The kinds of things you hear at a young age play a major role in shaping who you are.
They dramatically affect how you perceive yourself and the entire world around you... Especially the things you hear repeatedly. A lot of how we frame our own identity is wrapped up in what we heard from others as children. From parents, from siblings, from extended family, friends, teachers, other kids. Its that dull roar that's always with us - like an invisible companion in our lives that no one else can see. The echoes of our past, informing our present and thus shaping our future.
This is all fine if what you're hearing is true and constructive and empowering... But it isn't always. Sometimes, it's defeating, destructive and false. And as a result, most of the pain you experience on the playground of life isn't so much physical as it is emotional and psychological. There are injuries and abuses of this nature that you might have been carrying around for a long time. And all because a voice you trusted, and something that was spoken over you - time and time again - was allowed to define you.
SEE, just like superheroes... and supervillains... EACH OF US has an origin story.
And this is true for Christianity as well - whether you were born into a Christian family, or even if you came to faith well into your adulthood. Either way, you spent some formative years hearing some very formative things. Repeatedly. They sought to tell you who you are. They were meant to give you identity - meant to anchor you in some version of reality or perception which could then control how you see things. How you see God. How you see yourself.
But not all of them... were good.
And I think it's time to undo one idea that many of us have heard quite enough of. It's a concept we have often glued to the gospel itself - to the point where the two are likely inseparable to us. And like so many things that are popular to believe, it might sound innocent, but it really isn't. It ultimately carries great weight and yields great power over us. I think it's time we deny it that power, and see if we can't get the echoes to finally cease. Everyone ready?
You hear a lot in Christian circles about how "unworthy" we are.
You hear a lot of it in Christian music and sermons, too. And this idea of our unworthiness is one that's meant to champion God's goodness and grace... But it's misleading. It's misleading because, while God's love and goodness may not be something we have to earn, that doesn't mean we aren't "worthy" of it.
For a lot of us, that sounds like a bold statement to make. My question is... Why?
Here's something important that we often forget when it comes to "worthiness":
THE ONE GIVING THE GIFT IS THE ONE WHO DECIDES WHETHER THE ONE RECEIVING IT IS WORTHY.
Let's repeat that again, and make sure it sinks in...
THE ONE GIVING THE GIFT IS THE ONE WHO DECIDES WHETHER THE ONE RECEIVING IT IS WORTHY.
So it's odd when Christian culture tries to show its appreciation specifically by telling God how unworthy we all are... Like that's going to prove something. Like God was holding our imperfections over our heads, wanting us to grovel before treating us the way a loving Parent would. As if that's the response God is looking for - us clinging to how pitiful we are. As if that's the only way we can legitimately receive a gift, feel valued, feel loved.
Consider this: If I do something for you that helps you, I must think that you are worth my doing it. And it would be weird if you were to sit there telling me you aren't actually worthy. In fact, if you responded like that, it would seem to me much more a reflection of the way you see yourself than it would a reflection of the way I see you. Or suppose you hand me a gift, and - instead of opening it - I place it on the floor, and keep repeating to you that I'm not worthy to receive it... Are you moved by this display? Or would you have preferred I unwrap it and delight in it and, you know, use it?
Think about that.
To say you aren't worthy of something done for you out of love is to say you are not worthy of love itself... It's to say that whatever motivated the gift isn't correct in its assessment of your value. In effect, it is to disagree with God and God's character, and all in order to appear pious or humble or whatever... I really don't know what we think we're accomplishing by it, or why the language of unworthiness continues to be used all around us. How has this sort of language come to be the dominant perspective wielded by so much of Christianity? It's truly baffling. And yet - nurtured by a false notion of God and especially God's "holiness" (as discussed in the previous podcast) - this language, and this mindset, persists.
Just consider, for a moment, a lot of the lyrics in the popular songs people sing together in church. I have heard way too many Christian songs on this theme over the years - whether hymns or new songs - making sure to passionately declare how terrible and worthless we are. And I just can't go along with that. It has never made sense. That whole line of thinking is self-defeating, self-focused, and really beside the point... Because, again, it's up to the gift-giver to decide if you are worth the gift or not. You don't need to weigh in on that. And when you go on and on about how unworthy we are, you are suggesting that there is nothing inherently lovely or beautiful about us. You are implying that God acts on our behalf in order to love us.
Let's try something NOT-backwards: God loves us and takes joy in being with us... and that will never change... and so God acts on our behalf. It never would have been up to you to motivate that connection and intimacy in the first place, so it's strange to say you aren't worthy of it now. God moves to preserve your worth, not to create it. It was already "all good" when you came into existence. You were already precious. In fact, the very concept of something like "redemption" assumes an inherent value that is worth redeeming. And the point of all of this is to help you live and move in the worth you always had, which means the point is not to make you focused on how unworthy you were or are.
Look, we were born into an imperfect world and we had no choice in that. And obviously, we are all imperfect. Obviously. But we take it too far... To the point where it's eerie. To the point where we think it's spiritual to be forever belittling ourselves for existing in the only way we ever could have. And it doesn't matter how many stuffy old men have written books about this mentality and called it "biblical."
