Mark #4: A Biblical Concept of Oneself
Every age has its own special characteristics and our age is no different. The apostle Paul warns that in the last days, men would be “lovers of self…rather that lovers of God” (2 Tim. 3:2, 4). In our day the concept of self image, self esteem and self love has become a hot topic and the subject of much discussion.
One of the big debates going on today is the place of psychology in Christianity. A host of writers and theologians have criticized psychology for being self-centered, humanistic, ineffective, and anti-biblical. Others argue for the legitimate use of psychology maintaining it is a science and thus legitimate. In a recent article in Christianity Today entitled, “The Mind Doctors,” the author, a Christian psychologist, writes, “Few Christians today would say we need know nothing more about chemistry or physics than the Bible teaches. The same holds true for psychology, itself a science (p. 19, Christianity Today, April 8, 1988).
Without getting into that debate, one thing is clear and I believe true. As Paul warns us, we are living in a day in which we have become lovers of self and our society has become self-centered and satiated with self and self-hyphenated, self-fixated words like self-actualization, self-esteem, self-worth, and self-fulfillment.
Christian books also reflect this. Some examples are: Love Yourself, The Art of Learning to Love Yourself, Loving Yourselves, Celebrate Yourself, You’re Someone Special, Self Esteem: You’re Better than You Think, and probably the best known of all, Self Esteem: The New Reformation, by Robert Schuler.
A leading Christian psychologist has said, if a prescription could be written for the women of the world that would provide each one of them with a healthy dose of self-esteem and personal worth (taken three times a day until the symptoms disappear) this would fill their greatest need. But is this statement really true? Part of the problem here is semantics and there is no doubt that wrong thinking about ourselves is at the heart of a lot of misery, fear, doubt, loneliness, and withdrawal. But we do need to be careful here. Is the problem one of low self-esteem or a collection, indeed, a barrage of self-centered thoughts rather than biblical God-centered thoughts about who we are and how we fit into the plan of God? Is the issue one of exalting, lifting up ourselves, or one of exalting God and His plan and revelation concerning who we are?
What is the solution? What do we need? Well first, we must not attempt to scripturalize some psychological fad or world viewpoint, nor should we allow ourselves to become self-centered and caught up in the ‘selfism’ of the world. But it is true that having a right (biblical) self-concept or thinking properly about ourselves in the light of God’s grace is important to spiritual maturity, to healthy spiritual lives, and effective ministry. This is an issue that is addressed in Scripture as is evident in a number of passages (Rom. 12: 3f; 2 Tim. 1:7-8; 1 Tim. 1:18; 4:12-15; 1 Cor. 16:10).
The subject of our self-concept or self-image creates a kind of paradox. The Bible-believing Christian knows that he is a sinner, that in himself dwells no good thing, and that in himself he has no merit with God; yet, like a paradox, at the same time, he also knows, as a creation of God, created in God’s image and redeemed by His grace, he has value and purpose in life.
So how do we hit a proper balance? How do we avoid the self-centered approach and focus of the world and at the same time have a biblical concept of self, a proper viewpoint of our own value and purpose that sets us free to serve the living God, that sets us free from those thoughts and feelings that tie us in knots and ruin our personalities, create false agendas and motives that so people are incapacitated for ministry?
That we think properly about ourselves is important and is even commanded in Scripture. In Romans 12:3, the apostle wrote, “For by the grace given to me I say to every one of you not to think more highly of yourself than you ought to think, but to think with sober discernment, as God has distributed to each of you a measure of faith.”
The basic word for “think” in this passage is proneo, which means “think, form or hold an opinion, judge.” “Sober discernment,” is sophroneo, “be of sound mind.” It means “to be in one’s right mind, be reasonable, keep one’s head.” But first, the apostle warns us against thinking more highly of ourselves than we should.” The Greek word here is huperphroneo, “to think too highly of oneself, to be haughty.” Ironically, quite contrary to our society today, the apostle does not warn against thinking too little of ourselves. Regardless, the sound thinking Paul is calling for is grounded in biblical revelation and faith in the work of God for us in Christ. Paul is calling for thinking and personal evaluation based on the authority of God’s revelation and on the facts of God and His grace. It means we are to look at ourselves through the lenses of Scripture.
