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Confronting the Need to Feel Worthy
By Dr Charles Stanley
While our most basic spiritual need is to receive forgiveness from God, our most basic emotional need is to have self-worth. We have a great need for worthiness. We have a built-in need to be able to say,
“I’m worth something.”
“I’m worth having around.”
“I’m worthy to be noticed and appreciated.”
“I’m worth having as a friend.”
“I’m worthy of this job.”
By self-worth, I am not referring to a cocky, self-centered attitude that cries, “Hey, look at me. I’m special.” Such an attitude is nearly always a mask for deeper feelings of inadequacy and lack of self-worth. Neither am I referring to a pride born of years of bad teaching that conveys the attitude, “I’m worthy because I’m born into this special family, nation, tribe, or race.” Such an attitude is rooted in bigotry, and deep within, a person who makes such a claim often has serious doubts about the truth of his claim. No, I’m talking about a genuine, heartfelt feeling of value and self-worth.
The Need to Feel We Are Worthy
Self-worth is simply what it says. A person has a feeling that he is worth something—worth knowing, worth having around, worth conversing with, worth touching, worth calling a friend, worth dating, worth laughing with, worth loving. Self-worth is having a feeling of being valuable.
What is the source of self-worth? How do we acquire self-worth?
The opinions of value that are offered by parents who love unconditionally do a great deal to create in a child a feeling of self-worth, and often this feeling forms a foundation of self-value that lasts a lifetime, long after the parents have died.
The opinions of grandparents, aunts and uncles, teachers, pastors, and other valued adults and friends can contribute immeasurably to self-worth.
The greatest source for building up self-worth in a person is God Himself. His is the foremost opinion that we must come to believe. We must see that God considers us to be valuable and worthy—that He delights in having created us and that He loves us unconditionally.
In the end, it is love—and especially the infinite, unconditional, forgiving love of God our heavenly Father—that creates in us a feeling of value and worth. If Jesus, God’s Son, went to the cross for us, surely we are worthy. If Christ died so that we might live with God forever in a heavenly home, surely we have value. If God created us, redeemed us, and desires to call us His children forever, surely we are of great importance to Him.
The answer to feelings of unworthiness is love. An always-and-forever kind of love. A love that is based not upon what a person does, but upon who a person is—a beloved child of almighty God.
Ultimately, however, the person must believe inside himself, I am worthy. I am valuable. The person must come to believe what others have said and are saying about him. The person must agree with those who say, “You are a likable, lovable, cherished person who has tremendous value and worth on this earth.” And the person must come to accept with assurance, I am loved by God. I am counted as worthy and valuable in God’s eyes. I am God’s child.
On the surface, you may have concluded that just about everybody in our society today has a tremendous sense of self-worth. So much bravado and self-confident behavior are shown on television and voiced on radio that you may think, I’m the only person who feels lowly and unworthy in this entire nation. Not so.
In my experience, the majority of people have low self-worth. How do I know that? Because I have the opportunity to meet a lot of people and to shake hands with many of those I meet. It is the rare exception, not the rule, for me to meet a person who will look me right in the eye and carry on a conversation. It is the exception, not the rule, for me to meet a person who will give me a hearty, firm handshake instead of a limp, dishrag handshake.
“But,” you may be saying, “that’s because you’re Dr. Stanley, and they are nervous about meeting you because they have seen you on television or they know you are a preacher.”
Perhaps to a degree that is the reason. But the real reason, I believe, goes far deeper than that. The real reason lies in the fact that they do not feel worthy in God’s presence.
When I meet a person who looks me in the eye and gives me a firm handshake, I nearly always discover in the course of our conversation that the person has a sure, ongoing, and growing relationship with the Lord. The person knows that he has been forgiven, has a daily walking-and-talking relationship with the Holy Spirit, and truly feels loved by God and by others.
I have met millionaires and heads of corporations and founders of highly successful businesses who could not look me in the eye when the talk turned to anything personal, emotional, or spiritual. I have met people who have been happily married for several decades yet could not look me in the eye when the subject of our conversation turned to their early childhood or their relationship with God. I have met people who have earned significant awards or achieved major accomplishments but suddenly seemed to go limp inside when the conversation turned to personal relationships or issues that involved emotions.
It is not possible to project and to sustain a projection of self-value if a person’s worthiness is not derived from knowing the forgiveness and love of God. And in my experience, the majority of people, including a high percentage of Christians I meet, have not truly received God’s forgiveness and love. They believe God has forgiven them. They know in their minds that God loves them because the Bible says so, but they have not received in their souls the forgiveness and love of God.
I can relate to them. I’ve been there. I lived for years believing in, and even preaching, the forgiveness and love of God without having a personal emotional experience related to God’s love. It was not until I opened myself fully to God’s love and allowed myself to receive His healing for the wounded part of me suffering from rejection and loneliness early in life that I truly became able to feel worthy in God’s presence.
