Jesus calls us to deny ourselves. But He doesn’t call us to destroy and demean ourselves. Taking up your cross is not about embracing self-hatred. Telling yourself you’re rubbish is not humility. Actually these examples of emotional self-harm can be strategies we use to avoid the gospel.
This has come as something of a revelation to me over the years. I always assumed that the worst thing in the world was to “have a big head”. Therefore it was probably really godly to continually run yourself down. Part of it is cultural: in Northern Ireland (or my family at least), insulting one another is a sign of affection: and banter is a part of normal life. Now actually my parents were good at telling me they loved me and building me up. But I was never any good at telling myself those things. In my own head, the ‘banter’ never stops. And instead of being funny, it’s deadly serious.
Negative self-talk is not a joke. It’s feeding myself a diet of lies and it stunts my growth. ‘I’m useless’, ‘I’m rubbish’, ‘I’m ugly’, ‘I’m worthless.’ What is the truth though? Well in the Bible the truth comes in two movements – first law, then gospel. First the reality check that drives us down, then there’s amazing grace that lifts us up. So let’s confront self-hatred with the truth:
Law: Actually I’m a lot worse than “fat/ugly/stupid/worthless.” I’m “wicked!” And my emotional brittleness is wedded to my commitment to an identity outside of Jesus. I beat myself up about being “fat/ugly/stupid/worthless” because, deep down I want to be “thin/pretty/clever/useful.” But none of those things are about Jesus at all – they’re about me and how I look. What’s more, even my negative self-talk is part of a strategy which I use to distance myself from people and engaging the real battles.
As I beat up on myself, it changes how I relate to others. If I’m “ugly” then I’ll hide myself (and my gifts) away from God’s people. If I’m “a failure”, I won’t take risks. If I’m “rubbish”, I won’t try things for God. If I’m “stupid” I won’t contribute the wisdom God has given me. So much of my negative self-talk is built on fear – fear of stepping out and serving others. Fear of not being enough. So I punish myself first, before I’ve even tried. And everyone loses.
This is our sorry state. But then…
Gospel: Even in my wickedness, my fears and my foolish strategizing Jesus comes to me and takes my hand. He says “I love you with an everlasting love.” We ask “Why? Is it my looks? My brains? My potential?” He rolls His eyes and says “That’s not how my love works. I love you because I love you.” And while we frown in disbelief He goes to the cross for us. There He becomes the ugly, worthless thing. He takes it all down to the pit where it belongs. Those hellish feelings that seem like they’ll overwhelm us – Jesus endures the real thing. He takes our real wickedness to Himself and experiences the genuine hell they deserve.
Then He rises again to a gleaming new life. He sits at the right hand of God and He carries us on His heart. Now HE is our identity. The old me – full of pride and doubts, sins and stupidity – is dead and buried. The new me is alive in Jesus. Now, when the feelings of worthlessness come, I have a choice.I can listen to the lies or I can fight them with the truth. In myself I’m so much worse than “useless”. But in Jesus, I am so much better than “useful”.
Jesus comes to me in my negative self-talk and says:
“Quiet now. I love you. And I love you in spite of all your efforts. Look away from yourself and your own attempts to be worthwhile. I’ve dealt with the guilt that was driving that insecurity. That’s all gone now. I’ve given you my Spirit. I’ve given you my gifts and I’ve given you as a blessing to the church and the world. You’re free from looking to yourself. Look to me and live. Look to me and love. Now you never have to prove yourself again. Now you can just be yourself.”