This Sunday, during my church's communion message, the man giving the message called himself a "worthless, wretched sinner." And I have to be honest with you; it really hurt my heart! I instantly felt so much compassion for him and wanted to run over to comfort him. I wanted to tell him that God is obsessed with him and discover why he thought of himself so negatively.
But then I remembered that this is how the Church can train us to think about ourselves: dirty, evil, sinful, and undoubtedly worthless and wretched. And it made me wonder, is it biblical to think about ourselves this way? To have our identities rooted in all the wrong we've ever done?
I believe church cultures propagating this kind of negative self-view do so with good intentions. They don't want their members to ever take Jesus' sacrifice for granted, and it's easier to keep members on the right path if they believe they are desperate for God's love. If you believe you are worthless, then you believe God's love is easy to lose, so you're desperate to stay in God's good graces by doing the "right thing."
Of course, we are all desperate to stay in God's good graces, in the same way a baby is desperate for its mother's love and care. Babies wouldn't survive without it. But just because the baby wouldn't survive unless its mother chose to care for it doesn't mean the baby has to spend the rest of its life feeling unworthy of that love because it didn't earn it.
How sad would that be? "My mother cared for me even though I didn't help around the house, and I kept pooping all over my clothes. I was lazy and dirty. But she loved me anyway. Oh, I am so wretched, I will never be worthy of that love! Or any love for that matter. Don't even look at me, I don't deserve any kindness!"
Now, I realize that this metaphor breaks down when you acknowledge that babies cannot choose to act any differently, but older humans can. And I know that I am approaching the weeds of different theological views about sin – whether or not humans are inherently sinful, whether sin is an action separate from a human or a human becomes inherently marred because of it, whether or not God hates sin because it's rebellion or it's because sin hurts us, the ones he loves … etc.
I don't know the ins and outs of the theology of sin, and I'm unsure if there is one clear answer. But I do know that God is a loving Father. And I don't believe any loving father would want their children to see themselves as anything but loveable and loved.
Is It Humble to Think of Yourself as Worthless?
There are over 150 scriptures in the bible warning against pride, so it is understandable to want to go to the other extreme of arrogance and think of yourself as wretched, dirty, incapable, etc.
But the opposite of arrogance isn't self-hatred. The opposite of arrogance is humility. And humility and self-hatred are certainly not the same thing. I love the way Rick Warren puts it in The Purpose Driven Life: "True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less."
There is certainly wisdom in not thinking more of yourself than you ought, as Romans 12:3 tells us: "For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you." It is good to know the limits of our character so that we know how reliant upon Jesus' righteousness we are.
However, this scripture doesn't tell us to think less of ourselves either – but with sober judgment.
So, let's go to scripture so we can have that sober judgment. How do we reconcile scriptures that talk about us as sinful people with scriptures that talk about us as if we are the best thing since sliced bread?
Scriptures That Can be Misused to Support Negative Self-Image
Christians don't get the notion that they are wretched and worthless from nowhere. There are scriptures that can be used to support that. But I believe these scriptures, when used to reinforce negative self-image, are taken out of context and do not keep God's loving character at the core of their understanding.
Verse 22: "In all your detestable practices and your prostitution, you did not remember the days of your youth, when you were naked and bare, kicking about in your blood."
This scripture was written during Jerusalem's Babylonian captivity. It can be used to paint a picture of us as sinful and pitiful, just being lucky that God happened to pass by us and take care of us.
But this scripture is really a reminder of how God cared for Jerusalem when no one else would. He had compassion for them because no one was taking care of them, so he cared for them and eventually married them.
Their prostitution and idolatry were certainly detestable to God, but Jerusalem itself and the people in it were not detestable to God. The emphasis is on God's kindness to them and their abhorrent practices, but not on how Jerusalem was naked and bare.
Verse 13: "But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, 'God, have mercy on me, a sinner.'"