Three Root Causes of Low Self-Worth
I believe three primary reasons are at the root of low self-worth: (1) abusive neglect, (2) repeated failures, and (3) sin.
Perhaps the foremost reason for low self-worth is some form of abusive neglect that a person experienced as a child. That abuse is not necessarily the type associated with abandonment and physical neglect. When it comes to neediness of the inner person, one of the worst forms of abuse occurs when a child is made to feel unwanted.
Consider the child who comes into a room wanting to ask Dad or Mom a question or to spend time with Dad or Mom, but the parent says, “I’m too busy now.” The message is perceived by the child. To Dad, I’m not as important as the newspaper he is reading. To Mom, I’m not worth as much as her soap opera on television.
Children rarely want to spend much time in conversation. They ask questions, get answers, and then move on to the next thing that captures their attention. They sit close a while, perhaps give or receive a hug, and then they are off. If you are a parent, I encourage you to take time for your child when your child needs a moment. Most chores can be postponed for a few seconds or minutes. Most activities can be interrupted without your suffering harm or losing out on important information. If you must delay your response to your child for a minute or two, call your child to your side and put your arm around him so that you convey the message, I want you close to me. I like being with you. I’m not rejecting you, merely delaying my response to your question for a few moments.
Other forms of abuse also send a message to children that might be summed up, What I want is vastly more important than whatever pain I cause you. Again, the message is internalized as a lack of self-worth.
Although I do not believe that home-schooling is necessarily right for every child or every parent, I see one great benefit in it—a benefit that is rarely the reason that parents decide to home-school their children. Children who are home-schooled always seem to convey to me a very strong sense of self-identity and self-worth. I believe that is directly linked to the hours that the child’s parents spend with him. The child has an intuitive sense, I am important to my parents. I am so important that they want the very best for me, including the very best education they believe they can give to me. I am so important that they are willing to give their time and energies to be with me. My parents believe I have the ability to learn this material, and therefore, I must be able to learn it.
I have little doubt that the high achievement scores that are attributed to many home-schooled students are directly related to the home-schooled child’s self-confidence and feelings of self-worth. A cycle is created: the child feels worthy, the child gives an even better effort to learning as a result of the feelings of self-worth, the child achieves more and learns more, the child has an enhanced feeling of self-worth through his accomplishments and the resulting praise from the parents, and the cycle goes round again.
Many people tell me that the quantity of time spent with a child doesn’t matter as long as it is quality time. I heartily disagree. Children who do not feel they have access to their parents when they need access feel ignored, shunned, and of diminished worth. Such children inevitably have problems with their self-worth later in life.
A second key reason for low self-worth is related to failure.
If you take an objective look at people who have succeeded greatly in their careers or their talents, you likely are going to find people who have also failed on a number of occasions. Babe Ruth, for example, was the home-run king. He was also the strikeout king. Thomas Edison made a number of important discoveries and inventions. He also had thousands of failures in the course of his career, including thousands of failures related only to the inventing of the electric lightbulb. Michael Jordan is perhaps the most outstanding basketball player ever to have played the game to date. Jordan did not make his high school varsity basketball team the first year he tried out for it. More than a few people we consider to be stars had numerous flops in their early endeavors.
This is not only true in our world today. It was also true in Bible times. Some of the greatest heroes of the Bible experienced times of failure. Moses, for example, had a speech problem. He was not an Egyptian, although he lived in the home of one of Pharaoh’s daughters. As a young adult, Moses killed an abusive Egyptian and ran from the consequences. He began living among a foreign people in a distant place to hide out from Pharaoh, who sought his life in retribution. He had been a shepherd in Midian for nearly forty years when God called him to deliver the Israelite people from Egyptian slavery. From a human standpoint, Moses was perhaps the least likely person to be chosen as a spokesman for his people in the court of Pharaoh. His life was largely a failure up to that point.
The difference between those who have succeeded in spite of their failures and those who have allowed their failures to create low self-worth is this: those who have succeeded have not internalized their failures. They have not thought less of themselves personally for having failed. They have refused to think of themselves as failures or worthless. Failure is something they have done but not something they are. This is a huge difference. In some cases, failures have spurred them on to try harder or to explore new avenues. Those who allow failure to be internalized often give up in their failures and refuse to take the risk of failing again.
One of the most important lessons you can ever learn is this: failure is something you do, not something you are. If you did not learn that lesson as a child, begin to learn it now!
A third root cause of low self-worth is sin.
Sin operates in our lives like termites. It erodes or eats away at our sense of value deep inside. A person cannot help having a degree of guilt over sin, and guilt eats away at self-worth.
