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Biff is depressed and discouraged. He keeps saying, “I’m not good enough; I wish I were a better person. I want to be a good person.” Over and over again, like a yoga mantra: “I am not good enough; I wish I were a good person. I am so unworthy. I have done so many horrible things. How could Christ love me?” Do you hear what he is saying? Do you see the problem with his theology and how he practicalizes it? What if we put his self-flagellating statements through a theological filter?
I am a terrible person. I am so bad that God cannot possibly love me. If I were not so bad, maybe God would love me. I need to be a better person. I need to make myself more presentable than I am so God will like me.
Biff is explaining—unwittingly—his functional theology. Ironically, he has an intellectual theology that says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). The Ephesian text is what Biff knows (informational), but it is not what Biff practically trusts, where it matters the most. What he understands is not transformational. It is challenging sometimes for people to distinguish between what they know (Bible truth) and what they are authentically practicing—their practical theology.
I was talking with my friend [Mable], a drug addict. She tried her best to convince me that she was a good person. She said the quiet part aloud, “I am a good person.” Mable hoped that when we ended our conversation, I would walk away thinking she was a good person. People like Mable are needy. They need others to agree with their self-imposed high self-estimation of themselves. Their high self-esteem demands our obedience. To maintain her delusion, she needs me to agree with her. It could go like this:
Please love me the way I love me so I can keep this love that I have for myself. If you love me, I will feel good about myself. If you don’t love me, I will feel bad about myself. I need you to love me. Will you love me? If you don’t, you will force me to find someone else to love me because I need people to love me for me to feel good about myself.
I chose not to tell Mable what I was thinking at that moment. It was not appropriate or helpful for me to teach her sound theology, especially the doctrines of humanity, sin, and salvation. She was not ready to receive the testimony of Scripture: “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” (1 Timothy 1:15). Or, “none is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together, they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one” (Romans 3:10-12).
Mable does not want to wrestle with the realities of her wretchedness. In her mind, she wants to think of herself as better than what the testimony of the Scriptures says she is and what Christians throughout church history have believed and taught. If only she could convince me of her goodness, things would be okay; she would feel better about herself. If I accepted her perceived goodness, it would doubly affirm her delusional “I’m okay, you’re okay” fixation. Her worldview is the damnableness of our culture’s self-esteem teaching.
The culture teaches nobody can be wrong, everybody should feel good about themselves, and nobody should lose. “Hey, loser, you get a trophy too.” They believe negative waves damage our self-esteem. The Bible appeals to us to think of ourselves less, which is the only way to be truly free (Matthew 20:20-28). Both Biff and Mable do not want to think biblically. They do not want to be unworthy. Biff is a Christian, and Mable is not, but they both struggle similarly. They are self-righteous, which is a greater than/better than attitude. For them to change, it will be vital for them to accept that they are wretchedly unworthy of God’s favor. There is no other way for them to receive His unearned, unmerited grace.
Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners (Mark 2:17).
Self-esteem entangles their thinking. They are not as good as they try to deceive themselves and others into believing. Have you ever expected a good grade only to get a bad one? In a sense, that is what Biff and Mable fear. They so badly want an excellent grade, but they keep failing, and their unwillingness to embrace the reality of their inability distresses them. They distance themselves from the testimony of God’s Word while developing a practical theology that holds them to a higher standing than what the Bible declares. They persist in convincing themselves of their “higher grade worthiness,” though the reality of their lives is not cooperating with what they try to gaslight themselves into believing.
Their strategy is a trap that somebody will have to walk them through if they hope to be free from themselves and from needing others. It won’t be easy to help them. When Biff sees who he is, discouragement settles into his mind. Mable is similar. When she surveys the landscape of her life, she becomes discouraged. Her response as she wallows in the grips of depression is drugs. Her pick-me-up effort to elevate herself eventually drives her soul into despair. Because Biff is a Christian, he won’t turn to such ungodly escapes as drugs. He puts himself through the cycles of self-pity and despair.
In the end, both of them have an addiction. One is addicted to illegal drugs, and the other is addicted to a delusional high view of himself. Neither of them can lift themselves by their bootstraps, so they turn to their drugs of choice. Biff and Mable must come to terms with their unworthiness before God. They are putrid through and through. They are the worst of the worst, the lowest of the low. When you hear such things, does your mind begin to think about the victory you have in Christ or how horrible and damaging that kind of thinking is?