To Timothy, whom some expositors have nick named “Timid Tim” because he seems to have been having problems with his self-confidence (or confidence in God’s gifts and ministry for his life), Paul wrote in 2 Timothy 1:7, “For God has not given us a Spirit of timidity, but of power and love and discipline” (or sound-mind thinking). The Greek word for “discipline” here is related to the word used for thinking in Romans 12:3. It is sophronismos from sophron, “sensible, prudent.” It comes from sos, “safe, sound, and phren, “the heart, the mind, or the inner man.” Sophronismos refers to “control, self-discipline, prudence” that stems from right thinking. A controlled life, one that demonstrates self-discipline stems from soundness of mind, from knowing and acting on the truth of Scripture in the light of God’s grace in Christ. In both passages, Romans 12:3 and 2 Timothy 1:7, the context deals with God’s gifts to us and the bold expression of those gifts in loving ministry for the sake of the body of Christ.
Thinking properly about ourselves stems from right thinking about God, but then that extends to right thinking about others so that it results in a freedom to serve according to the grace of God.
Now, let’s ask some questions: What am I worth as a person? Do I feel good about who I am or do I wish I was someone else? Have I accepted who I am as a person, not my sin or sinful habits, but the uniqueness God has created in me as a person (Ps. 139:13-14)? How we answer these questions may play a key role in what we do with our lives, how we live our lives, in the joy we experience in life, in the way we treat others, and in how we respond to people and to God.35 “Research has shown that we tend to act in harmony with our mental self-portrait. If we don’t like the kind of person we are, we think no one else likes us either. And that influences our social life, our job performance, our relationships with others.”36
A biblical concept of self developed out of our concept of God and His grace is important to solid spiritual maturity, to ministry, to our ability to lead others, and especially to our ability to be servants. Without a biblical concept of self, we end up playing spiritual king-of-the-mountain and engage in promoting personal agendas to build up a sagging ego. We seek from position, power, and praise what we should get from resting in God’s grace.
Thus, in order to effectively lead or minister to others we must think biblically about who we are. This means two key things: (a) we need to know our abilities and limitations while (b) always keeping in mind a biblical view of God, His grace to us in Christ, and knowing our sufficiency is always in God regardless of our abilities or weaknesses (see 2 Cor. 2:16-3:6).
Why is thinking in these terms so important? Because without it we will vacillate between fear and pride or between insecurity and overconfidence. Without this we will become either withdrawn and introverted or we will find ourselves running around in a hubbub of activity trying to feel good about ourselves because of our achievements. Paul’s spiritual maturity and qualification as a leader is seen in his freedom to serve others because, resting in who he was in Christ as a servant called of God by grace, he was not seeking to protect a poor self-image or to impress men with his greatness (cf. 1 Cor. 4:1ff; 1 Thess. 2:1-6).
An inadequate self-image robs us of the energy and powers of attention to relate to others because we are absorbed with our own inadequacies. That is especially true when we’re in the presence of people who remind us of our shortcomings or whose judgment about ourselves we value and want to influence. In such situations we are so self-conscious that we cannot give sufficient attention to others. As a result we may be regarded as being either uncaring or proud. Our feelings of inadequacy prevent us from reaching out to love and care for others…
Persons with an inadequate self-image look to other people’s opinions, praise or criticisms as determining factors in how they feel or think about themselves at a particular moment. Persons with a poor sense of self-worth are slaves to the opinions of others. They are not free to be themselves.37
What we need is a holy boldness and a relaxed confidence based on knowing God and resting in Him while also knowing that we are each His unique creation both physically and spiritually.
But how can we arrive at a state of mature spiritual equilibrium? May I suggest that this involves a number of things that we need to know, apply, and relate to. There are at least five biblical truths that are needed for a mature concept of one’s self-image. Understanding and relating to these five concepts will enable a person to relax in who they are without fear or pride, or without insecurity or a false sense of pride or arrogance.