The person who has unconfessed sin and an unforgiven sin nature will find it very difficult to forgive others freely or to accept admiration, love, or forgiveness from others. Those who marry with deep guilt feelings have a need for love that no spouse can ever fill in their lives, no matter what the spouse may do or say.
Something that often happens in the lives of those with unconfessed sins is that they destroy or sabotage their successes. In part, this happens because they do not feel worthy of what they seemingly have achieved. They undermine their efforts. At times the actions they take seem bizarre or even laughable—it’s as if they are lashing out to destroy the very thing they have worked so hard to create. They do not feel they deserve the reputation that goes with achievement.
I have seen businessmen get to a high level in their businesses and then make an unwise decision that sets them back significantly. That can happen to anyone, but these businessmen generally manage to rise to that high level again, only to make a similar unwise decision that sets them back again. The cycle is repeated several times. It’s as if something in them cries out, “You don’t deserve what you have accomplished.”
That failure to maintain success may be rooted in a parent saying to a child early in life, “You’ll never amount to anything. You’ll never succeed.” But it also is rooted at times in a person having unconfessed sin, and the guilt of the sin cries out, “Those who sin as you have sinned do not deserve this kind of reward in life.”
At times the sin is not a person’s sin but the sin of others. A child may be the true victim of a parent’s sin, yet the child assumes guilt related to that sin. At times the guilt associated with the sin of a sibling or a close relative other than a parent can be guilt that a person transfers to himself. Even though such guilt is false guilt—guilt that is not deserved and should never be internalized—the result is the same: a demeaning, self-deprecating spirit of unworthiness.
At times the sin is a person’s own sin. The person might have committed the sin years ago, even decades ago, but the sin has never been confessed and released to God. The person has never received in his spirit the forgiveness of God. And thus, the guilt remains and continues to fester deep within.
Guilt does not evaporate over time. It does not disappear through denial. It does not go away when a person becomes an adult. It does not stop gnawing at a person just because the person says, “I’m not going to think about that any longer,” or “I’m not going to let that bother me.” Rather, guilt continues to bore a hole in the soul of a person and eventually comes roaring to the surface where it results in behavior that is always harmful to the person and sometimes harmful to others.
If a person does not deal with past sin and guilt, the person will be reluctant to believe that others genuinely love him or forgive him. It is nearly impossible to perceive that others can love deeply without having an ulterior motive.
The only way to deal definitively with guilt is to confess the sin associated with it. A person must go to God and say, “I acknowledge this sin, and I own up to it before You, God. I ask You to forgive me for my sin and to wash this sin from my conscience and from my soul.”
If you have uneasy, needy feelings in your life, I encourage you to examine your past and to face any unconfessed sin. Allow God to forgive you and to free you. In receiving God’s forgiveness, you are also receiving God’s love, which declares you to be worthy of His forgiveness and love. Only in Christ Jesus can genuine worthiness be found.
The feelings associated with low self-worth are pervasive. The person feels rejected, discouraged, and at times invisible, as if he is truly a nobody.
When a person does not have a healthy sense of self-worth, he will always have an inner feeling of something lacking. He will have an abiding feeling of neediness, of feeling on the outside, of feeling like an observer, of feeling hungry and dissatisfied for something more in life.
It won’t matter how much money, property, or rewards the person acquires. It won’t matter how great the title or the status achieved. It won’t matter how many or what types of relationships the person has. If the inner feeling of being valuable and worthy is not intact, the person will have a pervasive and a prevailing sense of neediness deep within.
When a person has such feelings of low self-worth, he is much more inclined to fall into one of three traps that often beset those with low self-worth. These traps are enticements to take action to overcome the feelings of unworthiness. They are traps that create an aura of worthiness: (1) the trap of appearance, (2) the trap of perfect performance, and (3) the trap of status.
Very often people who are completely wrapped up in their appearance feel unworthy deep in their spirits. They hold to the conviction that they must look their best at all times in order to have others think well of them. What a trap this is! Eventually everybody has a day when he does not look great. What happens then? The person becomes depressed and feels even more unworthy. Of even greater consequences is the aging process. What happens when the person wakes up one day and discovers that he no longer looks as handsome as he did in the past? The realization can be devastating to a person of low self-worth.
I have met women, and a few men, who are so devastated at their loss of beauty that they do not desire to be around people they once considered close friends. This happens especially if they become ill with any type of degenerative or wasting disease. They don’t want anybody to see them in their condition, and they turn their backs on those who would like to visit them and bring them words of encouragement, pray for them, or help them in practical ways.
God does not desire that we create any form of false security. That can mean putting trust in things. It also can mean putting trust in appearance or in one’s reputation with others.
I once heard about a woman who had worked for years to meet the need for approval in her life. She had changed virtually everything about her physical body. She had gone through more than a dozen surgeries to have various features of her physical self altered, lifted, augmented, diminished, or straightened.
