I introduced a series on Christians and self-esteem several months ago, then promptly postponed it once I realized I didn’t have the brain capacity to devote to it while moving. I’m happy to say that I’m ready to start up again. As a refresher, I’m taking a look at harmful messages about self-esteem that I’ve seen being taught by Christians, messages which can have especially devastating effects for those who struggle with depression or anxiety. I described these types of messages in my introductory post as follows:
Some Christian teachings that I’ve read or heard really do contain the message that self-esteem is wrong, or at least it’s their logical conclusion. Some Christians really do think that feeling good about yourself denies the truth that we’re sinful. For some, there seems to be an obsession with sin, that above all else, we must never forget that we really do suck and don’t deserve anything.
It was pretty easy to get back into this series this week because, unfortunately, a fresh new example of this kind of thinking has been making its way around social media: “Dear Women’s Ministry, Stop Telling Me I’m Beautiful” by Phylicia Delta. The basic gist of her post is a plea to women’s ministries to “Stop preaching the easy message [that we’re beautiful and special], and start preaching the right one. Stop exalting us as women and start exalting Christ.” In other words, stop focusing on messages that raise self-esteem. Delta’s point might not seem harmful at first blush, but it is problematic on several levels. Today and over the next few weeks, I’m going to address the different fallacies Delta uses. Today I’ll start by discussing what I’m calling the worm fallacy. (I highly recommend you read her article first before reading the rest of this post.)
Delta begins by sending mixed signals about the message often given at women’s events -- “You are a beautiful, chosen, special woman of God. There is no one in the world like you!”” She starts out saying this message is “well-intentioned” but “deficient,” because we’re “not actually that special,” and “any woman who knows the depth of her own inadequacy will find these Christianized platitudes of beauty and ‘chosen-ness’ entirely insufficient for daily victory.”
But in the next paragraph Delta writes:
I’m not saying these encouragements are false. We are God’s handiwork (Eph. 2:10). We are chosen (1 Pet. 2:9). We are unique (Matt. 10:29-31). The question is not whether or not these things are true, but whether or not this is the most important message women need to hear.
Wait, what? So it is okay to say we’re beautiful and special?
I think it’s safe to say that I’m not the only one who finds Delta’s it’s-true-but-it’s-not-true dance a little unclear. If her issue was really that saying we’re beautiful isn’t telling the whole story, because we’re also sinners too, she would just say that. But she doesn’t do this. She decides that while the fact that we’re beautiful is true (with caveats), the fact that we’re sinners is more important, and in fact, we need to stop teaching the beauty message entirely.
Delta’s ultimate problem with the beauty message is revealed when she says that “women who think they’re pretty awesome don’t need a Savior,” and I think it’s this same anxiety that prompts so many Christians to downplay self-esteem in general, because if we feel okay about ourselves, why would we need God? After all, as Delta writes, “The gospel is good news only to those who recognize their need for Jesus.” So, it’s much more important that we focus on our sinfulness, lest we get too cocky.
Delta doubles down on this position in the comments:
In order to actually live out our identity in Christ as beautiful, chosen, etc., we have to recognize that we are first fallen, sinful beings ONLY made beautiful by the grace of God. If we were beautiful “just as we are”, Christ would not have had to die! Rather, we are MADE beautiful by the grace of God. When we turn our eyes to magnitude of that grace, we find security in our identity. But when we separate “you’re beautiful” from “…because of who Christ is”, the message becomes all about us and not about God.
This is a classic example of what I’m calling the worms fallacy, based on Dale Fincher’s and Chuck DeGroat’s excellent articles that I am heavily indebted to, “Unworthy, but Not Worthless” and “Dear Calvinist - You’re Not as Bad as You Think You Are,” respectively. It goes like this: Before Christ came and before we let him into our lives, we were like worms, with no beauty or value or worth of our own. In fact, we still have no worth apart from Christ. Fincher opens his article with a story of when he read about a worship leader who “said that the purpose of worship is to remember that we are worms before God.” DeGroat recounts a similar story:
I saw a pastor some time ago who was buried in guilt and shame. His mantra – I am far worse than I think I am, but God is far greater. He constantly reminded me of how much he needed the Gospel. I never understood what he meant by ‘Gospel’ (good news) until I said at one point, “Can you see that God smiles at you, embraces you, calls you his son?”
“No, no, no,” he retorted, somewhat reactively. “God cannot look upon me. He can only look upon Christ, who covers me. That is the Gospel.”
I don’t think DeGroat could have responded any better: “If that is the Gospel, that is not good news.” Because it isn’t! If our ultimate message as Christians is that everyone is tremendously awful, even once they’re Christians, that is insanely depressing, and I can’t think of any normal person who would want to get on board with that.