Mature Believers have a Biblical Concept of Their Self-Image
Mature believers derive their sense of self-worth and value from their union and co-identification with Jesus Christ in all His fullness, personal gifts, and provision, and from knowing He has a will and purpose for each believer (cf. Rom. 12:3f; Eph. 1:3; 2:10; Col. 2:10 with 1 Tim. 1:12-15; 1 Cor. 15:9-11). Unfortunately, many people perceive themselves according to a portrait they developed early in life from the messages they received from their environment—parents, friends, teachers, etc. These may be good or bad, true or false, but it is this perception that forms the basis of how most people feel about themselves. Part of the maturing process as believers is the ability to see ourselves anew according to our new life in Christ, having been recreated according to and in God’s image for a new kind of life.
4:21 if indeed you heard about him and were taught in him just as the truth is in Jesus. 4:22 You were taught with reference to your former life to lay aside the old man who is being corrupted in accordance with deceitful desires, 4:23 and to be renewed in the spirit of your mind, 4:24 and to put on the new man who has been created in God’s image—in righteousness and holiness that comes from truth (Eph. 4:21-24).
3:9 Do not lie to one another since you have put off the old man with its practices 3:10 and have been clothed with the new man that is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of the one who created it. 3:11 Here there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all and in all (Col. 3:9-11).
(1) The alternative to the self-love of the world or a self-image based on religious or ethnic background or social status is not self-hate or rejection of one’s worth or value, but a recognition of where and how that value is to be derived through God’s grace to us in Christ.
(2) The alternative to the world’s kind of self-esteem (one based on social status, performance, appearance, religious background, etc.) is not self-negation, but an understanding and acceptance of God’s grace and provision for us in Christ which alone gives us true meaning and value.
(3) The alternative to the self-fulfillment of the world is not a life of meaninglessness or aimlessness, but a life totally engrossed in God and His purposes so that fulfillment is experienced naturally (or spiritually) through relationship and involvement with God rather than through preoccupation with self.
Note the following verses:
- Romans 12:3 teaches the responsibility to discover, know, and think rightly with faith about who we are based on the gracious work of God in Christ.
- Genesis 1:26-27 teaches that we are all created in the image of God. This means our lives have special value even though the image has been marred by the fall and sin.
- Psalm 139:12f teaches us we are each uniquely created according to God’s own purpose—warts and all.
- Proverbs 16:1-4, 8 teaches us about God’s sovereign and providential hand in each person’s life to work out His purposes.
- Ephesians 1:3, 6; 2:10; and Colossians 2:10 teach the fact of God’s spiritual re-creative work in us and for us in Christ, which includes His complete provision, our spiritual union with Christ, and a special purpose in God’s plan.
- Romans 12:4f; 1 Corinthians 12; Ephesians 4:7; and 1 Peter 4:10 teach the fact of our giftedness and capacity to serve as members of the body of Christ. This means each believer is needed and has great value.
- Colossians 3:10 and 2 Corinthians 3:18 teach the responsibility and the potential as new creations in Christ to be conformed bit-by-bit to the image of God as revealed in the person of Christ through the Word and the filling (control) of the Holy Spirit. This means we are each earthen vessels, instruments for the glory of God with purpose.
What does all this mean? It means these spiritual truths should give every believer a sense of special purpose, a sense of destiny and conviction of God’s hand on his or her life. Such a sense of destiny can drive men or women to unbelievable lengths and enable them to achieve unprecedented things for God if they will just grasp and act on these facts of Scripture rather than focus on mankind’s standards for success or meaning.
But the problem is that people tend to look at others and their gifts, achievements, and popularity and measure themselves by what they see in others. We compare people with people. This not only gets our eyes on men and off God and His grace and plan, but it creates feelings of inferiority, jealousy, pride, and factions. This leads to a second important principle in thinking biblically about ourselves.
Mature Believers Use the Right Standard (Yardstick) for Judging Success
The Lord Jesus and the principles of Scripture must become our yardstick or the means by which we measure our value and self-image (cf. 1 Cor. 3:4-7; 4:1-5; 15:9-11; 2 Cor. 10:12; Eph. 4:13). The following set forth a few of the biblical reasons why this is so necessary to have a right tool of measurement.
(1) We are instruments of God. Effectiveness is always a product of God’s activity regardless of our labor or methods or cleverness or wisdom (1 Cor. 3:4-7).
