I’ve not yet found a book on self-image that adequately explores the authority for a holistic self estimation. Without that authority, our beliefs regarding self-worth are subject to question & doubt! Fortunately, God has clearly communicated “the way things are” in His Word. So why does it seem most Christian authors fail to present reasonable & thorough steps of healing for the issue of toxic shame from a biblical perspective? It seems that most quickly point their readers to a theology of redemption, tying a healthy view of self to the fact that we are “clothed with Christ” (Gal 3:27) & “our lives are hidden with Christ in God” (Col 3:3). In truth, however, this redemptive theology fails to address the fundamental issues of brokenness that fuel negative feelings about oneself.
Unquestionably, redemption is primary to the journey of healing since Jesus is the source of truth from which we interpret our world & ourselves; but finding self-esteem as a Christian is quite different from finding self-esteem as a human! For the latter, we need a healthy theology of creation. Indeed, even before He was Redeemer, our God was Creator. But before unpacking the implications of creation, let’s explore the dynamics of self-esteem.
Self-image (& indeed human dignity) can be understood as existing in three categories: 1) significance, 2) acceptability, & 3) capability. Significance is about how honorable or worthy of respect we are. Feeling small, overlooked, blaming oneself for the mockery of others, or patterns of subjecting oneself to abusive or destructive relationships are some expressions of a sense of insignificance... of not feeling worthy of respect. Acceptability is about how likable or lovable we are. Feeling we’ll never truly belong or that everyone is judging us are some expressions of a sense of unacceptability. Capability is about how powerful we are... our ability to succeed or make a difference. Feeling dumb, weak, helpless, defenseless, unconfident, unproven, or constantly victimized are some expressions of a sense of incapability or powerlessness. (By the way, a careful study of the "love list" in 1 Corinthians 13:4-8 reveals that love is simply recognizing these things in ourself & in others - & appropriately responding to that recognition. Thus we "love others as ourselves".)
A healthy self-image is a person’s self-estimation that he or she is truly acceptable (lovable), significant (worthy of respect), & capable (powerful). Such a person is generally immune to the emotional manipulation of others & the emotional control circumstances can seem to occassionally seize. A wounded self-image, however, is the belief that one is unacceptable, insignificant, or incapable... or some combination of the three - leading to all sorts of emotional & relational hazzards we try to deny, avoid, or suppress.
The problem with approaching self-image issues with only a redemptive theology in hand is that redemption teaches us to feel great about how acceptable, significant, & capable Jesus is, but does little to convince us that we have any of those things in ourselves! In fact, much of today’s popular preaching implies that feeling acceptable, significant, or capable independently of Christ is actually sinful! Oh, how I dream of the day when Christians again read the Old Testament! And here is where we construct our theology of creation regarding self-image.
Genesis 1:31 says, “God saw all that He made (including humans) and behold, it was very good.” “But wait!” some say, “That was before sin. Surely after the Fall humanity lost their acceptability, significance, & capability. That’s why Jesus came, right?” Well... no, actually. Look at God’s own testimony regarding all (including sinful) people in Genesis 9:6: “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God He made man.” People, even sinful people, bear the image of God & thus bear human dignity worthy of honor. In other words, sinners are significant, even apart from redemption.
What’s more, the Bible doesn’t stop with just an affirmation of significance! Flip over to Genesis 11:6-7, in which God reflects on the global construction project taking place at Babel. He says, “...this is what they began to do; and now nothing which they purpose to do will be impossible for them. Come let Us go down and there confuse their language...” Wow! God recognizes that human capability is so great that, if left unchecked, it will prevent humanity from ever recognizing their need for God & thus embracing Him for salvation! He had to intervene for people to realize that while extremely capable, they still need God. The message we take away here is that, though extremely sinful, people are still very capable!
Finally, let’s go to the New Testament to visit the issue of human acceptability (worthiness of love) - even without the cross of Christ. John 3:16, the classic salvation text, says that “God so loved the world that He gave His Son...” In other words, God loves us even before we accept Christ’s redemption! Romans 5:8 & 1 John 3:1 are two other passages that cement the reality of human acceptability (worthiness of love) into a firm, pre-redemptive, theology of creation. So, we are acceptable (lovable) even before we accept Christ’s forgiveness!
What does this mean for the process of healing our toxic shame, our false beliefs about ourselves... namely, those beliefs that cause us to feel insignificant, unacceptable, & incapable? Well, it means that on God’s own authority, we are extremely significant (worthy of honor), acceptable (worthy of love), & capable (powerful) despite our sin. This doesn’t negate our guilt as sinners or our need for Christ’s redemption. It does, however, clarify what, exactly, Jesus died on the cross for. He did not die to give us significance, acceptability, & capability - as if we had none. Rather, Jesus died to free us from our sin & the penalty we were previously destined to pay for it.
So, with boldness we can now celebrate God’s craftsmanship by proclaiming, “I really am a highly significant, acceptable, capable creation, child, & servant-steward of the Most High God!” And... I guess that changes just about everything. Praise the Lord!
Part 2: Healing Toxic Shame
Part 1: Toxic Shame Stinks