THE FACT IS, WE DIDN'T GET THIS POISON FROM JESUS.
But this sort of "I'm not worthy" distraction in our thinking and theology shows us something. It shows us that we still have a long way to go in understanding God as "Abba" in the way Jesus told us to.
You see, a good father isn't concerned with whether a kid earns love and mercy. A good father isn't hung up on a child telling him how unworthy she is. A dad just loves and gives recklessly. And a child just receives and knows she belongs... She doesn't grovel as though she was before a ruthless emperor who wants her to cower and feel like she's nothing in order for him to feel gratified. She knows she is safe in the arms of a loving parent who would do anything for her - who finds her precious and worthwhile, no matter what she has or hasn't done. And when she looks into that parent's eyes, she sees that she has value. She has worth. She would never cry out otherwise, because that very perception of worth is what empowers her to see herself as her loving parent sees her.
To contradict that perception is, on some level, to refuse to embrace God's posture of love. If I insist on my unworthiness, am I not disagreeing with God in a vain attempt to honor God?
This image of God we're maintaining is way off. It's nothing like Jesus.
God does not relish your self-pity – it's not the sacrifice you must bring in order to satisfy God. And a response of "I'm not worthy, I'm nothing!" is not one that God expects or requires before God will delight in us recognizing the goodness and love we have known. You can, in reality, be appreciative of the love you receive without falling into the trap of thinking you aren't worthy of such love.
And gratefulness is not to be found in constantly undermining and contradicting the way God sees you. That's just not how you show appreciation. You show appreciation by going out with an empowered sense of that worth, so that you can live beautifully and cultivate it in others.
We need to stop telling ourselves otherwise. We need to stop getting this backwards. We need to start telling each other something more like this:
OF COURSE YOU'RE WORTHY.
That shouldn't be a bold statement. It's simple: You're worthy because you have inherent worth. You bear the image of God. You are beautiful and fascinating and precious.
...And it doesn't diminish God at all to say so. In fact, it upholds what God says about you, rather than what insecurity, shame and religiosity have to say about you. When those poisonous things take root, they distort our perspective of God. They've been doing so since the beginning - twisting our view of God's heart and God's nearness.
The understanding of "worthiness" should not be framed as though God acts in spite of you, because that misrepresents God's central posture toward you as a child. If your worth is inherent - it's never about what you have earned or merited... Your worth goes far deeper than those actions and behaviors... So worthiness shouldn't be confused with merit at all. Merit is a discussion of your DOING, but worth is a discussion of your BEING. And since you are a human being (and not a human doing), your actions and behaviors have never defined your worthy-ness.
Worth is at the very core of you. It exists as soon as you exist. You don't even have to be aware of it in order to have it. It's built into your substance.
In Jesus' parable of the prodigal sons, the father rushes to meet the son and embrace him while he is still a long way off. This is important because, in Jesus' view, the father doesn't wait for the son to get himself back home. He doesn't wait for him to get through his prepared speech of "I'm no longer worthy to be called your son..." The father in Jesus' story is not waiting on anything before he moves as though that child has worth and value.
Christians need to allow God to be like this sort of father, rather than the sort who sits on a throne waiting on them to grovel, waiting on them to prove they're serious about their commitment before he will take them seriously... This sort of poor theological propaganda might help pastors bully those listening to them into being more religious and legalistic for a moment, but there is no life in it. It's just the worst sort of mentality to have. It's an ugly downward spiral of never-ending shame. It brings death. And it's why so many people refuse to have anything to do with much of modern Christianity. They're sick of our bad news and our phony smiles covering it up. They're sick of our wrist-slitting worship songs. They're sick of the whole charade.
And good for them. They should be. And we should be, too.
Albert Einstein once said, "Love is a better teacher than duty." When we make a discussion of our worth a discussion of what we have (or haven't) done, we are making our discussion one of duty... And thus, we are not learning from the better teacher, because we are not seeing through the eyes of love. We are not seeing through the very essence of what makes God... God.
So delight in this: It was never up to you to prove yourself worthy. It never would have been. And it has never been expected of you to keep your unworthiness in mind, nor to speak to God some recognition that you lack value.
That's a distortion of what worthiness is even about. Whoever rooted your understanding of God's love and rescue toward you in the idea of your unworthiness... was wrong. A God who has all power and perfection and yet holds "unworthiness" over the heads of his children would be a monster. And Jesus never revealed so monstrous a God.
Take heart, and know this: You were born, and you are loved, and therefore...
YOU. ARE. WORTHY.
Because worthiness isn't a choice you ever had to make.
FURTHER RESOURCE FOR THOSE READING... Check out this "definitive list" of what the Bible has to say concerning our general "unworthiness." Those who'd be angry at what I've said here, who would say I have violated their beliefs - which are supposedly "based on the Bible" - you can see here exactly what they're working with.