She went through twenty-three years of professional counseling from therapists who didn’t know Jesus Christ as their Savior and Lord. She read hundreds of books in an attempt to improve herself, and along the way, she earned a doctorate and took cooking lessons at one of the finest chef schools in the world. She did everything she knew to do to make herself more intellectually stimulating and therefore appealing to others.
She tried meditation, travel to distant monasteries, self-deprivation for inner enlightenment to make herself more emotionally appealing to others.
She got involved in all sorts of good works and charitable efforts to win approval from others. She worked her way to the top of a corporation to win the praise of those she counted as important. And in the end, she still felt a need deep within for validation and worthiness and self-identity.
It was only when she confessed her sinful nature to God and accepted the death of Jesus Christ on the cross as being the full atonement for her sin that she experienced the approval of God. She was completely and gloriously immersed in His forgiveness and love. And everything else she had attempted to do on her own paled in comparison. None of it truly mattered. God had loved her all along, just the way she was. God had valued her as His beloved child from the moment she was conceived in her mother’s womb—and even before. He had allowed her to go through many self-improvement attempts, but none of the attempts had increased or decreased His opinion of her, His love for her, or His compassion for her. And she knew it.
The woman did not allow herself to degrade herself or condemn herself for the false paths she had followed. Rather, she focused on what God said about her, what God had done for her through Jesus Christ, and what God desired to do in her and through her by the power of the Holy Spirit. She is on the path today of trusting God with more and more of her life, and she is becoming a truly outstanding witness to God’s love—not through anything she is doing to win approval, but through what she is allowing God to do in her heart and mind.
Does she have the approval of God? She does! Having His approval is all that matters to her.
Does she have the approval of other people? To a very great extent, she does—not because she is seeking it, but because others are experiencing the love she pours out to them, others are being led to Christ through her friendship, and others are being helped through her generosity toward them. They are approving the right things in her—the God-produced character, the godly traits, the God-centered focus.
Does she feel approval? Yes. And she is humbled by it. She delights in the awesome fact that God loves her and has forgiven her and is preparing her to live with Him forever. She also feels the acceptance and appreciation of others, but she doesn’t rely on them. She is grateful for their acts of love and kindness toward her, but people are no longer her source for approval. God is.
The good news I hold out to you today is this: what God has done and is doing in this woman’s life. He desires to do in your life. He longs for you to accept His approval through accepting His Son’s death and desiring the Holy Spirit’s presence in you. He longs for you to look to Him for approval rather than to others. And when you do. He will give you vastly more than you have ever imagined or hoped.
Material possessions never satisfy. Consider the young woman who grows up being taught repeatedly by her mother that appearance is everything—it’s the key to being liked, to getting married, to being considered acceptable in society, to getting a good grade in a class or a good job. This young woman does everything possible to make herself presentable and attractive. And yet her efforts don’t seem to be enough. She still doesn’t seem to have many friends. She still isn’t married. She still doesn’t get invited to what she perceives to be the “best” parties. She concludes that she must have more expensive clothing and jewelry and accessories. She decides that she must go to the most expensive salons, and once there, she opts for the most thorough makeovers. When these efforts don’t produce the results she desires, she buys still more expensive possessions to give her the appearance she believes is so vital. Eventually she is deeply in debt.
What is this woman’s need? Well, from the surface it may seem to be debt because she has far exceeded her means in obtaining all of the possessions and beauty-related services she has desired. Others might say, “This woman is materialistic and superficially hooked on things.” Others might say, “She suffers from vanity and pride.”
But what is truly at the root of this woman’s feelings of neediness? An unfilled need to feel worthy enough to be loved or liked. Her mother couldn’t accept her just as she was. This woman, as a young girl, internalized the belief that she had to look a certain way and present a certain appearance to others in order for her mommy to love her. Love was conditionally granted based on appearance. And the little girl has been searching for that love ever since.
Material things will never satisfy this young woman. They will never lead her to what she truly desires. The more material possessions she acquires in her quest for acceptance based upon physical beauty and appearance, the more her material possessions will disappoint her. Furthermore, her preoccupation with her physical appearance is very likely to consume her time, energy, and talents to the point that she turns away from the Lord and the establishment of a relationship with Him.
The person who is obsessed with what others will think very often tries to keep his relationship with Christ a secret from peers, colleagues, and even family members who do not follow Christ. Such a person is afraid that being perceived as a Christian could cause him to be seen in a negative light, and thus, a Christian witness becomes counterproductive to the quest for acceptance.
Jesus taught very plainly that we cannot pursue the material things of this world and at the same time pursue the things of the Spirit (Matt. 6:24).
