I have written before that I have encountered at least two types of Christianity when it comes to defining the role of sin: you have the Calvinist extreme on one end, viewing all of humanity as something evil, despicable, depraved; on the more progressive end, you have Christians affirming humanity’s ability to be good, while still affirming that goodness comes only from God.
Nowhere is human “evil” dwelled upon so much as it is in church groups, albeit packaged in flowery language so the words don’t sting like the verbal abuse I believe it actually is. Recently, a woman named Phylicia wrote in a recent blog post titled, “Dear Women’s Ministry, stop telling me I’m beautiful”:
I shifted in my seat at the women’s ministry event; the speaker said it again.
“You are a beautiful, chosen, special woman of God. There is no one in the world like you!”
I’d heard this message dozens of times – on the radio, in books, at conferences – even emblazoned on coffee mugs and shirts at every LifeWay Store in America. It’s the same message directed at Christian women in every corner of western culture. And it’s a message that – while well-intentioned – remains deficient no matter how many times it’s preached…
I’ve yet to see one woman set free from insecurity by being told – however repetitively – that she is beautiful. It doesn’t work, and it’s not the answer.
The truth is that, apart from the transforming power of Christ, I’m not beautiful, special, or all that unique. I’m born into sin, and bent to rebellion. My insecurities and fears pulse through Adam’s blood in my veins. These can’t be rooted out with shallow “encouragements”. What I need – what every woman needs – is a soul-deep solution to the problem of sin.
I would agree here that the message of beauty is overdone, and not entirely useful (and maybe I’ll argue in a separate post that the emphasis on physical beauty in females is a product of patriarchy). I also agree that you cannot divorce the Christian message of redemption from the human tendency to sin. What I see harmful in Phylicia’s post (and this is hardly her fault) is a call to wallow in this unworthiness, this inherent destruction. The hope of redemption is offered, yes, but it’s weakened when the message of unworthiness is the other side of the coin. It’s like adding chili powder to a batch of cookies: it’s not the overwhelming ingredient, but strong enough to overpower everything else in the batch that’s good (and who does that to cookies?!).
It makes you wonder what sort of God would bother creating us in the first place, knowing just how badly we’d screw things up. For some Christians, this reality makes God look that much better – he created us knowing our capability for destruction, and still loves us anyway! – but to me it just makes him look irresponsible.
I’m not yet a parent. I frequently read Facebook posts from my friends who do have kids, and all the shenanigans they get into: the tantrums in public places, the messes, disobeying the rules when they are old enough to make better choices. I’m at a point in my life where that’s a big reason I’m avoiding having my own children: I don’t want that responsibility just yet, if ever. But the friends of mine who waited years to have a child, fully aware of all the hardships that are universal to parenthood, don’t look at their kids as the sum of all the ways they drive their moms insane. They see little beings created in their image – literally within their bodies – and that is the base of their value.
I use the parent-child metaphor, worn as it may be, because Christianity says that God also created us in his image. And yet in this light, human parents look more moral than God for not looking at their little tantrum-and-poo-machines as evil simply because they were born, doing what they were designed to do. And no one truly asks to be born in the first place.
You don’t define someone you love by their weaknesses. You don’t encourage people you love by harping on their limitations. I am utterly unconvinced that dwelling on humanity’s capacity for evil is what we need to hear right now. Anyone who has been watching the news lately already knows the destruction we’re capable of. What will build morale in our communities, and ultimately in our country, is a focus on the good things we can do, even while lacking special skills, characteristics, or education. Luckily, you don’t need to be a “good person” to be the change the world needs (and what better day to acknowledge this than on Martin Luther King day, honoring the achievements of a man who was himself a flawed individual?).
There is a wealth of space between “good” and “evil” that acknowledges flaws and shortcomings (and, in Christian terms, the need for a savior) without diminishing worth. Seriously, how is it good for humans to keep hearing on a regular basis how awful we are? At the same time, I doubt any reasonable person who hears “You are worthy! You have value!” will also take that to mean they don’t have the ability to cause harm in any way, shape, or form. Reasonable humans understand that having a boatload of good qualities doesn’t absolve them from lifelong self-improvement in other areas.
Anyone who has sustained a long-term relationship with someone, be it with a parent, a child, or a spouse, knows that the people we love most also have the ability to hurt us the most. We say that’s part of human nature, and it is. Perhaps it’s “evil” that we all have, in some degree or another, a tendency to miscommunicate, to try and be helpful, and unintentionally make a bad situation more complicated. There is a certain beauty to flawed humanity (I prefer the word “flawed” over “broken,” but no use battling over semantics), yet Phylicia did not mention that in her “much-needed” message to her female audience. Historically, women have received enough scorn and criticism in Christianity and society at large – we don’t need more of it, and from another woman, no less (for the love of God, women’s ministries, I beg you: give feminism a chance).
It’s truly disheartening that Phylicia is far from alone in thinking that honing on depravity is somehow good medicine for our souls. She wrote, “I’ve yet to see one woman set free from insecurity by being told – however repetitively – that she is beautiful,” but I’ve yet to see a woman (or anyone!) be set free from being told the opposite. So, now what?
Like this post? Check out Confessions of a Jew-ish Skeptic, now available on Amazon.