How do we create and sustain a positive image about our own character and personality? We are often able to maintain high self-esteem based on our own confidence in who we are and what we do. What also can be helpful is encouragement and affirmation from other people. There are, however, times when feedback might make it harder to hold onto a positive view of ourselves. One education workshop I attended many years ago cast this issue in terms of “the dipper in the bucket.” The “bucket” is one’s self-esteem and the dipper is a comment or action coming from someone else. When someone puts water in the bucket, it can raise a person's self-image. When another person takes water from the bucket, it could decreases the positive feelings that a person has about himself or herself. We likely have friends, co-workers, colleagues or family members who are able to suggest how we can grow and improve our own character in a way that is constructive and helpful. Those comments can reveal to us whether or not how we think of ourselves matches how others see us. Many of us also have experienced negative feedback that may have nothing to do with us. It may say more about the person making a comment, especially if it is not presented to us in the context of a supportive and cooperative relationship .
The Bible offers many examples of presenting constructive feedback, sometimes directed to human beings, and sometimes meant for God. Often, comments are made about an entire people, such as divine and prophetic evaluations of whole nations, including the Israelites themselves. Some of the pronouncements in the Bible predicted destruction and defeat when trust for God was all but gone and idolatry was widespread. Other declarations expressed hope and compassion, especially for people who were humble enough to trust in God.
As the Israelites passed through the land of Moabites, Balak, the Moabite king, was afraid that this people recently freed from Egypt would overrun his country and displace its inhabitants. Rather than turning to negotiation for peace, or to war, Balak chose to employ a different approach. He called on the foreign prophet Balaam to utter curses against the Israelites that would lead to their demise. In the ancient world, curses went well beyond the most negative effects of the "dipper in the bucket." A curse uttered properly was thought to have great power. The prophet Balaam tried to refuse this request, but, eventually, he agreed to go. God came to him in a vision and told Balaam that he could say only what God would permit him to say. Once Balaam reached Balak and his entourage, he set up seven altars in an attempt to set the proper context to curse the people of Israel. However, as much as he tried, Balaam couldn’t offer one negative proclamation about this large multitude of believers in One God. Every time he tried to curse them, he spoke words of blessing instead.
One of Balaam's declarations is MAH TOVU – How good are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel,” a phrase from this foreign prophet which begins our morning worship. In this biblical passage, condemnation, almost automatically, turned to admiration as Balaam gazed down from the heights upon the Israelites as they journeyed along their road to freedom.
Somtimes, we need Balaams around us, at least Balaam as he acted in this passage: an external “seer” who, through it all, can admit, even against his or her will, that we have every reason to preserve our positive self-image because our “tents” and “dwellings” – that is, the general effect of our character and our actions – bring something desirable and productive to our own lives and to our community. In moments when we need that extra voice on our side but no one is there to provide it, we can think of Balaam and remember the many people who have seen the significant impact we have on the world around us. We can recall people in our lives who have offered us, without solicitation, the blessing of their support at moments when it really mattered to us. People who express baseless negative comments towards others may find that their statements have the most damaging effect on them rather than on the intended recipient. When we express affirmation towards others, our words have the potential to engender a sense of blessing and well-being both for us and the individuals with whom we shared our comments. As opposed to destructive declarations and curses, such positive expressions have great power to strengthen the ties that ultimately bind us together as members of the human family. May words such as these frequently come from our mouths as they well up from the deepest places in our hearts.