Those with low self-worth also attempt to perform with perfection. They cannot bear for others to see them slip up or fail to any degree in any task or skill. Anything less than an A+ grade is a cause to hide their faces. A trip on a stair is a devastating embarrassment. A burned slice of toast is counted as a failure.
Perfect performance isn’t possible in this life. God most certainly does not require it. When self-worth is based upon performance, anxiety and frustration are nearly always present.
A sad reality is that those who associate perfect performance with worthiness often expect perfect performance from their children. I have heard parents belittle their children for making a B on a test. Any person overhearing their remarks would have thought the children had failed the test, committed a major crime in the process, and brought shame upon the family for the next several generations. I have had parents tell me later, “He could have done better. He just didn’t try. He has to try if he’s going to succeed as an adult. I am criticizing him for his own good to encourage him to try harder.”
One look at the child’s face tells me that isn’t so. In the first place, the child isn’t encouraged to do better. He may be afraid to do the same or worse, but he isn’t genuinely encouraged to do better. In the second place, the child is injured by the parent’s public belittling far more than the child is helped in any way. And in the third place, the child might have given the test his best effort. What happens when a best effort isn’t good enough? In most cases, the issue is not the child’s performance at all, but the way the parent feels about the performance. The child hasn’t performed to perfection, and the parent feels that the child must be perfect so that perfection can reflect upon the parent.
I heard a parent at a Little League game shout with great anger and frustration at his son for not making a hit. The young man was a very fine ballplayer. He had one of the highest batting averages on the team. But on that one occasion he struck out. From listening to the parent, you would have thought that the child had never made a hit in his entire life and that he had absolutely no talent for the game. Who was the failure in this instance? Why, the parent, of course. That father very likely has his reputation and self-image totally wrapped up in his son’s performance. When the son fails to be perfect, the father internalizes that failure as his own. What a sad trap!
Sooner or later, we all fall short of our own best. We all come in second, third, or even last place. We all have moments when we don’t achieve to the level we would like to achieve, when we fail to prepare as thoroughly as we could, or when we don’t perform as well as we have at other times. That’s part of being human. God does not require perfect performance from us at all times, and we are unwise to require it of ourselves or our children.
I have also met a few people who require perfection of their spouses—men who believe their wives must always look perfectly dressed and keep a perfectly clean and beautiful home, women who believe their husbands must always look perfectly groomed and drive a spotless vehicle and win the top awards at work every month. Such people are likely suffering from personal feelings of unworthiness. Deep inside, they believe their only hope for being considered worthy of the praise of others, and ultimately the praise of God, is that the spouse is perfect and that perfection reflects upon them.
Many people feel they must rate in the eyes of others in order to have worth. They ascribe to others the defining opinion that belongs to God alone.
If a neighbor buys a new car, they must buy one.
If a colleague at work gets a raise, they feel the need to demand a raise for themselves.
If a friend gets a date with a pretty girl, they feel compelled to find an even prettier girl to date.
The trouble with status is that no person ever has enough of it. The bar keeps raising as the competition gets greater. The person who is in hot pursuit of status will move to a new and more expensive neighborhood, only to find that he must have more and more signs of personal wealth in order to feel worthy in that neighborhood. Once he has achieved a sense of being accepted in that neighborhood, he finds reason to move on to an even more expensive lifestyle.
When is enough status acquired? Never, to the person who is caught in this trap. The opinion of an even more important person will always be required and desired.
In the end, the only opinion that truly counts is God’s opinion.
Continual, sustained effort is required from a person who is caught in any of these three traps. If the trap is status, the person must continually strive to maintain status or achieve higher status. If the trap is performance, the person must continually maintain perfect performance or strive to improve performance to the perfection level. If the trap is appearance, the person must continually work at looking good.
A great deal of money is required, which also is almost always related to effort. Usually one must work even harder to afford the material things that have become associated with status. One must spend considerable sums on clothing, jewelry, spa treatments, plastic surgery, and so forth if appearance is to remain at a perfection level. One must spend countless overtime hours and engage in countless community service activities if one is to be perceived as perfect in performance at all times.
God never intended for us to spend all of our time, energy, and material substance on these things in an effort to feel worthy of the respect and admiration of others, and ultimately His respect and admiration. To strive for these things is to be totally caught up in the doing of works in an effort to please God and even to impress God.
Works don’t cut it with God. God responds to humility, faith, and expressions of thanksgiving and praise. God isn’t impressed with what you accomplish, earn, or acquire, be it money, things, fame, or beauty. God wants a relationship with you, and in order for that relationship to be established and to grow, you must come to Him in humility and ask Him to forgive your past sin nature, to change your nature so that you will no longer desire to sin, and to help you live the life He desires for you, not the life you map out for yourself.
God wants a walking-and-talking relationship with you. Your appearance, your status before others, and your performance matter little to God. He is concerned about the state of your heart and your innermost desires for eternal things.
