Self-Image and Self-Esteem

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"Father God, we thank you that you don't stay silent, but you love to speak to us. So we pray that you would help us to know what you have to say to us this morning. Amen."

Good morning everyone. If I haven't met you yet, then let me introduce myself. My name is Ken Matthews and I'm the minister at St Joseph's, our partner church across town. But... who are you? Now I'm not asking you if you know what your name is or what you do; I'm asking you want defines you. Is it your name and your job? Or is there more to us than that? Well that may all sound pretty philosophical for a Sunday morning, but we're tackling the second topic in our short series of 'Biblical Views on Big Issues' today: Self-image and Self-esteem. And it's a topic which goes right to the foundations of who we are and what we believe about ourselves. So quiz time! How do you view yourself? Let me give you the three most common answers to that question which keep cropping up in our culture. Are you…

A) A Lucky Accident

There are those who believe that life on earth has come about because of some cosmic chance event and that we all evolved from a primeval swamp. Now I don't want to knock evolutionary theory, as I don't believe it's a theory that contradicts the existence of God. I do however want to think it's wise to question it, as it is still a 'best guess' at how we came about. But the bottom line is that if you insist that God wasn't involved in that process, then it's logical to believe that we're not any different from the rest of the animals we see around us. I mean after all, genetic research has shown that chimpanzees share between 95 and 99% of human DNA. If you follow that through to its logical conclusion, you and I have got no inherent value – or at least no more value than a dolphin, or a dog, or a dung beetle. Instead we are just 'naked apes' who were lucky enough to win the race to the top of the evolutionary tree. Is that what we are? Biological accidents? Or are we…

B) Gods and Superheroes

At the opposite end of the spectrum, we're not animals at all – no! We're more like gods! We are to view ourselves as amazing and should think wonderful thoughts about ourselves. We see this kind of thinking in the adverts that tell us to "reveal the goddess inside you" or in books like this one entitled "Super You – Release Your Inner Superhero". And we're supposed to think: "If only I can be freed from other people's opinions and expectations, and find the real me lurking inside then I will fly and life will be great!" And because you're a superhero no one should question how you live and what you do – no matter how damaging it is to yourself and others. Is that what we are? Unaccountable superheroes ready to be unleashed on an unsuspecting public? Or are we…

C) What We Can Offer

Now we come to the position where your view of yourself all depends on what you have to offer the world. The scales used tend to vary: it might be to do with how useful or productive you are, or how intelligent, beautiful or funny you are. But whatever scale is used, who we are and what we are worth all depends on what we have to offer, and how we compare with those around us. That's why when we meet someone new one of the first things we ask them is what they do. And it's also why when we meet a brain surgeon we might think more highly of them than we would a supermarket checkout girl. Our culture certainly measures human worth in that way: greater abilities, or personality or sheer hard graft = greater value. And yet… surely there has to be more to it than that? Surely we can't be reduced to any of these things.

You see, whichever of those answers you're aware of, or have even been convinced of – we can see that there are real dangers lurking behind them. That is why there is so much pain and confusion surrounding this issue. Many feel very raw and anguished about it. Some of the statistics are frightening, especially for teenagers. It's been reported that 75% of twelve to 17 year old girls would like cosmetic surgery because it would make them feel happier about their appearance. Similarly 84% of teenage boys thought that having a better body would improve their lives.

Now, as we grow older some of the angst we often feel about stuff like our appearance may ease off – but not always! Yet most of us are still concerned about how we compare to others and what they think of us, which is why the issue of establishing our unique identity and a healthy self-worth has become a modern obsession. But we will always struggle with it until we stop looking around or looking inside, and start looking up! At the root of our identity issues is the fact that we're asking the wrong question. The issue isn't so much 'How do I view myself?' or 'How do others see me?', but 'How does God view us?' And the first answer to that question is: in his image.

1. We should View Ourselves as made in the Image of God

At the risk of sounding a little like Julie Andrews in "The Sound of Music", let's "start at the very beginning", as apparently this is… "a very good place to start". Right at the beginning of the Bible is God, and what is he doing? He is at work... making all things and ruling over all things. And after he has made everything else, we find that the final thing on his 'to do' list is to make human beings as the pinnacle of creation. In Genesis 1.26-28 God says:

""Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth." So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue...""

