By all outward appearances, Janet* should have been happy. She had a devoted husband and attractive children. Church and community members frequently admired her talents. Her family had achieved a degree of material affluence. But in spite of her advantages, Janet saw an insurmountable gulf between what she felt she had accomplished and what she thought her friends, her family, and the Church desired.
While I was a bishop, it was my privilege to counsel with many faithful members like Janet who were struggling, often valiantly, to escape soul-destroying cycles of discouragement and despair that came when they failed to overcome their imperfections. I soon began to notice that these brothers and sisters had something in common: none had much self-esteem.
While I have observed a close connection between living the gospel in its fulness and feeling a sense of personal worth, I also recognize that losing and then trying to regain self-esteem is a universal human problem.
As infants, most of us experience unconditional love from our parents. But as we gain the capacity for independent action, we intrude into the world of our elders—and almost inevitably encounter “conditional goodwill.” We find that if we behave “properly” (learn to use the bathroom, get along with siblings, and keep a tidy room), our original sense of acceptance is reconfirmed. At the same time, we learn that if our behavior or our temperament does not match what is expected of us, we receive disapproval and reprimands. These cause us to lose our unquestioned sense of personal worth.
This seemingly inevitable loss of at least part of our self-esteem can be intensified during our school years. Only a few of us measure up to all our school’s academic and behavioral standards. Our successes fortify us, but the failures, inconsequential as well as critical ones, continue to undermine our struggle to attain a positive self-image. Adolescence both relieves and compounds the problem: sports and the arts provide additional creative outlets, but peer pressure lends approval to only a narrow range of talent—leaving many youth feeling inadequate.
One of the central tasks of young adulthood is to rebuild the sense of self-worth we felt as young children. Unfortunately, many of our efforts to rebuild self-esteem follow the world’s criteria instead of gospel principles, so they ultimately fail, leaving us feeling even more insecure.
The gospel offers help to those who feel trapped by personal inadequacy and the day-to-day problems of living in harmony with the Spirit of the Lord. When faithful members come to the Church for assistance in coping with life’s burdens, they talk to their bishop. I have had many beautiful and humbling experiences counseling with members of my ward as we turned to the Lord for both peace and direction. Paradoxically, though, when these people first attempt to place themselves in harmony with the Lord, they often feel worse. Many think that the Lord has rejected them because of their doubts and fears and that he cannot fully accept them since they have yet to conquer their problems.
As I have witnessed fellow ward members passing through the anguish of both imagined and real separation from God, I have come to believe that they are transferring the conditional approval they have become so accustomed to in this world to the character of our Father in Heaven. They do not understand that while the Lord abhors sin, he cherishes the sinner.
Many of us feel alone as we attempt to overcome life’s small frustrations and major disappointments. Of course, most of us can say that we know God loves his children. We can bear testimony to the principles of the gospel and the inspiration of our leaders. Yet it seems most difficult to feel that the Lord loves us personally and profoundly and that he acts upon that love to bless us, even in the seemingly insignificant details of our lives. But if we knew that he does, wouldn’t our self-esteem blossom? Wouldn’t we find this love to be a powerful motivator to help us overcome the weaknesses that trouble us?
How can we come to be filled with the self-esteem that follows a testimony that our Father loves each of us in a profound, personal way? Perhaps we can best answer this question by going back to Janet’s story.
Janet came to me, her bishop, believing that her Church membership, her family, and possibly her mental health were in jeopardy.
For several years she had been slipping into marginal Church activity. She felt devoid of personal spirituality. Now she had formed in her mind an emotional interest in a fellow member of a community theater company. Though she had taken no steps to damage her marriage, Janet had become preoccupied with thoughts of how a new relationship might let her escape from her pressured life. She was certain that any encouragement on her part would be reciprocated.
These thoughts pushed Janet to an even lower level of self-estimation: she could add moral failure to an already-long list of inadequacies. The visit to my office was almost Janet’s last hope. She felt that since she had relinquished God’s love by her thoughts, she had no choice but to give in to temptation. Her recent experiences had seemed to confirm to her that she was incapable of living the gospel.
My first task was to assure Janet that the Church was only interested in helping heal her wounds. She had already punished herself much more than the Lord would ever think of doing. In working together with the Lord to solve Janet’s problems, it was important to avoid a symptomatic approach and to go to the root of her problems—her low self-esteem, in part due to her conduct and to her mistaken idea of the nature of God.
Upon reflection, Janet felt that her sense of inadequacy may have had its origins in the excessive demands her parents placed on her to do well in school and in the arts. She came to believe that the only way she could receive love and respect was by excelling in everything she did. But then she encountered the phenomenon of “perishable goodwill”: even if she did well, she had to win praise and honors over and over in order to maintain her precarious sense of self-worth. She could always find some consolation by comparing herself with those who were obviously less fortunate, but the resulting superior attitudes made her feel guilty. On the other hand, when she compared herself with those she considered to be in control of their lives, she felt depressed. The frustrations and anxieties created by her chronic comparisons, coupled with the demands of family, community, and church service, brought her to near-exhaustion, spiritually and emotionally.
I counseled Janet on a regular basis for a number of weeks, and I gave her specific assignments to complete between our meetings. I saw a remarkable change take place within a few months—a genuine transformation of her whole attitude toward life. She came to know that the Lord loves her in spite of her weaknesses.