You can wear yourself out trying to achieve an external appearance of worthiness. You also are likely to wear out others as well, including your spouse or your children. And for what end?
Your striving to live in your own strength to achieve a semblance of worthiness based upon the opinions of others is futile for several reasons:
First, it is a life that cannot be sustained by any person for all of that person’s life. No matter how high you fly, how much you achieve, how excellently you perform, and how perfect you may be in performance, the day will come when you will not be able to sustain that level.
Second, people are fickle and standards change. The very people you are trying to impress may still not like you or think well of you. Or if they like you one day, they may not like you the next. No person, no matter how fine a performer, how beautiful, or how famous, sustains admiration in the public eye for long periods of time. Our cultural definitions of beauty change. Those who won beauty contests fifty years ago may not even be in the race today. Our cultural definitions regarding the things that are “in” change rapidly. Today’s fashions last for today; the “in” looks are likely to be very different a year from now. Our cultural definitions regarding performance also change. Records are broken every season. The times that won races fifteen years ago may not even be qualifying times in today’s races. Those who made $50,000 a year were considered wealthy fifty years ago, but today the standard has moved much higher.
Third, most people eventually see through the efforts of a person to achieve status and beauty as a means of gaining self-worth. People as a whole don’t admire status, performance, or appearance nearly as much as they admire character and heroic acts of service to others. Your reputation is not the result of how good you looked at the last party, what car you drove to the party, or how hard and how smart you worked in order to be able to buy that car. Your reputation is going to be based on the way in which you treated other people once you were in their presence, the quality of topics you discussed and the ideas you expressed, the manners and the kindness you extended, and the way in which you spoke with honesty, integrity, and morality.
Fourth, God does not accept us, love us, or forgive us on the basis of performance criteria. He does not love the beautiful more than the ugly. He does not love the high achiever more than the low achiever. He does not love the rich, famous, and others of high social status more than the poor, unknown, and those of low social status. Nothing you can do regarding status, performance, or appearance will elevate you one inch in God’s eyes. He accepts you because you come to Him believing in Jesus Christ as the One who has taken upon Himself the full consequences of your sin. He loves you because He created you and has chosen to love you from the moment He first thought of you. He forgives you because you have faced up to your sin nature and have opened your heart to receive His forgiveness.
Striving for perfection is the ultimate form of self-striving. It can occur in striving for appearance, performance, or status, but it generally is more pervasive to cover all areas of one’s life. Anytime you show me a person who is consumed with having everything in his life honed to absolute, down-to-the-detail perfection, I will show you a person with a very deep-seated lack of self-worthiness.
I’m not talking here about a person who tries to do his best or encourages the best from others. I’m talking about a person who will not settle for anything other than being the best in any given group of people, continually is obsessed with having the best, performing the best, and accomplishing the best regardless of the task. He will require that every person with whom he is associated perform at 100 percent output without error.
At the root of perfectionism is not a desire to do one’s best, as a perfectionist often claims. Rather, it is a desire to be acceptable and ultimately to prove oneself acceptable to God.
One of the easiest ways to determine whether a person is a perfectionist is this: Can the person laugh at his foibles and innocent mistakes? I’m not talking about deliberate or rebellious errors, but innocent human “goofs” that we all make from time to time and that are a part of being human. Can a person laugh at those things and go on, or does he seem to withdraw into himself in embarrassment or even express anger at himself or others? Is the laughter genuine and lighthearted, or is it cover-up laughter that is really a sign of embarrassment and shame? The perfectionist will tend to internalize every mistake and to think about his mistakes repeatedly, each time with a sense of shame. The non-perfectionist will be able to leave the incident behind.
During the early years of my ministry as a pastor, I was a perfectionist. I drove myself to do everything I knew to do as a young pastor, and then I sought to do more. No effort was ever quite good enough. I always had a feeling that I could preach better, counsel better, have things in better order, study the Bible more, pray more. I spent every waking hour improving my performance so that I might be pleasing to those whom I pastored. In truth, I was striving very hard to please God because I was never really sure that He was 100 percent happy with me or my efforts. At the same time I drove myself toward perfection, I drove those who worked with me toward perfection. I expected everything to be in tip-top order at every moment, and I had a very low tolerance for error.
I covered my perfectionism, as most perfectionists do, by stating that I simply wanted to do my very best and that God deserved my best. Now there is nothing wrong with doing one’s best, and certainly God deserves our best effort, but there was a very big problem in the way I defined best. Best was being better than anybody else. Best was being better than anyone with whom I might be compared. Best was coming out number one. God does not require that of us. It’s impossible for everybody to be number one in any given area of life, and it’s impossible for any one person to be number one all the time. God expects us to work hard, but not twenty-four hours a day. God expects us to live as a witness to Christ, but our witness is measured not by our efforts but by our relationship with Christ.
