David Feddes

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.  (John 10:10)

J.J. had a lot of faith in himself.  J.J. felt that self-esteem is vital to being happy.  J.J. felt that you have to learn to love yourself before you can love others.  J.J. felt that nothing is more important than believing in yourself, finding your inner child, and following your own heart.  J.J. felt that sexual freedom is better than marriage.  J.J. felt that children are naturally good; they go bad only if their family or social setting prevents their natural goodness from flowering.  J.J. felt that education and child-rearing should be the task of enlightened government, not misguided parents.

Today millions of people feel the same way as J.J., but many don’t know much about J.J. himself.  One person familiar with J.J. and his ideas called him “the one man, who through the loftiness of his soul and the grandeur of his character, showed himself worthy of the role of the teacher of mankind.”  That’s high praise, isn’t it?  And J.J. has indeed become an influential teacher of mankind.

Before we join in praising J.J.’s character or follow his approach, though, we ought to know more about him and about the person who spoke so highly of him.  J.J. was Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a Swiss-born philosopher of the 1700’s whose impact remains enormous in the year 2000.  His awestruck admirer was Robespierre, the ruthless French revolutionary responsible for having thousands of people’s heads cut off by the guillotine during the Reign of Terror.  J.J. Rousseau’s greatest fan was a mass murderer.  Even if we don’t automatically blame J.J. for that, we should at least find out more about J.J. himself before we think like him or follow in his footsteps.

Supreme Self-Esteem

Once upon a time it was thought bad to be self-centered.  But J.J. Rousseau made self-love, self-esteem, self-admiration, self-expression, self-promotion, self-indulgence, and all-around selfishness into the substance of sound mental health.  He had a high opinion of himself, and he wasn’t shy about trumpeting it to others.  He wrote, “Show me a better man than me, a heart more loving, more tender, more sensitive.”  “Posterity will honor me …because it is my due.”  “I rejoice in myself.”  “My consolation lies in my self-esteem.”  “If there were a single enlightened government in Europe, it would have erected statues of me.”  There have always been braggarts and blowhards, of course, but boasting was generally not admired.  Rousseau somehow convinced people that it was good to be proud.

Once upon a time it was thought bad to be a self-pitying whiner, and it was thought good to face hardship with courage and to try to rise above your circumstances.  But Rousseau made it fashionable to grumble and to blame your problems on others.  He called himself “the unhappiest of mortals” and claimed “few men have shed so many tears.”  “What could your miseries have in common with mine?” he moaned.  “My situation is unique, unheard of since the beginning of time.”  J.J. found that when people felt sorry for him and felt guilty for their own good fortune, they would pay his bills.  This enabled him to avoid hard work and live comfortably on other people’s money.  There have always been grumblers and freeloaders, of course, but seldom were they admired.  J.J. Rousseau turned self-pity into an art form and made victimhood into an excellent source of income.

The main problem with the world, thought Rousseau, was that the people around him weren’t as noble and loving as he was.  “The person who can love as I can love is still to be born,” he wrote.  “No one ever had more talent for loving.” Rousseau thought that his huge self-esteem and self-love made him good at loving others.  “I feel too superior to hate,” he declared. “I love myself too much to hate anybody.”

Today it’s become common to say that the key to loving others is to love yourself first.  But let’s look closer at Rousseau, the great promoter of this idea.  How loving was he?  He showed no affection for any member of his family. “He saw his family in terms of cash,” says a noted historian.  When his father died, Rousseau’s only interest in a long-lost brother was to certify him dead so he himself could inherit everything.

Before he inherited his father’s estate, Rousseau lived off the generosity of others.  One older woman rescued him from poverty at least four times.  But when Rousseau became rich and the woman was in need, he refused to help her.  For two years she was sick and malnourished, but Rousseau did not even write back in response to her pleas for help.  Finally she died.

Rousseau slept with a variety of women without getting married.  One mistress, Therese, was his companion for 33 years. Rousseau said he “never felt the least glimmering of love for her…the sensual needs I satisfied with her were purely sexual and were nothing to do with her as an individual.”

Five different times Therese became pregnant and had a baby. Rousseau has been very influential in his ideas about the natural goodness of children and the government’s responsibility to train and educate them, so it’s instructive to know how he dealt with his own children.  When the first child was born, J.J. handed the baby to the midwife and told her to leave the little bundle on the steps of an orphanage.  Their second child was also left at the orphanage.  So was the third…and the fourth…and the fifth.  This was an orphanage where two-thirds of the babies died in the first year, and only five in a hundred survived to adulthood.  Rousseau knew that abandoning babies there meant almost certain death for them, but he did it anyway, and showed no interest in what became of them.

Later, when his conduct was challenged, he came up with various excuses.  At first he blamed the people around him for suggesting the orphanage.  Then he said children were “an inconvenience” that he couldn’t afford.  He said it would have been impossible for him to pursue his noble destiny and to do his profound thinking if he had noisy children around to disrupt him or if he had to work at an ordinary job to support them.  But, he added, he was such a wonderful man that there’s no doubt he would have been a splendid father.  “I know full well no father is more tender than I would have been,” he insisted.

