On Sunday morning we faced up to a painful diagnosis- Jesus says that what the world does is evil (John 7:7). You can listen to the sermon here. It is not something that he says just once. I noted Graham Beynon’s comment based on Matthew 7:11- “We think of ourselves as basically good people who are capable of doing some bad things on occasion, whereas Jesus says we are evil people who are still capable of doing some good things.” And- slightly mischievously- I pondered the right response to the pastoral situation where somebody asks “Do you think I’m a terrible person?”

It is the pastoral question that I want to face in this post. How should I think about myself? For many people that issue leads to a deep sense of despair. For others it can result in a proud arrogance. I’ve found Graham Beynon’s small book Mirror Mirror (from which I drew the above comment) to be immensely helpful on this subject. His essential answer is that we should have a humble dignity. Creation, salvation and our lives as Christians all bear that out.

Creation shows us that we are creatures! That is to say- we are completely dependent on God for our very existence giving us plenty of reason for humility. And yet we are also described as those made in the image of God- giving us a great sense of dignity and worth. Salvation teaches us that we need saving- that we are naturally evil in the language of John 7- plenty of reasons for humility. And yet- praise God- through the Lord Jesus, we are forgiven, accepted and adopted into God’s family. “How great is the love the Father has lavished upon us that we might be called children of God- and that is what we are!” (1 John 3:1). What dignity! Even the Christian life has the same essential pattern- I should be humble because I am deeply reliant on God’s Spirit for the power to be fruitful. And yet I am now equipped to please the Lord and even be a co-worker with Christ- dignity indeed.

The call is to remember two things at once- which we don’t find easy. It seems to me that we tend to latch on to one half of the above truths and it will depend on our personality which half we are inclined to remember! Let me make three (somewhat random) observations that have struck me over recent months:

1. We need to be better at holding on to the dignity that all human beings have as those made in the image of God. It is a sadness to me that in most evangelical bases of faith (including ours!) the first thing that is said about humanity is that it is fallen. This is a half truth. The Bible still describes people as made in the image of God after the Fall (Genesis 9; James 3). That should impact the way we talk about children for instance. Of course Christians will disagree with the common sentiment in society that children are good and innocent. But I worry slightly about just bandying around the phrase “little sinners.” It is a half truth- little sinners who are gloriously made in the image of God. Similarly it should impact the way we think about those who society regards as insignificant. I happened to have a conversation with a stranger last Friday who was obviously struggling with the impact of alcoholism. It wasn’t the easiest conversation in the world but, at the same time, I felt the Lord reminding me that this man was made in his image and so was of great significance.

2. We can and should face up to the reality of sin. I will try to write a further post on this subject later in the week. There is a danger that, in our Christian gatherings, we basically pretend to be sinless. Occasionally we may read a psalm of confession as part of our services. But it is a long time since I recall anybody (myself included!) asking for prayer in a homegroup about fighting a particular sin. By contrast James 5 talks about the reality of confessing sin to each other. Beynon notes this in his book: “The culture of knowing who we are in Christ will mean that we can be honest about our sinfulness.” Or as Richard Sibbes put it in his book The Bruised Reed, “If we have this for a foundation truth, that there is more mercy in Christ than sin in us, there can be no danger in thorough dealing.”

3. We can and should stop feeling the need to save ourselves. There are times when many of us feel terrible about ourselves- for some I know that can be a constant feeling that leads to a sense of despair. Occasionally, though, I wonder whether it derives in part from a desire to save ourselves. If only somebody could assure me that I was a better person then I would feel secure and safe. I fear that my tendency to try to reassure people has often kept them on the snakes and ladders game of self-salvation. As I face up to the truth about myself I must learn to look away to Christ and see that he loves me and clothes me in his righteousness. And I need to have faith that his promises are true- to “accept that I am accepted despite being unacceptable.”

In pastoral situations I often find myself praying that people (and I!) would be able to hold on to and remember two things at once. I am sinful yet I am adopted- or in the phrase used by Christianity Explored- more wicked than I realised but more loved than I dreamed. That is the way to avoid the agonies of masks and pretence, to give up the painful toil of self-salvation and to embrace the humble dignity of security in Christ.