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False Humility, Worm Theology, Self-esteem, and Other Related Concepts

“The greatest enemy of the spiritual life is self-rejection BECAUSE it contradicts the Voice that calls you Beloved.” –Henri Nouwin

As I read the resurrection narrative recently, I was hit by Christ’s words to Mary in John 20.

17 Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'”

I have always been challenged by the idea of being a co-heir with Jesus Christ.

Romans 8 15 For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” 16 The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs — heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.

If the Bible didn’t say it so clearly itself, I’d think it blasphemous to claim it for myself. Yet, Scripture is clear – I am a co-heir with Jesus Christ. CO-heir.

But I must keep all my verses in the Bible, right? I can’t choose between seemingly conflicting passages. Instead, I must use opposing statements in Scripture together to inform and interpret each other. Scripture is the best commentary on itself. And Scripture also says that I am a sinner, incapable of saving myself.

Ephesians 2 1 And you were dead in the trespasses and sins … and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. 4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved …

Holding the two together is a necessity. I sometimes hear a phrase, worm theology, that refers to how Christians view themselves. Here’s a blurb from wikipedia.

Worm Theology is a term used for the conviction in Christian culture that in light of God’s holiness and power an appropriate emotion is a low view of self. … The name may be attributed to a line in the Isaac Watts hymn Alas! and Did My Saviour Bleed (Pub 1707) [1], which says “Would he devote that sacred head for such a worm as I?”

A low view of self. I seriously, strongly reject that. I can’t say strong enough how unhealthy I think that is for a believer. Like Nouwin’s quote at the beginning of this article, that view tempts me to downplay what GOD HIMSELF says about me. Pastor John Piper, who has greatly influenced me, wrote this recently. I appreciated his clarification of what he means when he uses the worm analogy. Yet, I still resist the terminology. God doesn’t have a low  view of me. He created me in His image and names me a co-heir with Jesus. He calls me His beloved and affirms His lavish grace poured over me from before time began. As I sit with Jesus as a co-heir (God’s term, not mine), I can’t imagine that the term worm will describe any part of that relationship whatsoever.

I’m concerned that the use of the term worm in today’s evangelicalism is more a result of a hymn than Scripture. Did you know that the phrase “for such a worm as I” is not in the Bible? In my own study, I found 3 references in Scripture where humans are referred to as worms (Job 25:6 , Psalm 22:6, and Isa 41:14). Are these the foundational verses on how we are to view ourselves? Do these 3 verses inform all the others on God’s view of His children? Scripture is the best commentary on itself. In light of that, it’s valuable for us to go back to what Scripture itself says about the value and worth (or lack thereof) of humans. And there is no better place to do that than the origins of man in Genesis 1.

26Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
 27So God created man in his own image,
   in the image of God he created him;
   male and female he created them.
 28And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

If we use these verses to interpret each other, it gives us parameters for how to think of ourselves. God made us not worms but like Him to rule the worm. I get annoyed at facebook statuses among Christians that seem to compete on how lowly they can talk of themselves. We don’t have to put on a false humility. I personally can easily fall into self-deprecation and self-condemnation. But my version of worm theology becomes as self-centered as any manifestation of pride from which I’m trying to protect myself. Perhaps that’s why I resonate with Tim Keller’s quote on the gospel which I keep at the top of my blog.

“The Christian gospel is that I am so flawed that Jesus had to die for me, yet I am so loved and valued that Jesus was glad to die for me. This leads to deep humility and deep confidence at the same time. It undermines both swaggering and sniveling. I cannot feel superior to anyone, and yet I have nothing to prove to anyone. I do not think more of myself nor less of myself. Instead, I think of myself less.”
Tim Keller, The Reason for God

I love this. I understand the problem with swaggering. But I don’t have to counteract it by sniveling. I am flawed, but I am loved. And it is this deep confidence in what God has said over us that frees me to REAL humility, not a false one clothed in self-deprecating terminology.

14 Responses to False Humility, Worm Theology, Self-esteem, and Other Related Concepts

  1. kbonikowsky June 22, 2011 at 4:05 pm #

    That's it! Humility is forgetting about yourself you are so busy thinking about another. That's why the self-esteem thinking doesn't solve the problem…it perpetrates thinking about yourself (good thoughts for bad ones) first.

    And as Screwtape says…just when you recognize your are being humble, doh! you lost it.

