High Heels and Hot Air Balloons
Caught in the middle between shame culture, pride culture, and zero-value ideologies, just what ARE we???
Image by Wix
As we can continue our conversation about sin misunderstood, we need to take a moment to reflect on the various perspectives in our culture that shape our understanding of our own value which, in turn, dictates how we approach sin when we see it in ourselves and others. In fact, our self-image drives all of our behaviors.
The Pivotal Question of Self-Worth
Throughout the world, and throughout human history, various beliefs have existed surrounding what constitutes a whole and satisfying human life, and what it means to have "made it." Some cultures teach their children to simply build lives of which they can be proud materially and socially, while others instill with the constant fear of disappointing one's parents by building anything that those parents didn't already suggest. Some teach their children that they are individually worthless, and that the only worthwhile goal in this life is to avoid dishonoring one's family or nation, which can only have value as a whole. Others raise their children believing that they have so much inherent worth, individually, that it doesn't really matter what they do, just so long as they're happy. A smattering of people teach their children that their character is the only thing that matters, but don't always give them a clear or honest reason as to why, often describing the horrors of certain unforgivable offenses. The list goes on. All of these messages can be lopsided or damaging, so which one takes the cake? Affluence. Conformity. Honor. Gratification. Righteousness. So many things for which to strive. So many reasons to judge one another for not measuring up.
While it's already an American phenomenon that five families living on the same street might have five completely different value systems, one must wonder what happens when these children grow up playing together, being taught by one another's parents, and ultimately stepping deeper every day into a microcosm of colliding cultures, simply by virtue of living in America. Is it pure chaos? Can it be anything else? We get signals about "how to be" from everyone around us, and then we grow up and teach our children what we've learned. In the grand shopping mall of identities, this lends itself to one of the very first choices we tend to make and pass on to our own children: WHEN, exactly do we get to feel good about ourselves?!?! When do we get to feel... proud?
Generally speaking, there are three pervasive messages to young Americans today about their value, being spoken in everyday conversation as well as from pulpits, stages, and popular platforms. And there is no reason to believe that nearly all of us aren't being affected by all three of these viewpoints, since our main source of connection has become completely disconnected from our immediate families and communities, and as we try to mitigate differences of opinion with people from all over the world, from every generation, and from every walk of life coming at us. The internet has broken the walls that once segmented our society, and the symphony of chaos and disharmony that pours into our tiny little worlds is incredibly overwhelming to anyone asking for the very first time:
"who am I?"
Growing up in the sinstitution (an institution of thought which is not the particular fault of anyone and is not universal, but is incredibly pervasive among communities of faith in America and worldwide), it would seem that messages coming from the pulpit and from everyday conversation are often contradictory:
"I am SO proud of you! You should take pride in your accomplishments. You should be so proud of who you are and how far you've come! Work hard to succeed in every area of life! People will respect you in ministry and as a person of God if you're successful and thriving in every area of your life, because God blesses the ones he loves with material wealth and success in all that they do. God is pleased with you whenever you make righteous decisions or spread the gospel, and you should be proud of yourself for that! If you believe in Jesus, you chose right! Good job! You're one of the good ones! God is proud of you for your decision to follow Jesus, and proud of you every time you decide to do what's right!"
"Beware of pride. Pride is a sin. If you feel any pride at all, about anything, you are sinning. It doesn't matter who you are. God is not impressed by you. He only cares what Jesus did. All of your worldly accomplishments are meaningless. Even the "good" people around you aren't really good; it's just an illusion. That is why we need Jesus to save us from our own worthlessness. We simply aren't good enough for God on our own. Without Jesus, we deeply disappoint God just by existing and making honest mistakes. People who don't understand their need for Jesus are in love with sin. God hates them. They are going to burn alive for eternity. God's love is completely conditional, and if he doesn't love you, then he hates you. Nothing about you, in particular, affects God's decision to love you or to hate you. You're not special. It's only if you accept Jesus that God loves you."
Now, don't get your feathers all in a bunch. If this isn't what your community teaches, then this isn't about you!
So, what's wrong with this message?
While salvation is conditional, God's LOVE is not conditional. For God so loved the world, that He gave us all a choice. He already loved the whole world. He doesn't want anyone to be lost. We're supposed to love our ENEMIES so that they might not be lost in the end, either! Guys, we know this stuff. It's in that book we say we love. Read it. That means that everyone is valuable, because God says so. No exceptions.
Our relationships with God are dynamic. He is not merely stamping us "acceptable" or "unacceptable." His reactions and decisions are based on an ongoing conversation with us as individuals and with humanity as a whole. God understands that this life is confusing and painful, and he's incredibly patient and kind, which means his regard toward humanity is NOT an angry one. He waits with open arms, and He mourns those who do not choose to live live in unity with Him! That doesn't mean He never expresses anger, but it is not expressed toward the lost, confused, and disillusioned who have never known His Love.
