Recently in church we sang a song with the lyric
I’m so unworthy, but still you love me
It disturbed me. I find a number of worship lyrics problematic, primarily for theological reasons, and this one certain falls under that category, but it also struck me as pastorally deeply problematic.
Why? Well, as plainly as I can put it – if a spouse or parent is intent on telling their child or significant other, ‘it’s a good thing I love you, because you are completely unworthy of such regard and affection’, we would condemn that as a severely dysfunctional relationship! Even switching it from the accusative to the confessional, if someone told me at a dinner party that this was how they felt in their relationship, my spidey-senses would be tingling. And yet this kind of spiritual Stockholm syndrome finds its potency in all such lyrics. And I just don’t think it holds up to our story.
Gloria Dei, vivens homo - the glory of God is the human fully alive (Irenaus of Lyons).
Reading the gospels, Jesus doesn’t seem to go around reminding people they are unworthy, nor does he seem to require any such admission before healings, taking on disciples, offering forgiveness, or sharing a meal. Jesus’ preferential option for the poor seems much more concerned with lifting the worth of an individual (not only societally, but in their own view of themselves in relation to God) than in ascertaining whether the appropriate belittling has already taken place. When describe the relation between God and the people, Jesus told us to call God our father, and where pray tell, does Jesus stop the proceedings to ask us to confess our unworthiness (our sin, yes – sure – but not this inherent, unchangeable state of worthlessness). Jesus even went so far as to counter societal standards of worth by blessing the little children and holding them up as examples; what God has deemed worthy let not man call unworthy.
Jesus drew near because God so loved the world, not to condemn us or deem us worthless, but to restore, reconcile and bring reunion. Because in the beginning God deemed the world good and humans very good, humans made in the image and likeness of God, no less. Even when prophets such as Moses and Jeremiah try and limit their potential and shrug off their calling, God doesn’t agree with their diagnosis of unworthiness, but rather builds them up and deems them ready and worthy. Even Peter, who betrayed, is not ask to grovel and confess is unworthiness (try as he might), he is commissioned once more out of love.
Humility is valued, called for, and rewarded – but not aggressive self-humiliation. Yes, in 1 Corinthians Paul reminds the community that they are not yet the fully realised people of the resurrection – yet he still considers them worthy of sharing love (the greatest of all gifts).
To be generous, lyrics like this may spring from a desire not to associate worthiness (read as earned self achievement) with the love of God – but it doesn’t achieve that, we don’t have to go into the negatives, neutral is fine.
But perhaps what bothered me most (bothered is an understatement) is that standing next to me during this song was my wife, whose anxiety and depression are constantly trying to convince her of her own worthlessness. My wife who has to battle these thoughts and feelings – these at times overwhelming voices of negativity – in order to get to work or get out of bed. Does my wife need to be reminded of her unworth in this time of worship? – and no the second line does not undo, or wash over, or put in perspective, the first line. And beyond Heather, I thought of so many of others out there (and in that room) who are struggling with self-image, who battle these feelings of worthlessness from voices within and without that tell them they aren’t good enough. Can we really not hope to be a little better than the advertiser who tells the woman or man that they aren’t worthy for love until they buy this or lose that? I think of the person in the relationship who is consistently told that they are lucky to have found love, lucky to be treated so well, lucky to have a home, right after being abused once more. Can we not be better than, you suck - you’re lucky to be loved?
To speak of God as Triune calls us to see God as an overabundance of love – as overwhelming, overflowing love – that is poured out, lavishly – like wine at the wedding at Cana. Not because we have done oh, so much – but simply because we are, because we are, indeed, worthy of love. We are created in the image of God who is love, and who speaks of us as children (as well as a host of different equally or more profoundly affectionate titles). Who, whilst radically transcendent drew close, entered the world, becoming radically immanent through the incarnation, and forever present in Spirit. This might be because of need, but it is not a question of worth.
Gloria Dei, vivens homo - the glory of God is the human fully alive.