Maybe you love your birthday. You love an excuse to eat cake. You find great joy in opening gifts and relish the opportunity to mark the moment by reflecting on your blessings from the year. You see your birthday as a chance to take inventory of your life — to get really honest about what is working and what needs to change. You might even relish being honored — not for what you do but for who you are.
Or perhaps the attention your birthday brings makes you uncomfortable. Possibly you feel threatened by the idea of getting another year older. Or maybe observing the day you were born feels frivolous and indulgent and you are repulsed by the thought of being at the center of anyone’s attention. Maybe it’s a struggle to believe that our mere createdness is something to be celebrated.
- Accepting any affirmation of who we are is often lost in the chasm between pride and shame.
For some of us, our sense of significance is defined by attributes and accomplishments that we have allowed ourselves to believe are self-achieved. Outside affirmation has built our identity. To celebrate who we are instead of what we have done feels weak or like we are settling somehow. It’s difficult to tolerate celebration of ourselves in the present with unresolved dreams and unaccomplished goals. Pride tells us that celebration is a reflection of our accomplishments.
You might avoid and decline opportunities to be honored because you fear appearing self-absorbed and prideful and, therefore, default to shame. You assume that to acknowledge gifts in yourself or to observe growth would be boastful. So to avoid appearing narcissistic, you brush off compliments and minimize others’ praise.
I have often rejected praise and refused to celebrate myself because the kindness feels foreign to the lies I’ve claimed, the stories I tell myself about who I am, and what makes me worthy of celebration. I suspect you’re a storyteller too. Maybe you tell yourself stories about why people stay and why people leave or tales about the reasons you haven’t been chosen or were left on the outside of the circles we love to draw in our minds and hearts. Maybe your favorite stories to tell are the ones about the person who is the better version of yourself — the more disciplined, more creative, prettier, kinder, all-around-better edition of who you are right now. And he or she has become your constant and unrealistic point of comparison.
It will be difficult to choose joy when these are the stories written in ink on your heart. There’s no room to imagine or reflect on the gifts God stored inside you when you commit to those lies. The truth about your value will always feel like it’s true for someone else but not for you. The celebration will always sit on the far side of a dream realized or a goal achieved, a mirage of satisfaction. You will decide that joy was possible until you made that mistake — that mistake that invited shame to move into your heart.
Of course these stories don’t change the truth. Your feelings are undoubtedly real. But there is a profound difference between your real emotional experience and the truth. There are three sources of truth: God, ourselves, and others.1 All three sources are significant.
- God is the author of all truth. The Bible is filled with affirmations of God’s delight in you and full of promises about your safety in His economy.
But the reality is that God has given us a choice in whether or not we will take Him at His word. The same is true when He speaks through other people in your life. You have a community — family members, friends, mentors, co-workers, fellow church members — who have seen and named gifts in you. They’ve expressed appreciation for the difference your presence makes in their lives. They’ve complimented and called upon your talents. Perhaps you felt joy in this moment. But affirmation’s lasting effects will depend on the story you choose to tell yourself.
Choosing joy will be particularly difficult in the face of painful feelings. We all have life experiences and relationships that have shaped our wounds. Maybe you’ve been on the receiving end of betrayal by someone who promised to be faithful, consistently unpredictable behavior of a caregiver, or you’ve endured a chronic health condition with no promise of relief. I know that, like me, you have very good reasons for feeling the way that you do — feelings that make joy feel foreign. But once again, I take comfort in the fact that there is a difference between feelings being real and feelings being true. Because of Jesus’ death on the cross and His resurrection, we can experience emotional hurt and know that pain is not the end
of the story. Perhaps, given the options of pride and shame, shame is the more attractive choice because in being self-deprecating, we feel less self-absorbed. But the truth is,
- shame is just as self-absorbed as pride.
Whether you choose to inflate your ego or deflate your ego, pride and shame will both ensure that you remain focused on yourself. There is no nobility in claiming a worthless identity. Neither pride nor shame empowers us to choose joy. We need a different way.
Pride celebrates who we are apart from Christ. Shame refuses to celebrate what Christ has done on our behalf. But true humility celebrates who we are in Christ.
Both pride and shame are focused on what we deserve and find safety in what can be earned. The freedom of humility is realizing what we don’t deserve and can’t earn but are given anyway.
It might require some nerve to stare into the extent of our brokenness. But many of us underestimate the courage that is required to gaze into the expanse of our belovedness.
What if allowing our souls to feel their worth was a cornerstone of courage?
