem movement bring three common responses: "So, does God want us to hate ourselves?" No. He wants us to forget ourselves and follow Him. "But doesn't God want us to know our great worth?" We are just a little lower than the angels (Psalms 8:5). But we are also worthless and fallen (Mosiah 4:2, 5). Our claim to fame is that we are God's children. Our hope for eternal life is in drawing on His merits, mercy, and grace, that we may be enlarged to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.
The third reaction to differences with the idea of self-esteem and the most common is "Yes. I always felt that there was something wrong with the idea." I agree. Consider the following contrasts:
The self-esteem dogma: You cannot love anyone until you love yourself.
God's doctrine: You cannot love anyone (with full-blown charity) until you love God. (See Moroni 7:44-48.)
The self-esteem dogma: When you love yourself, then you can be of service.
God's doctrine: When you forget yourself, then you can be of service. (See Matthew 16:24-25, John 13:34-35.)
The self-esteem dogma: Remember your great worth.
God's Doctrine: Remember God's goodness and the great worth of all souls to the Father of All. (See Mosiah 4, Moses 1.)
God wants us to learn and grow and become talented and wise. He wants us to be in a position to help others and to help Him carry out His plan. But His way is not man's way. His is not a program of self-improvement and self-affirmation. The answer is not faith in ourselves. It is faith in God! Notice the context in which Jesus delivered His incisive (and counterintuitive) definition of righteousness when He elevated the humble but sinful publican over the faultless but self-serving Pharisee: "And he spake this parable unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others" (Luke 18:9, emphasis added). The one judges as righteous was the one who admitted, "I am a sinner."
In contrast to the world's philosophy of self-esteem, the Lord has given us a program of gifts to help us to be more efficient servants and to help us become more like Him, the servant of all. Tucked away in the 46th section of the Doctrine and Covenants is a reflection on these spiritual gifts. Most of us have failed to appreciate this psychological gem. As we study this section, it becomes immediately clear that the Lord's expertise extends beyond geology and chemistry. He is also an expert in human development. Five points seem very clear:
1. "...to every [person] is given a gift by the Spirit of God" (v.11)
I take the statement to evaluate everyone based on one narrow definition of goodness. Perhaps the main human yardstick in this century has been IQ. As some experts see it, everyone can be stacked according to how smart they are. Richard Herrnstein (Herrstein & Murray, 1994) has stubbornly argues that IQ efficiently predicts human functioning in school, work, and family. His is a cerebral aristocracy.
But Harvard's Howard Gardner (1983), in his classic work on "multiple intelligences" recognizes seven distinct intelligences, ranging from linguistic to bodily kinesthetic. Yale psychologist Robert Sternberg (1988) has suggested three ways of being intelligent: academic, creative, and practical. For decades University of Utah educator Cal Taylor (1986) has argued for "multiple talent orientations" and for educating children based on appreciating our different giftedness. He believes that everyone excels in at least one gift.
The Lord has set no limit on the number of ways to be gifted. He has said there are many gifts! (See D&C 46:11). He wants us to celebrate the gifts He has given us as well as those we see in others.
How do we cultivate an awareness of gifts in those around us? Jesus' example is to regularly provide us supportive hints about our divine gifts. We should do the same for others. That is part of the commandment to love one another as He loves us. Under inspiration of heaven, we might reflect: "I love your cheerful spirit." "Your sensitivity has touched my heart." "Surely your determination is a gift from God." "I have been strengthened by your testimony."
Our baptismal covenant also informs the use of our gifts. We uniquely honor that covenant when we speak without guile of the divine that we see in others: "[S]tans as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places that ye may be in" (Mosiah 18:9). Can anything be more holy than to celebrate the divine in those around us? Can anything be more comforting than to know that God can act through each of us?
2. "To some is given one, and to some is given another..." (v.12)
The human tendency to try to be all things to all people may be a subtle form of idolatry. God insists different that no one has every gift. Joseph Smith had different gifts from Brigham Young. Peter has different gifts from Paul.
...deny not the gifts of God, for they are many; and they come from the same God. And there are different ways that these gifts are administered; but it is the same God who worketh all in all; and they are given by the manifestations of the Spirit of God unto men, to profit them (Moroni 10:8)
I remember a physics class I took at BYU. Jae R. Ballif was the professor. He was intelligent, kind, and articulate. His lectures were an amazing mix of physics and dignity. I felt keenly my inadequacy in contrast to him. When I was called as a young bishop, I wished to be as dignified and wise as Jae Ballif. I was not. But the Lord taught me to use the gifts He had given me. Where Dr. Ballif had the dignity, I had zeal (and a great salsa recipe). He was extraordinarily intelligent. I was creative (or at least unconventional).
