The insatiable need for affirmation

I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me. (1 Corinthians 4:3-4)

In a few days, we will be coming to an end of the monthlong affirmation party that is Pride Month. There are many things that could be written about this cultural celebration. But if I might dare to dip my toes into these shark-infested waters that can cause a person to get torn to pieces if he or she says the wrong thing, I believe we would all benefit from Paul’s perspective in 1 Corinthians 4:3-4. In this passage, he writes, “I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me.”

This passage has come to mind often this month for me. Identity and self-worth are struggles for people of all backgrounds, but they seem to be a particular struggle for many who have found a home in the LGBTQ+ community. Questions of who I am, where do I fit in, am I worthy of love, and does my life matter understandably loom large for those who may feel different than what a society deems normal or acceptable. I have not walked in anyone’s shoes but my own, but I imagine that I would be much more sensitive to the opinions of others if those existential questions were not settled in my own mind and heart.

The results of this increased sensitivity are everywhere. In our country, we seem to have moved from a campaign to accept alternative lifestyles and secure basic rights for marginalized communities to a whole other level. These days, it feels like there is a demand for everyone to conform their perspective to a particular ideology, in which the only criteria for being a man or a woman is that an individual feels that they are, where children should be unquestionably believed and supported if they claim to be a different gender, or nonbinary, or gender fluid; where therapists and teachers must only affirm these choices; and where any parent or adult who dares to raise questions is accused of doing violence and endangering the life of a child. It has become increasingly difficult to have a civil conversation on matters of gender and sexuality without being shouted down or called out as a bigot.

This is why I find Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 4:3-4 to be so revolutionary and refreshing. Paul first declares that his identity and self-worth do not depend upon the opinions of others. To this, many modern people would say a hearty “Amen! The only thing that matters is what YOU think!” But then Paul drops the bomb: “indeed, I do not even judge myself.” Paul tells his listeners that it is just as fragile and misguided to locate your identity and self-worth in your own perspective as it is to entrust it to the opinions of others.

Think about it: most healthy people know that they fall short of being the people they wish to be, and can be quite harsh on themselves. And trying to cover over our inadequacies with positive affirmations – “I am proud of myself!” – is like putting a band-aid on an ulcer. But the alternative is even worse: stubbornly believing ourselves to be incredible and amazing in every way, despite evidence that we might not be as great as we think we are, is just blind foolishness and callous to the harm we cause to others.

There is a better way. As Paul said, “It is the Lord who judges me” (1 Corinthians 4:4). There is a way off the thin ice of an identity constructed on self-perception or the opinions of others to solid ground. It is to find your identity and self-worth in who God says that you are, to see yourself from the perspective of the one who created you, knows you better than you know yourself, and loves you enough to give His life for you. But be warned: God’s thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are his ways your ways. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9). Before his Damascus Road experience (Acts 9), Paul was sure that he had an accurate perspective on reality, God, and himself. But after meeting Jesus, he had to do a 180 and learn how to walk in the truth.

It is possible to gain an identity and self-worth that does not depends upon the affirmation of others, or even upon the affirmation of yourself. I encourage you to get to know the God who created you, the Savior who gave His life for you, and what He has to say about you.

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