(2) What counts with God is faithfulness to His grace! What counts with God is faithfulness in the use of the opportunities, abilities, and ministries that He gives us and not success as it is so often measured by men (Luke 12:42; 2 Tim. 2:2; 1 Cor. 4:1-2).
(3) All that we have is the product of God’s Grace. Whatever we have by way of abilities, talents, ministries, and even opportunities are gifts of God’s grace, even the very breath we draw (Rom. 12:3a; 1 Cor. 15:9-11).
(4) Jesus Christ is our standard and goal, not men. As mentioned previously, men may become examples of Christ-likeness, but even then, they become examples only as they point us to the Savior as they themselves become like Him (1 Cor. 11:1). Christ, as our standard, is the standard of excellence, but we don’t measure this by the opinions and standards of measurement used by the world or men. We measure it by the precepts of Scripture, the mature moral characteristics of Christ-likeness. Let’s note two key scriptures in this regard:
Ephesians 4:13 “…until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God—a mature person, attaining to the measure of Christ’s full stature.”
Church leaders are to equip the saints (vs. 12) with a view to spiritual maturity in Christ. But this also points us to the standard, the measure by which we judge true biblical maturity and effectiveness. Note the three goals here of the edification process of the equipping of the saints. God wants unity and He wants maturity, i.e., spiritually-mature people, but the measure of that unity and maturity is nothing less than the very fullness of the stature of Christ. “Measure” is the Greek metron. It was used of “a standard of measurement, the gauge by which something was measured,” and “of what was measured out, the portion.” For the Christian life, Christ is in essence both our standard for growth and maturity and the portion we experience as we grow in Him and become like Him by the grace provisions of God.
1 Corinthians 4:1-3 “People should think about us this way—as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. 4:2 Now what is sought in stewards is that one be found faithful. So for me, it is a minor matter that I am judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself.”
We should desire to be thought of as simply faithful servants and stewards of God. This means we are not to measure ourselves nor allow ourselves to be measured by the standards men so often use as was the case with Corinth. God may use others in various ways to help us learn and grow in Christ-like standards, but the final test is Scripture, not the opinions of men.
(5) A right standard is important to spiritual stability. Having and using a right standard for effectiveness or success is important to sound spiritual growth, maturity, and effective leadership or ministry. Why? Because without it you will be measuring yourself, your value, your progress, and success by the standards of men and their response to you. Typically, man’s standards are such things as numbers, names, personality, charisma, and the like. This is wrong, it is pure folly. Paul wrote, “For we would not dare to classify or compare ourselves with some of those who recommend themselves. But when they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are without understanding (unwise)” (2 Cor. 10:12). Why is it unwise? Because wrong standards of measurement will harm to our ability to serve and do our job as unto the Lord for the blessing of others according to the purpose of God (cf. Jer. 1:17-19; 1 Cor. 4:1-5; with 2 Cor. 10:10 and 6:11-13). The simple principle is that false standards for success always lead to a number of problems that are detrimental to effective ministry and spiritual well being.
The following illustrate a few of the problems created by false standards of measurement:
- False standards lead to false motives like selfish ambition and to a spirit of competition wherein we view others as opponents to beat rather than friends to enjoy or fellow workers with whom we share work as co-laborers in Christ (Phil. 1:17).
- False standards lead to guilt, frustration, depression, and feelings of failure because we think we haven’t measured up to these man-made standards. We end up working to please men rather than God (1 Thess. 2:4-6). False standards can also lead to the opposite—feelings of pride and often a false sense of success (1 Tim. 3:6).
- Trying to measure up to man’s standards may also lead to fear of failure which can result in withdrawal. This may cause an unwillingness to try something or to get involved in ministry or it can lead to forsaking a ministry. For sure, it can cause one to lose the joy of ministry or service (2 Tim. 1:6-7).
- False standards can lead to self depreciation with the belief that we don’t count and can’t because e do not measure up.
Because of a failure to become and stay oriented to God’s grace to us in Christ, or because of grace disorientation and the false thinking which naturally follows, many believers end up functioning in ministry out of neurotic needs. They feel inadequate and so may often serve in some form of ministry to compensate for their bad feelings: to overcome guilt, to get recognition, or simply to feel better about themselves. Others may fail to function at all because of the same kinds of feelings. They are afraid of failure or of what others might say.