  2. strengthfortoday June 22, 2011 at 4:44 pm #

    The Keller quote is great. I have enjoyed before how neatly and succinctly he nails this idea; however, to try and put that on moment by moment is a challenge. I wonder if the misunderstanding of this truth is one of the things at the core of this “Grace Awakening” that we have seen in this last decade or so.

    We don't know how to think of ourselves. Scripture is instructive, but none of us bathe our minds in it nearly as thoroughly as we ought to every day. Most human thinking is egocentric. And so, we have egocentric thinkers trying to conquer that fleshly self focus by reminding themselves that they are not “all that”…instead of letting the Holy Spirit do that work. Perhaps we think it is safer to think less of ourselves than to think “too highly”…because we are afraid we don't know how “highly” is too highly. Humans do not excel at balance.

    I think this is where many of those FB statuses come from…and I don't necessarily think folks who do so are insincere. They are reaching out for the right concept, but flagellating themselves with it rather than employing the empowering embrace…the one that says, “He must increase, and I must decrease. I love this.” We need to educate ourselves regularly. This post is encouraging, but I know tomorrow or even by lunch time I'll need to teach myself again about this wonderful truth.

    Thanks for helping us think.

  3. Wendy June 22, 2011 at 5:02 pm #

    Thanks, Kay and Diane. Both comments add a lot. I hope others will read them. “We don't know how to think of ourselves.” Yes!

  4. the three wise menn June 22, 2011 at 5:24 pm #

    Beautiful. As a woman who has stuggled much with my self image, the moment I became a parent some things clicked. If I ever heard my daughter say she was [insert any negative thing here] I would be heartbroken. Because although I know her faults all too well, she is still a beautiful, intelligent, and wonderful human, one of my favorite people for many reasons.
    For this reason I intentionally sat out to not say anything bad about myself as to not ever have her repeat it. I don't talk about how I might not be smart enough, pretty enough, and so on and so forth. And amazingly, it changed the way I viewed myself as well, and how I viewed God.
    I live in America so the body image issues may never truly go away, but it's much easier for me to focus on Christ, and my call to be the best parent and wife I can be when I'm not so busy beating myself up for oversleeping and being a sluggard…and so on and so forth.

    Andrea

  5. Sandi June 22, 2011 at 10:34 pm #

    Love the Keller quote. That book is in my summer reading stack.

    I loved your last paragraph too. I find helping my 11 year old see this an interesting road. Perfectionism or defeat are her temptations. Being totally loved and accepted but sinful is a hard one. :o)

  6. Anonymous June 23, 2011 at 12:48 am #

    Reading this article was very freeing… thanks for sharing!

  7. Jenn A June 23, 2011 at 1:41 am #

    This is great! Have any comments regarding a child responding to correction with self-deprecation?

  8. Luma June 23, 2011 at 2:15 am #

    The Keller quote is excellent! I need it as I work to look away from myself and look up to Jesus.

    Jesus calls us friends, but how many of us truly believe that? There was a time when I thought it was almost blasphemous to think of Jesus being my friend.

    “We don't know how to think of ourselves.” Indeed!!

  9. Jayna June 23, 2011 at 6:35 am #

    AMEN.

  10. Saralyn June 23, 2011 at 4:41 pm #

    Have you read CJ Mahaney's book Humility: True Greatness? It has been tremendously helpful to me as I grapple with how self, sin and pride relate and react to grace.

  11. Anonymous June 23, 2011 at 11:45 pm #

    I come from a Christian beginning with the “worm” idea and have found myself often struggling with understanding God's love for me when it is “inspite of who I am.” Thank you for opening up some things to consideration. I need to pursue and study this concept, perhaps it will increase my joy.

  12. Angela June 24, 2011 at 3:38 pm #

    Someone once told me that I am copping out if I choose to turn things over to God for His will instead of dealing with it. I find that when I “deal with things”, I become self absorbed. I think you have helped me understand that my response is okay. Does this make sense?

  13. Felicia Strange June 27, 2011 at 4:49 pm #

    I have a similar sentiment to the previous comment, I believe, because in all of my self analysis to better myself it doesn't make me better. Knowing that I am unconditionally loved makes me better. But that is difficult to grasp so much of the time that I set about finding ways to “deal with things” so that I can feel better about myself. But I can only deal with things by following God's way that he set forth for us and that doesn't lead us to think about ourselves as much as I do.

  14. Hannah King November 7, 2012 at 5:33 pm #

    Thank you for writing this! I struggled a lot with “worm theology” (didn't know it was actually a commonly used term!) for a long time because i confused it with depravity. It has been so freeing to know that God thinks of me– and humanity in general– as more than a worm.