Reading time: 12 minutes
Those were the words I read as glanced at the title of the second chapter in Kent Dobson’s book, Bitten by a Camel. Seven simple words that I had never heard said to me in all my years of living on this planet. Not knowing what to expect, my first thought was, I’m not?
The truth is, for most of my life I have been guided by the assumption that I am a problem to God. Christians understand this. We are bred to believe that our makeup, our very essence, is entirely sinful because a guy named Adam messed it up for everybody back in the Garden of Eden.* No matter what we do or say, no matter what a good person we may think we are, the bad is always lurking inside because we inherited his mess. In fact, one of the verses I would often recite to myself as a young teenager growing up was from the book of Jeremiah, writings which came long after Adam’s story in Genesis, and which said, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (17:9) I remember reading those words for the first time in the quiet of my bedroom and thinking to myself that it didn’t matter that I hadn’t committed some egregious crime. I was inherently and utterly bad from the start. The Bible told me so! For years, my mind would recall that verse and each time it would, I would tell myself never to trust my own goodness. How could I? Whenever I imagined meeting God for the first time, I pictured Him looking into the face of Jesus instead of my own. I was the vile and depraved friend that Jesus brought home that God couldn’t stand to look at and so, to let me in, God would stare into the face of His beautiful Son and ignore me completely.
But for how many of us has the desire to be seen for who we are and, more importantly, to be loved and accepted for who we are been all we’ve ever truly wanted? How much deeper and weighty is that desire when you throw God into the mix?
When I was a little girl in school, I remember my classmates coming to me for help with their schoolwork and feeling that my worth was limited to what I could do for them. I never felt seen. The truth is I felt used, but I didn’t have the emotional intelligence back then to understand that this is what was going on for me. All I knew was that people thought I was smart and really good at getting A’s and so I did my absolute best to keep that image alive, even if it meant never being authentic or knowing how to have real, thriving friendships with other people (two things I struggle with to this day). This is the only way people will like me, I thought. Deep down, I was terrified that people would find out I was a fraud–that I wasn’t really smart or matalino like I would hear other people say to my parents when they talked about me. Maybe it was that marriage of inauthenticity and fear that moved me to look over at another boy’s test paper one day and cheat on a math test. Whatever the case, if the Joneses were smart, that’s who I was trying to keep up with.
What I also knew was that people thought I was a really good Christian. I was the girl who read her Bible and who the other students in the group would look at for answers during Bible trivia games. I was the girl who never smoked or drank or partied on the weekends or ate unclean meats. I didn’t dare move my body to the sound of music for fear that doing so would mean I was dancing! Every now and then, I played the piano or sang at church. I won second place in a religious liberty speech contest that was held across all of North America for kids in my age group. I gave my first sermon at the age of 15, which I’m sure scared all the boys away. I even convinced my boyfriend to leave our senior prom at sundown so that I didn’t “break the Sabbath”. I did and avoided everything I was supposed to, everything that I was told would ensure that Jesus liked me enough to bring me to His home one day. In fact, Jeremiah goes on to say, “I, the Lord, search the heart, I test the mind, even to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his doings” (17:10). I wanted God to reward me, so I paid for that promise with my strict obedience and my fists clenched tight.
Not surprisingly, this approach to life made me terribly inflexible, legalistic, and narrow-minded. How could it not? If I was a problem to God and there were certain things I needed to do (or not do) in order to make sure I wasn’t a problem to Him, then I was going to do (or not do) whatever it took to make sure that I was in the group that got into heaven, no matter what it cost me. I think this is why I sabotaged my relationship with the first boy I ever loved. At the time, I thought I was making some noble sacrifice because I chose God over him. But all I did was hurt someone I cared about very much.
The fact of the matter is I never did feel like I was good, let alone safe in the salvation of Jesus Christ. Adam’s sin forever followed me. I was always left wondering, “Am I okay? Am I enough?” If I set the standards for the “smart Me“, then the Church set the standards for the “religious Me“, and boy was I way off in my religion. Christians like to say that our true identity is in Jesus Christ, but it always seemed to me that, to go from being a daughter of Adam to being a child of Christ, I needed to meet a whole whack of standards and, if I didn’t, I hadn’t really changed. In the shadowy places of my heart, I knew that even though I never committed any unspeakable acts, I was a rotten sinner who might as well have personally nailed Jesus to the cross, a belief I held firmly for most of my life. Everything from being too tired to pray, to wanting to watch a non-religious movie on the Sabbath, to not having as many verses in the Bible memorized as the next guy became reasons to feel that I was falling short. To add to my torment, the message was always the same: I needed to recognize that I was a terrible sinner from birth, to believe in the power of Jesus’ bloody sacrifice, and to accept Jesus into my heart so that the slate could be wiped clean. What I realized, though, was that Jesus would be forever cleaning my slate (like a heavenly Cinderella) because no sooner would the sun come up that some covetous, ungrateful, or profane thought would come to mind like, I wish I was a millionaire and didn’t have to f@#$%^$ go to work. And then the guilt and the shame. Jeremiah was right. I am bad. I guess Jesus’ sacrifice was for nothing. More guilt and more shame.
