Is our self-worth rooted in God’s love for us?
By Karen Bartlett
I’m not exactly sure how this message got lodged in my brain as a young person, but it was loud and clear: God didn’t like me. In today’s youth culture, one would say God was a “hater,” and I felt like the target. This misunderstanding affected my self worth for years, and it drove me to distrust God’s love as a good thing.
This thinking did me no favors, and as an adult I began to earnestly seek a different understanding of God’s love. I desperately wanted to root my worth “deep into the soil of God’s marvelous love” (Eph. 3:17, NLT). But first I had to believe that this soil would not reject my “roots” or me. I had to trust that the soil would be rich with healthy nutrients to help me grow, as opposed to a hard soil or one that would eventually lead to root rot.
This search led me to study Psalm 139 for several years, and an amazing and life transforming idea began to take hold of me. The idea of being “wonderfully complex” and a “marvelous workmanship” (Ps. 139:14, NLT) started to soften the soil of my hardened heart. The idea that God might actually like me slowly started taking over the staunchly planted weed of being unlovable in God’s sight.
What are our sources of self worth?
Given my own struggle, I have been curious about what young people today think about self-worth in relation to God’s love, so I jumped at the invitation to be a seminar speaker at the regional Southern District Youth Conference last November. With the permission of the 25 to 30 students who were in this seminar, “The Truth About Ourselves,” I am sharing some of their thoughts.
We started by examining sources of self-worth. The sources the students listed were: social media, accomplishments, friendships, possessions, skills (sports), career, college, a Mennonite last name, parents, image and religious beliefs. Interestingly, no one said “God” specifically. Most of the discussion centered on what friends and family think about them, especially as it relates to what they do or what they achieve—not because of who they are.
I wrote on the white board the words “wonderfully complex,” “marvelous workmanship” and “precious thoughts (from God)” (Ps. 139:17, NLT). We talked about how these words impacted them and if these words are really how God feels about us. No one expressed that the words on the board could be truthful descriptors of themselves. Instead, they said it’s hard to believe these words because their experiences were that God may not forgive them because people don’t forgive them; self-criticism dominates self-acceptance; and sin trumps grace and distorts the lens of how God might love them, in spite of their faults.
The soil of God’s love
We discussed the idea of putting our sense, or root, of worth in the soil of God’s love. But what exactly does the soil of God’s love look like? It was a struggle to define this concept, and it wasn’t their natural response to believe that God’s love is safe or inviting. It fascinated me that the words “acceptance,” “value” and “love” did not even surface as descriptions of the soil of God’s love. Obviously, just “being” isn’t good enough; even “being” a Christian doesn’t measure up.
My feedback to the group was that:
- Their value seemed to be defined by what they “do,” certainly within the context of peers and families.
- Their self worth seemed to be derived from society and from sources outside the church, not from God or his opinion of individuals.
- Given their source of self-worth, it is difficult from them to believe and understand God’s love as proclaimed in Psalm 139—that they are loved simply because they exist and that their roots can go deep into this trustworthy love.
The seminar ended with the students offering some fantastic suggestions about how they can believe God’s love is possible. They were willing to take some risks to encourage each other in the following months. The spirit in the room was uplifting and hopeful, even after the hard conversations.
As I drove home that day, I thought deeply about what I had just experienced. I thoroughly enjoyed the young people with whom I interacted and appreciated their honesty and transparency. Yet I left that seminar with a troubled heart. It appears that the same lack of understanding of who we are in God and the ability to find worth in that identity remains an issue today even as it was for me in the 1980s.
What message are we sending?
Based on some of the comments from the SDC seminar, I wonder if we as leaders in the church unwittingly send the message that God loves our youth only when they “do” the right things and behave the “correct” way despite what is really going on in the heart. From the heart come actions and words, says Jesus in Luke 6:45, but what if the heart is damaged from being told it’s not good enough?
As a youth worker in my own church and as a parent, I believe we have the incredible opportunity as leaders, parents and mentors to help young people. We can encourage them to examine their hearts to see what message lies deeply buried within and what damaged roots might be affecting their faith. What better place to examine the complexity, drama, highs and lows of humanity than in the church or in our families?
We can create safe places of conversation to encourage the young person to risk the belief that God actually likes him/her, faults and all. I believe this is the primary understanding about what being a child of God is all about: feeling loved and valued. We have an amazing opportunity to bring young people into the understanding that they are wonderful creations, complicated yet marvelous. This must be the foundational and initial encounter with our Creator, otherwise faith becomes a lifelong uphill battle. Young people already have enough battles!
And yet, don’t we need to believe this for ourselves? Is it OK that we adults are not tidy, squared away people with all the perfect answers or right actions? That is precisely what makes us complex individuals. Do we wrestle with the truth of God’s soil of love that pulls our root of worth deep into itself, rich and warm with grace and mercy? This love repairs the damaged root that says we are only as worthwhile as others say we are or as the experiences we have had. We must face our own heart beliefs and experience transformation within ourselves as “being” enough before we can meet our young people where they are on the journey.
Messy but loved
If the message is loud and clear that God loves each of us purely because he created us, would this diminish young people’s dependence on social media, career, accomplishments, sports or a last name which give and take self worth in a heartbeat? Would they be motivated to pursue their unique calling in this world, knowing they are worth everything to God simply by being his creation? That flaws and areas of weakness do not preclude them from living out whom they are designed to be? I wonder what radical things might happen if our youth truly believe in the great worth and value they possess as God’s very own.
I know my own story of struggle is not everyone’s story. Some people never have the perception that God may not like them. But for those who do struggle, especially young people, I want to believe that we in the church will be available and intentional about encouraging each other that we are God’s marvelous workmanship and complex beings, messy but loved.
And through the craziness of life, God invites each person’s root of worth to go deep into his soil of marvelous, rich love to find the acceptance and value that we all crave. I pray that we can handle the truth about ourselves and live accordingly. Out of “being” will come incredible “doing,” and it may surprise us!
So let’s celebrate what our youth do, but let’s intentionally celebrate them first and foremost for who they are. Let’s affirm where we see God’s unique design on their lives, encouraging their worth and value to be firmly rooted in the soil of the Creator’s love.
Karen Bartlett has a master of social work degree and is pursuing a spiritual direction certificate to work with those who are seeking a deeper awareness of God. She lives in Wichita, Kan., with her husband, Rick, and their two teenagers.
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