Self-Esteem and the Way Religion has Screwed You Up

sadmanI  read these three words on a Christian friend’s Facebook page: You Are Worthy.  This ended up in a long debate on his FB post. Poor guy.

If speaking those words feels like blasphemy, you’re in good company. For many of us raised in stricter faith traditions, our first gut reaction is more like, “Huh? I am not worthy. Only God is worthy!”  Even people who do not hold such an austere perspective can find those 3 words a challenge. I can only speak from a Christian perspective because that is all I have ever known, but self-esteem was never talked about positively in my faith. It was equated with pride, a deadly sin.  You were supposed to think of others and God. As for you, your job was to deny yourself.  Of course, most of us have indulged our sense of self-esteem, but never without a sense of shame that hit us square in the face Sunday mornings in Church.  We waited to hear the sermon and then set out anew, with our tails wagging, ready to hit the pavement … at least until we got to the crowded parking lot and got pissed off yet again at the crowds.

I think a lot of us tend to admire asceticism as a way of faith.  Somehow, deep down, we yearn to practice this form of “extreme self denial, ” hoping it brings the transcendence and transformation we’re searching for. But I don’t think many of us know the difference between what is healthy self-denial and what is considered extreme. The Apostle Paul warned us in Colossians 2:20 against all sorts of dangerous teachings like asceticism, legalism and others. Instead of seeing ourselves as worthy of death if we entered the inner sanctuary (as under the Old Testament), Hebrews 4: 16 tells us now under this New Covenant to go “boldly” before the Throne of God and make our requests.

Still, “You are worthy” is a challenge for me. I tend to fight what I was taught to believe about passages like Romans 3 and others that say “no one is good” and “no one seeks God.” However, as I get older, my views are changing.

A brief bit of personal history here: my religious experience includes being a Catholic and then moving into more Pentecostal traditions where I became “born again”. This was before I left the Church all together due to a conflict with my sexual identity, and I am now back in the faith as a gay Christian under MCC.  As a former Catholic I believed that we baptized babies so that they would go to heaven if they were to die before being able to consciously confirm and partake of the sacraments.  But as a Pentecostal I was taught that your worthiness arrives when you are “born again” and joined in Spirit with Christ’s Spirit.  When you are born again, many will teach you, His worthiness becomes your worthiness. It is not something in and of yourself.

Many today have misinterpreted Pauline theology to mean that we are born no good at all and there is absolutely no room for self-esteem. “God doesn’t see you,” they say, “He sees Christ in you,” as if you were too unworthy, too dirty in yourself to prevent the blazes of God’s wrath from pouring out at you. As if God has to wear some Jesus sunglasses (Son-glasses, I suppose) in order to look at you.

A Christian man said to me just yesterday, “I just want to be vessel. I want all of me put aside so that all anyone sees is Christ and nothing of me.” That sounds good—and I tried to live like that, right down to the tying of my shoes – but this perspective also characterizes yourself as the equivalent to a jar on a shelf that no one is to see–except for the contents poured in by a holier God.  The problem with that is it is hard to find any valid sense of self-worth in that kind of theology accept as something to be used.  He’s taken self-denial to the extreme of eliminating all traces of himself. But there really aren’t many scriptures where God calls us to be “used” in a way where self (mind, body and soul) is to be completely out of the picture. As a matter of fact, God calls us to the opposite: “Love the Lord Your God with all your heart, mind, strength and soul” (Luke 10:27). We’re called to bring our whole selves to God.

Yet so many who feel unusable by God are willing to be used by others — emotionally, sexually, and religiously. People just don’t expect that they could be used under the Spirit’s guidance for spiritual purposes. Nevertheless, this confusion persists between a healthy self-denial (like forgiveness, surrender, etc.) and the murky boundary that crosses over into unhealthy asceticism. People are calling it “sanctification” and “holiness”. Sanctification means setting apart as something sacred. It doesn’t mean wiping out your whole personality so that you are only a Jesus-Robot or your pastor’s robot or a holy water jug. When you see yourself as a living, breathing complex being, and that every breath is God living through you, that is far more freeing and centering in Spirit than the dissociation involved in extreme self-denial (again, which even Paul himself warns us against).

That aside, let’s say that I am wrong. I could be. There is still a basic problem if my mere human love is greater than what we understand God’s love to be. For example, I don’t know about you but I have a hard time looking at a baby and thinking “that child is no good.” Coochie, coochie coo, little devil child (pinching their cheeks), we’re going to baptize your fallen little butt cheeks real soon!  Nor can I imagine having a child and being a father (like our Heavenly Father thinking of us at birth) saying, “Ahhh, that child one day is going to be my vessel, for only my use, and then it will be worthy and living how I want it to!” That’s essentially how many characterize God as seeing their value.  To the contrary, I want that child in all its personality, likes, dislikes, and weaknesses to just shine with all they have been given. I want that child to live a good life, but its own life, tied with the family and a good foundation–me as father, not as “User”! I can’t imagine God wanting any less. No, I imagine the creator of love, loves us even more than that. He is higher than my human love, so that whole “unworthy” interpretation of scripture just doesn’t fit.  We need to take another look at those passages in light of God’s immense love for us.

I am trying now to step into my “new man” where my personality, inherent gifts and authentic journey can shine.  But it is a step-by-step process for me. One book that is helping me is called “There Is Nothing Wrong With You” by Cheri Huber. I would recommend this book for anyone who is coming out of a belief system that has destroyed your self-esteem.  You do have worth, and God can use you — despite what you may have heard in church.

Photo credit : Darren Johnson, cc

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LARRY JAMISON holds a Bachelors degree in Secondary Education from Eastern Michigan University. He has been freelance writing for many years. His blog, movie and book reviews, and more are available at