In the end, Rousseau carried his excuse-making so far that he claimed he had abandoned his five babies not just for his own convenience but for their own good.  He would surely have been a better father than any other man, he said, but he agreed with the Greek philosopher Plato that children are better off being raised by government than by parents.  In abandoning his babies to a public institution, he insisted, “I thought I was performing the act of a citizen and a father and I looked on myself as a member of Plato’s Republic.”  In fact, said Rousseau, he envied his children and wished that he himself could have grown up in the good hands of enlightened government instead of at home.

In a strange twist of history, what began as a series of excuses for the inexcusable abandonment of Rousseau’s babies turned into an influential theory on child-rearing and social engineering.  Rousseau’s personal failings–loose morality, self-centeredness, lack of personal responsibility–moved him to promote the view that a government institution can replace a father, that it takes a village to raise a child.

Teacher Evaluation

Is it a waste of time to focus on the philosophy and behavior of some dead guy from the past?  Well, Rousseau may be dead, but his mindset is more widespread than ever.  He had a sharp mind and a brilliant way with words, and his ideas continue to shape individuals and societies still today.  You may be influenced by J.J. Rousseau and think like him without even realizing it.  In that case, you should know who your teacher really is and evaluate his life and the effects of his teaching.

If you think people are naturally good, that children are born innocent, that self-esteem is the basis of mental health, that you must focus on loving yourself before you can love others, that following your feelings matters more than marriage, that children flourish best in the context of public institutions and government education–if you believe any or all of these things, you may think that you have a positive, uplifting, liberating outlook on things.  But the results are negative: selfishness, immorality, broken families, abandoned and aborted babies, education that ignores God, and some of the most brutal tyrants in history.

Rousseau inspired revolutionaries like Robespierre, who butchered thousands in the French Reign of Terror.  He paved the way for Karl Marx’s utopian vision of naturally good people who only need liberation from evil society in order to enjoy a worker’s paradise.  This in turn produced Lenin, Stalin, and Mao, who murdered countless millions in order to “liberate” people from the cruel oppression of family, church, and existing economic structures.  In Cambodia Pol Pot and his fellow thugs were Paris-educated and studied Rousseau while slaughtering one-fourth of the Cambodian people.  Someone once remarked that never have so many been murdered in the name of a doctrine as in the name of the principle that human beings are naturally good.

That’s what happens when we listen to the wrong guide: we’re promised freedom and happiness, but we end up in bondage, misery, and ruin.  When we listen to the right guide, the Lord Jesus Christ, we’re told that we must humble and deny ourselves, but we end up with an overflow of life and eternal joy.

Jesus pictures a false teacher as a thief, a self-centered person who rips off and ruins others.  Jesus pictures himself as a shepherd who sacrifices himself to protect and provide for his sheep.  “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy,” says Jesus.  “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.  I am the good shepherd.  The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:10).  Others may promise abundant life, but only Jesus delivers.  Others, like J.J., may claim to be great lovers of humanity, but talk is cheap.  The good shepherd gave up his life in order to give his people life.

If the choice is between believing in J.J. and believing in Jesus, it’s no contest.  The difference between thief and shepherd is apparent in their personal character.  The difference is also apparent in their impact, in whether others are harmed or helped.

The Shepherd’s Character

We’ve already seen J.J.’s character.  This man who taught that everyone is born good and that people should have lots of self-esteem and always do what feels natural, turned out to be an immature, immoral, irresponsible exhibitionist.  He claimed to love humanity more than anyone who ever lived, but he alienated family and friends, exploited women, and became the ultimate deadbeat dad, abandoning each of his five children.  When children and youth are taught J.J. Rousseau’s philosophy that the supreme values are self-esteem and self-expression, should we be shocked if many end up duplicating Rousseau’s character and behavior?

Jesus is not a sinful, self-centered thief.  He is the good shepherd, and this is evident in his character.  Jesus loved his parents and was obedient to them.  He loved his friends and was faithful to them.  He treated women with respect and purity and never exploited them.  He loved God his Father and always did his heavenly Father’s will, even when it was hard and painful.  He had strength to oppose corrupt leaders, and he had mercy to help the weak.  He never lied but always spoke the truth with complete accuracy, love, and authority.  The Bible says Jesus “committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth” (1 Peter 2:22).  He was “tempted in every way, just as we are–yet was without sin” (Hebrews 4:15).  He is “holy, blameless, pure” (Hebrews 7:26). “And in him is no sin” (1 John 3:5).  Jesus was the only perfect person who ever walked this earth.

Once, when somebody addressed him as “good teacher,” Jesus answered, “Why do you call me good?  No one is good–except God alone” (Mark 10:18).  Jesus didn’t deny that he was good.  He simply showed that if he was truly good, then he must be God.

When Jesus encountered people hostile to him, he challenged them, “Can any of you prove me guilty of sin?” (John 8:46).  Who else would dare to issue such a challenge?  Even the best of us are sinners with many faults and shameful actions.  But nobody could prove Jesus guilty of any sin.

