You're at a friend's dinner party. As you seat yourself at the table, you can't help but notice the festive centerpiece, the matching plates and napkins, the elegant place cards. The meal is presented beautifully, and the food looks and tastes wonderful. As for you, no matter how hard you try, you never can get a table to look even slightly attractive. Worse yet, your cooking is mediocre, to say the least.
How do you feel?
You had a college roommate who talked to her boyfriend on the phone for three hours every night, cut classes, and simply breezed through her homework with hardly any studying. She got straight A's and graduated magna cum laude. Meanwhile, you had to study several hours a night for every B you got.
How did you feel?
Several of the women in your Bible study work out at the gym three times a week. After the study, they change their clothes in the church restroom and head for the fitness center looking slim and trendy in their pastel Lycra tights. Once at the center, they excel in every area of physical prowess. When you decide to join them, you have to wear a huge T-shirt to cover your bulging tummy and thighs, and you can hardly do one push-up without falling flat.
How does that make you feel?
You have a pretty, stylish neighbor who is organized and efficient. She is friendly, chatty, and no matter how many things she has to do, she gets the job done while looking perfectly groomed in the process. Her house is always immaculate, her kids are always obedient, and she never has so much as a broken fingernail. In contrast, your family seems like a fragmented, disorderly, and inefficient group of savages.
How does this woman make you feel?
If these kinds of comparisons make you feel inferior, it's because you're making two mistakes:
First, it is a mistake to measure anyone's worth by appearance or performance.
Second, it is a mistake to compare ourselves to others.
When these two errors are in effect, we always have a shifting, unstable view of our own value. Without exception, there will always be someone who can outdo us at something.
Inferiority is a persistent sense of inadequacy or a tendency to underrate oneself and one's abilities. Most of us don't have too much trouble recognizing the "symptoms" brought about by feelings of inferiority. But do we know why those feelings are at work? There are three typical causes of inferior feelings: consistent disapproval, unbalanced approval, and being habitually controlled.
Some people received negative messages throughout their childhood. Maybe you were told you were an unwanted baby. Or you were seldom praised for your accomplishments. Of, if you came home with all A's and one B, instead of praise for the A's, the question was, "Why didn't you get A in this subject too?" If a person is never able to please his or her parents, it's easy to grow up with feelings of inferiority.
On the other hand, if you were only told how wonderful and superior you are, then feelings of inferiority surface when you recognize your own weaknesses. You know down deep inside that you aren't superior but just average, and you feel like you're deceiving everyone. We need positive input, but it must be realistic and balanced. No one is absolutely perfect in every way.
A person can develop feelings of inferiority if he or she has been controlled by someone consistently for a long period of time. Your mother or father may have been critical and controlling. Your husband may have given you the message that you can't do anything right. Somewhere along the way, a teacher or a coach may have had a negative effect on you.
Whatever the causes of your feelings, if you allow them to control you, a sense of inferiority will keep you from exploring and achieving the wonderful goals God has for you. How can you tell if that is happening? Consider the following questions:
We are all vulnerable to inferior feelings at some time or other, but we don't have to let them take up permanent residence in our lives. God has made each of us unique, different from everyone else, with both superior and inferior skills. Our capabilities, however, have nothing to do with the intrinsic value God has placed on us. When Jesus was here on earth, He welcomed all sorts of people—fishermen, tax collectors, prostitutes, housewives, rulers, and the rich and the poor. He died for each one of us. God's price tag on us will never change, no matter how skillful or unskillful we are. Each of us is a one-of-a-kind person, and we will never be less valuable or more valuable to God than we are right now.
I'm so grateful that the Bible draws accurate pictures of its characters. If they were all heroic and perfect without any self-doubt or failure, we wouldn't be able to relate to them at all. One man in the Bible expressed his emotions, his fears, his inadequacies, and his doubts more than anyone else in Scripture, except David in the Psalms. He is the prophet Jeremiah. We learn a lot about Jeremiah and his times in the first few verses of his book. He was from a priestly family although he never served as a priest.
Josiah the king, who had ascended to the throne of Judah when he was only eight years old, was in the thirteenth year of his reign. When Josiah was sixteen, he had begun to seek God and serve Him, and when he was twenty he began to purge the land of all the symbols and trappings of idolatry.
