Editor’s Note: This is one of a series of articles that will focus on the Book of Mormon in response to President Hinckley’s challenge for church members to read that holy book before the end of the year. Click here to read the introductory article.
I suppose that most fish don’t have any idea what it is like to breathe air. They can’t imagine any way of “breathing” other than the one they use.
The same may be true for those of us immersed in the self-celebration culture. Having been taught from the beginning that we must love ourselves before we can love anyone else, it may seem to be eternal truth. It is patently obvious!
This is one place where the Book of Mormon challenges our culture directly. That great message to the latter days teaches a very different kind of esteem — and it teaches this kind of esteem consistently, powerfully, and elegantly. It is one of the central themes of the book.
Different Kinds of Esteem
Notice where our esteem is to be focused in the following Book of Mormon passages (with emphasis added):
And whoso knocketh, to him will he open; and the wise, and the learned, and they that are rich, who are puffed up because of their learning, and their wisdom, and their riches — yea, they are they whom he despiseth; and save they shall cast these things away, and consider themselves fools before God, and come down in the depths of humility, he will not open unto them (2 Nephi 9:42)
Cursed is he that putteth his trust in man, or maketh flesh his arm, or shall hearken unto the precepts of men, save their precepts shall be given by the power of the Holy Ghost (2 Nephi 28:31).
For behold, if the knowledge of the goodness of God at this time has awakened you to a sense of your nothingness, and your worthless and fallen state … I say, that this is the man who receiveth salvation, through the atonement (Mosiah 4: 5,7).
Do not say: O God, I thank thee that we are better than our brethren; but rather say: O Lord, forgive my unworthiness, and remember my brethren in mercy — yea, acknowledge your unworthiness before God at all times (Alma 38:14).
O how great is the nothingness of the children of men; yea, even they are less than the dust of the earth (Helaman 12:7).
If so, his faith and hope is vain, for none is acceptable before God, save the meek and lowly in heart; and if a man be meek and lowly in heart, and confesses by the power of the Holy Ghost that Jesus is the Christ, he must needs have charity; for if he have not charity he is nothing; wherefore he must needs have charity (Moroni 7:44).
The best esteem
The Book of Mormon warns us pointedly about esteeming ourselves at the same time that it beseeches us to esteem God.
From beginning to end, we are taught to esteem God — and our fellow beings — rather than ourselves. Anything remotely like self-esteem is considered pride in the Book of Mormon. In contrast, God-esteem is humility. Fellowbeing-esteem is love. The last two are recommended. The first esteem is condemned.
God taught us to love others and repent ourselves. Satan has got us doing the opposite — loving ourselves and repenting others. This is one of Satan’s greatest triumphs. (As a note of interest, recent research has pulled the rug from under the self-esteem movement. If you are interested in more about this, please see the note at the end of the article.)
In one of the great gospel ironies, it is only by losing ourselves in love and devotion that we find our own souls.
A Book of Mormon case study
The Book of Mormon provides a marvelous case study in the principle of proper esteem. When Ammon rejoiced in the accomplishments of his mission, his brother Aaron wondered if he might be boasting. Ammon then taught us true doctrine.
I do not boast in my own strength, nor in my own wisdom; but behold, my joy is full, yea, my heart is brim with joy, and I will rejoice in my God.
Yea, I know that I am nothing; as to my strength I am weak; therefore I will not boast of myself, but I will boast of my God, for in his strength I can do all things; yea, behold, many mighty miracles we have wrought in this land, for which we will praise his name forever.
Yea, they were encircled about with everlasting darkness and destruction; but behold, he has brought them into his everlasting light, yea, into everlasting salvation; and they are encircled about with the matchless bounty of his love; yea, and we have been instruments in his hands of doing this great and marvelous work.
Therefore, let us glory, yea, we will glory in the Lord; yea, we will rejoice, for our joy is full; yea, we will praise our God forever. Behold, who can glory too much in the Lord? Yea, who can say too much of his great power, and of his mercy, and of his long-suffering towards the children of men? Behold, I say unto you, I cannot say the smallest part which I feel.
Who could have supposed that our God would have been so merciful as to have snatched us from our awful, sinful, and polluted state? (Selected verses from Alma 26, emphasis added).
The Mystery of Esteem
Satan is glad to have us resort to either-or thinking. “Well, either I must love myself or hate myself. I choose to love myself.”
We should not be tricked by Satan’s poverty of options. The Book of Mormon does not recommend self-love or self-hate. It recommends self-forgetfulness. Those who have forgotten themselves and been filled with the love of God and all men, know what a blessed state this is. Ammon invites us to learn about it:
And now behold, my brethren, what natural man is there that knoweth these things? I say unto you, there is none that knoweth these things, save it be the penitent.
Yea, he that repenteth and exerciseth faith, and bringeth forth good works, and prayeth continually without ceasing — unto such it is given to know the mysteries of God; yea, unto such it shall be given to reveal things which never have been revealed; yea, and it shall be given unto such to bring thousands of souls to repentance, even as it has been given unto us to bring these our brethren to repentance (Alma 26: 21-22).
It would seem that Ammon is challenging to have this mighty change of mindset.
The Blessing of Esteem
So we have options. We can swim in the world’s philosophy of self-focus, which states that we must have self-appreciation before we can truly be whole. Or we can immerse ourselves in God-esteem. We can follow the example of all the Book of Mormon prophets expressed in the inspired words of Ammon:
Now have we not reason to rejoice? Yea, I say unto you, there never were men that had so great reason to rejoice as we, since the world began; yea, and my joy is carried away, even unto boasting in my God; for he has all power, all wisdom, and all understanding; he comprehendeth all things, and he is a merciful Being, even unto salvation, to those who will repent and believe on his name.
Now if this is boasting, even so will I boast; for this is my life and my light, my joy and my salvation, and my redemption from everlasting wo. Yea, blessed is the name of my God, who has been mindful of this people, who are a branch of the tree of Israel, and has been lost from its body in a strange land; yea, I say, blessed be the name of my God, who has been mindful of us, wanderers in a strange land (Alma 26: 35-36, emphasis added).
The Book of Mormon is inviting Latter-day Saints to experience the joy known only to those who have put God at the center of their rejoicing.
Note: For those unfamiliar with the scientific undermining of the self-esteem dogma, the following books should be instructive:
Authentic Happiness by Martin E. P. Seligman
The Self in Social Psychology by Roy Baumeister
Meanings of Life by Roy Baumeister
Hollow Kids by Laura L. Smith and Charles H. Elliott
The Curse of the Self by Mark R. Leary
The Last Self-Help Book You’ll Ever Need by Paul Pearsall
Even the defense of self-esteem by Mecca, Smelser, & Vasconcellos, The social importance of self-esteem (1989), found it to be ineffective — or counterproductive — for producing the promised (or assumed) benefits.