I’ve been reading Jesus Ben Sira for my daily quiet time. It is part of the Deuterocanonical writings, the books that Catholics accept as canonical but that Protestants and Jews do not. Ben Sira’s book has been labelled “Ben Sira”, “Sirach”, and “Ecclesiasticus”.
I was reading a passage yesterday that touched on self-esteem. It’s in Ben Sira 10:28-29:
“My child, honor yourself with humility, and give yourself the esteem you deserve. Who will acquit those who condemn themselves? And who will honor those who dishonor themselves?” (NRSV)
That somewhat caught me by surprise. For one, I had assumed that the exhortation that people have a positive self-esteem or self-image was a modern concept, not an ancient one. Second, I had thought that the biblical writings encourage humility more than having a positive self-image.
Jesus Ben Sira is actually promoting humility. He does not want people to be proud, to think that they are better than others, or to be so enamored with themselves that they forget God and others. My impression is that he wants for people to look honestly at themselves and to recognize that they have weaknesses and that they have to play by the rules like everyone else. But he also seems to think that people should love themselves: they should remember that they are people of value and should treat themselves well, rather than sinning against or dishonoring themselves.
I think also of a saying attributed to the first century Jewish leader Hillel: if I am not for myself, who will be for me? Hillel, too, believed that people should have regard for themselves.
I was trying to remember if there are any other passages in the Bible about self-esteem. So many biblical passages encourage humility, but do any promote having a positive self-concept? I thought of what Samuel told Saul after Saul sinned: “Though you are little in your own eyes, are you not the head of the tribes of Israel? The LORD anointed you king over Israel” (NRSV). A lot of times, pride is the downfall of kings, but, in Saul’s case, his low self-esteem arguably was. Samuel was telling Saul that, while Saul may not have a very high opinion of himself, his actions and inactions actually carry a lot of weight, for he is the king.