Most perfectionists are trying to win approval of others and ultimately of God. They have not faced the reality that God does not judge us on our performance. He judges us according to what we have done about Jesus Christ. Have we believed in Christ Jesus as our Savior? Are we in relationship with Christ Jesus as our Lord? Have we received the Holy Spirit into our lives, and are we listening to the Holy Spirit’s guidance as He speaks the truth to us on a daily basis?
God rewards us for our obedience in doing the things He calls us to do. His rewards are for our obedience, not necessarily our success! Our accomplishments in the kingdom of God are actually the Lord’s accomplishments. No person ever saved a soul. No person ever healed another person. No person ever delivered another person from evil. The Lord does those works. Our part is to share the gospel, pray in the name of Jesus, and believe God to work on our behalf. We are tools, or instruments, in His hand, but the workmanship is His.
How did I get over my perfectionism? Two things happened. I realized that in my trying to do it all and be it all, I was leaving no room for the Holy Spirit to work in me or through me, and I was leaving little room for the Holy Spirit to work in and through other people. I finally reached the end of myself and said to the Lord, “Lord, this is Your church, Your ministry. My life is Yours.” I began to give responsibility and authority over various areas of church activity to others, trusting God to deal with them directly and to do His work in their lives and in their ministries to others.
I also came to the place where I accepted that the Lord loves me, Charles Stanley, as He has made me to be and continues to make me to be in the image of Christ Jesus. It is not my job to make myself; I am to yield to His creative work in my life. We’ve all heard this comment: “He is a self-made man.” While that may have a ring of truth to it in the area of business or education, it is never something that can be true in the spiritual realm. What we are in the spirit is what our heavenly Father makes us to be through the power of His Holy Spirit at work in our lives. We are His workmanship, His creation, His masterpiece.
Our lives are in process. The apostle Paul wrote of this in Romans 8:29–30 when he said,
For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified.
From the very beginning. God has had a plan to conform you and me into the image of His Son. He has called you to that process. The moment you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Savior and began to follow Him as your Lord, He began a process of conforming and justifying you—conforming you into the character of Christ and justifying all of your actions so that they line up with His divine plan and purpose. The more you are and do what He created you to be and do, the more glory you bring to Christ Jesus, and thus, the greater Christ’s glory will be reflected in your life now and forever.
You cannot predestine yourself, no matter how hard you try.
You did not call yourself to come to the place where you confessed your sins before God and received Jesus as your Savior.
You cannot conform yourself into the full likeness of Jesus Christ and His character, no matter how much you may strive to do so.
You cannot engineer all of the work and accomplishments of your life totally on your own in a way that is pleasing to God, no matter how many long-range plans and lists you make and how diligently you attempt to turn your plans into success.
You cannot bring lasting glory to yourself, no matter how much you may achieve in human accolades, rewards, and honors.
To strive for perfection is futile.
“Well, should I just give up trying?” you may ask.
Trying to do your best? No, never give up on that.
Trying to be the best at all times? Trying to live an error-free life? Yes. Give it up.
Trying to do it in your own strength and power? Trying to force others to serve you and make you number one? Yes. Give it up.
Trying to live your life without God’s help? Most definitely, yes, give it up.
One evening I found myself ready to walk out onto the platform at church to perform a wedding, and I looked down at my feet to discover that I was wearing one black shoe and one dark brown shoe. They were of the same style, and in my haste at getting to the church on time, I had failed to notice that I pulled two different colored shoes from my closet. In my perfectionist days, that discovery would have put me off balance. I would have been embarrassed at such a mistake and angry with myself. In the process, I likely would have had less than a joyful attitude in conducting the wedding. I would have been concerned that others might notice my mismatched shoes and ridicule me for such a mistake, or that the bride and groom might think less of me for making their wedding less than perfect in all details.
On that particular night, however, I just smiled at myself. It was a silly mistake, and I took it as such and laughed it off. I feel quite certain that nobody at the wedding noticed, and if someone did, I didn’t care then and don’t care now what conclusions the person might have reached about my mistake. If his opinion of me as a person and as a child of God was diminished because I wore shoes of different color, then he didn’t think very highly of me in the first place, or he was looking for an excuse to think less of me. A hundred years from now, nobody will know or remember that Charles Stanley wore one black shoe and one dark brown shoe while performing a wedding. I am a human being, and I made a human mistake that hurt nobody and had no eternal consequences. And so it is with most of our mistakes. They are a part of our human condition.
Our self-worth does not lie in our being perfect and in living lives that are completely “nailed down” and error free. Our self-worth lies in our relationship with Jesus Christ. In the end, nothing else matters but that.
People with a low sense of self-worth would like to be able to look another person in the eye, accept a genuine compliment, give a firm handshake, or respond with a sense of humor about themselves. Those with low self-worth do not choose or desire to have low self-worth. They desire the very opposite.
