Reflections on the Concept of Self-Worth

What does the term “self worth” mean to you?

It means first a humanistic effort to solve man’s problems by helping him make peace with himself so that he ceases to be displeased with anything that is truly him. Since this is the overwhelming meaning of the term in our society, I find it unprofitable to use and I oppose it with a radically God-centered anthropology which aims to preserve a proper and profound appreciation for the mercy of God.

But if I am forced on certain texts like Matthew 6:26 (Luke 12:24) “You are of more value than the birds.” I will use the word worth or value and define it like this: man is valuable because he is created in the image of God and is therefore an expression of God's glory. Humans have value in that they unlike all the animals have the unique potential to consciously honor God by thanking him and relying on his mercy alone.

What is your concept of man’s depravity?

I believe that man apart from the regenerating work of God is totally depraved. That is, he is capable of no holy act or thought. Romans 14:23 says, “What is not of faith is sin.” Therefore the unbeliever only sins, even if he gives all his good to feed the poor and his body to be burned (1 Corinthians 13:3). Reason: good, value, worth, etc., can only be properly defined ultimately with reference to what honors God. Things done with no reference to God and from no trust in his mercy are not good. “There is no one who does good not even one!” (Romans 3:12).

What does it mean that man is in the image of God?

The imago dei is that about man which gives him the potential to be redemptively loved by God and to consciously depend in gratitude on God’s mercy. It is cited in unbelievers only in Genesis 9:6 (to justify capital punishment) and James 3:9 (where the implication is that we ought not curse man). It is not an important concept to the writers of Scripture, for they were not nearly so concerned as our age with what inheres in man. They were concerned not with who man was but rather whom he loved, obeyed, lived for. Man was fully man not when he fulfilled or expanded anything inherent in himself but when he ceased making claims for himself and took his refuge in God.

What significance should self-acceptance have for the Christian?

The closest biblical notion I can think of to “self-acceptance” is Paul’s statements that he can be content in all circumstances and that we should rejoice always. In the amoral sphere of looks, health, wealth, prestige, etc., God’s people should be content (Hebrews 13:5–6) and the specific ground for this contentment is the promise, “God will never leave you nor forsake you. . . What can man do to you?” In the moral sphere of character, i.e., how patient, humble, kind, generous, gentle, diligent we are, I see no room for self-acceptance until we are changed into the image of Jesus.

Our joy in this sphere comes not from self-acceptance but from our intense sense of the mercy of God accepting us into his fellowship. It is wrong to say: If God accepts me, I should accept myself. For God is against us in our sin and for us only in Christ. We should thus loathe our sinful self and magnify the mercy of Christ in whom alone we have acceptance and joy unspeakable.

John Murray, in his excellent book, Redemption Accomplished and Applied makes these pointed remarks:

Indeed the more sanctified the person is, the more conformed he is to the image of his Savior, the more he must recoil against every lack of conformity to the holiness of God. The deeper his apprehension of the majesty of God the greater the intensity of his love of God, the more persistent his yearning for the attainment of the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus, the more conscious will he be of the gravity of the sin which remains and the more poignant will be his detestation of it. (145)

What is your concept of man?

Man is a bodily creature (as distinct from angels) whom God made to image forth God’s own glory by thinking, feeling and acting in a way that befits one who is wholly dependent on God for everything. Man ceases to be wholly man when he does not walk in faith, i.e., when he does not glorify God by a life of reliance on God.

That is why it is almost impossible for me to use the term humanism, since the only true humanism is theocentric and thus is not a humanism at all in the usual sense of the word.

How does your concept of man reflect your concept of God?

God is the first and greatest of all beings, eternal and infinite in righteousness, power, wisdom, love. In the perfect and ineffable fellowship of the Trinity he is the most joyous of all beings. It is precisely his infinite fullness that gives rise to creation and redemption. He cannot be added to but only overflow and thus all his ways are just and merciful (Psalm 145:17). The nature of man then is that his being is the fruit of mercy since nothing of it is owing to himself. So man’s being should be realized in joyous contentment in the true love of God.

Given this concept, what do you say to the student overwhelmed with his lack of self-worth? What about the person who is kept from functioning as he should by his real or imagined “club-foot?”

If it is an imagined “club-foot,” you shatter the imagination so the person has a true self-assessment. If they are good in math and think they are bad, you may show them the evidence of their God-given skill and urge them to stop desecrating his gift by acting as if it is not there. In this way you change their mistake and you focus their attention on God and their duty to gratefully use his gift.

If it is a real “club-foot,” you distinguish between the moral and the a-moral.

With the a-moral you urge them to be content, because of the promises of God to give us a good future (Psalm 23:6; Jeremiah 32:40–42; Romans 8:28).

With the moral “club-foot” (i.e., sin) you do not want them to be content and you condone their sense of guilt and urge them to confess the sin and change, pointing them for relief and joy to God’s merciful forgiveness (1 John 1:9).

How do you help a student to achieve genuine self-knowledge?

Since the heart is deceitful above all things, one can’t be left to mere introspection. And ultimately true self-knowledge can only come by divine revelation because true God-knowledge can only come by divine revelation. My own means of assisting self-knowledge is thus to assist God-knowledge, i.e., to teach theology and biblical exegesis and to strive to do it in such a way that the reality of God really impinges on the students’ heart and mind revealing his inmost thoughts and attitudes.

How do students become content so that they can be free for others?

The way a student comes to be content with the limitations in which God has put him is by coming to trust his Father’s wise and merciful bestowment more than he trusts the radio and T.V., which claim he can’t be happy unless he experiences X number of pleasures — fame, beauty, power, wealth, intelligence, etc.  To be sad because one lacks these things is a mark of unbelief, because joy and peace come through believing that God is forging for us a better future than Madison Avenue can.

Therefore, the path to contentment is only through faith: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing” (Romans 15:13). When we are thus at peace we are in a position where we do not have to “seek our own” (1 Corinthians 13:5); that is, we are in a position to love. (See the relation between hope and love in Colossians 1:4–5.)

©2014 Desiring God Foundation. Used by Permission.

Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in physical form, in its entirety or in unaltered excerpts, as long as you do not charge a fee. For posting online, please use only unaltered excerpts (not the content in its entirety) and provide a hyperlink to this page. For videos, please embed from the original source. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Desiring God.

Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By John Piper. ©2014 Desiring God Foundation. Website: desiringGod.org