Josiah tore down the pagan altars and smashed the idols and images throughout the land. He was the last good and godly king Judah had, but even his reforms could not prevent God's promised judgment on His people. They had gone too far. Within forty years they would be destroyed as a nation and carried into exile—Israel already had been swept into captivity one hundred years before. But the Lord was pleased with Josiah and his desire to turn his nation back to the living God, so He provided an ally, a man who would preach God's Word to a rebellious people.
In Josiah's thirteenth year, in the midst of his reforms, something extraordinary happened to young Jeremiah. God revealed His plan for Jeremiah's life and gave him a ministry that would last for forty-four years. Here's what the Lord said to Jeremiah: "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations" (Jer. 1:5).
The word knew is used in other Scriptures to indicate a close personal relationship; thus it describes someone who is chosen and protected. Before Jeremiah was conceived, God intended to have a close relationship with him. While he was still in the womb, God set him apart for His exclusive use. God appointed him to be a prophet to the nations.
What a shock God's message was to young Jeremiah! A prophet was a person through whom God spoke directly to His people. Jeremiah was overwhelmed with his assignment. He said, "Ah, Sovereign LORD, . . . I do not know how to speak; I am only a child" (Jer. 1:6).
The young man was probably in his late teens or early twenties. Do you hear his feelings of inferiority and inadequacy? All through his book, you will find that Jeremiah is very honest about his feelings. He was a timid, gentle, sensitive, emotional young man on whom God had laid His hand for a specific purpose. God immediately answered Him: "Do not say 'I am only a child! You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you" (Jer. 1:7).
What happened next must have been truly astonishing. Jeremiah said, "Then the LORD reached out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me, 'Now, I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant"' (Jer. 1:7-10).
God told Jeremiah three important things here that would sustain him for the rest of his life. These same principles can help us find the confidence we need to overcome our own sense of inadequacy:
Jeremiah did not have to work on sermons or solicit speaking invitations. God would send him where he wanted him to go, and God would tell him the words to say.
God told Jeremiah, "Do not be afraid of them." The reason Jeremiah didn't have to fear anyone was because God had promised His constant presence and protection, assuring him, "I will be with you and will rescue you." God didn't say Jeremiah would not be persecuted. In fact, He implies that he will. But no one can destroy a person God promises to protect.
In his vision, Jeremiah saw God reach out and touch his mouth to symbolically demonstrate that he was now God's spokesman. His feelings of inadequacy and inferiority were justified in his own strength, but the Lord made it clear to him that He would give him the ability and the power to do the job he was being commissioned to do.
Next, the Lord told Jeremiah the messages he would bring: Jeremiah was to preach judgment and restoration. Jeremiah was not going to be a popular preacher! His messages would be more negative than positive. Notice the four negative actions God mentioned: "Uproot," "tear down," "destroy," and "overthrow." There were only two positives: "build" and "plant."
God followed up this summary of what Jeremiah was to do with two visions that illustrated and confirmed what He had said. He then told Jeremiah the meaning of each vision:
"'What do you see, Jeremiah?'
"'I see the branch of an almond tree,' I replied.
"The LORD said to me, 'You have seen correctly, for I am watching to see that my word is fulfilled.'
"The word of the LORD came to me again: 'What do you see?'
"'I see a boiling pot, tilting away from the north,' I answered.
"The Lorin said to me, 'From the north disaster will be poured out on all who live in the land. I am about to summon all the peoples of the northern kingdoms,' declares the LORD" (Jet 1:11-15).
The Lord was watching to see that His Word was fulfilled. He was in complete control. Judah would be overrun and conquered by a foreign enemy because God's people had forsaken Him and worshiped idols.
Every time Jeremiah stood up to preach, people would hear about the terrible judgment that was coming because of their sins. But Jeremiah would tell them God would not utterly reject them; one day, he would say, they would be restored as a nation. Despite their "happy endings," these messages were not going to win Jeremiah many friends. In fact, they would make him many powerful enemies.
Knowing this, God told Jeremiah, "Get yourself ready! Stand up and say to them whatever I command you. Do not be terrified by them, or I will terrify you before them. Today I have made you a fortified city, an iron pillar and a bronze wall to stand against the whole land—against the kings of Judah, its officials, its priests and the people of the land. They will fight against you but will not overcome you, for I am with you and will rescue you" (Jer. 1:17-19).