Surely, this scripture shows what it is like to be cut to the heart about your sin. The tax collector had this moment of viewing himself and his actions with sober judgment and had so much shame about his actions that he would not even look up to heaven.
However, this scripture is not a prescription about how to look at yourself in the mirror. This parable starts by saying, "To some who were confident in their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable …."
This is a warning to those who look at themselves more highly than they ought. And it is a warning against feeling confident in your own righteousness, your own goodness and your own ability.
But just because we hear this side of the conversation between the tax collector and God does not mean we hear God's reply. Can you imagine God saying, "That's right, you dirty tax collector. I can't believe you, you selfish swindler. I'm so glad you're ashamed of yourself right now"?
Or maybe, it went something more like: "I'm so proud of you. I know it's hard to admit these things about yourself, but your repentance means that there is nothing standing in the way between us anymore. I'm with you as you make this right. You are my precious, beloved son, and the angels are rejoicing in heaven right now because of your repentance."
Of course, there's no way to know for sure what God thought or said back to the tax collector, but we do know that God has a patient, gentle, and kind character. This passage was never intended to make anyone feel bad about themselves but rather encourage them to rely on Jesus' righteousness, not our own.
Verse 17: "You say, 'I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.' But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor and naked."
These words sting to read and can serve as the basis for someone's identity in the name of staying humble. But this scripture goes on to say, "I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see."
Again, this passage is about relying on our own righteousness instead of the righteousness bought for us with Jesus' blood. When we rely on our own righteousness, it causes us to lose sight of how lost we really are. But this concept is not the same as hating ourselves for being inherently wretched, pitiful, poor and naked. These things are not our identity.
So, what is our identity?
Scriptures That Support a Christ-Centered Identity
2 Corinthians 5:17 says, "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!" So even if, theologically speaking, we were wretched and worthless before coming into Christ, that is certainly not the case any longer!
Isaiah 43:4 makes this bold claim about us: "Since you are precious and honored in my sight, and because I love you, I will give people in exchange for you, nations in exchange for your life."
We are new creations, wonderfully made, worthy, precious, and honored! What if we started to think about ourselves like this instead?
Why Does It Matter How You Think about Yourself?
When that man on Sunday gave his communion message and called himself a "worthless, wretched sinner," I wanted to sit by him, talk to him, hold his hand and speak to his heart about how loved he is. I don't even know this man! I had never met him before! How much more does God want to sit with us and speak to our hearts about how amazing, loveable, and loved we are?
Hearing him say those words about himself, I wondered if that's how a friend would have talked about him. "Oh yeah, that's Jim. He's the worst." Or if that's what his dad would say about him. "Oh, you know Jim. He's always just been so darn sinful."
I highly doubt anyone who loves him would speak about him that way! But I do believe Satan would want him to think that's how God feels about him.
Because our identity drives our actions. So, if you believe you are sinful and unworthy of love, you will act like you are sinful and unworthy of love. You will be driven to make poor choices because you feel like there is no way out and shut out the love from those around you since you believe you are not worthy of it.
But the opposite is also true. If you believe you are loved, kind, healing, and selfless, you will be moved to act like it. Your life will become a reflection of these positive things that you believe about yourself.
So next time you attempt to shortcut to humility, or a church sermon causes you to think, "Wow, I am so sinful/selfish/dirty," or fill in the blank, I challenge you to ask yourself, "Is this something God would say about his child? Or is this something Satan would want me to think God would say about me?"
Beloved, you are so precious to God and have been washed clean with the blood of Jesus. Start to believe that about yourself, and see what changes!
The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Christian Headlines.
Photo courtesy: ©Getty Images/Martin Dimitrov
Kelly-Jayne McGlynn is a former editor at Crosswalk.com. She sees the act of expression, whether through writing or art, as a way to co-create with God and experience him deeper. Check out her handmade earrings on Instagram and her website for more of her thoughts on connecting with God through creative endeavors.