Both the stories of creation and the cross extend an invitation to see our significance. When God created the beauty of the world we enjoy, shaping creation from formless and empty space and breathing life into creatures big and small, He chose to pronounce every piece of His creation “good.” When God spoke, “it was so” (Genesis 1:7 NIV) and “God saw that it was good” (Genesis 1:10 NIV) — a phrase repeated throughout Genesis 1, He created the beauty we relish. The separation of light and darkness, sea and sky were good. Plants that grow, bloom, and bear fruit and sun, moon, and stars that hang as lights in the vault of the sky were good. On God’s command, the water teemed with living creatures and animals roamed the land and God saw they were good. Finally, God made humans — His children — in the likeness of the triune God and blessed them, and He saw His creation was good.
The first chapter of Genesis is not merely a historical account of how the world was made. He celebrated us as His beloved. Often, as Christians, the early chapters of Genesis serve as an opportunity to confront the reality of our brokenness as we consider the fall when Adam and Eve disobeyed God and sin entered the world. And to be clear, our brokenness is both true and essential to understand if we wish to absorb the full hope of the gospel. But in the biblical narrative, our brokenness is best understood by first acknowledging our belovedness. Image bearers is the identity we celebrate as His beloved. This was our starting place. And the Voice that calls you and me beloved must be the primary voice we hear moving forward.
The cross is yet another invitation to choose the joy of being cherished by God. Romans 8:1 offers this promise:
Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. — NIV
This is the Good News. God considered us “good” when He created us, and we are seen as good once again because by grace our sin is covered by the blood of His Son.
An honest look at your life will reveal weaknesses in your character, areas in which you need to grow, events and relationships gone awry. But there is no part of you or your story that disqualifies you from the promise that you are priceless.
This is our permission — our encouragement — to believe the beautiful truth about ourselves. We are free to confess our sin and free to speak honestly about our gifts and accomplishments, knowing that we are ultimately defined by God’s delight and celebration of us as His children. Celebrating who we are means acknowledging the reality of our failures and the truth of our gifting and feeling joy about who we are apart from both.
Celebrating the person we are requires both time and intention. As my mentor, Terry, often says, “The brain goes where it knows.” Getting your brain to agree to venture into the unchartered territory of celebration — particularly, choosing to find enjoyment in who you are — will not happen simply because you think it sounds like a good idea. This requires effort and discipline.
One place to start is by paying attention to your response toward affirmation. Do you qualify others’ kindness by making statements like, “Oh, you’re just being sweet.” Or do you diminish the truth in someone’s compliment toward you with a response along the lines of, “Well, I guess you’re catching me on a good day.” Or maybe you deflect the affirmation with sarcasm, saying something like, “You should ask my spouse and kids what they think!”
My work at the Hideaway Experience, a marriage intensive experience, has taught me a great deal about receiving affirmation. Toward the end of our four days of working together, there is a time of affirmation before everyone departs for home. Many years’ worth of groups have helped us understand that receiving personal affirmation is challenging for most people, so we set up some guidelines, and one rule is particularly important: the only words you are allowed to give in response to affirmation are “Thank you. I receive that.” While I don’t always use these exact words every time, I have done my best to adopt this tenet in my own life. When someone offers me kind words, I make every effort not to judge the statement, question it, qualify it, deflect it, or reject it. I try to simply say some version of “Thank you. I receive that.”
Taking it a step further, we are empowered to tell ourselves a different story — the truth about our identity. A warning: don’t wait to feel this truth before you are willing to speak it and claim it as your own.
- Actions don’t follow feelings. Feelings follow actions. Join the chorus in telling the story you know and not simply the one you feel. Often, we have to choose the joy we hope to feel.
Delighting in others will be helpful in seeing value in ourselves. Surprisingly, one of the marks on a person’s life who has learned to celebrate themselves is their ability to celebrate other people. When we are neither drawing attention to ourselves by proving ourselves with our pride or by shaming ourselves in our insecurity, our gaze is free to focus outward.
In The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness, Timothy Keller noted that C. S. Lewis recognized this to be true as well, saying, “The thing we would remember from meeting a truly gospel-humble person is how much they seemed to be totally interested in us. Because the essence of gospel-humility is not thinking more of myself or thinking less of myself, it is thinking of myself less.”2
Terry Hargrave and Sharon Hargrave, 5 Days to New Self (self-pub, 2016), Cenveo-Trafton Printing, 51.
Timothy Keller, The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness (10Publishing, 2012), 32.
Excerpted with permission from What If It's Wonderful? by Nicole Zasowski, copyright Nicole Zasowski.
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Do you know that you are delighted in? Do you receive His affirmation and the celebration of others? As God's creation and in Christ Jesus, you are good! Do you believe it? Come share with us! We want to hear from you! ~ Devotionals Daily