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.
Some see a way out by saying that we have value because we are created in the image of God. We are like God—we are creative, we reason, we love, and so forth—so we must be valuable. But again, note how the language reverts to talk about qualities that make us valuable. And we're stuck in impersonal language more appropriate to things. And lying, once again, in the gutter of self-absorption.
I believe there is a more excellent way.
In my last column, I mentioned a sermon I had heard. Referring to the three parables in Luke 15, the preacher noted the value of the lost sheep and the lost coin, and how this motivated the shepherd and the widow to seek them out. This, I suggested, can only lead to confusion in our culture. But what the preacher said next is very much at the heart of the good news: When the father looked at the prodigal son, he did not see junk but a son. The preacher wisely had moved from impersonal language to very personal language—and that makes all the difference.
When God looks at us in Christ, he doesn't see a package of qualities. He doesn't appraise our value, either negatively—"You miserable sinners!" or positively—"You are a person of infinite value!" Instead he looks and sees not a thing composed of qualities but a son or daughter whom he loves. As Paul puts it,
When the right time came, God sent his Son, born of a woman, subject to the law. God sent him to buy freedom for us who were slaves to the law, so that he could adopt us as his very own children.And because we are his children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, prompting us to call out, "Abba, Father." (Gal. 4:4-6, New Living)
Personal relationship, not intrinsic value, is the recurring motif of the Bible. When the Bible says that we have been created in the image of God, I don't believe it has much to do with god-like qualities we might possess. The Bible spends little time talking about our image bearing qualities—well, except to suggest how far we fall short of living up to those qualities! Instead, I think we need to take this metaphor—being made in the image of God—a little more literally.
When I look into a mirror, I see a reflection of myself. That reflection is made in my image, and there is a direct relationship between the reflection and me. The reflection has little significance in and of itself. It has great and lasting significance because it is a reflection of my real self.
God is, in one sense, our real self, and we are but reflections of him. I don't want to push that idea too far, for there is a sense in which we do have an "independent" existence apart from God. But the point is this: our bearing the image of God has less to do with our god-like qualities and much, much more to do with our relationship with God. Like an image in a mirror, our lives are utterly dependent on the one in whose image we are created. We are designed to correlate with the one whose reflection we are. Our lives will be distorted if we are not in direct correspondence with the one whose image we reflect.
So while there is very little talk in Scripture about the intrinsic worth and dignity of human beings, there is a great deal of talk about God's relationship with his people. It's that relationship—not our worth or value or qualities or lack thereof—that consumes God's heart and mind. He is portrayed as alternatively angry and dejected by our forsaking of him, and is shown to be a God who relentlessly pursues us: "How can I give you up?" (Hos. 11:8). He comes to us in Christ to heal, once and for all, that broken relationship: "In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself" (2 Cor. 5:19). This apparently had been his plan from the beginning: "He predestined us for adoption," says Paul.
We read the Bible not just to answer our questions but to frame the questions themselves. In our state of confusion, we're always tempted to ask the wrong questions. But God is so gracious he reveals not only the core issues that confront us, but the core questions we should be pondering. And when we read the Bible, then, we see that the urgent human question is not, "Do I have value and worth?" The Bible isn't particularly hostile to this question; it's just that the question stands on the periphery. And it stays there because this question has an uncanny ability to distract us from things that really matter, things we really should be thinking about.
According to the Bible, the more relevant human question is, "Am I loved?" And even though that is a question about the self, it has a funny way of leading to something much larger than the self.
Mark Galli is senior managing editor of Christianity Today, and author of A Great and Terrible Love: A Spiritual Journey into the Attributes of God (Baker).
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Previous SoulWork columns include:
Love Needs No Reason | One difference between the therapeutic gospel and the liberating gospel. (March 18, 2010
Love of Unimaginable Proportions| What to do when you find yourself praying to the quid pro quo god. (March 4, 2010)
Should Churches Be as Friendly as a Bar? | Perhaps people are looking for something else. (February 18, 2010)