How can we help such a person? Not by letting go of his limp handshake as quickly as possible, but by grasping his hand with both hands and holding his hand until he grips our hands in return. Not by moving quickly on to the next person but by continuing to talk to the person until he does look us in the eye. Not by letting the compliment go ignored or diverted but by saying again with even greater sincerity and intensity, “I don’t think you realize that I truly meant what I said. I think you did great.”
We don’t help the perfectionist by laughing at him, in hopes he will laugh at himself. We help by admitting our own foibles with a laugh, perhaps saying, “You know, I’ve made that same mistake myself. I laugh about it every time I think of it.” At times you may want to share a similar moment of error or embarrassment in your life to show the person that every person makes mistakes and that innocent mistakes and shortcomings are not a cause for shame.
Self-worth, however, can never be acquired solely through the praise and recognition of others. It doesn’t matter how many compliments a person receives, how many trophies or plaques are put on the person’s shelves, or how many supportive friends a person may have. The kind words of praise and appreciation from others will have a hollow ring to him unless he believes with the most basic of beliefs that God approves, God loves, God forgives, and God considers him to be valuable and worthy.
The best thing we can do for a person with low self-worth is to pray for that person and to remind him often of how valuable he is to God.
How Can We Acquire More Self-Worth in Ourselves?
If we lack in personal self-worthiness and we recognize this need, how can we increase our feelings of self-worthiness?
By truly accepting Jesus Christ as our personal Savior and Lord, and by accepting that what Jesus Christ did on the cross—dying for our sinful nature as the one definitive and substitutionary sacrifice of God the Father—was for us personally, specifically and individually.
How does someone know that he is valuable?
The answer is to be found when one looks at the Cross. When a person comes face-to-face with the Cross and confronts the fullness of its reality, a person comes face-to-face with his own value.
How much are you worth?
You are worth so much that God sent Jesus to die in your place on the cross.
A person comes to grips with the issue of self-worth when he reasons within himself, “If God sent His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ, to die on that cross for my sins, surely I am valuable to God. If God considered me to be worthy of the shed blood of Jesus, who was without sin and yet went to the cross to die for me, a sinner, then surely I am worthy in His eyes.”
How many sinners were required before God required Jesus to die on the cross as the perfect, substitutionary sacrifice for sin?
Jesus didn’t go to the cross because millions and millions of sinners—born and as yet unborn—were in need of salvation. He went to the cross because the heart of man was sinful. Even if only one person had been ruled by a sinful heart, Jesus would have died on his behalf.
That is the stark, shattering, and yet utterly affirming fact of the Cross!
Jesus died for me. He died for you. He died so that you and I might live in the presence of God the Father forever, forgiven and made whole spiritually by God’s great love and redemptive power.
We do not acquire feelings of self-worth by standing in front of a mirror and repeating to ourselves, “I am worthy, I am worthy, I am worthy.” We acquire feelings of self-worth when we stand in front of the cross and come to the realization of the greatest truth of all time, “I am worthy because God says I am worthy. I am worthy because Jesus died in my place for my sins so that I might live in eternity with God.”
Are we worth something on the basis of our talents, abilities, gifts, or accomplishments?
No. We are worth something because our worth was purchased with the ultimate price: the blood of Jesus.
A human being may consider that you are worth dying for, but how many people truly die on behalf of others willfully and for their sin nature? Nobody I know.
God did not only say that you are worthy of the death of Jesus Christ on the cross. He actually sent Jesus to the cross to die on your behalf. God followed through on what He said about your worthiness. Jesus actually died in your place so that you might believe on Him and live with our heavenly Father forever. God believed in your worth to the point of sacrificing His only begotten Son (John 3:16).
Friend, you are worthy. God says you are. He sent His Son to die for you because He considered you worthy of saving and worthy of living with Him for all eternity.
You are competent because God makes you competent. He sends His Holy Spirit to help you do anything He calls you to do.
You belong because God brings you into full fellowship with Himself through Jesus Christ. You are His child now and forever once you accept Jesus Christ as your Savior.
What a wonderful sense of self-worth comes when a person believes and then says to himself and to others, “God and I are in agreement. He is in me and I am in Him.”
Christ in me is the ultimate proclamation of self-value!
The person who has a deep and abiding sense of self-worth can hear all kinds of criticism and cutting remarks from other people and let the negative comments slide off him like water off the back of a duck. He can go on about his life’s work with joy because he has an inner smile on the soul that says, “So much for your opinion. I know God loves me, and His opinion of my value never diminishes, never changes, and is the only opinion that truly counts.” Your critics, your detractors, and your enemies have no hold on you when you draw your identity, your help, and your sense of worth from God Himself.
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