One of the most counterintuitive messages for anyone to accept is their inherent badness. If you are feeling bad about yourself, the key to overcoming this struggle is to accept that you’re not a good person. The culture says you are somebody. The Bible says you’re not, other than made in God’s image. I’m not addressing self-worth that is found in image-bearing, but our futile pursuit to feel good about ourselves outside of Christ’s alien righteousness.
You may want to read:
- The Danger of Trying to Please God
- Loving Me: The Hidden Agenda of Self-Esteem
- I’m Imperfect; You’re Imperfect, Let’s Get over Ourselves
Love Me the Way I Do
Biff is depressed and discouraged. He keeps saying, “I’m not good enough; I wish I were a better person. I want to be a good person.” Over and over again, like a mantra: “I am not good enough; I wish I were a good person. I am so unworthy. I have done so many horrible things. How could Christ love me?”
Do you hear what he is saying? Do you see the problem with his theology, and how he practicalizes it? Reread his statements, but this time through a theological filter.
I am a terrible person. I am so bad that God cannot possibly love me. If I were not so bad, maybe God would love me. I need to be a better person. I need to make myself more presentable than I am so God will like me.
What I have described here is Biff’s actual functional theology. Granted, he has an intellectual theology that says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).
The “Ephesian passage” is what he knows (informational), but it is not what he is practically (transformational) trusting where it matters the most. It is hard sometimes for people to distinguish between what they know (Bible truth) and what they are authentically practicing, which is their practical theology.
I was talking with my friend [Mable], a drug addict. She tried her best to convince me that she was a good person. She said, “I am a good person.” Her hope was that when we ended our conversation, I would walk away, thinking she was a good person.
People like this are needy. She needs other people to agree with her self-imposed high self-estimation of herself, which is called high self-esteem. To maintain her delusion, she needs me to agree with her. It could go like this:
Please love me the way I love me so I can keep this love that I have for myself. If you love me, I will feel good about myself. If you don’t love me, I will feel bad about myself. I need you to love me. Will you love me? If you don’t, you will force me to find someone else to love me because I need people to love me for me to feel good about myself.
I chose not to tell her what I was thinking at that moment. It was not appropriate or helpful for me to begin teaching her sound theology, especially the doctrines of salvation, humanity, and sin. She was not ready to receive the testimony of Scripture.
The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost (1 Timothy 1:15).
None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together, they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one (Romans 3:10-12).
Mable does not want to wrestle with the realities of her wretchedness. In her mind, she wants to think of herself as better than what the testimony of Scriptures says she is and what Christians throughout church history have believed and taught.
If only she could convince me of her goodness, things would be okay; she would feel better about herself. My acceptance of her perceived goodness would doubly affirm her delusional “I’m okay, you’re okay” fixation. This worldview is the damnableness of our culture’s self-esteem teaching.
The culture teaches nobody can be wrong. Nobody can lose. Everyone gets a trophy. They say it is damaging to our self-esteem if we think we are bad people. It is not good for our self-esteem to think less of ourselves. But the Bible appeals to us to think less of ourselves, which is the only way to be truly free (Matthew 20:20-28).
Jesus Wants Bad People
Both Biff and Mable do not want to think biblically. They do not want to be unworthy. One (Biff) is a Christian, and the other (Mable) is not, but they both struggle similarly. They are self-righteous, which is a “greater than/better than attitude.” For them to change, it will be vital for them to accept the fact they are wretchedly unworthy of God’s favor. There is no other way for them to receive His unearned, unmerited grace.
Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners (Mark 2:17).
It discourages them to think they are not as good as they try to deceive themselves (and others) into believing. Have you ever expected to get a good grade, only to get a bad one? In a sense, that is what Biff and Mable fear. They so badly want a good grade, but they keep failing, and their unwillingness to embrace the reality of their inability distresses them.
They distance themselves from the testimony of Scripture while developing a practical theology that holds them to a higher standing than what the Bible declares. They persist in convincing themselves of their “higher grade worthiness,” though the reality of their lives is not cooperating with what they are trying to manipulate themselves into believing.
Breaking Free from Neediness
Their strategy is a trap that you will have to walk them through if they are to have any hope of being free from themselves and from needing others. It won’t be easy to help them. When Biff sees who he is, discouragement settles into his mind. Mable is similar.
When she surveys the landscape of her life, she becomes discouraged. Her response as she wallows in the grips of depression is drugs. Her “pick me up” to elevate herself eventually plummets her soul into despair. Because Biff is a Christian, he won’t turn to such “ungodly” escapes. He puts himself through the cycles of self-pity and despair.
In the end, both of them are addicts. One is addicted to illegal drugs, and the other is “addicted” to self-pity. Neither of them can lift themselves by their bootstraps, so they turn to their drugs of choice.
Cure Unworthiness By Embracing Unworthiness
Biff and Mable must come to terms with their unworthiness before God. They are putrid through and through. They are the worst of the worst, the lowest of the low.
