Are you tired of trying to define yourself?
There is enormous pressure to define yourself well. What is your personal brand on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and LinkedIn? Or are you simply invisible and irrelevant to the global, hyper-connected world?
How do you define yourself based upon your job? Your net worth? Your neighborhood? Your family? Your health? Your looks?
We all have different ways of defining ourselves. (I usually choose the standards that make me look the best).
All of these subtle pressures to define ourselves can exhaust us. In the midst of such pressure, one option is to look in the mirror and keep saying, as Al Franken’s Saturday Night Live character Stuart Smalley famously did, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.”
But what our egos really need is the honest truth. We feel silly trying to fool ourselves.
What if you stopped trying to define yourself and allowed God to define you?
Are you worried that God’s opinion is bad? Let’s look to the Bible and see what it says.
First, the Christian story affirms that we really are good.
As the opening chapter of the Bible explains:
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 saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good (Genesis 1:27-28, 31).
Here we have the perspective of our all-knowing Creator on human goodness. Up to this point, everything has been declared “good,” but now that humans have been made, the whole is “very good.” God blesses Adam and Eve – and we have reason to believe that each human being is blessed by God.
In one of David’s psalms, he explains the glorious process by which God confirms his love for each person:
For you formed my inward parts;
you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
my soul knows it very well.
My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed substance;
in your book were written, every one of them,
the days that were formed for me,
when as yet there was none of them (Psalm 139:13-16).
This creational goodness is fundamental to everything in our world and for human beings in particular. God’s affirmation of human goodness is the necessary foundation for, among other things, universal human rights and a coherent ethic of loving our neighbors as ourselves.
It is also an important basis for feeling good about ourselves. What if the Mona Lisa could come to life? Would it not make sense for her to feel, “I am well made!” and to rejoice in the artistry that composed her beauty? (And even more: to be grateful to the artist?). There needs to be no pride in recognizing that God made you well.
Whatever you feel about yourself, think about this: God made humans very good and blessed us. Meditate on that truth. Let God’s words define you.
Second, the Christian story teaches that, morally and spiritually, human beings are bad.
This is a difficult truth to acknowledge. But it is one we already know is true – we are already struggling to feel good about ourselves, right? Why is that? If we were morally and spiritually perfect, would this be so hard?
The fact is, though we know this is true, we all insist on our own goodness, even as we know that everyone else is not so good. How can we all think this? As one author explains,
A great summary of the current state of affairs can be found in Cordelia Fine’s A mind of its own, a book which explores the myriad ways in which humans deceive themselves and analyzes the reasons why we do so. The book reaches two important conclusions: first, the vast majority of humans lie to themselves. They think they are better drivers than average, better workers than average and better people than average. They justify their actions even when these are unjustifiable. They always find a mental scenario which depicts them as the hero in the story.
Here’s the tension we live in: we know that we are not morally good but we cannot psychologically admit this truth to ourselves. It is too painful to admit that we are wicked, evil sinners in rebellion against God. Even writing those words causes me to flinch, and feel the horror of my problem. Perhaps you will find reading them to be unsettling.
Can’t we tone it down a bit? “Occasionally I make a mistake.” Well, sure, but that isn’t the full truth, is it? Is self-deception the path to goodness? And feeling good about ourselves? Surely not.
How can we know the truth about ourselves without being driven to despair?
The Bible is honest enough to tell us we are sinners. We can trust its message when it tells us about God’s love too.
God’s Love Can Overcome Sin and Death
This is good news. Because God is loving, powerful, and wise, He has implemented a plan to defeat our worst enemies: death and sin.
This is why God became human. Jesus not only became one of us, but he showed us what a good human being looks like – both created well, in God’s image, and morally good.
This is one reason Jesus commands the fascination and respect of billions of people in thousands of cultures around the world. We intuitively recognize there is something unique about his life: an uncommon and complete goodness.
More than this, His death on the cross was more than the end to the creational goodness of His body. It was also the assumption of our evil. As a perfectly good person, He could stand in our place and pay the price for our sin.
And more than this, His resurrection from the dead provides hope that both our bodies and our souls can be redeemed, restored to full goodness. The resurrection body of Jesus encourages our jaded hearts that God triumphs over both death and sin.
It is through the truth about our sin that we are able to repent – to admit that our bad actions are, in fact, bad, to apologize to God for what we’ve done wrong, to ask for forgiveness, and to commit ourselves to doing good.
And we are motivated to repent when we hear the good news about God’s love for us. It is incredibly hard to apologize to someone who plans to use your words against you. But God has promised to forgive, cleanse, and renew those who repent of their sin.
So: Are We Good?
In terms of how well God made us: yes, absolutely. You are more valuable than the Mona Lisa. Every human life is worth more, according to God’s perfect knowledge, than even the most prized artwork imaginable. (We could also explore how a robust affirmation of human goodness rightly leads us to cherish the cultural goods we produce, including art).
In a moral sense: no. Definitely not. But – for those who seek God’s forgiveness, then the answer is also a resounding yes. The Apostle Paul explains in 2 Corinthians 5:17-21:
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
These are staggering words. For those who are “in Christ” (think about the significance of being included ‘in Christ’ for a minute), our creational goodness is re-affirmed: you are a new creation. Our moral badness is no longer counted against us because Christ has taken our sin upon him. What do we gain? God’s own righteousness.
For Christians, then, there is a truthful and hopeful basis for admitting both the best and the worst about ourselves.
When we consider how well God has made us – in His own image! – we can rejoice and give thanks.
When we remember our selfishness and sinfulness, we can trust that Jesus has decisively dealt with this problem: we are forgiven! The more clearly you see your sin, the more you know of God’s love and grace. The better equipped you are to live rightly. The more specifically you can ask God to change your heart and lead you to do what is right. Because God has declared us righteous, we are finally empowered to actually become righteous.
So many strategies for feeling good about ourselves involve downplaying our sin and hyping our goodness. But self-deception is not a path of integrity, wisdom, or wholeness. Worse, building our self-identity on what we know is not really true won’t even work.
But the Christian story offers a different route. The truth of Christianity leads us to admit even the very worst facts about ourselves. Yet we don’t despair, because we know that God made us in His image and loves us so much that He has sacrificially acted to forgive us and restore us to goodness.
I want to encourage you to stop trying to define yourself. Let God define who you are. He says you are good (He made you). And He says you are bad (we are sinners). And He says you can be forgiven – and made good again (new creations in Christ Jesus). Trust God’s truthful, loving voice today.