But this is not a competition. God has given each of us the ideal gifts to enable us to fill our individual missions.
Susan Harter (1983), a long-time self-esteem researcher in the Psychology Department at the University of Denver, recognized one of the faults of traditional self-esteem was the assumption that it is global. The idea that you feel good about yourself or you don't has been discredited. People need to have a more articulated sense of specific strengths. "For there are many gifts, and to very man is given a gift by the Spirit of God" (D&C 46:11).
Rather than envy each other's gifts, we should celebrate the gift we are given and rejoice in the gifts that are given to others. If we fail to use our gifts because we consider them inferior to someone else's' gifts, then we are unwise servants.
"For what doth it profit man if a gift is bestowed upon him, and he receiver not the gift? Behold, he rejoices not in that which is given unto him, neither rejoices in him who is the giver of the gift." (D&C 88:33)
When I talk with groups of teenagers about gifts, I invite each of them to name his or her favorite food. Then I ask them to picture a big mixer with all the favorite foods mixed together. How many would be delighted with the resulting mix of pizza, ice cream, nachos, lasagna, and cookies? If God has designed us to be cookies, we should be great cookies. If God has designed us to be pizza, we should fill the measure of the spicy creation. "Now, seeing that I know these things, why should I desire more than to perform the work to which I have been called?" (Alma 29:6).
3. "And all these gifts come from God, for the benefit of the children of God" (v.26)
For those who are tempted to covet others' gifts, God has given us good news: all gifts in all people belong to all of us, in a community of caring and service.
God has not given us gifts so that we may win trophies and impress our neighbors. He has given us gifts so that "all may be profited thereby" (v.12). Nancy and I are proudest of our children when they use their gifts to bless God's children. Our daughter Emily used her amazing artistry to sew a wedding dress for a friend. Andy's remarkable sensitivity lead him to volunteer with Habitat for Humanity. Sara used her unique compassion to lovingly tutor a lost and lonely child in our neighborhood.
A team of researchers (Allen, Philliber, Herrling, & Kuperminc, 1997) recently discovered that when they involved high-risk teens in community service, their rates of pregnancy and dropping out of school declined in spite of the fact that there was no part of the intervention that was targeted at those outcomes. The researchers were mystified. They concluded that when people are involved in service, they are growing in healthy ways. They are less vulnerable to psychological sickness.
God has always known the growth-promoting and healing benefits of serving and loving. When our gifts are woven together in a tapestry of caring, we are filling the measure of our creation. We are becoming more like Him.
Prophets of every era have counseled us to serve and bless one another. It is essential to our growth. When we draw family members into gladly delivering cookies, picking up litter, praying for the struggling, we are ministering to their eternal well-being.
4. "...seek ye earnestly the best gifts, always remembering for what they are given" (v.8)
The Lord counsels us to keep growing. In the process of conducting remarkable research on aging, scholar Carol Ryff has re-defined psychological well-being. Intriguingly, she has found that life gets better in old age on some dimensions of well-being. Her definition (1989) of well-being goes beyond mere happiness to add dimensions such as personal growth. Even when happiness may sag, growth carries us forward.
Latter-day Saints believe in eternal progress. That can apply to activities as diverse as signing up for an art class to cultivating charity and praying for greater patience.
5. "...ye must give thanks unto God in the Spirit for whatsoever blessing ye are blessed with" (v.32)
"O how you ought to thank your heavenly King!" (Mosiah 2:19). Gratitude opens the windows of heaven. Those who are grateful for what they have, receive more for which to be grateful. We can never get out of His debt.
The appreciation that all gifts are a divine bestowal intended to bless all of our brothers and sisters makes the Lord's program of gifts very different from the world's self-esteem programs.
The Lord's program of gifts, nestled in a neglected section of the Doctrine and Covenants, offers us a remarkable program of growth. It points us toward becoming new creatures in Christ. Assuredly, that is good.
Allen, J. P., Philliber, S., Herrling, S., & Kuperminc, G. P. (1997). Preventing teen pregnancy and academia failure: Experimental evaluation of a developmentally based approach. Child Development, 64, 729-742.
Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. New York: Basic Books.
Harter, S. (1983). Developmental perspectives on the self-system. In E. M. Hetherington (ed.), P. H. Mussen (Series Ed.), Handbook of child psychology, Vol. 4, Socialization, personality, and social development (pp. 275-385). New York: Wiley.
Ryff, C. D. (1989). Happiness is everything, or is it? Explorations on the meaning of psychological well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57(6), 1069-1081.
Sternberg, R. J. (1988). The triarchic mind: A new theory of human intelligence. New York: Viking Press.
Taylor, C. W. (1986). The growing importance of creativity and leadership in spreading gifted and talented programs world-wide. Roeper Review, VIII,(4), 256-263.