I recently read this blog post by Neil Carter on Godless in Dixie titled “Evangelical Christianity and Low Self-Esteem.” In it, Neil dissects the message often spread in evangelical Christianity that “we are not worthy.”
I grew up with that message: we are not worthy. It comes in many forms: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. We love because God loved us first. God has given us everything we have, so you should give your life back to God. If it weren’t for God, we’d be living sad, lonely lives, steeped in our own depravity.
At the bottom of all these messages is you are worthless. Sure, it’s masked by an implication that these messages are about God’s love for us worthless humans, or that they are about humility (read: knowing your place). But let’s get real: the message is that you’re just no good.
This is why I love humanism so much: the message is “Good without a God.” From my understanding, it begins with the belief that humans are basically good beings who want to help others in the world, and we can do this because it’s the right thing to do. And we can decide it’s the right thing to do using our amazingly evolved brains that can use the powers of logic and reason. We don’t need a god to tell us it’s good: we can decide that for ourselves, and take action as we see fit.
So many of Neil’s words resonated with me because for years I didn’t trust myself. I saw myself as inherently bad and not to be trusted, because I would lead me astray from what God wanted for my life. From a different perspective, my direction in life was taken from me. And let me tell you, searching for what God wanted for my life lead me to some bad places. Now, I am able to reflect and understand that a large part of what lead me to those places was my low self-esteem.
In the article, Neil writes: “We learned well the art of self-deprecation, and we learned to revel in our own failures and incapabilities. But a low self-evaluation is a self-fulfilling prophecy. It utilizes a powerful confirmation bias which dismisses strengths and successes (being careful to give credit to God alone for any of that) and focuses instead on losses and screw-ups (because, hey, that’s just who we are, right?).”
I came away from Evangelical Christianity as a high schooler, but entered college with no sense of trust in myself or self-worth. The damage had been done on my impressionable teenage brain. Especially dealing in the area of emotions – my anxiety was the result of me not praying enough, or trusting God enough, of course. My struggles in the areas of sex, friendships, “worldly pleasures”? Must not be truly saved. How could I be? Better pray the sinner’s prayer again… My struggles with my parents? I’m not good enough.
Building self worth takes time, as anyone knows who has struggled in this area for any reason. I always thought I had seen others as more worthy than me, but as I’ve learned more about having a healthy view of what it means to be human, I know that to really love others you must learn to love yourself. What has surprised me as I’m learning how to love and respect myself is the way my view of others who are very different from me is changing. People with disabilities, people of different races and cultures, people from different socio-economic statuses… you would think that the message of “God loves us all” would be more powerful, but actually my own sense of worth as a person is helping me more fully, deeply believe in the worth of different humans. My understanding and acceptance of my own humanity helps me embrace the humanity of others, as different and similar as we can be. (and, interestingly enough, this is spreading other creatures with feelings and understanding. I feel much more understanding and compassionate about our animal friends than I have in the past, with a view influenced by my dad’s words that they are “just animals.”)
In short, I am coming from a message of “you are worthless (without God),” to, “you are worth it.” From “you need saving,” to, “you are pretty awesome on your own.” From, “you need forgiveness from your many sins,” to, “try not to harm others, and try to make it right if you do.” From, “Trust God,” to, “Trust yourself.”