Not long ago, I went to a women's workshop at a church on the subject of identity, namely finding our identity as a child of God. I'm not sure if it's exactly our identity we are unsure of, or worrying if the person we know us to be will be accepted by those around us. Maybe not even accepted as much as valued. It's challenging for all us, men and women alike, but I think we have different areas where the concern shows up and different ways of going about trying to compensate for it.
Not to diminish men's struggle and since I am only able to speak out of a woman's perspective, I can say that our culture puts a lot of unrealistic expectations on us in particular, which clouds the uncertainty of measuring up even more. We talk a lot about our "self esteem" and it seems to take a lot of hits.
The definition of esteem is "to place a certain value on" so when we talk about self esteem, what we are really looking at is the value that we place on ourselves. Without any real criteria to base that on, we naturally turn to comparison. Also, while we are comparing, it's no wonder we get confused on who we really are since we are constantly trying to become like the people that we feel do measure the highest in areas that are important to us. Instead of being who we naturally are, we end up trying to morph into what we think they are like, leading us to the eventual point of needing to "find ourselves".
How this usually plays out is that we get stuck basing our worth and identity on our interpretations and observations of 3 things:
- What we think our surrounding culture or sub-culture values and how we fall within that standard.
- How we compare to those around us that we value, because we see that other people value these "chosen ones" for reasons that are important to us.
- The opinions of others, trustworthy or untrustworthy, as to how they think we are measuring up to values that are important to them, which we feel the need to make important to us as well. We pick up on this by hearing their critique of others or even direct critique of us, which we take as truth.
The battle is never ending and when you really look at it, it all becomes kind of a game. Everyone seems to be in a panic to impress someone else when we all just wish we could relax and be ourselves. Social media and all it's pressure now turns the panic into a bit of an underlying internal frenzy.
It's no wonder that the "self-help" industry is so strong. People are desperate to "improve" themselves so they don't always feel like they are falling short, although it doesn't always seem to bring the results they had hoped for.
According to Lindsay Myers, MBA MPH, "Self-improvement represents a $10 billion per year industry in the U.S. alone. In addition to high revenues, self-help also has a high recidivism rate, with the most likely purchaser of a self-help book being the same person who purchased one already in the last 18 months. This begs the question of how much good these self-help books and seminars are doing for consumers. If they are so effective at solving our problems, why do they usually result in a continuing stream of self-help purchases?"
So, back to the women's' workshop on identity. Everything the presenter said was true and of great help. She reminded us that what our worth and identity is really based on is these 3 things:
- We are deemed worthy based on the standard that He, the Creator of all things, made us just the way He wanted us to be. The idea of royalty alone should help us to feel esteemed since the King of the Universe created us to be princes and princesses by birth. The Bible is filled with verses that tell us about the worth He places on us.
- We don't have to base our worth on how we compare to others since we can be secure in knowing we all have intrinsic value because of who made us. It's a waste of time since He created us all different anyway, for a specific purpose. We all have weak spots that we need others to fill so we can build community and unity as a group.
- We need to listen to those who are trustworthy when they help identify where we could improve, as well as offer this constructive help to others, but we don't need to ultimately listen to anyone but God alone as He declares us worthy. We need to be spending time in the Bible to hear His words to us.
But just hearing these truths still didn't seem to address the problem of our struggle. We can identity the problem, and can even map out the solution but until we really find a way to put the solution to work, we can still remain stuck.
As I look back on a life-time of questioning my own value, the acceptance and value I depended on from my performance and others' opinion was combined with the knowledge of what I read in God's word once I started spending time in it. I was still desperate to feel valued and was looking for confirmation in many things; my family, my service in the church, my reputation in the community, my job, because I didn't know how to separate myself from hold it had on me.
It wasn't until God allowed all of these things to be stripped away that I was finally able to see through the deception that these things were not what gave me value at all. It was truly a sink or swim moment. I saw that I had been pitting my own idea of what brought me value against the value I already had in God, as if they were on opposite sides of a scale.
God, in His mercy, let the things I had placed on my side of the scale slip away since even through I had put so much weight in them, they were just an illusion. The truths of God's love, worth, and acceptance that I heard through time in prayer and His word were what I could grab ahold of to give me the footing I was desperate for. This assurance helped me to break free from worrying about what other people thought of me and if I was meeting their standards.
Jeremiah 2:13 says "My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water." When we turn to anything to fulfill us or to give us a sense of value other than God, we are turning to things that are empty and won't give us what we are looking for. They are like broken cisterns or broken water vessels.
Even though I talk a good talk, I still have a hard time with this and have to weigh it all out. I am guilty of turning to the next good idea on self improvement and have to find a healthy balance. I think we all can improve on areas in our lives and need to, but the motivation needs to be to improve ourselves so we can operate more efficiently instead of trying to impress those around us.
So, I have realized that for me, it comes down to choice, not just information. Once I am able to see both sides of the scale, what am I going to choose? Am I going to believe what God says about me or my own interpretations of how I see myself? The decision takes effort because it's so easy to turn to what seems most important at the time, which is to trust what I see, feel afraid of and think I can control. But it's all part of the illusion.
Jesus said that we need to "take up our cross and follow Him" (Matt 16:24) which means that we need to make the choice to really do it. Are we willing to die to the desire to feel accepted for what we wear? Will we be willing to die to our desire to lose those pesky 10 pounds, not for our health, but so we can feel like those around us will deem us worthy. Will we be willing to die to our desire to have our lives look like those on social media since impressing them is what matters most?
It's tough to find the balance between being in the world and not consumed by it's pressures to keep up. It's a challenge to want to fit in but to resist the temptation to make our sense of worth dependent on it. C.S. Lewis said "Don't let your happiness depend on something you may lose." In that same regard, we will do best to not let our sense of value depend on something that leaks.
Our true identity can be grounded on the fact that we are daughters of the living God and that He fills us with the living water that truly satisfies. That is who we need to choose. That is who we need to serve. It depends on more than information, it depends on us being willing to die so that we can truly live a life that won't lead us to question who we really are.