Now it's important to say that Genesis is primarily not a work of scientific analysis, but of theological truth. It is much more concerned with 'why' we are here and 'who' made us, rather than the 'how' we got here. And right at the start of Genesis we learn that humanity seems to be a kind of hybrid creature. We share a likeness to the animals God has already made. We share many characteristics with other creatures, especially mammals, from our DNA onwards. But we are not simply 'naked apes'. There is one thing that sets us apart: we are created in God's own image. But what does that mean? Well we might say of a son that he's "a chip off the old block, the spitting image of his father." And what we mean by that is that he resembles his dad – not just physically, but in his habits and mannerisms as well. And so being made in God's image means resembling God – not physically, but in character and capacities – in the kind of way a son can resemble his father.

We Are Made To Be Like God. And we see some of the things that means in Genesis 1 itself, as...

  • God Creates – and just like God you were made to be creatively productive. As he says in verse 28: "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it…" That doesn't just mean having kids, as we can display our God-given creativity in the everyday business of teaching a lesson or caring for a patient, in baking a cake or in singing a song.
  • God is Relational – and just like God you were made with a unique capacity for relationships, and so, verse 27: "male and female he created them." We are to relate to God first and foremost, but we are also to relate to each other, which is why relationships are so important to us.
  • God Rules – and just like God, you were made to rule over creation. As he says in verse 26: "Let them have dominion", let them rule... We are created to be responsible and look after all that God has made.

And I could go on about our capacities for abstract reasoning and for language or our capacity for self-giving (as opposed to instinct-driven) love and compassion, or how in the face of death we long for more life, which hints at the fact we are made for eternity. These things mark us off from the animals and show that we are made in the image of a God who is like that. And this is the first jigsaw piece of our true identity and self-worth: We are made by God, in his likeness and a number of key realities flow from this:

i) Every One of Us is Valuable, so No One is Disposable

You see, God doesn't see us as precious and valuable for what we have to offer him, but because he made us! The maker of the galaxies, the stars, the mountains, and the oceans made you – so he values you, no matter what.

There are 6 billion people on this planet and there is not another person like Ken Matthews. There's not another person like you either! You are God's original masterpiece. There is nobody like you, or the person sitting next to you. To some he gave a high IQ. To others he's left us destitute. To some he's given the physique of a body builder. To others he's left us looking like we might fall over if someone passed wind within three feet of us. We are all different – but that's just the way God intended it.

When you popped out of your mum like Harry Houdini – proudly holding your umbilical cord in one hand going "ta-da!", (it's a bit of a hazy memory now, but having witnessed it three times I'm fairly sure that's what childbirth is like), but when you pop out God doesn't go "Oh dear. This one's a bit half-baked. I wish I hadn't made them. I think I'll just scrunch her up and start again." No! You are not an accident, you are a precious masterpiece. God never does anything accidentally and he never makes mistakes. All Christian arguments about the sanctity of human life derive from this essential fact. Human value is derived from our created-ness. We are not merely what we have to offer. We are of value in and of ourselves. So...

  • A child with Down's syndrome is no less valuable than you or I, even if his or her mental capacities are restricted.
  • A grandfather is still to be treated with dignity, even if he is bed-bound with Alzheimer's and is unable to feed himself.
  • A criminal is still fully human, even if his behaviour has been subhuman and dehumanising.

This is true of all people: male or female, black or white, young or old, able-bodied or disabled, born or even an unborn child in its mummy's tummy. We are all God's image bearers, so we all have value and purpose and dignity in God's eyes.

ii) We're made in the Image of God, but we're still Only an Image

This is a picture of a Ming vase – it is worth £53.1 million. It is incredibly valuable, but sadly... this is not the real thing, is it? So we can't take it down to Cash Converters and see what we could get for it, as it's just an image. And while we are masterpieces, made with unbelievable capabilities, made in the image of the glorious Creator himself, we are not God himself. We are not superheroes. So we mustn't think more of ourselves than we should – we should remind ourselves that we are still only an image.

