‘I always want to win’

Graham Hooper asks if Christians should be competitive

photo: iStock

photo: iStock

‘The trouble with the rat race is that even when you win you’re still a rat.’ (Lily Tomlin)

Is competition God-given, and therefore fundamentally good? Or is it a result of the fall and therefore fundamentally bad. Or is it somewhere in-between? To what extent are you motivated by your competitive instincts in your workplace?

Like ambition, competitiveness can be a very positive Christian quality when it channels the drive to fulfil our God-given potential to be creative, to serve, to step out in faith. It can also be very bad when it leads to self-obsession, self-aggrandisement and self-promotion.

I have never heard a sermon or talk in a Christian context about competition. Maybe I have missed out somewhere. Maybe competition is not something Christians think they need to talk about, or want to talk about, in a church setting. I suspect it’s the latter.… (to read more click here)

Graham Hooper is an independent consultant and author of Undivided – closing the faith life gap, IVP 2013. He contributes regularly to the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, to Malyon Work and the Melbourne City Bible Forum.

This article was first published in the October issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, articles or reviews, visit us online or subscribe to en for monthly updates.

Faith and foibles (book review)

Amy CarmichaelAmy Carmichael: Beauty for Ashes
By Iain Murray
Banner of Truth. 192 pages. £6.50
ISBN 978 1 848 715 523

What if you had a flash of foreknowledge and suddenly realized there was a future ‘Amy Carmichael’ sucking her thumb in your church?

You would probably burst with pride, pat her teacher on the back and enthusiastically congratulate the parents. After all, who doesn’t want a Christian heroine in their junior Sunday school?

Corrective to hero-worship

Men and women of extraordinary heroism feature prominently in our Christian ‘Halls of Fame’. We hold them up as role models, healthy alternatives to the pop singers and athletes our teenagers tend to emulate. But if we’re honest, there are more than a couple of problems with this approach. That is why I think Iain Murray’s new biography, Amy Carmichael: Beauty for Ashes, is a healthy alternative to the normal Christian hero-worship titles.

Though the prolific church historian and biographer doesn’t strip Carmichael of any of her attributes, Murray does introduce us to a woman of faith, foibles, and failings. With an expert pen, Murray allows her voice to speak clearly through her poetry and her passion – while at the same time dealing with her difficult personality.

An awkward colleague

Difficult personality? Really? But she was a missionary! It’s true. Murray graciously but accurately introduces us… (to read more click here)

Catherine MacKenzie is an author of  numerous books and serves as children’s editor for Christian Focus Publications. She lives in Scotland.

This article was first published in the June 2015 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, articles or reviews, visit our website or subscribe to en for regular updates.

Secular Shelf Life with Sarah Allen: Quiet (book review)

The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t
Stop Talking
By Susan Cain
Penguin.368 pages. £8.99
ISBN 978 0 307 352 156

Do you prefer one-on-one conversations to group activities?

If you answer ‘yes’ to this and 15 other questions at the beginning of Susan Cain’s best-selling book, then you are probably an introvert. Maybe you didn’t need Mrs. Cain to tell you this, but I did and I was genuinely surprised! Then I thought about how my friends and family members would answer the questions, and, another surprise, I reckon that they would all be introverts. Hmmmm…

Many topics

Susan Cain ranges over many different topics, from the rise of self-help books through to MBAs, education and the phenomenon which is Willow Creek. In all these areas she identifies a common practice: privileging the extrovert and ignoring the introvert. Seemingly endless psychological studies are brought out, all of which seem to indicate both the superiority of introverts and also the biological roots of introversion. To demonstrate how unfair this is, Cain lists the many successful leaders who all happen to be introverts, citing Eleanor Roosevelt, Al Gore and Bill Gates. Sure, she acknowledges nurture can enhance or tone down our basic personality, but introversion or extroversion is part of our DNA, and it has evolved that way for a purpose; it makes you a more reflective, empathetic and cautious person, which is a necessary contrast to the risk-taking, rather shallow, extrovert. Stereotyping? Certainly. Some useful insights? Certainly.

