The Mystery and Misunderstanding about Being Worthless

The Mystery and Misunderstanding about Being Worthless

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If you isolate a portion of Scripture from the narrative of the Bible’s story, you can misunderstand its meaning, complicating your life and triggering our unregenerate friends. Isolating texts is why some Christians struggle with many of the Bible’s declarations. Being worthless is one of those declarations. Imagine lifting Paul’s words about us from its context, isolating it from the whole counsel of God. It could be devastating. What did Paul mean? Why is such a harsh perspective on humanity essential to our ultimate good?

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A Snowflake Era

Part of the problem with Paul’s pronouncement is that we’ve lost our toughness, along with a dose of myopia. We live in an era where sensitivity is at an all-time high. I’m not suggesting anyone should be harsh or unkind, but there are aspects to our lives that need clarity because some of God’s words and descriptors will cut against the grain of self-actualized souls beholding to such ideologies as the self-esteem movement. When I was a child, it was common to tell someone they were going to hell if they did not trust God. It was not harsh to say it that way, assuming our motives were proper; it was a compassionate appeal. Bad news always precedes good news.

Index forward fifty years, and you have a psychologized culture that is highly sensitive and easily offended if you tell them anything that stirs up a negative self-evaluation. Even the Christian resists negative assessments. All our personality tests tell us how uniquely wonderful we are. We cannot help but flatter ourselves while rejecting anything that sounds demeaning. The culture has drifted so far from the shore of truth that it cannot understand God, and His Word is obscure to them. They pull the scraps of the Bible that they do know through a psychologized filter to soothe the soul with palatable relabeling.

The culture’s drift is why Paul’s words in Romans 3:12 sound like a horrible accusation that threatens how we prefer to think about ourselves. Paul’s words in the raw will jar the post-modern psychologized mind. Guess what? It’s supposed to jolt us from our hyper-sensory slumber. One purpose of God’s Word is to knock us down, which Paul called rebuke or reprove (2 Timothy 3:16). You might want to brace yourself, particularly if you have one of those psychologized minds. Are you ready? Paul said, “All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one” (Romans 3:12).

PMA All the Way!

To the secular ear, his words are repulsive, misguided, and threatening, not to mention archaic. To the untrained Christian ear, his words sound about the same. Both demographics are beholding to the self-esteem gospel. Neither group can dare think poorly about themselves. If you are told repeatedly, through a zillion means, that negative evaluations harm your soul, you have no choice but to deny Paul’s words or reinterpret what he intended while embracing the culture’s version of self-generated, self-actualized goodness.

There is no question that Paul’s words are disconcerting and even discouraging, which is why isolating them from the rest of God’s Word is unwise. We have to contextualize Paul’s language between Genesis and Revelation. If we do not, the doctrine of self-esteem will trigger the undiscerning soul. The culture demands we reject anything contrary to a Positive Mental Attitude (PMA). We cannot call our sports teams the Indians or Redskins because it’s detrimental to the psyche, or so they say.

In a prior chapter, I talked about how the Christian bases his view of himself on the Imago Dei, the “made in the image of God” concept, rather than the culture’s doctrine of self-esteem. The “image of God” presuppositional worldview keeps our thoughts aligned and in tune with God’s Word. The self-esteem worldview leaves the insatiable soul with the culture’s solutions to wholeness. Notice in the graphic how the lens through which we see the world creates the commentary for what we believe. If our presuppositional window is God’s Word, we will have ultimate clarity, keeping us from derailing over the secular systems.

Presuppositional Truth

Presuppositional Truth

Because self-esteem is a secular doctrine born outside of God’s Word, all their solutions are worldly. Our starting point determines our ending point, making understanding presuppositional truth essential. God’s Word has a radically different starting point, but not Romans 3:12, where we learn about our worthlessness. In Genesis 1:27, we see that God made humanity in the image of the Trinity. The next big thing on the calendar of human events was the marring of God’s creation in Genesis 3:6. Adam and Eve chose to walk away from God, which led humanity into a worthless condition (Romans 3:10-12, 5:12; Revelation 20:15). The theological term is total depravity, pointing to complete brokenness spiritually and physically.

The goal of Paul’s language was not to damage a fragile psyche but to enlighten it while pointing the sad soul to the hope of the gospel. Worthlessness is the condition of every person. Let me illustrate. Suppose you bought a brand-new vehicle and drove it off the showroom floor. The car is perfect and beautiful in every way. Index forward thirty years. That brand-new automobile sits in the junkyard. It’s worn out, broken down, and has “become worthless,” to use Paul’s language. What was once a fantastic vehicle, built by a master craftsman, is now in the salvage yard.

You pass by, look at the car, shake your head, and say, “It has become worthless.” If a post-modern car could talk, it would say, “You can’t say that about me. I’m not worthless. I’m somebody. You are damaging my car esteem.” You respond, “Think what you want about yourself, but you have become worthless. You may have been something once upon a time, but you are not that any longer, and if you want to rise from this junkyard, it will not happen by the mirage of self-generated value and self-reliant means. You need outside intervention.”