“But, Mary,” you might say, “Of course the world doesn’t get on board! The message of Christ has always inverted the expectations of the world. The first shall become last, etc.! Christ has always been a stumbling block to those who don’t trust him. Realizing that we have no value apart from Christ is just another thing that Christians have to hold to in the face of the comforting lies and deceptions of the fallen world that we’re beautiful and unique.”
To which I say, yes, the Gospel can seem foolish to the world, but it’s never because Jesus valued people less. The Pharisees were scandalized because he valued the the people that the world didn’t -- the poor, the struggling, the weak, the uneducated. His life showed that everyone has value, not that nobody does.
This isn’t to say that we’re not sinners, or that we deserve God’s grace. But that doesn’t mean that we have no value outside of Christ. Fincher explains this well in his article when argues that we are unworthy, not worthless:
“Unworthy” is failing to live up to requirements….If you fail to study for a test, you do not deserve a high grade….You are unworthy of reward when you fail to do what is reward-worthy….You do not deserve God to reward you when, through sin, you’ve done nothing to deserve that reward….To be worthless, however, is quite different. While being unworthy is about our merits, being worthless is about our value. If you lost the Boston Marathon, you are as full of value as the person who won….Jesus did not come for the worthless. He came for the unworthy. Jesus came for those who are valuable. His coming did not make us valuable.
But where does that original value come from? Or as Delta asks in a reply to another comment, “But if we are “beautiful just the way we are”, what role does God even play?” How about the role of creator? We’re valuable and beautiful because God created us, even more so because we were created in his image. How insulting to God is it if we deny that value? As Fincher says, “Creation came before the Cross. We were made valuable in Eden before any temptation to think otherwise.” DeGroat argues the same thing using Calvin’s idea that “sin is not our core identity” but “an invading vandal,” meaning that we have, in fact, an “original goodness.” Shocking, right? It sounds wrong to say that, doesn’t it? And it’s all because of the anxiety that we’ll think we don’t need Jesus if we think we’re any good; as DeGroat goes on to say,
I do sometimes wonder if we’re so afraid of ennobling humanity that we choose a perverted form of Calvinism – a neo-Puritan wormology which defines us first and foremost as depraved rather than dignified. We start at Genesis 3 rather than Genesis 1.
Creation comes first. If we’re going to tell the whole story, it has to be the real whole story, of Creation, Fall, and Redemption, not just Fall and Redemption. In another comment, Phylicia says, “We only fully grasp our beauty when we understand the grace of God and the profundity of the gospel!” That’s true, but only when we know the entire gospel!
But won’t understanding our value diminish God’s glory and goodness in saving us? After all, getting back to Delta, isn’t it true that “our pre-Jesus ugliness magnifies the beauty of God’s love”? It is true that God’s love is shown in the fact that he saved us when we were sinners -Romans 5:8, anyone? But we don’t have to berate ourselves and focus on how we’re even worse than we thought to demonstrate this. Delta says that women’s ministries should focus on Christ, not women. Perfect! Because, as my husband Dave says, we can emphasize God’s glory by focusing on his holiness and bringing him up, not bringing ourselves down.
What does this look like? It’s not by saying, as Delta does, that “He came because we were too grossly sinful to bridge the gap between ourselves and God.” Notice that she says we were too sinful. That implies that if we were less sinful, we might have been able to bridge that gap on our own, which is exactly what Delta doesn’t mean. The truth is that even if we were the best people in the world, who never sinned except for having one fleeting uncharitable thought, we still couldn’t bridge the gap. That’s how holy God is -- anything less than utter perfection leaves us in desperate need of a savior.
So while we are indeed more sinful than we think, I think it’s unhelpful to make that the emphasis to prove the point of God’s glory, especially if you struggle with anxiety, depression and/or self-worth. Start with how great God is, and we’ll figure out how sinful we are. You notice that Isaiah did not say “I am ruined!” after God presented him with a list of all of his sins, but after he saw God in all of his holiness and glory.
To sum up: Delta’s post gives harmful messages about self-esteem because she believes that we have no beauty apart from Christ. The implication is that without Christ, we really are the worst, and that’s what’s most important for Christian women to hear. Can you imagine how hard it would be for women who suffer from mental illness and/or low self-worth to be part of a women’s ministry that emphasizes this?
The thing is, I think Delta thinks that her message will help those women; she claims that focusing on Christ’s beauty and not our own will kill our insecurity. Next week I’ll address the fallacy behind that idea.
After publishing this post, it was brought to my attention that Phylicia's last name is not Delta but Masonheimer. I apologize for the error.