Shame, Self-Esteem, and Idolatry

Biblically, you can make a good argument that idolatry is our primary spiritual struggle. Israel's Shema and the first of Christianity's Greatest Commandments underline the point: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind. 

And yet, idolatry is hard for us modern people to get our head's around. We don't bow down to idols in our houses. So we shift the focus to our affections, values, and investments. What do we love or care about more than God? What are we putting, by way of priorities, before God? Such questions are a staple of preaching. 

But such a listing--an inventory of all the things we put before God--is descriptive, not explanatory. Why exactly are we loving the things on this list more than God? How and why does that happen?

In my book The Slavery of Death I attempt one answer. We become idolators, I argue, because of self-esteem and shame. 

Specifically, our lives are captured and governed by what Ernest Becker calls a "hero system," a pathway toward meaning, significance, and recognition, a route toward self-esteem. The things we come to worship before God tend to be the metrics by which we are achieving and building a sense of worth. Look at the things in your life that make you "matter," the things that set you a little bit above others on some scale of value, and you'll discover your idols.

The other thing you'll discover from this list is that many of your metrics of self-esteem are widely shared. This is why Becker describes the hero system as a cultural hero system. We're born into a value system, a widely shared consensus about what makes a good life. The rules of the self-esteem game existed before we were born. So we're stepping into a game that's already in full swing, like joining a poker table at a casino. The dealer of life starts us off with some chips, deals us our hand, and we start to play. Then we spend the rest of our lives trying to win the game, or at least break even.

And this is where shame comes in. If we attempt to reject the idols of the cultural hero system we find ourselves stepping out of the value system that governs the world. We walk away from the poker table and exit the casino. We begin to pursue other alternative and, therefore, strange and peculiar goods. In the eyes of our onlooking family, peers, and co-workers we start making inexplicable choices with our careers, finances, families, time, energy, and relationships. To step away from the cultural hero system--to reject the idols--is to start playing the game of life very differently, a difference that creates a clear, social contrast. Our lives become signs of contradiction.

And as should be obvious, to live a strange and peculiar life, to live as a contraction to society, is to face a great wall of social stigma and shaming. Loving God, therefore, demands shame-resiliency. 

In sum, we become idolators because of self-esteem and shame.

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