Worthlessness and low self-esteem are an American epidemic. Many people are constantly grasping for some imaginary bar that is just beyond their reach. Our individualistic U.S. culture expects us to "pull ourselves up by our bootstraps", and use our personal knowledge and determination to succeed. We learn through direct teaching or experience that "I am the only person I can count on, and if I'm not smart or attractive or lovable or wealthy enough, it's probably my own fault." While some certainly take too little responsibility for their lives, many of us take too much responsibility for the things we cannot influence, such as the personalities of our parents or our genetic endowment.
In spite of these challenges, feelings of self-worth and esteem are essential to emotional wellness. According to psychologist John Hewitt, "People with low self-esteem are apt to say that they hate themselves, or that they are unhappy, or that they are anxious about how others view them. People with high self-esteem are apt to speak pridefully about themselves, to express satisfaction, to label themselves as self-confident." Hostility, anger, and social anxiety also result from low self-esteem, since feeling loved precedes being able to express genuine love and acceptance to others (I John 4:19). Where do we, as disciples, stand on the issue of self-worth, and what can we do to have more positive feelings about ourselves and our lives?
I believe that self-worth is number one on the list of "Top 10 Signs of Emotional Wellness" (see Disciples Today article.) For disciples of Jesus, regardless of our achievements or social status we have a reason to hold our heads high: we are children and heirs of the living God (Romans 8:17), a "royal priesthood" (I Peter 2:9), created in his image (Genesis 1:27), loved and destined to be with God for eternity, able to be confident on the day of judgment (I John 4:17). In Coping with Life, Scott McPheat writes:
"Jesus says to us, in effect: Accept yourself as God accepts you; be yourself, love yourself properly. Take off your darkcoloured glasses and see yourself not as superior or inferior to anyone else, but as you, a person who matters. You were not meant to go through life on your hands and knees, you were meant to walk tall. You are more significant, stronger, wiser and more creative than you think. I am with you to help you, and to give you life to the full."
Still, it's difficult not to buy into the contradictory messages of our society: "Be all that you can be!" versus "Accept yourself for who you are!" If our parents struggled with low esteem and self-worth, or if we have suffered mistreatment and humiliation, we may know in our heads that God loves us as we are, yet feel in our hearts that we'll never be good enough. At the same time, how we view ourselves can have far-reaching consequences. If we have a low opinion of ourselves and our abilities, we are less likely to aim for high goals and believe that God can use us to achieve his purposes.
If this is your struggle, how can you have a more positive view of yourself and fully use your talents and experiences in the service of God's great cause? Here are a few suggestions:
First, become aware of – and begin to change – the things you say to yourself. Self-talk is a powerful tool for tearing down – or for building up – your self-worth, since we eventually believe the things we hear most often. Paul writes, "When you talk, do not say harmful things, but say what people need—words that will help others become stronger. Then what you say will do good to those who listen to you" (Ephesians 4:29, NCV). Apply this passage to your self-talk! After all, who are we to disagree with God, who says we are "worth more than many sparrows" (Matthew 10:30-31)? Spend a week monitoring your thoughts: when faced with a challenge, do you think, "I'll never be able to do this"? When your boss asks you to meet with her, do you think, "She probably doesn't like me"? Jot these negative thoughts down, along with the opposite positive statements. Be realistic, but also optimistic! Begin to fill your mind with faithful thoughts: "I can do this." or "God will use my boss to teach me something useful." When you look in the mirror, if you're aware of negative thoughts about your appearance, plan to change the things you can, while working to "clothe yourself ... with the beauty that comes from within, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is so precious to God" (I Peter 3:3-4, NLT).
Memorize Paul's advice: "Summing it all up, friends, I'd say you'll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse" (Philippians 4:8, Message) Still putting yourself down? Repeat this passage to yourself and think of something praiseworthy!
Another method of building your self-worth is to set meaningful, reachable goals. Commit them to God in prayer and enlist the help of a spiritual friend in developing small steps for accomplishing them and holding you accountable. Remember that, "Faith is being sure of what we hope for", so pray for faith that God will help you be confident of victory.
Finally, study and imitate the following qualities of Paul that contributed to his amazing success:
Spiritual Focus: Philippians 3:12-14
Concern: Romans 9:3
Humility: Ephesians 3:8
Confidence: Philippians 4:13
Gratitude: Philippians 1:3
Servant heart: Romans 1:1
Courage: Galatians 2:11
Enthusiasm: Romans 8:38-39
Followed his faith, not his feelings: Acts 27:25
Considerate: I Corinthians 8:13
Joyful: Philippians 1:25-26
Faithful thinker: Romans 8:31
Motivator: Philemon 21
Contented: Philippians 4:11
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