This leads to a handicapped people who are often divisive and unloving because they end up competing with others and with themselves for a personal sense of significance. This leads to all kinds of spiritual and emotional problems. As a result, people go around wearing their feelings on their sleeve, they become touchy, difficult to deal with, and incapable of receiving correction or suggestions. To be corrected is to be belittled or to lose face. So they become more concerned for themselves than they are about Jesus Christ, His glory and for others. They become defensive, argumentative, and at the same time, fearful.
The problem is grace disorientation (Heb. 12:15). What is grace? It is the name for God’s provision for us in Christ. The problem is we fail to rest in God’s grace for our lives, that is, our new life and position in Christ and the principles and promises of the Word along with the filling of the Spirit.
But what are some of the false standards that we often use like rungs to climb the ladder of success and personal feelings of significance?
- Comparing appearances, abilities or personalities: God does not give us all the same abilities, intelligence, aptitude, or personality. I am not to look at another man’s ability or personality and decide that I can or can’t take on a particular ministry or responsibility based on my comparison with him. I am not to think or say, “If I had his way with words or his personality, then I could…” (cf. Paul [1 Cor 2:1-5; 15:7-11; with 3:1-3 and 2 Cor. 10:10], Moses [cf. Ex. 4:10-11 with Acts 7:22 and God’s estimation]).
- Comparing bank accounts or possessions: Most people get their sense of value and competence from how much they make, from the size of their home, or from the kind of car they drive. But compare the Lord Jesus (Matt. 8:20). Money is never the basis of success nor of our ability to serve God. The amount we earn is simply not a barometer of God’s blessing. God has chosen the poor of this world rich in faith (Ja. 2:4-8; I Cor. 1:26-30).
- Comparing friends or people we know: In talking to some people you wonder if they shouldn’t write a book entitled, The Ten Most Important People Who Have Met Me. Who we know has absolutely no bearing on our success or ministry or leadership abilities unless knowing them has been a means of our learning or an indication of our training and qualifications for a particular ministry (cf. 1 Tim. 2:2; 2 Tim. 3:14). But even then, unless appropriated, it means nothing.
- Comparing results like nickels, names, and noses: Results can be a product of God’s blessing (Acts), but not necessarily. Results can also be the product of catering to the whims and fancies of the world that is looking for emotionalism, entertainment, and the sensational (2 Tim. 4:3), or to human manipulation as seen in some of the various cult leaders that have been successful in drawing a large number of people after them.
For an illustration of God’s evaluation of success in contrast to man’s evaluation one only needs to compare Numbers 20:8-12 and Psalm 106:32-33. In the eyes of men Moses was a success because he got results, but in God’s eyes, he, at this point, was a failure. THE ISSUE OF SUCCESS IS ALWAYS OBEDIENCE TO GOD, not pleasing men nor seeking to satisfy man’s whims or standards of success (cf. 1 Thess. 2:4). On the other hand, the results we see can be negative and considered by men a failure, but are successful in the purpose and eyes of God. One only needs to compare both Isaiah’s and Jeremiah’s call and success (Isa. 6; Rom. 11:25 with Isa. 28; 55:11; Jer. 1:17f). Both Isaiah and Jeremiah were told in advance they would not be a success by the world’s standards. They were to preach messages of judgment to which Israel would react rather than repent. Part of the reason for their assignment was to give further evidence for God’s judgement of Israel (cf. Isa. 6:9-10; Acts 28:25-28).
As Isaiah 55:11 shows us, our preaching can be a means of ‘back door evangelism.’ God’s purpose with His Word for Isaiah was not positive. It was negative to demonstrate the hardness of Israel’s heart and the necessity of judgment. The point is we can’t always evaluate spiritual maturity or leadership or our success by names, nickels and noses and certainly not by the methods the world uses for success.
Another illustration is seen in Mark 4 with the parable of the soils and the purpose of this parable. The people were wondering why the leaders and the nation as a whole were not responding to the message of Christ. The parables of the soil, the sower, and the seed answer this question. They show that the problem was not in the message (the seed) nor with the messenger (the sower), but in the condition of the soil.
