But Christian doctrine also, I think, prompts us to discover our value in the lengths that our Triune God went to in order to rescue us from sin, death, and hell. This truth is captured by that gripping line in the nineteenth-century Christmas hymn O Holy Night: “He appeared, and the soul felt its worth.” The worth discovered, or felt, by virtue of Christ’s incarnation is the simple yet profound worth of being simply and profoundly loved by another. It is the recognition that “he” appeared not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many, of whom, for reasons I will never fully fathom, I am one.
We all wrestle with feeling worthless at some time or another. The world imputes value to individuals, whether it admits such or not, on the basis of gender, race, age, physical appearance, profession, possessions, income, intelligence, accomplishments, character traits, ability to make others laugh, and so on. Too often, Christian communities happily follow suit, making individuals within them feel valued (or not) on the basis of their standing relative to similar if not identical criteria. Fall short (as it were) in one or more of the categories just named, and you inevitably start to wonder, “what am I worth?” — even if you formulate the question in different words, or struggle to formulate it at all.
Questions about self-worth may follow changes to our status in one or more of those categories that we, in obedience to the various cultures we inhabit, use to gauge our own value. It may be the slow process of aging and related breakdowns in physical and mental prowess that trigger doubt regarding one’s worth. It may be the more sudden realization that someone else, perhaps an employer or a spouse, simply doesn’t want you. Some years ago, an individual who (at that time) occupied a position of authority in my life told lies about me to persons both inside and outside our shared place of work. Consequently, I wrestled for many months with anger and a desire to take vengeance into my own hands. But more significantly I faced the temptation to believe the lies told about me, and measure my own worth by the standard of another’s malicious judgment of my character and actions. I equally faced the temptation to believe the competing and well-meaning voices of friends, family, and colleagues, as well as my own internal voice, all assuring me that this individual’s lies were simply that and encouraging me to gauge my worth in relation to my place on the scale of one or more of those closely cherished criteria (named above) for determining personal value. Sin savors lose-lose situations.
The gospel gives us radically different criteria for gauging our worth. In Christian theology we impute value to ourselves and others on the basis, first of all, of every person’s creation in God’s own image. “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27). Every human being, no matter their gender, race, appearance, accomplishments, etc., is created in God’s image, and as such has unique value, even if they squander every gift given to them and devote themselves to the worst imaginable behavior for the course of their lives. Scripture calls us to specific ways of living in relationship to others on the basis of their divine image-bearing status: “With [the tongue] we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so” (James 3:9-10). Translation: Treat others, both in word and deed, with the dignity demanded by their standing as image-bearers of God.
The reality of our creation in God’s own image should also and equally inform assessments of self-worth. “What am I worth?” Quite a bit, actually, as one who both in solidarity with others and in my own unique abilities and gifts, whatever those might be, reflects the Triune God who made me.