Born in Worthiness
Three decades into my life and only now have I come to realize that this worldview kept me from living the kind of “abundant life” that Jesus says we are called to live. What would it have been like to actually, truly believe that I was worthy of being loved and accepted by God just because I was Me and not because of all the ‘Christian’ things I did? What would it have been like to wholeheartedly believe that I was worthy of being seen by God because I was Me and not because of all the things I convinced myself I believed so I didn’t stand out from the rest of the Christians in the group? What would it have been like to live my life knowing that I was not a problem to God?
In the gospel of Luke chapter 15, Jesus shares a parable about two brothers. After going over this parable many times in my life, I have come to the conclusion that neither of those brothers–representations of you and me–knew their own worth. One thought his worthiness could be earned through strict obedience. The other thought that his sins made him unworthy of being his own father’s son.
The really sad reality is that I know I’m not the only one. I’m not the only one who has struggled with feelings of unworthiness because the Church taught that I was born in sin. That sin is my starting place. That what I deserve from the moment I am born into this world as a helpless baby is death, all because of something that some other guy did a really long time ago.** I think about my daughters Summer and Malia and know in my heart that they did not deserve to die. Anyone who has ever looked into the face of their newborn baby knows that all you want for your child is everything good. Why? Because you know that their very essence is bathed in worthiness. It doesn’t even cross your mind to think that this defenceless and vulnerable baby is unworthy of your love. They are worthy of it the moment you set your eyes upon them. As Kent Dobson says, “It cannot be true that God is less loving than I am.“
Sadder still is the damage that we do to ourselves when we believe we are not worthy or good enough, and the damage we do to other people, including our children, when we do or say things to make them believe they aren’t worthy or good enough. From addictions to abuse, risky behaviours, depression, trouble with the law, teenage pregnancy, extramarital affairs, and, yes, even suicide, we are a people who don’t know our own worth.
There’s got to be a better way. Our communities depend on it. Our ability to share the ministry of Jesus depends on it. Our very lives depend on it.
Thankfully, the Bible doesn’t start with the assumption that we are originally bad. The Bible starts with the assumption that we are originally good, meaning that we are worthy from birth. Worthy of life. Worthy of love. Worthy of every good and perfect gift. We have worthiness coming out of our ears because the ancients declared that we have been made in the “image of God“.*** The fact that we have problems and sin from time to time DOES NOT CANCEL THAT OUT.
Do you know what this means? This means that you get to breathe now.
Right this minute.
Not when you get your life together. Not when you can pray like that guy in church. Not when you have achieved that perfection in your walk with God. You are worthy, right now. You have been from birth.
And whether or not you believe in the historicity of Genesis and the declaration that we are a people made in God’s very own image doesn’t really matter. The fact that the Bible starts in this most unlikely place–presenting the highest, most elevating, encouraging, and stunning view of our humanity–is saying a lot.
To borrow Kent Dobson’s words, I am originally good.
And so are you.
Here’s what is truly at the heart of Wholeheartedness: Worthy now. Not if. Not when. We are worthy of love and belonging now. Right this minute. As is.
– Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection
*Genesis, chapter 3, verses 6-7
**Much of our understanding of what happened in Genesis chapter 3 actually comes from Augusine of Hippo’s (354 AD-430 AD) rendering of a bad Latin translation of what the apostle Paul wrote in the book of Romans chapter 5, verses 12 to 21. In fact, out of Augustine’s interpretation of the text came the idea that we are born in sin. Not surprisingly, out of this interpretation also came support for the idea of infant baptism, which he championed. For more, check out Pete Enns’ blog post on Augustine’s influence at https://peteenns.com/fall-augustine-really-screw-everything/. If you really want to get your mind blown, the phrase “Fall of Man” (referring to the fall of all of humanity), let alone the idea that all of humanity inherited Adam’s sin, is actually nowhere to be found in the Genesis story.
***Some say that because of Adam’s mistake, God’s image in us has been distorted. I don’t know that I agree with that. If we assume that what we mean when we say “God’s image in us has been distorted” is that we have the inherent capacity to find sin attractive, then God’s image in Jesus must have been distorted, too, because, despite that He never acted on His temptations, He was still “tempted in every way, just as we are” according to Hebrews (4:15) and the accounts of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. (By its nature, temptation means being attracted to or having a desire to do something wrong, which means Jesus experienced these things.) Not to mention the fact that Luke tells us that Jesus was a descendant of Adam (3:38), so if we are going to follow the logical conclusion of this belief, it would lead us to conclude that God’s image in Jesus was distorted when He was born into this world, just as, some say, it is with us. I doubt that any Christian would find the idea that God’s image was distorted in Jesus because He was a descendant of Adam and had the capacity to be tempted (thanks to Adam), to be palatable. So why do we feel okay with perpetuating this belief about ourselves, the very people that the writer of Hebrews says Jesus is not ashamed to call His brothers and sisters (2:11)?
If what we mean when we talk about God’s image in us being distorted is that the choices we make as individuals distort God’s image, then I agree with that. That said, the fact that we can distort God’s image through the choices that we make does not negate or do away with the fact that we have been made in His image. To use a really silly example, I can dye my hair a caramel brown as much as I want, but it will never change the fact that my hair is originally black, with some now turning white. Sigh. All of this is to say that I believe our origins make us immeasurably worthy of being loved by God.
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