Another illustration is that of 2 Timothy 4:9f. Paul had been deserted and was in prison waiting to die, but he was anything but a failure. He could have very easily begun to feel sorry for himself, “no one wants to follow me, my men have deserted me; I must be doing something wrong, I am a failure.” But as a mature man in Christ, Paul had a very different perspective and wrote, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith; in the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who have loved His appearing” (2 Tim. 4;7-8).
In his book, Failure: the Back Door to Success, Erwin Lutzer tells the following story that provides an excellent illustration of a mature man who derived his sense of significance and self image from the Lord rather than from the opinions of people.
A friend of mine who pastored a small church told me how depressing it was for him to attend pastors’ conferences. There he would suffer through the reports of the wonderful success of other churches. It seemed that all churches had either doubled in their membership or tripled their income during the preceding year.
His church, on the other hand, was small and had a history of difficulties. It had problems with bitterness, complaining, and factions. On some occasions the pastor was publicly humiliated by irate members. His story (which could be the subject of an entire book) reminds us that carnal Christians can be just as obstinate as worldly pagans.
What did the pastor do? He lived with the abuse. He preached the Scriptures and taught doctrine. Eventually, a few individuals began to show signs of spiritual growth. In the lives of a handful, there was fruit. But most of the seed fell by the wayside; it was choked by thorns of worldly anxiety or drowned in the slough of resentment.
When I heard the full story, I said, “Roy, I would not have stayed there for a month!” His reply was a rebuke: “I’ve always wondered if I had love for people. God put me in the most trying situation I could endure. He wanted to teach me how to show love in a place where there was none!”
Was he a success? Not if nickles [sic] and noses are the measuring sticks! Results can be a barometer of God’s blessing but not necessarily.38
A spirit of comparison, whether it involves comparing others with others or ourselves with others, is biblically defined as carnal, worldly, immature, and can even be devilish (see 1 Cor. 3:1ff; Jam. 3:14-16). It leads only to hurt and harm, failure and malfunction.
Finally, Peter’s response to the Lord’s revelation regarding Peter’s future and the Lord’s response to Peter’s question about John’s future in John 21:18-22 provides us another illustration of our tendency to make false comparisons or question God’s dealing with us in comparison to His dealing with others. Our tendency is to look at others and wonder, “Why me? Why do I have to face this trial while other believers do not?” Or “Why doesn’t God do with me what He is doing with so and so?” But the point is, “If God wishes to bless others more than us, if they are famous and we are unknown, if they are wealthy and we are poor, if they are highly gifted and we are less gifted (at least by men’s standards) what is that to us? Christ calls upon each of us to trust and follow Him. As long as we are pursuing the Savior with all our heart and doing our best in accordance with His supply, our responsibility is to simply follow the Lord.
The last words of our Lord in John 21 form an important message for all believers and especially for leaders. We must follow Him AND leave the results to Him as well. God is sovereign and we are His creatures. We are tools of His grace.
Mature Believers Live by Faith in Biblical Truths
(1) They will act on the truth of their identity in Christ. The Bible teaches us that every Christian is created in God’s image (Gen. 1:26,27), that each believer is uniquely and personally crafted by God from the womb (Ps. 139:12f), that each believer in Christ, has been recreated and is a new spiritual creation in Christ Jesus (2 Cor. 5:17), and that through faith in Christ, every Christian is a child of God by the new birth (John 1:12-13; 3:3-6; 1 Pet. 1:3, 23; Jam. 1:18). What a marvelous identity and heritage! Such a heritage means value beyond compare regardless of the responses of others or of the opinions of men.
(2) They will rest and act on the fact of their God-given abilities—natural talents and spiritual gifts. In Psalm 139:1-12, the psalmist declared his faith in the Lord’s knowledge of all the details of his life. However, the Lord not only knows and perceives the nature and needs of his people in general, but the psalmist believed in God’s personal purpose for his life. God is not only the Sovereign Creator, the Transcendent One, but He is also the Immanent One who is intimately concerned with the individuals He has created even from the womb and before!