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Bad Precedes Good

The Master Craftsman chose to make us in His image (Psalm 139:14), but humanity took a devilish turn in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:6). Humanity landed in the junk heap of life (Ezekiel 16:6). Our condition is so bad that any good thing we do is filthy and marred (Isaiah 64:6). We became worthless. The secular person puts his psychological fingers in his ears while saying unkind things to anyone who would make such a horrible declaration. Our unregenerated reality is repulsive to some Christians, too. They refuse to see themselves the way God does, post-fall, pre-redemption.

They misunderstand and misapply God’s Word in the most practical ways. To think we are something is repelling Christ from our lives because He came for the sick, broken, contrite, humble, and self-aware. There is no doubt it would be the most horrible of tragedies if any of us were stuck in Romans 3:12. To be worthless and left in that state is a desperate and depressing condition, which explains why the culture is so extreme, competing, tromping all over each other in the pursuit of creating something (anything) that gives them a fleeting feeling of self-importance.

If you follow sports, you see this all the time as the prima-donna athlete does all kinds of stunts after a great play to create a buzz that will pump up his inflatable ego through the next 24-hour news cycle. It’s a shallow and sad 15 seconds of fame. The Christian does not have to compete in such nonsensical exercises to fill a fictitious love cup because he knows what Paul said in Romans 3:12 is the condition and position that sets him up for God’s supernatural intervention. Christ came for the broken; to use Paul’s language, He’s looking for the worthless beggar. God is interested in totally depraved people who name it and claim it, not those who reject it.

Rest of the Story

That kind of humble seeker is ready for grace. He knows God made him in His image (Genesis 1:27), that he became worthless (Romans 3:10-12), and God must restore him to the beauty that only His grace can provide. The bad news does not damage his psyche; it positions him for the best news a sad soul will ever hear. The Christian is exempt from a sin-centered, worm-centered, worthless theology, which is what would happen if Romans 3:12 was his irreconcilable, unending condition. A worthless vehicle with no means of escaping the junkyard is in a horrible place. The believer knows the rest of the story. He pleads for the second birth because his first one landed him in the junkyard of life (Romans 5:12).

The God rejector stays a totally depraved, worthless sinner with no hope of extricating himself from his iniquity. He may listen to the words of Jesus: “You must be born again” (John 3:7), but he won’t budge. Regeneration is something the secularists will never do. God will leave him to his own devices, which is why the self-esteem doctrine is readily available and appreciated for those without hope. A second birth is the perfect antidote to rescue anyone from the junkyard. God will restore you to what you were supposed to be—a regenerated Imago Dei. Being born again does more than restore us to what we should be; it guarantees no more reversals. For the Christian, the whole story is a three-part narrative.

  1. Creation: God made us in His image.
  2. Fall: We became worthless because of sin.
  3. Redemption: God restores us by His power.

Regeneration is an unusual turn of events, and all brought to you by the power and grace of God, not by a twisted self-esteem doctrine that sends you into a hopeless maze of artificial feel-good so you can psyche yourself up to be something you can never be outside of divine mercy and intervention. God contextualizes our hope in His power rather than secular contrivances. Salvation gives hope and practical help to the desperate soul. If you are born again, you’re on the path to complete restoration. You’re not there yet, but you’re on the track, which is why Paul had so much optimism for the troubled Corinthians.

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Hope for the Helpless

(God) who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord (1 Corinthians 1:8-9).

Think about what Paul said to this corrupt and broken group of people. Sin owned them, but Paul knew the end of the story, so he could say they would be guiltless on the day of the Lord. You could say it this way, “No matter what you’re going through or what you’re struggling with now, be assured that you will be okay because what God begins, He finishes” (Philippians 1:6). Paul was talking to the Christians in Corinth. He knew God created them in His image, but they had become worthless. Paul also knew they were born again. His robust theology did not deny the extreme realities of the human condition, which is why he was so full of faith in how things would end for the Corinthians: they would be guiltless in eternity.

The self-esteem doctrine does not give that kind of hope. At best, it insists the proponent must pump up himself daily with an “I am somebody, I am somebody, I am somebody” mantra that propels the Bible rejector out the door with a “go, fight, win” attitude. He is only as great as his latest victory. Christians are different. We do not base our view of ourselves on our latest and greatest achievements. It’s also not based on other people respecting or rejecting us. We do not live or die by the latest polling data. We build our hope on nothing less than Jesus Christ and His righteousness. This worldview is not myopic like the self-esteemer, but a faith in God that sustains us through this life while preparing us for unending future satisfaction.

Call to Action

  1. Why does Paul’s declaration about being worthless come across as so harsh? How does it sound to you, and why?
  2. Why are some of the best news you’ll ever hear that you’re in the worthless junkyard of life and cannot do anything to rescue yourself?
  3. Which is more important to you: better self-esteem or the Bible’s three-part restoration process: made in God’s image, becoming worthless, and the Lord restoring you? Please explain your answer.
  4. How important is it for you to have the praise and appreciation of others? How much do those things manage you? Describe the person who finds satisfaction in God’s favorable opinion of him because of regeneration.

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