It has been said that this truth – being made in God's image – should lift the head of the poorest beggar and bend the knee of the most exalted king. I think that's right: it both gives us great dignity and also keeps us humble and dependant on God. So if you think you're better than others because you're smart, hard-working, funny, cute, popular or gifted – then you need to get a handle on how you view yourself. And if we want to know what makes us special because we aren't as funny, cute, popular or gifted as others – it's this: that you were made by God, to be like God. This is the antidote to low self-esteem, but it's also the cure for pride – that we learn to view ourselves with humble dignity.

iii) God has made us to be like Him, so we need to Know and Trust Him

We do not need to look inside to find the 'real me'. Or look around to see how everyone else is doing in life so we can find out how we should do it too. No! We only find the 'real' us when we get to know the God in whose image we are made, and live out that image by trusting him. For we flourish best when we live in that image – when we seek to find out what God is like and model our thinking and acting on his words, not our own urges or desires.

I've always admired TV impersonators – folks like Rory Bremner or some of these new kids on the block you get every year on Britain's Got Talent. And if you've ever tried to impersonate someone then you will know just how hard it is. You have to study every last nuance of their speech and mannerisms to perfect the art. Well that's what we need to do as God's image bearers: study his character and personality. By doing so we can find out who we are and how we should live. And unlike most of the great impressionists, we get to meet God as he reveals himself in the pages of the Bible. And we get to talk to him as we pray and walk with him each day. That's what we're made for, that's how we should live.

And that leads us to the second way in which God sees us and that we should therefore see ourselves. But, don't worry! Very briefly, we're going to think about how:

2. We should View Ourselves as Sinners Saved by Grace

Genesis 3 tells the story of how the image bearers got greedy. Satan tempts the first humans to disobey God saying that if they do disobey they will "be like God, knowing good and evil." And so they take the bait and sin enters the world. It's not enough for them to live in humble dignity as the pinnacle of God's creation – they want to be God themselves. For at the heart of sin is not wanting to live under God's authority, but to be in control of our own lives. And that has been the desire of every man and woman since. That is why in that passage we had read earlier from Mark 7.20-23 Jesus says we are full of sin:

"And he said, "What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person."

You see, sin is not just the problem of bad behaviour – that's just the symptom. Sin is the problem of a broken relationship with God. Now you might have come along this morning looking forward to us tackling this subject of self-image and self-esteem, thinking: "Great I could do with a bit of help to think about myself more positively." But right about now you're wondering why you bothered! I mean, the accepted mantra of our culture is that we mustn't do ourselves down. Instead we should build ourselves up. And above all we're told to love and accept ourselves as we truly are. But I need to say three things as I close:

i) Within our Self-Image there must be a Clear Recognition of our Sinfulness, and not just the fact of it, but the awfulness of it. It is awful both in what it is and what it produces, and it is right to feel a deep sense of shame about it. We must resist the temptation to airbrush it from our lives and hide behind a façade of our appearance or performance. We must not flatter ourselves, or let those around us flatter us either.

ii) We must Distinguish between True and False Shame. We can feel ashamed of all kinds of things like being poor or unemployed, or in different circumstances being ashamed of being rich or privileged. We can feel ashamed about our bodies, or our jobs, or our families. But this is not the shame we feel because we've done something wrong, rather it is shame which comes because of the expectations of the culture around us. These feelings come from our desire to fit in and be accepted, but they are nothing to feel guilty about. We can all too easily feel more concerned over this sort of shame than our sin. But the bottom line is that I need to care far more about what God thinks of me, than what other people think.

iii) Without Seeing the Depth of our Sin, we will Never Accept our Saviour. The rest of the Bible from Genesis 3 onwards is the quest to find a saviour who will rescue us from our sin. Romans 5.6-8 tells us that:

"...while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us."

History is full of great leaders and martyrs to causes. People do die for others – but only if they believe in them. But Jesus died for those who had hated and rejected God. Such is the extent of his love. And therefore such is the value of human beings. Something is only worth what you'll pay for it, isn't it? So what does it tell us about ourselves that God was willing to pay the precious price of his own son dying for us, to save us from our sin and restore us to the relationship with Him that we were created for?

This is the final piece of the puzzle of human value and identity. We have infinite worth because we are both created and rescued. It's irrelevant how able or disabled we are; how apparently moral or evil we are; how bright or dull; rich or poor; beautiful or ugly. None of these matter in the end – only that we are loved by the God who made and rescued us. For all eternity.

"Father God, you have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless till we find our rest in you. Help us therefore to see ourselves as you see us – as made in your image and saved by your son and to rest content in that. Amen."

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