We carelessly use this one word "pride" to express too many different things. In scripture, where we see "pride" in English, the word usually means "arrogance / haughtiness / cynical insensitivity / presumption" or "evil scheming" in Hebrew, and "self-exhaltation" or "boasting" in Greek. Occasionally, "pride" is used with a positive connotation to express things like "majesty" or "excellency," demonstrating it to be a highly dynamic word with shifting connotations, even within scripture. Therefore, the obvious conclusion of "pride is bad" that we get from reading our English bibles is not based in an accurate understanding. In this case, specificity is everything; not ALL pride, but ARROGANT pride is the problem.
Most of you know exactly what I am talking about when I mention pride culture. More than anything, it is a political movement aimed at making legislation and cultural institutions more inclusive, affirming, and protective of people whose physical bodies are not typical, and of those would like to do things with their bodies in various ways that have been traditionally considered to be counter-cultural and sometimes dangerous. The messages coming from this movement are incredibly straightforward and clear, not just to those who fit into this minority classification but to society as a whole:
"The features of your physical body and the desires, sensations, and feelings that you have about your body are foundational to your identity, and you should invest in finding a way to prioritize your physical body in the way that you relate to yourself and everyone else."
"No matter what, always find a way to feel good about yourself. Don't let anyone ever make you feel bad about yourself. If someone does anything to make you feel bad about yourself, that person is a bad person and the only reason why they don't affirm you in every way is that they don't understand love and are not loving. There is no need for you to ever question yourself. You deserve love and affirmation from everyone at all times."
"People who are uncomfortable around you once you have adopted this way of viewing yourself, and once you have been vulnerable enough to share it with them, are unfeeling and unkind. In fact, you should feel sorry for them. It's okay to feel sad and hurt that they can't love you like they should. There is no need for you to ever question that they don't love you, since they can't feel good about your decisions and your beliefs."
"You have no control over who you are or what you feel, so it's important that you protect your right to be and feel whatever you are. What you feel about yourself defines who you are. Make sure you show others who you are so that they know it's okay to be different and want different things."
The problem with this message?
This is a largely secular movement, and the secular populace these days does not generally believe in the human soul. This lack of knowledge causes the body, and everything that comes with it, to seem much more important to the human experience and to the value and identity of a human being than it actually is. In other words: you are not your body - it's just the thing you're living in for now, which means that other things about you could be considered more important, such as your one-of-a-kind personality, your character, or the way that you love others by treating them with patience and kindness.
The idea of love meaning "total affirmation" is something that has been considered harmful by some of those raised in this environment, particularly those who have detransitioned after gender-affirming surgery. Since genuine love involves discipline, boundaries, and compromise, rather than total affirmation, this makes a lot of sense, and so many people are missing out on the benefits of the rough side of love.
Allowing emotions to inform, rather than drive, our decisions is an important life skill for anyone. Believing that our pride, our anger, our passion, and even our anxiety or depression are these forces that act upon us with or without our consent makes us a little crazy, and when we don't know how to exercise self-control, we basically end up flailing desperately at each other in an attempt to burn up of all this excess emotion as it only gets stronger and more consuming, until it totally defines us. This is clearly a damaging philosophy that obscures the fact that you CAN be in total control of your own self. It's possible.
Zero - Value Ideologies
Now, this one might not be so obvious. What on earth am I talking about? I am using this phrase to describe ideologies which, when carried out to their logical conclusions, don't make a case for the value of individual human life, and therefore give no guidance whatsoever on whether or not and how much we should value ourselves. Generally speaking, this is because they're not aimed at doing so. The two most prominent sources of this in American culture right now are coming from Atheism and New Ageism.
Atheism is possibly the most straightforward ideology that exists, and doesn't involve a whole lot of trying to persuade other people of anything. It hasn't changed or evolved much over time, and it doesn't try to defend itself, based on the idea that it's more of a non-belief, or an anti-belief, in the first place, and that it is based on observation bereft of any mystical storytelling. This ideology is very simple, and very take-it-or-leave-it:
"There is no God that created nor governs mankind. Therefore, mankind's value is based on whatever he decides."
The problem with this message?
Often because of the teachings of shame culture (almost ironically), atheists believe that they can value themselves and other people more than God supposedly values them. The truth is that we don't have enough imagination to value ourselves as much as God does. He knows more about us and the world around us than we do, and His Love is limitless, whereas our understanding and our love are both rather limited and insufficient (even by our own estimations, much of the time). And, once we divorce ourselves from shame culture, it is easy to see through scripture that God dearly loves humanity.
If there is no creator to assign meaning to our lives from an outside, objective position, then any "value" we might assign to someone is limited to this life. We are simply alive, and then we wear out and die, and then we are eventually forgotten. This underlying idea of eventual worthlessness is a bleak outlook, however, and it causes us to want to be remembered for as long as possible, chasing after fame and the comforts of this life, never filling the void. This would actually be the most logical way to look at things, if God's existence and Love were unknowable or untrue, but He makes them known.
Regardless of all this, it's easy to end up in decision overload. If you can be anything, and your worth can be defined based on anything, it can be very chaotic and overwhelming to try and decide how to view yourself. This is a lot more distressing in a fully individualized culture, because one's family or community don't offer a default response anymore. Every person has the world at their fingertips. If God really weren't real, there would be nothing to alleviate this pressure, but there is! God loves you and has a plan for your life that is tailor-made, if you're interested in finding out what it is.