Janet recognizes, of course, that her thoughts and her actions can cause her Heavenly Father great sorrow and that he cannot rescue her in rebelliousness. But now she has a testimony that as she comes to the Lord with a broken heart and a contrite spirit, he will compensate for her weaknesses and will turn them into strengths. (See Ether 12:27.) In short, she has a firm sense of her personal worth, based on a relationship with her Heavenly Father rather than on this world’s perishable goodwill.
How, one might ask, did this transformation take place? At the center of Janet’s conversion and her sense of personal worth is the process of making the Lord and his love her life’s central point of reference. In analyzing Janet’s experience, along with those of many others who have come to base their sense of worth on God’s love, I can see three essential steps for a dramatic change in self-evaluation.
1. Prayer. The first step toward a Christ-centered sense of personal worth is prayer. In a sermon recorded by his son Moroni, the prophet Mormon urged his fellow Church members to pray for the gift of God’s love in their lives: “Wherefore, my beloved brethren, pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart, that ye may be filled with this love.” (Moro. 7:48.) Alma told his son Shiblon that he did not receive a remission of his sins until he cried out to the Lord in a prayer for mercy: “But behold, I did cry unto him and I did find peace to my soul.” (Alma 38:8.)
Finally, to learn that she was of infinite worth in the sight of God, Janet knelt before the Lord in sincere prayer and directly but humbly asked him to let her know that he knew and cared about her.
2. Scripture Study. The next step to receiving a witness of Heavenly Father’s love is careful and prayerful scripture study, searching for manifestations of our Father’s love. When Janet committed herself to regular scripture study, she read not simply to meet a reading schedule or to master an abstract set of gospel principles, but to see the Lord’s compassion in action. She figuratively stood by our Savior as he healed lepers and raised the dead. She reached out to touch the hem of his raiment. (See Matt. 9:20–22; Matt. 14:36.) Through the scriptures she literally accepted the Lord’s invitation to “return unto me, and repent of your sins, and be converted, that I may heal you.” (3 Ne. 9:13; italics added.)
In the scriptures, Janet saw that our Savior voluntarily takes “upon him[self] the pains and the sicknesses of his people . … And he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities . … [And] take upon him the sins of his people, that he might blot out their transgressions according to the power of his deliverance.” (Alma 7:11–13.)
For many who feel trapped by their weaknesses and sins, this knowledge of God’s love through our Savior’s atonement helps them feel loved. As the Lord draws them closer through his love, their burdens become lighter and their temptations fade.
3. Self-Reflection. Still, for some, the words “My Savior loves me and has suffered for my sins and weaknesses” remain empty because they do not yet feel that God loves them personally. For those like Janet who separate themselves from the mercy of the Lord, I find it helpful to ask that they examine their lives closely to see if they can find in them the influence of a loving Father. Remarkably, even the most frustrated and desperate are able to see the hand of the Lord in their lives. They see how Heavenly Father has nurtured them along their life’s journey toward peace and forgiveness. For example, Janet began to realize that were it not for her Father’s mercy, she could easily have found herself in much more serious circumstances, far away from the influence of the Church.
When we start to discover the Christ-centered roots of self-worth, we begin to see a more complete picture of our Heavenly Father. If we continually transfer the world’s penchant for conditional acceptance to the character of God, we are likely to overemphasize his justice, missing his tender mercy altogether. The justice of God will condemn us in our sins and imperfections (see Alma 42:13–14), but if we see only this side of our Father in Heaven’s personality, we will find it difficult to break the cycles of low self-esteem and despair. On the other hand, if we balance God’s justice with his mercy and pure love (see Alma 42:15), we can start to claim what has always been our divine inheritance: the firm confidence that we are of worth and are watched over with care.
The specific attributes of this more complete picture of our Heavenly Father can be found in Mormon’s list of character traits for those who have the pure love of Christ: “Charity suffereth long, and is kind, … seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked … beareth all things, … endureth all things.” (Moro. 7:45.) If the Lord requires us to be charitable, then we can be confident that he is not “easily provoked” as he nurtures us. Rather than seeing the Lord as a stern father who is easily displeased, we can now see him as a loving parent who patiently labors with his children, rejoicing in their triumphs and exercising patience with their weaknesses.
When a person gains this insight and renews it daily through study and prayer, he or she can experience a dramatic change of perspective. Circumstances may not change appreciably, but the ability to cope with the frustrations and disappointments of everyday life and to endure to the end becomes significantly enlarged. By asking Heavenly Father for the sustaining power of his love, a person can regain the sense of heavenly self-worth that inevitably fades through mortal experience. Fortified with a renewed conviction of his own personal worth, the sincere follower of Christ feels his “soul … expand” and he comes to “sing the song of redeeming love.” (Alma 5:9, Alma 26.)
I testify that the Lord reveals his love to those who sincerely ask for it. I have been sustained many times by the Holy Ghost’s witness that the Lord knows me personally and is working for my welfare. Many of the members of my ward with whom I have counseled can bear the same testimony. We may have had only glimpses of that love—its full revelation is overpowering. But those glimpses have been more than sufficient to give us the confidence to press forward, living the gospel to the best of our abilities and sharing its sweet joys.