My major concern, however, is not the US context or the excessively broad brush conclusions, but the emphasis on personality at all. Susan Cain starts by showing how our culture moved from a focus on character to an obsession with personality in the early 20th century. This is the problem with the book. Our God-given personalities are only the starting point for the transforming, character building work of God.

Sarah Allen is a secondary school English teacher, and is currently involved in evangelism and women’s work at Hope Church, Huddersfield.


This article was first published in the February 2014 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, subscribe to EN or contact us for more information.
http://www.e-n.org.uk 0845 225 0057

The big ego-trip

Big ego tripIn a large theatre in Seattle, USA, an overweight young mobile phone salesman called Stuart steps up to the microphone.

He is auditioning for a TV talent show. His gait, bearing, facial expression — the whole body-language package — signals that here, ladies and gentlemen, we have a loser.

Stuart is going to sing ‘opera’. As the judges glance sideways and roll their eyes, the audience sits back and waits for the fun to begin. What follows is a spine-tingling, lump-in-the-throat rendition of Nessun Dorma that brings the audience to its feet and the judges to their knees. It’s an electrifying piece of theatre that lays the foundations for huge recording contracts and international stardom.

But our young performer discovers another kind of stardom too. Within no time at all his story finds its way into inspirational seminars, life-changing coaching programmes and onto websites that promise to revolutionise your life. It turns out that, like Stuart, you too can release your inner strength, find your power and discover your destiny. Only ‘believe in yourself …’

Believe in yourself

In a London inner-city school, an eight-year-old girl sits enthralled. A teacher is telling the story of ‘mouse’. ‘Poor mouse’, says the teacher. ‘She’s forgotten that she has her own special gift. “I’m no good; I’m only a mouse!”’

‘Believe in yourself’, the little girl whispers.
‘I’m no good, I’m only a mouse!’

‘Believe in yourself’, her classmates join in. ‘Believe in yourself.’ As the children try to convince mouse that it’s ‘good’ to be who she is, it’s repeated over and over: ‘Believe in yourself!’

At the end of the lesson the children file out of the assembly room, chanting: ‘It’s good to be me, good to be me’. A school inspector sitting towards the rear of the classroom nods his quiet approval: a whole-school self-esteem policy that works.

Greatest sin

In New York, a black American pop singer is being interviewed for the latest issue ofHello! magazine. Described as a ‘global phenomenon’, she offers the usual briefing about her taste in fashion, boyfriends and the inevitable plug for her latest record. Then comes an unexpected question. The interviewer asks her to confide her ‘greatest sin’.

After a few moments of reflection, with utter sincerity, she makes her confession. ‘My greatest sin’, she intones, ‘is that I’ve never truly loved myself.’

In a small church hall in the Midwest of the United States, a young mother is calling her Sunday school lesson to order. A wall poster displays a fair-skinned Jesus smiling benignly at a group of Western children gathered around his knee.

‘You’re special!’ he is telling them.

‘Today’, the teacher announces, ‘we are going to let off a little self-esteem!’ None of the kids gets the joke.

The world of self-esteem

Welcome to the world of self-esteem. Half a century ago, if somebody complained of feeling down or that nobody liked them, that they were ‘no good’ or they didn’t like themselves, a friend would most likely offer advice along the following lines: ‘Don’t get stuck in your own problems. Don’t think about yourself so much. Instead of being a “here-I-am” person, try to be a “there-you-are” person! Think about other people. Try to get out more. Make new friends and explore some new interests. You’ll never get anywhere by contemplating your own navel’.

Today the same friend would offer radically different advice: ‘You need to believe in yourself more! Stop thinking so much about other people’s problems and worrying about other people’s expectations. You need to discover who you are. Be yourself. Learn to like yourself. Build up your self-esteem’.

Cultural change

How life has changed, and not just in the counselling room or on the psychiatrist’s couch. Now, everybody is ‘special’ and all must receive prizes. From their earliest years, we try to inoculate our kids against the hazards of low self-esteem: ‘You’re incredible!’; ‘Danger, princess on board!’; ‘What have we here, a Mozart in the making or what?!’ And when they grow up into mature adults striving for success and recognition, the message keeps on coming: ‘You just need to believe in yourself!’

