I have never been very good at accepting compliments. Criticism I can take to heart in an instant, but praise and compliments don’t seem to stick. I am an expert at picking out the one negative comment in a conversation, and immediately forgetting the positives. The words I want to believe I weigh up a bit longer, seeing how they taste in my mouth, imagining they might be true. But eventually those too are discarded. I have always been my own harshest critic. I expect nothing short of perfection for myself and will always fall short.
I know there will be plenty of people who can relate to this. Sometimes I can spot those of you in every day life. I find you in the skill with which you redirect a compliment, until it becomes like it was never said. I pick you out in the way you manage to retreat into the background of a team when recognising achievements, no matter how much work you put in. I see you when you let someone walk all over you and you’re not quite confident enough to assert yourself. We are hiding in plain sight.
We live in a society which is constantly telling us we are not good enough. Girls are sent messages from a young age that they can never be pretty enough or thin enough. The beauty industry sets the bar impossibly high. For boys they are constantly targeted with this image of what it means to be man. They are expected to be physically strong, emotionally tough and masculine through and through. In the midst of this pressure, it is hardly surprising that some of us will find ourselves with little self-confidence and low self-esteem.
We all build our self-esteem on the things we believe to be true about ourselves. These form the foundation of who we believe we are and how we see ourselves. But for those with low self-esteem some of these foundational ‘truths’ will be negative and in many cases complete lies about ourselves. Yet it is these core ‘truths’ that form the lens through which we see ourselves, and the filter through which we take in information. We tend to collect evidence that supports these beliefs and reject anything that doesn’t match. This means that when we hear a compliment, we compare it against these core beliefs. When the praise doesn’t fit the mould we’ve created, we discard it as untrue. The fact is it can be easier for us to discard each piece of contradictory evidence than it is to destroy and rebuild the foundations on which we have built our sense of self.
We would like to believe that being brought up in the church shields you against some of this battle. Unfortunately, from what I’ve seen this doesn’t seem to be the case, and church life can add an extra layer of complexity to the problem. This is because a big aspect of our teaching on Christianity is the understanding that we are all sinful people. On our own we are rubbish, pitiful human beings, always following our own pride and sinful nature. This is why we need a Saviour. This teaching is supposed to come alongside the wonder of God’s love which reached out to us even in this state. It should be balanced with the truth that we are created by God, in his image, and he has made us each unique and precious.
When you throw someone with low self-esteem into this environment they will have no problem with the teaching on their own sinfulness. In their minds they are already the lowest of the low, the point hardly needs reiterating. But, God’s love is much harder to grasp. It’s one thing believing that God loves all the people in the world. However, believing that love also applies to you as an individual can be next to impossible, when the founding anchors of your identity has been built on lies and negativity. There are plenty of people in our churches, who understand that God is love, but cannot apply that love to themselves.
We put a high value on humility in Christianity, the idea of having a low view of your own importance. Humility is the antidote to pride and gives us the capacity to truly love and serve our neighbours. Yet if we’re not careful, our desire for humility can risk celebrating low self esteem. After all it is easy to be humble when you don’t value yourself very much.
There can be a confusion between putting others first out of love for them and demonstration of Jesus’ servant heart, and putting others first because we don’t love ourselves and believe others are worth more than we are. One is biblical and compassionate, the second is unhealthy and destructive. The first is sustainable as our eyes our fixed on God, the second will lead to burn out and break down as we give out without first receiving. The problem is that both look the same to a church desperately in need of volunteers.
All of us will have things we dislike about ourselves. For some it is an aspect of their appearance, something which makes them frown every time they look in the mirror. For others it is a wrestle with the particular skills and gifting they’ve been given, when they perhaps desire something else. Or maybe it’s an aspect of their character that they wish they could change, to be stronger, braver or more outspoken. But when we criticise our bodies, our skills or our character, we’re forgetting something very important. We are created by God. And I don’t just mean he made the laws of nature and left us to it. No, he formed us in our mother’s womb and planned all our days before one came to pass (Psalm 139). He was actively involved creating every aspect of who we are, from the curve of our nose to our character traits. Nothing was beyond His controlling hand.
And one thing we can be sure of: God doesn’t make mistakes. He didn’t drop the ball or look the other way when he was creating you. You are fearfully and wonderfully made to fulfil a unique role in God’s plan for creation. Nothing about you is an oversight or a result of random chance. You are ‘God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.’ (Ephesians 2:10)
When we criticise who we are ,we’re criticising God’s workmanship. In doing so we deny His sovereign and wise rule over our lives and talk as if we could have done better. We are not just tearing ourselves down. We are doubting God and displaying a lack of trust in Him.
In writing this I’m not saying that our sinful nature and the aspects of life affected by it, isn’t something we should wrestle with and change with God’s help. That is a serious battle that we must enter into as we are transformed more and more into the likeness of Jesus. But we must remember we are not defined by sin, but by the loving Father who created us, redeemed us and called us His children.
We are children of God, fearfully and wonderfully made by our Father who loves us completely. This is the truth we have to build our identity on.
For those of us who have constructed foundations out of other things, we will have to do some hard work taking down and rebuilding. I won’t pretend it’ll be quick or easy, but it has to be done if we are to walk in the fullness of our freedom as God’s children. We have to have our foundations right if we are to become builders of God’s Kingdom on this earth.
We need to view ourselves through God’s lens, a view that will remain after all compliments and criticism have faded away. A lens that comes from a Creator God who does not make mistakes. We are made with love for a particular purpose. Perhaps if we take our eyes away from ourselves, and all we want to change, and focus on God, then we might come closer to discovering His purpose for us. There are locks that only we can open, people that only we can reach and hope that only we can carry. There are many exciting chapters to come in this story called life. If, instead of questioning the author, we embrace the adventure, who knows where we might end up.