When you read the previous paragraph, does your mind begin to think about the victory you have in Christ or how horrible and damaging that kind of thinking is? The gospel-centered person reads the paragraph and quickly indexes forward to the victory that he has in Christ.
He does not see the “testimony of unworthiness” as depressing, but a necessary step in getting to Christ. The self-righteous person will disdain the thought of being unworthy while touting their strengths and accolades.
We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away (Isaiah 64:6).
For Biff and Mable, the biblical way up is not to climb out of their total depravity by their power. For them to feel better about themselves, the answer is counterintuitive. They must shout, “Amen, I am a terrible person, and I cannot fix myself.”
And when I passed by you and saw you wallowing in your blood (Ezekiel 16:6).
Without question, you and I were pitifully guilty before the Lord. We were standing in God’s courtroom, condemned, awaiting sentencing. There was no doubt that we were responsible for the greatest crime ever committed. We sinned against God. The evidence was irrefutable.
We stopped our mouths, and there was not a thing we could do to extricate ourselves from the accusation of evil that was against us. Though we wanted to think better about ourselves, so we could feel better about ourselves, there was no argument we could proffer.
God, the Prosecuting Attorney, made the evidence plain, convincing, and beyond any shadow of a doubt. We were guilty before our Maker, and we were at His mercy. Self-salvation was not an option.
God the Justifier
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus (Romans 3:21-24).
In the depths of our despair and unworthiness, we learned about the most incredible news ever told. The gospel story came into view. We saw Calvary. There is only one answer for unworthy people: embrace the worthiness of Another. The sick and helpless cry out to the Physician.
Biff is a believer who needs to reacquaint himself with the gospel. He needs to understand what the doctrine of justification means practically. God, the Judge, slammed the gavel down and said, “Not guilty!” That was it. Jesus finished it. Biff was legally declared not guilty by the Judge of the universe. He was a free man when Christ took his unrighteousness and gave him His righteousness.
There was nothing else for Biff to do, and there never will be anything else for him to do. God Almighty declared him innocent, not because he conjured up some kind of merit that won God over to his side. To the contrary. Christ “won the Father over” through His sacrificial death on Biff’s behalf. It was the works of Christ that persuaded the Father to accept Biff as His dear son.
Mable needs her first acquaintance with the gospel, in a salvific way. She must be born again (John 3:7). She needs to hear and embrace the good news about the Savior’s atoning death. She needs to believe His death was for her, and she can only be the good person she currently deceives herself to be through Christ alone. She must find her goodness in the works of Christ rather than hers.
Flipping Justification and Sanctification
Both Biff and Mable have flipped justification and sanctification in their thinking and practice. According to sound theological teaching, justification always precedes sanctification and is not dependent on sanctification.
According to Biff’s and Mable’s practical theology, they believe that sanctification precedes justification. And their sanctification (good works and behaviors) is what makes them right with God and before others. If they can work enough or do the right things, they will be acceptable (or justified). They would say, “I feel better about myself” as they think about themselves.
Biff will argue with you because he is a Christian, and he understands, to a degree, Ephesians 2:8-9. You will have to carefully walk him through how he functionally practices his theology, which is contrary to the Bible and what he may know intellectually. He embraces a form of legalism: a person who feels good about himself because of what he does. Your goal would be to help him see three things.
- His ongoing self-pity about his badness is wrongheaded.
- He must accept His badness to see his genuine need for the One who is perfectly good.
- Once he repents of his self-imposed-righteousness (high self-esteem), he will be able to receive God’s unearned mercy.
Sin-Centered v. Gospel-Centered
Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy (1 Timothy 1:15-16).
Some people believe if you talk about your badness exclusively, you are sin-centered, and there is no grace in your life. I agree: you are sin-centered and strictly sin-centered thinking mocks Calvary. Paul had no qualms about announcing to the world at the end of his life that he was the chief of sinners. But he did not stop at his badness.
Yes, he was the worst of the worst and “bad to the bone,” but he also tells us that God showed mercy to him. Jerry Bridges said, and I paraphrase, “a diamond is most magnificent when placed against a black, velvet backdrop.” So true.
The more you are aware of your badness and hopeless ability to repair your wretchedness, the more you will be strengthened by the grace of God. If you are unwilling to accept the testimony of Scripture regarding your badness, you will limit and truncate the powerful grace that God offers to humble, broken, and unworthy people.
Call to Action
- Are you able to understand and embrace your badness? Why or why not?
- Does this awareness tempt you to create your style of goodness, or does it propel you to accept the righteousness of Christ alone? Explain.
- When you do bad things, are you tempted to “balance the scales” by doing good things? Explain.
- When you do bad things, do you run to the only good person who can make it right? If you don’t do this, why not?
- Did you know your good works do not make you any more saved? And your evil works do not make you any less saved?