by Joss Bryan.
The season of Advent is a penitential season when we are called to contemplate the chaos and darkness of the world. As part of our reflection we acknowledge that the light of Christ brings not only comfort and hope but also exposes those things which we would prefer to remain hidden or in ignorance of. The promise of redemption holds within it the tension of grace and judgement. It calls us to a time when we examine our hearts as we wait for God’s coming. Becoming more aware of the darkness in both the world and in ourselves is integral to this penitential season. The light reveals the truth of the state of the world and who we are, but the promises of God point us to the glorious possibilities of what is to come and who we might be. To pray longingly in Advent for the light and at the same time recognise that this is something we want to avoid too, takes courage, for we know it will reveal the discrepancy between the person we are and the person we long to be, the world that is and the world as we think it should be. It can threaten our self-esteem and leave us in a dark place psychologically and spiritually.
The seasons of Advent and Christmas, are overwhelmed by expectations. Expectations of family and relationships, gifts and the holiday season. The actual and the hoped for does not always coincide. For many, this is a season when the expectations of themselves, others and what they desire are not realised. A dark sense of letting oneself down, others down and being let down by others and life itself, can lower self-esteem to a devastating level and obscure the light and hope brought to us in the Christ child.
Maintaining self-esteem is thought to be important for well-being throughout our lives. Some would go so far as to claim that it is a basic human need[i]. We have a need to evaluate ourselves as worthy of love and of value and if is not met, then we become psychologically distressed. In light of this, how do we understand the virtue of humility?
Humility is a problematic word in contemporary understanding. For centuries, it has been associated with accepting an inferior status in society. However, humility in ancient texts is concerned with relationships and the conviction that every human being is a beloved creature of God.[ii] Furthermore, humility concerns the recognition of our need for others and God. The notion of dependency emphasises an awareness of our relationship and connectedness in the world and the interdependencies of human life, which necessarily draws one away from a self-centred orientation, to one which is more outwardly focussed. It also acknowledges our dependence God and on others for our successes and almost everything we enjoy in life. This outward focus and realisation of dependency can only be achieved through an individual’s confidence in the love of God for them[iii].
Reynolds defines love as ‘life-giving generosity, a compassionate regard that draws near and attends to the beloved for its own sake with their good in mind.’ He imagines love as summoning us into a ‘relational space of giving,’[iv] but the attention to the beloved for its own sake is of equal importance. In Advent as the approach the mystery of the incarnation, God invites us into this relational space of giving and receiving. He demonstrates His love for humankind in the life, death and resurrection of His son Jesus Christ, as He comes to us for our own sakes alone. His unconditional love and grace, bring us to our knees at the manger and the cross, as we claim our self-worth in His abiding love for us. This love, summons us into a ‘relational space’ of giving and receiving in which our sense of guilt and unworthiness is taken up into God’s economy of grace. Every human being is worthy to enter into this ‘relational space of giving and receiving love’ and invited to live humbly with one another in hope of the coming of God’s kingdom.
*For a full discussion of self-esteem and humility see – Jocelyn Bryan (2016), Human Being: Insights From Psychology and The Christian Faith, Chapter 9, London: SCM Press
[i]Greenberg, J., ‘Understanding the vital quest for self esteem’, Perspectives on Psychological Science, 3 (2008) pp. 48-55.
[ii]Bondi, R.C., 1987, To love as God loves, Philadephia: Fortress Press, p.42.
[iii] Bryan, J., 2016, Human Being: Insights From Psychology and The Christian Faith, London: SCM Press, pp.224-225.
[iv] Reynolds, T.E., ‘Love without bounds: Theological Reflections on Parenting a Child with Disabilities’, Theology Today, 62 (2005), pp.193-209.
Greenberg, J., ‘Understanding the vital quest for self esteem’, Perspectives on Psychological Science, 3 (2008) pp. 48-55.
Bondi, R.C., 1987, To love as God loves, Philadephia: Fortress Press, p.42.
 Bryan, J., 2016, Human Being: Insights From Psychology and The Christian Faith, London: SCM Press, pp.224-225.
 Reynolds, T.E., ‘Love without bounds: Theological Reflections on Parenting a Child with Disabilities’, Theology Today, 62 (2005), pp.193-209.