I recently heard someone confess a struggle that I (and I would suspect, others) know very well. He said, “For years, my sense of self worth has depended on two things: my achievements, and the opinions of others.”
How true that has been in my life! Because I am the sort of person who generally does well at whatever he puts his hand to, I am particularly susceptible to equating my value as a human being with the result of any given activity.
The problem with this approach, of course, is that it is a floating measure. When things “go well” for us (however that success is measured), then we are buoyed upward on a tide of euphoria. Life is beautiful and God loves us.
When, however, things fall apart (or seem to), when glitches, stumbles, hiccups and hesitations happen, then our self-worth shrinks or collapses. Darkness comes over. God seems far away and we ask why He is punishing us.
Caught up in this habit, we easily fall prey to perfectionism—it has to be just right, or there must be something wrong with us. Or perhaps we tend towards procrastination—if there is a chance the result of our effort is not going to be perfect, we just won’t do it, or else we’ll put it off for another time.
Whether we tend towards perfectionism or procrastination, though, the drive to define ourselves by what we accomplish or fail to accomplish is a circular rollercoaster ride, with dizzying highs and crashing lows.
The impulse to measure ourselves by the opinions of others creates a similar pattern. When we are showered with gratitude, praise and attention, we feel loved, valued and confident. When, however, people disagree with us, get upset with us, are indifferent to us, or seem to take us for granted, we are tempted to feel less than worthwhile.
If a life governed by achievement is a rollercoaster, a life dependent on the opinions of others is a game whose objective is to extract the necessary number of ego strokes from our children, our spouse, our friends and coworkers. This is done either by subtle forms of manipulation, or else by engaging in “people pleasing” techniques. And then there are those who define themselves in negative terms, and therefore seek negative and even abusive attention to maintain their degraded self-image.
Whatever the case, maintaining our self-esteem through the opinions of others leads us to use everyone we encounter as vehicles to our selfish ends, thus depriving our relationships of their humanity.
Is there another option? After all, doesn’t everyone need to feel appreciated, approved of, loved and valued? Where else can we find such affirmation of our worth, if not in our accomplishments, or in the people around us?
In his second Epistle to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul offers us a personal answer to that question. Having told his hearers about certain mystical visions and revelations he received from God (2 Cor. 12:3-4), he says that “to keep me from being too elated by the abundance of revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to harass me, to keep me from being too elated.” (2 Cor. 12:7) Paul asked God three time to take this “thorn in the flesh” away from him, but God’s only response was, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor. 12:9)
The Apostle confesses that he wanted his spiritual achievements and the approbation of others to determine his sense of wellbeing. However, his personal struggle (no one knows what it was) sabotaged his best efforts. In the end, he realized that God had given him a specific weakness precisely so that he would not depend on human avenues to affirm his worth. Ultimately, his “boast” could only be in the One who had created him, who had invested him with intrinsic value from his mother’s womb, and who had suffered in the flesh in order to restore him and the rest of the humanity to its intended glory.
As the world compels us to seek fame, honour and glory, striving to be a “great” this or a “famous” that, the Gospel challenges us to realize that such desires are actually misguided expressions of a more basic impulse: the need to know that God loves us. When we seek affirmation through our achievements or the opinions of others, we are really looking for God’s love in all the wrong places.
When, therefore, I am tempted to live as if my self-worth depends on whatever I accomplish or what others think of me, I need instead to boast “of the things that show my weakness,” (2 Cor. 11:30) which is to say, I need to face my frail humanity. I need to buck the overwhelming temptation to feed my ego, and instead cry out like a helpless child. Only then can I open the door that allows God to lift me up, embrace me, and tell me that He loves me. Only then can I find in Him my true worth and value, as His beloved child, a partaker in His divine nature, a son and heir of His kingdom.