Unlike Atheism, New Ageism is in itself a blending of ideas from several different places. There is no reason, in the mind of the New Age person, that one cannot be involved in New Ageism (or whatever) and also be a Christian (or whatever) or an Atheist (or whatever) or really anything they want, since anything is a part of everything and nothing stands alone. Instead of fracturing itself on this point of whateverness, though, New Ageism makes all of the beliefs of everyone seem relevant to anyone, and will happily absorb new ideas and shrug its shoulders at whether or not someone does or does not find those new ideas relevant or useful. This culminates in a surprisingly uniform and simple message:
"Truth" is relative. Therefore, humanity can be defined and valued in many different ways, and none of them are particularly right or particularly wrong. There is no "truth" that cannot shrug its shoulders, and so no one "truth" is important enough to hold up as a standard or beat anyone else over the head with it. Just follow your heart.
And what's wrong with this message?
Despite being a little bit of everything from everywhere and not labeled as anything in particular, the vast majority of New Age ideas and practices can be traced back to two main categories of influence: on the one hand, Hinduism, Yoga, Buddhism, Witchcraft, and Taoism from East Asia; on the other, Occult and Witchcraft practices developed in Western Europe and America. This is a lot of things all at once, and it only adds to the overwhelm of options and nuanced definitions of self, aside from the fact that it can be very spiritually dangerous.
Along these same lines, East Asian culture is largely based in collectivism, which is the exact opposite of individualism. In East Asian culture, this means that people don't have individual value; they only have collective value. In the Wet, this does NOT translate, nor is it even really acceptable, and so in our distorted adaptations of these ideas and practices we are left with the vague, underlying feeling that we are not individually important, which is exactly what these ideas and practices are based on in the first place. The only problem with this is that the Living God disagrees with it, and therefore it's not true.
Even a trickle of this blended, disembodied chaos into mainstream thinking, without even calling itself "New Ageism" would be enough to overwhelm and confuse anyone trying to decide what life is about, who to be, and what to believe about the world. Who are you? Who knows. Pick something. Nobody cares. Whatever.
It's Not Your Fault
This list is by NO means exhaustive, as there's everything from secularism (which aligns mostly with Pride culture values) to Masonry and devil worship, and others that are bleeding into everyday conversation in America, but I'm not trying to document or fully compare or quantify any or all of these influences. I'm just pointing out that it's a lot for a young mind to take in, JUST considering messages surrounding self-worth alone.
Altogether, the messages being communicated to today's youth about human value say that you're worthless now, you'll be worthless eventually, or you're worthless forever. Or, your individual worth is really ambiguously insignificant, and even though you should find a way to believe in something, nobody really cares about what you choose except those crazy people over there. You do you. And don't bother asking anyone for help, because we're pretty sure the world is ending and everyone is actually an idiot.
The reality is that likely no one promoting any of these ideologies is actually setting out to teach people that they are worthless. Remember: not only these messages, but the distortions of these messages are what's reaching the masses right now, and the dark and distorted places where they all connect and overlap are what's leading the narrative.
In the midst of this cynicism, it is impossible to have a meaningful conversation about things like shame, humility, pride, vanity, and arrogance. About self-esteem. About our place in this world. (Because, what would be the point?) And that conversation is important.
So then... What are you really worth?
You are worth God hurting Himself to be close to you.
God sent Jesus ...to die ...because HE ALREADY ALWAYS LOVED YOU. God's love for you is the whole reason WHY he sent Jesus. God made you, and He loves you simply because He decided to love you. He values you, and therefore you have immense value that no one can take away.
You're not lovable because of anything that you do. Not your belief in Jesus, or your straight A's, or your killer athleticism, or your pretty hair. At the same time, you're not unlovable because you DON'T believe in Jesus, or you get straight F's, or because of the fact that you tend to fall over every three seconds and look like dumbo.
You're valuable, because the One who made you still thinks you were a good idea. And yes, truth be told, it can feel good in this life to know that you've made smart decisions and worked hard to accomplish things. It can feel good to know that you're loved by someone no matter what, simply because they've decided that you're important. It can feel good to know that you made the right decision to follow Jesus, to build your character, to protect (or restore) your purity, to love others well. It can feel good to get an A, to win a sports competition, or to get compliments on how well you maintain yourself or on the success you've achieved.
I want you to know: its OK to feel good about you!
But the unique beauty of knowing God is that even if the all those other things don't fit, or if someday they fall apart, you can always remember that God loves you NO MATTER WHAT. And you should absolutely feel good about that.
But... what if you don't know HOW to feel good about that?
Well, maybe that's okay too. It's honest. You can even ask God for help with something like this! Ask him to help you understand your value, to Him and to the world around you. Ask God to help you overcome anything trying to shame you or to convince you that you're worthless. Ask God to heal your heart and your mind. Ask Him to forgive you, and to help you forgive yourself, for anything that's weighing you down.
I promise you that you can follow Jesus out of anything.
Like with anything else, the first thing is to understand that GOD REALLY LOVES YOU.
Then comes the rest.
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