“You are descended from the Lord Adam and the Lady Eve, which is honour enough to lift the head of the humblest beggar and shame enough to bow the shoulders of the greatest Emperor”.
Well, something like that anyway. A rough quotation-from-memory from one of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia Chronicles (Prince Caspian it turns out).
My question for today is, is it possible to have high self-esteem at the same time as a humble and repentant attitude?
For those of us who are tentatively moving out of a more rigid, fearful type of faith into a more open and free one, this can be quite a dilemma. From where we’ve come from, we still have a sense that we ought always to be feeling guilty and bad about ourselves. We feel that we should see ourselves as wretched, worthless worms snatched from hell by sheer mercy alone, and that humility and repentance must mean self-abasement before God.
Of course, there is some partial truth in all this. We are all sinners saved by grace. We read the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector and see that it was the one who beat his breast and said ‘Have mercy on me, a sinner’ who went home justified with God, rather than the respectable citizen who was confident in his own righteousness. There is always a place for humility.
Highly loved (if occasionally irritating)
But on the other hand, God doesn’t call us miserable worms. He calls us holy saints, beloved children, friends; precious people made in his image, for whom Christ lived and died. He’s not asking us to go around hanging our heads in shame all the time, intoning ‘Mea culpa’. We can have total self-worth, based on the fact that he loves and prizes us highly, delights in us as a dad delights in his kids (which doesn’t mean they don’t still irritate the heck out of him at times).
All this doesn’t preclude humility but rightly understood inspires it. That the Almighty Creator of the vast universe of endless nebulae and galaxies cares that much about me is a fairly humbling thought.
It also doesn’t mean that we’re perfect or never need to repent – just that we’re acceptable, and accepted.
True humility then, I’d suggest, is knowing our right place before God. We’re not God; the universe doesn’t revolve around us, and doesn’t even massively require us – in fact, it seemed to get on fairly well for several billion years before we ever graced the scene. Though I’d like to think that it’s a little better off for having me on board now. 😉
The shadow side
The other thing of course is that we all have what I believe psychologists refer to as our ‘shadow side’. Basically that’s all the thoughts, attitudes and emotions which we feel are so unacceptable that we do our best to hide them even from ourselves. Hence we often fall into the ironic self-bluffing game of playing ‘Good Christians’, where we do and say all the right things, including abasing ourselves regularly before God as terrible sinners, while actually being completely blind to most of the really obvious mess in our lives.
Meanwhile God’s calling for radical honesty and authenticity – ‘truth in the inmost parts’. Maybe that’s what repentance is – being prepared to offer God every part of ourselves, including our deeply unacceptable thoughts and feelings, rather than trying to hide behind being a ‘good Christian’. (I’m not sure he’s that interested in ‘good Christians’ – didn’t he say something about having come come to call the sick, not the healthy?). Only when we relate to God in this way can he start to transform our whole person into his full likeness.
Shitty but wonderful
The truth then is that we are shitty but we’re also wonderful – and loved. Perhaps humility and repentance don’t so much mean saying ‘sorry I’m rubbish’ but something more along the lines of ‘thank you Lord that I’m totally acceptable to you as I am; now keep making me more like you’.
(*Sorry, that’s the result of the two weeks in Kenya – you have to have an ‘Amen’ in there somewhere.).