Even when Jesus’ enemies put him on trial and were looking for an excuse to kill him, they couldn’t come up with any believable testimony that he had ever done anything wrong. Finally they decided to crucify him for blasphemy, because he claimed to be the Messiah and the Son of God.  Jesus did make those claims, of course, but did that mean he was blaspheming? No, he was simply telling the truth, as he always did.  He really was, and is, the sinless Son of God who came to be our good shepherd and to give his life for his sheep.

The Shepherd’s Impact

Now that we’ve seen Jesus’ character, let’s look at the good shepherd’s impact, in contrast to the impact of false leaders. The self-centered thief thinks only of what he wants, and his impact on others is devastating.  J.J. Rousseau’s mindset encourages people to do as they please and expect government to pay the bills and raise the next generation.  This leads to an explosive mixture of individual immorality and meddlesome, even murderous government.

The impact of a thief is deprivation and destruction, says Jesus, but the impact of the good shepherd is that people flourish in fullness of life.  Your life may lie in ruins because of your own sin and the impact of false leaders, but you can enter fullness of life when you come under the care of the good shepherd.  When Jesus gives abundant life, he leads you from Satan to God, from error to truth, from confusion to understanding, from sin to holiness, from despair to joy, from fear to assurance, from death to eternal life.  Belonging to Jesus has such an impact in the age to come that it is the difference between heaven and hell, and belonging to Jesus also has a huge impact right now.

Indeed, Jesus’ positive impact on people is one of the great evidences for the truth of Christianity.  An agnostic, a man who held no firm beliefs about God, once challenged Harry Ironside, a noted pastor in an earlier generation.  The man wanted a debate on “agnosticism versus Christianity.”  Pastor Ironside agreed on one condition: the agnostic must first give evidence that agnosticism was beneficial enough to be worth defending.  The agnostic must bring one man who had been a “down-and-outer” (a drunkard, a criminal, or the like) and one woman who had been trapped in a degraded life, and show that both people had been rescued from their plight by embracing the agnostic unbelief. Meanwhile, Ironside brought 100 men and women to the debate who had been amazingly changed from a rotten past by believing the gospel of Christ.  The skeptic withdrew his challenge, unable to find even one person who was transformed by unbelief.

How does Jesus save and transform?  Not by flattering us or inflating our self-esteem, but by moving us to give up on ourselves and to count entirely on him.  Jesus describes all people, even his own disciples, as evil (Luke 11:13) sick sinners (Mark 2:17) who can do nothing apart from him (John 15:5).  This grim view of humanity apart from Christ is hard to accept, even for some preachers.  But it is the truth.  A famous preacher wrote a book for people to feel good about themselves and titled it Self-Esteem: A New Reformation.  But self-esteem isn’t a new reformation; it’s old Rousseau.  Jesus Christ, the good shepherd, shows us our sin and helplessness so that we won’t be stuck on ourselves and will stick to him instead.

The clearest display of our badness and Jesus’ goodness is the sacrificial death of Christ.  If the only way for any of us to be made right with God is through Jesus dying in our place, if that is the price that must be paid for our sin, then our sin must be very bad indeed.  At the same time, if Jesus was willing to pay such a price, then he must be a very good shepherd indeed. The cross of Christ shows how far we sheep have wandered, and it shows how far Jesus is willing to go to get us back.

Unlike J.J. Rousseau, who says we’re born good, Jesus says we are born sinful.  Unlike J.J., who says we should admire ourselves, Jesus says we should humble and deny ourselves.  And unlike J.J., whose approach has produced misery for millions, Jesus brings salvation to millions.  His death and resurrection mean abundant life for those who trust him.  He brings us to still waters and green pastures of nourishment and protection, and our cup overflows with the blessings of his Holy Spirit.

Jesus’ commands lead to abundant family life.  When you imitate J.J. and follow your feelings and try to find fulfillment for yourself, you ruin yourself and those close to you.  But when you obey Jesus’ teaching that sex is for marriage and marriage is for life, that helping little children matters more than being a big shot, that providing for your own family is required by God, you find your life becomes fuller and richer than it would have been if you simply pursued your own selfish interests.

Christ’s commands also lead to abundant national life.  When citizens focus on their own pleasure, when they depend on government to pay their bills, subsidize their sins, and train their children, they invite anarchy or tyranny or some dreadful combination.  But when citizens obey Jesus’ command to give Caesar what is Caesar’s and to give God what is God’s, they enjoy greater freedom and abundance than if they ignore God, indulge themselves, and count on Caesar to provide heaven on earth.

Most importantly, Christ’s commands are signposts on the road to abundant life in God’s new creation.  J.J. and other imposters may promise a utopian paradise, but their ideas mark the downhill path to hell.  The way of Jesus leads to heaven.  Don’t let J.J. or any other thief rob you of God’s blessings.  Believe in Jesus. Trust and obey the good shepherd.  Then you can say with confidence, “He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake…  Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (Psalm 23).

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.