The gospel-centered person has ears to hear and quickly indexes forward to his victory in Christ. He does not see a commentary about unworthiness as depressing but as a necessary step in getting to Christ. The self-righteous person will disdain being unworthy while touting their strengths and accolades. “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away” (Isaiah 64:6). For Biff and Mable, the biblical path upward is not to climb out of their total depravity by their power. They must shout, “Amen, I am a terrible person and cannot fix myself.”
And when I passed by you and saw you wallowing in your blood (Ezekiel 16:6).
Without question, we were pitifully guilty before the Lord. We were standing in God’s courtroom, condemned, awaiting sentencing. Undoubtedly, we were responsible for the greatest crime ever committed. We sinned against God. The evidence was irrefutable. We stopped our mouths, and there was not a thing we could do to extricate ourselves from the accusation of evil that was against us. Though we wanted to think better about ourselves to feel better about ourselves, there was no argument we could proffer. God, the Prosecuting Attorney, made the evidence plain, convincing, and beyond any shadow of a doubt. We were guilty before our Maker, and we were at His mercy. Self-salvation was not an option.
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus (Romans 3:21-24).
In the depths of our despair and unworthiness, we learned about the most incredible news ever told. The gospel story came into view. We saw Calvary. There is only one answer for unworthy people: embrace the worthiness of another. The sick and helpless cry out to the physician. Biff is a believer who needs to reacquaint himself with the gospel. He needs to understand what the doctrine of justification means practically. God, the Judge, slammed the gavel down and said, “Not guilty!” That was it. Jesus finished it. Biff was legally declared not guilty by the Judge of the universe. He was free when Christ took his unrighteousness and gave him His righteousness.
There was nothing else for Biff to do, and there never will be anything else for him. God Almighty declared him innocent, not because he conjured up some merit that won God over to his side. To the contrary. Christ won the Father over through His sacrificial death on Biff’s behalf. The works of Christ persuaded the Father to accept Biff as His dear son. Mable can do that too, but first, she needs her initial acquaintance with the gospel in a salvific way (John 3:7). She needs to hear and embrace the good news about the Savior’s atoning death. She needs to believe His death was for her, and she can only be the good person she deceives herself to be through Christ alone.
Biff and Mable have flipped justification and sanctification in their thinking and practice. Justification always precedes sanctification and is not dependent on sanctification. According to Biff’s and Mable’s practical theology, they believe that sanctification precedes justification. Their sanctification—good works and behaviors—makes them right with God and before others. If they can work enough or do the right things, they will be acceptable (or justified). They feel better about themselves through their effort, requiring a daily ritual of proving acceptability.
Biff will argue with you because he is a Christian and knows Ephesians 2:8-9. You will have to carefully walk him through how he functionally practices his theology, which is contrary to the Bible and what he knows intellectually. He embraces a form of legalism: a person who feels good about himself because of what he does. The goal would be to help him see three things. His ongoing self-pity about his badness is wrongheaded. He must accept His badness to see his genuine need for the one who is perfectly good. Once he repents from his self-imposed righteousness—high self-esteem, he will be able to receive God’s unearned mercy.
Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy (1 Timothy 1:15-16).
Some people believe if you talk about your badness all of the time, you are sin-centered, and there is no grace in your life. I agree: you are sin-centered, and strictly sin-centered thinking mocks Calvary. However, Paul had no qualms about announcing to the world at the end of his life that he was the chief of sinners, though he did not fixate on his badness. Yes, he was the worst of the worst and bad to the bone, but he also tells us that God showed mercy to him.
Jerry Bridges said, and I paraphrase, “A diamond is most magnificent when placed against a black, velvet backdrop.” So true. The more you are aware of your badness and hopeless ability to repair your wretchedness, the more you will be strengthened by the grace of God. If you are unwilling to accept the testimony of Scripture regarding your badness, you will limit and truncate the powerful grace that God offers to humble, broken, and unworthy people.
Rick launched the Life Over Coffee global training network in 2008 to bring hope and help for you and others by creating resources that spark conversations for transformation. His primary responsibilities are resource creation and leadership development, which he does through speaking, writing, podcasting, and educating.
In 1990 he earned a BA in Theology and, in 1991, a BS in Education. In 1993, he received his ordination into Christian ministry, and in 2000 he graduated with an MA in Counseling from The Master’s University. In 2006 he was recognized as a Fellow of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC).