Saturday, February 25, 2006


I'm just writing a short article about the area of self-worth and self-acceptance. A lot of my thinking on this springs from my own journey of self-acceptance and also my experiences of having a sister who struggled with anorexia for many years.

And I suppose in a way that's the best place to start, because it's one extreme view. One of the problems with anorexia is often that the person has or at least presents such a low view of their own worth that they want to starve themselves, harm themselves or even take their own lives.

We see the same kind of thing in a lesser form in a lot of other places. I know that one of the difficulties of being a teacher is helping pupils who have very little self-esteem achieve anything. Their lack of confidence in themselves can be paralysing.

And it's a problem society in general has latched onto as well. I'm sure if you go into most bookshops, you'd find books on how to build your self-esteem. And in my experience, the normal ways to try and build self-esteem are to base it in some way on who we are or on what we do. So people accept themselves – they think that they are worth something – based on their job, or their family, or their ethnicity, or their money, or their looks, or their sexual prowess or their fame or their fruitful ministry. They think that makes them worth something.

But at the end of the day, that doesn't work either, and I can see three main problems with it. The first is that it can lead to jealousy and dissatisfaction. You see, if I'm worth something because I'm clever, then surely if I meet someone who is more clever, then I'll think they are worth more than me. If I'm worth something because I'm popular, then that means celebrities are worth more than me. If I'm worth something because of wealth, then someone who is richer is worth more than me. And so we end up jealous of others. We end up idolising them, but secretly wanting to pull them down, so that we can be better than they are. We see it all the time.

Another problem is that it fails to cope with the reality that life isn't always easy. If I'm worth something because I'm a talented sportsman, then what happens after a car accident which leaves me in a wheelchair? What about Job?

But the biggest danger with basing our self-worth on who we are or what we do is that it leads to pride. If I'm worth something because I'm middle class English, what does that mean about those who aren't? Are they worth less? If I'm worth something because I'm wise or rich or strong, what does that mean about those who aren't? So if that's true then why shouldn't I boast? Surely if it makes me worth something, it's worth me boasting about!

But God brings low our pride, so that he alone will be exalted.

This is what the LORD says:
“Let not the wise boast in their wisdom or the strong boast in their strength or the rich boast in their riches, but let those who boast boast about this: that they understand and know me, that I am the LORD, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these things I delight,” declares the LORD.
Jeremiah 9:23, NRSV

Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and I regard them as rubbish in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him...
from Philippians 3, NRSV

What is it about me that is worth something? According to Jeremiah and to Paul, only the value of knowing God, in Christ Jesus my Lord. And that isn't because of something I've done. It's nothing to be credited to me. It is entirely because God is a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love and faithfulness. It is because God the Father made me, because God the Son became a man and suffered and died for me, because God the Holy Spirit dwells in my heart and is bringing me into union with Christ.

Anything else I could trust in would fail me in the end, but God is my strength and my refuge. It is in him that I can accept myself, not because of anything I have done or can do, but because God loves me and has accepted me. And therefore, I should accept others because God has accepted them.


Anonymous said...

What about those who your God rejects and damns to an eternity in hell?

John said...

God doesn't reject anyone who comes to him.

Anonymous said...

I wonder how your sister feels about her illness being broadcast for the world to see.

John said...

1) I'm anonymous, and people who know enough to work out who I am would in general also know about my sister's illness.

2) I don't see a problem with talking about the extent to which my sister's illness affected me. We are not islands; if something I did or that happened to me profoundly affected her, I would not expect her to refrain from talking about it.