Church change

Things have changed in our churches too. I sat in a committee meeting recently, addressed by a chirpy young ‘church-growth consultant’ sporting a spiky haircut and a PowerPoint presentation. Clicking on yet another depressing graph showing national church attendance figures heading southwards he announced: ‘Our churches need leaders who will help them build up their self-esteem’.

In my Sunday school days many decades ago, we sang a little song that went, ‘Jesus first, myself last, and others in between’. We would never teach our children to sing such self-negating tunes now. Why not? ‘Because you can’t love other people until first you love yourself.’ In this upside-down world of self-esteem it’s not the sin of pride that we take into the confessional, but the transgression of ‘not liking myself enough’.

No dissent

Hardly anybody disagrees with this now. It’s a no-brainer. Self-esteem ideology has gained acceptance among lawyers and academics, as well as politicians, educationalists and church leaders. In academic psychology it’s one of the most published topics in the whole of the psychological literature. What happened to bring this about? How did the self-esteem movement gain such a foothold in our lives?

The big fix

First, the self-esteem idea promised big. What started out with good intentions — to help a minority crushed by criticism to stop beating themselves up and take a more realistic view — became a one-size-fits-all solution for just about everybody. This didn’t just apply to bad feelings linked with a difficult and emotionally toxic childhood either. Self-esteem ideology made a land grab for the big questions of significance and personal ‘value’ too.

Everybody has questions about their value and significance. Since the beginning of time humans have puzzled over questions of where we figure in the grand scheme of things and what we are ‘worth’. The prophets of the Old Testament told us to ‘stop trusting in man, who has but a breath in his nostrils. Of what account is he?’ (Isaiah 2.22). Even now, in the Higgs-boson era, issues of significance continue to haunt us. The self-esteem movement gripped our imagination because it engaged with this, the deepest and most profound problem of our lives, and it told us it could fix it.

Secondly, the self-esteem idea had experts. Oh yes, massed ranks of them. And the experts told us that promoting self-worth (or ‘boosterism’ as I prefer to call it) works. They convinced us that there was enough objective, scientific evidence about the terrible toll that low self-esteem wreaks in our lives to merit radical and far-reaching changes to the way we think. They said that, provided we recruit enough parents, teachers, Sunday school leaders and counsellors to the cause, bad self-esteem can be unlearned. And soon a vast army of self-help gurus, therapeutic educationalists and ‘cultural entrepreneurs’ stood ready to fill the breach.

Thirdly, when the self-esteem movement took off nearly half a century ago, it resonated perfectly with the emerging spirit of the age. After surfing the sexual revolution of the 1960s, self-esteem ideology thrived in the new humanisms of the 1970s and the materialistic orgies of the 1980s. Eventually, the primacy of self-admiration became the default cultural mode: If we want to love one another, first we have to learn to love ourselves — right? Who could disagree with that? And hey, hadn’t Jesus even said something about loving your neighbour as yourself? We overdosed on self-admiration and, as a result, the self-esteem movement gained a powerful foothold in the Western mind, and reshaped secular and Christian cultures alike.

The big con?

But did it work? It was only after decades of promoting self-esteem that academic psychologists got around to asking this, the most important question of all. What did they discover? Had the self-esteem movement delivered on its promises? Does encouraging people to value, love and honour themselves produce the kind of outcomes we all hoped for? And, for the Christian, what is the biblical perspective upon all of this?

Glynn Harrison is Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry, University of Bristol, where he was a practising consultant psychiatrist and Chair of the Department of Psychiatry. He preaches locally and speaks on issues of faith and psychology, neuroscience and psychiatry.

This article is edited from The Big Ego-trip by Glynn Harrison, published by IVP in February 2013, and is used with permission.


(This article was first published in the March 2013 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, subscribe to EN or contact us for more information.
http://www.e-n.org.uk 0845 225 0057)