I'm sure this was not the kind of future Jeremiah had looked forward to; it didn't sound very much like "God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life." He must have been overwhelmed with a sense of inadequacy. But he was obedient to God's commission, and over the years, he faithfully did the job God called him to do.
It wasn't an easy life. People plotted against him, falsely accused him, tried to shut him up, even attempted to kill him. He was often discouraged and depressed. He wept, he complained, and he accused God of deceiving him, but no matter how he felt he always came back to the promises God had made to him at his call.
God had chosen Jeremiah to be His prophet, so he was acting under God's authority and with His power. And he depended on God to protect him. He had God's guarantee, His promises. God kept His promises and made Jeremiah a powerful prophet for the rest of his life. He will do no less for you and for me if we honor His principles.
From Jeremiah we learn something very important for ourselves: When God gives us a task, He gives us the ability to do it. He provides the encouragement and the help we need to persevere.
Suppose Jeremiah had been so focused on his youth, inexperience, and feelings of inadequacy that he had disobeyed God. It could have happened to him, and it can happen to us. If we let feelings of inferiority or inadequacy control us, we'll cheat ourselves of the great achievements and blessings we could otherwise have.
Some of the most effective people in history experienced feelings of inadequacy, but they persevered in spite of it. The great apostle Paul spoke and wrote with great authority. But he knew he was not adequate in himself to do what God called him to do. He said, "But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him. For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are perishing. lb the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life. And who is equal to such a task?" (2 Cor. 2:14-16).
The picture here is of a conquering general enjoying his victory parade. Jesus Christ is the Victor leading us "in triumphal procession," and we who have trusted Him are victors with Him. God will use us to spread the knowledge of Him, like a sweet perfume, to everyone. People will make decisions based on our message. Some will believe and join us in the parade. Some will reject the Savior.
God has given to us the awesome responsibility of living and giving the good news of salvation to a hungry world. Paul expressed what most of us feel when we consider that task. He asked, "And who is equal to such a task? J. B. Phillips translates it, "Who could think himself adequate for a responsibility like this?"20
None of us feels competent in ourselves to live the Christian life in a way that will win others to Christ. No one is adequate to preach and teach and serve the Lord in a way that will make an eternal impact on other people. We can't do a supernatural work in our natural strength.
Actually, feeling inadequate is exactly what we all should feel, because then we'll depend on the Lord to make us competent. As Paul said, "Such confidence as this is ours through Christ before God. Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God" (2 Cor. 3:4-5).
Jesus said, "Apart from me you can do nothing!" (John 15:5). His Holy Spirit lives within us. The same Person who empowered the Lord Jesus in His ministry is in residence in our hearts. He opens God's Word to us. He motivates us to obey it. He puts His thoughts into our minds. He gives us the words to say and gives them supernatural power. He invests every act of service and obedience with eternal value and impact.
Paul's letter to the Philippians encourages us further: "For it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose. . . . I can do everything through him who gives me strength" (Phil. 2:13 and 4:13).
God is the One who makes us want to do His will, and He gives us the ability to perform it. We can depend on our loving Savior for strength; He never gets tired or impatient with us.
The Lord promises His constant presence in our lives. He said, "Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you" (Heb. 13:5).
Nothing can happen to us that isn't sifted through His hands. We don't have to be crippled by fear. Fear of other people, fear of personal failure, fear of the future—none of these fears has any place in the life of God's chosen child.
There is a secret to finding spiritual victory over feelings of inadequacy and inferiority: faith. Faith reminds us that God is trustworthy and able to do what He says He will do. By an act of your will, you can choose faith over inferiority. Ask yourself these questions:
If you have yes answers to any of these questions, you have a wonderful adventure ahead of you! Tell God exactly how you feel. Tell Him you are helpless to change, but you are willing to trust Him to make you competent to handle the responsibilities of your life. Then depend on Him all day long and see how He meets your need.
There's nothing wrong with feeling inadequate from time to time. It happens to everyone, and those feelings should drive us toward dependence on the Lord to make us competent. But if we simply accept our inadequacy as an unchangeable fact, we develop an inferiority complex that will hinder us all our lives.
When we act with our will to believe God's promises to us, to acknowledge Him as the source of our abilities, to trust that He will make us adequate for all the circumstances of life, then we will have victory over feelings of inferiority and inadequacy that stand as obstacles to our growth to emotional, social, and spiritual maturity.
20 J. B. Phillips, Letters to the Young Churches (New York: McMillan, 1956), 74.