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Many people have suffered spiritual abuse at the hands of what is sometimes called "worm theology." In this theology, God's holiness is set against our sinfulness to such a degree that the only appropriate response seems to be self-loathing. The name may come from a line in the Issac Watts hymn "Alas! and Did My Savior Bleed," which says "Would he devote that sacred head for such a worm as I?" The idea seems to be that only by abasing ourselves are we able to grasp and receive God's mercy. Churches taken with this view think it their job to induce guilt and shame, working people up into a state of such remorse and self-revulsion that they are compelled to repent and seek God's mercy.

This is a proven method for producing a powerful psychological experience, as the history of some types of revivalism shows. It also tends to produce a strange type of Christian, not one who is humble as much as one who is stuck in the mud of self-loathing. In case you hadn't heard, self-loathing is not a fruit of the Spirit.

Our instinct is to counter this approach with a theology of worth. This seems logical enough, but as I noted in my last column, it also leads to theological confusion of another sort. Then again, columns that question worth theology tend to produce their own confusion, as did mine. Some thought I might be advocating a type of worm theology. Well, such people should be deeply ashamed of themselves!

Just kidding! But it wouldn't hurt to look a little more deeply at these issues, since they are so confusing and so easily tend to misunderstanding.

For example, how is it that focusing on our worth, though it makes us feel good in the short run, is actually bad news in the long run?

First, we need to note that language of "worth" and "value" are economic words. It's no coincidence that those embedded in a culture of advanced capitalism tend to frame the world with economic metaphors. But economic words like value and worth primarily refer to things, like diamonds or real estate. When language most appropriate to describe things is applied to people, it isn't long before we begin to see people as things. We start talking about people as having qualities that make them valuable. Just as a house might have hardwood floors and a finished basement, people are said to have creativity or compassion or dignity that make them valuable. We end up appraising people as we appraise houses.

Second, the search for intrinsic value is a never-ending quest. For every quality that suggests we're valuable, we can think of ten others that suggest we're damaged goods—not as valuable as we might hope. This is one reason you can never talk a person of low self-worth into having an attitude of high self-esteem. They just counter every positive affirmation with an equally weighty self-criticism. If we ground our self-worth on our qualities, we'll never escape the deep fear that we really aren't valuable. There's just too much evidence that rattles us.

Third, an emphasis on human worth inevitably moves our focus away from God, which is always a disaster. Some balk at this, reminding us that our valuable qualities have been given to us by God, which should lead us to thank him. But in practice, we end up doing a lot of navel gazing when we start talking about our self-worth, looking within for those qualities that can help us feel good about ourselves. It isn't surprising that faith in God often becomes merely a means of feeling good about ourselves.

At this point, many will wonder, "So what's wrong with feeling good about ourselves?" and "But don't people have value?" These very questions, however, arise out of a worldview that is addicted to thinking about the self. It's like an alcoholic asking, "Isn't wine a gift of God to be enjoyed in gratefulness?" In one way, it's a legitimate question, but when asked by an addict, the right answer will only tempt the addict and make things worse! If we who are addicted to the self try to answer questions of human dignity and self-worth head on, we'll just fall into a drunken stupor of narcissism.

In "SoulWork," Mark Galli brings news, Christian theology, and spiritual direction together to explore what it means to be formed spiritually in the image of Jesus Christ.
Mark Galli
Galli is editor of Christianity Today and author of God Wins, Chaos and Grace, A Great and Terrible Love, Jesus Mean and Wild, Francis of Assisi and His World, and other books.
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