Monday, June 29, 2009


Today's post was triggered by something somebody said about how worship comes with a sense of one's personal unworthiness. I think that's partly justifiable; after all, you are indeed facing the Infinite and Eternal — compared to such things, you might feel finite and timebound. But further examination proves that the position of unworthiness is philosophically and theologically untenable beyond certain limits.

Let's begin with some simple assumptions. Let's say you are conscious that God is infinitely greater than you, and not bound by time, space or any physical limitation. This makes you feel infinitely small. I would say that you have a perception problem. Why? How on earth are you perceiving (or conceptualising) infinity (whether infinitely great or small)? The Good Book says that God has set the idea of the infinite universe in the hearts of men (see Ecclesiastes 3:11). If this is true (I am assuming you must believe it is so), then you have a piece of that infinity and eternity in you. You are only a smaller infinity, a kind of aleph-null (for the mathematically inclined, look here).

You cannot therefore be thinking of yourself as worthless, only less worthy than you think you ought to be.

But that's wrong too.

Let's go to another assumption. The standard of 'worth' must be external to the things being assigned a value of 'worth', or else it can't be used as a benchmark. God must be the source of this standard, or else 'worthiness' with respect to God is a useless measure. So either you are not worthy enough (according to God), in which case you can't even aspire to come before Him or worship Him or even interact in any other way with Him; or you are worthy enough — and it's not because of you, but because He has assigned you a sufficient value of 'worth' so that you may approach Him.

You cannot therefore be too unworthy, and to think you are is actually some sort of negative pride or false humility (or humility based on false assumptions).

There are hymns with lines like, "I, though so unworthy, still am a child of His care..." and those have quite another meaning. It means that you are indeed unworthy of your own merit, but you are thankful that he has assigned you sufficient merit to be worthy of grace.

But what is the textual evidence for all this? Many Christians think that philosophy is the next worst thing to sorcery, and the textual evidence for it is that human philosophy (the philosophy of men, human philosophers, the philosophy of the world etc) is quite soundly rejected as long as the basis does not accept the major premise. That major premise is of course that God exists and interacts with us, and St Paul, for example, uses philosophy based on this premise quite shamelessly and extensively (his own words, not mine).

So let's look at the text. From searching the Good Book in its many versions, I have yet to see a human claim unworthiness successfully. God does say that many things are worthless or of no value, but the text says even physical training has value. The text also says that humans have been given (or will be given, conditional on their free-willed request or acceptance) many things — gifts, grace, wisdom, peace... the list is very long, and all of it confers and implies God-assigned worth.

Hebrews 12:3 does caution against the peril of considering oneself more highly than one ought (after all, that was the sin of the greatest of the Kherubim), but it also enjoins us to consider ourselves with sober judgement, and the next few verses talk about our gifts. The implication here is clear: don't think too highly of yourself, but do evaluate your worth according to the standards of God.

A similar concept arises when humans are told that the wise man should not boast of his wisdom, the strong man of his strength, or the rich man of his riches; rather if they must boast, they should boast of how well they know God, specifically in terms of the countervailing virtues of kindness (a scholar should be kind and teach, not mock, the less-educated), justice (an officer should be just and not tyrannical in his exercise of power) and righteousness (a gentleman should be righteous in his use of wealth, and be generous, not hold on to it out of avarice).

In other words, you can hold on to your sense of self-worth, provided you know how that worth is calibrated and what it is measured against. It is no sin to be honest, but it is a sin to bear false witness; in this context, 'bearing false witness' means to either inflate or deflate your actual worth. The Good Book tells us not to use dishonest scales or measures. And this is why we have to soberly judge ourselves.

Have we done what we are told to do? Are we fit (as in exactly a match for) the tasks we have been given? The point is that we fail these tests often, but we do succeed sometimes. And when we fail, we suffer the consequences, but we also know that the Master does not hold most failures to be the be-all and end-all.

So, we're not so worthless after all. What we need to do is figure out how much we're worth and then use that capital to do what we're supposed to do.

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