In verse 13, the psalmist continues the emphasis on God’s personal involvement by an emphatic use of the pronoun “you” and by the use of the pronominal prefixes and suffixes to the verbs and nouns in the Hebrew text, which are translated by the English pronouns “you” and “your.” By God’s personal involvement, each individual is the result of the creative work of God (spiritually and physically) in the womb. The psalmist declares “You created my inmost being (the spiritual aspect)” and “you knit me together in my mother’s womb” (the physical aspect, cf. Job 8-11; Jer 1:5). All beings owe their existence, including their individual gifts and abilities, to God as the Sovereign Creator. Reflecting on the reality of this truth had a tremendous impact on the life of the psalmist. He knew that the Lord had formed him as a unique person with gifts and abilities according to God’s sovereign purposes.
In verses 14-17, therefore, the psalmist personally responds to this awesome truth of God’s immanent involvement in his very being. Acting on this truth and realizing the distinctiveness this gave to his life, the psalmist properly responded with praise to God for his life.
139:14 I will give you thanks, because your deeds are awesome and amazing. You knew me thoroughly, 15 my bones were not hidden from you, when I was made in secret, and sewed together in the depths of the earth.16 Your eyes saw me when I was a fetus. All the days ordained for me were recorded in your scroll before one of them came into existence. 17 How difficult it is for me to fathom your thoughts about me, O God! How vast are their sum total! (NET Bible)
Compare also Romans 12:3f; 1 Corinthians 12:4-5; and 1 Pet.4:10.
(3) They will act on the fact of God’s purpose and the nature of this life. Such creative activity and personal involvement by God naturally includes a purpose for our being in a given place and time in history. Regarding the response of the psalmist in Psalm 139:14f, VanGemeren writes:
…God is concerned with the individuals whom he has formed for his purpose. Therefore praise is the proper response to God’s grace of discernment, perception, and purpose. The child of God sees God’s presence everywhere (vv. 7-12) and experiences the joy of God’s watchful eye over him. All of God’s “works” are “wonderful,” but the believer senses more than any other part of God’s creation that he is “fearfully and wonderfully made.” Though God’s grace to him is like a “knowledge ... too wonderful for” him (vs. 6), he lives with a personal awareness of God’s gracious purpose (“I know that full well”). The psalmist reveals a unique awareness of God’s grace toward him and responds with a hymn of thanksgiving (“I praise you”).
…The idea of purpose comes more clearly to expression in v. 16. The Lord’s writing in the book (cf. 51:1; 69:28) refers to God’s knowledge and blessing of his child “all the days” of his life (cf. Eph 2:10). His life was written in the book of life, and each of his days was numbered.39
This element of God’s purpose for us is also seen in Ephesians 2:10, “For we are his workmanship, having been created in Christ Jesus for good works that God prepared beforehand so we may do them.” Simply put, God has a special purpose for each of us: no one is excluded. While some aspects of His purpose are the same for all of us (to glorify the Lord and live for Him, etc.), this includes a special destiny for each person according to the way God has gifted and brought us into this world.
But the nature of this life, who we are in Christ (blessed with every spiritual blessing and complete in Him, Eph. 1:3; Col. 2:10), and our ultimate destiny as believers in Christ should impact how we view who we are as individuals.
1 Peter 1:15-17 And if you address as Father the one who impartially judges according to each one’s work, live out the time of your temporary residence here in reverence.
1 Peter 2:11 Dear friends, I urge you as foreigners and exiles to keep away from fleshly desires that do battle against the soul,
If we truly know and act on WHO we are in Christ, WHY we are here (as ambassador sojourners), and WHERE we are going (our eternal destiny), we should be able to rest and relax while reaching out to serve and love people regardless of the success of others or of the response we get. This means living out of the fullness of Christ and our unique: (a) a new identity in him, (b) the spiritual ability that comes through him, (c) God’s individual purpose for each believer because of him, (d) and the heavenly and imperishable rewards that come from him. Note the apostle’s sense of this in the following verses even though he was being maligned and compared with others.
4:1 People should think about us this way—as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. 4:2 Now what is sought in stewards is that one be found faithful. 4:3 So for me, it is a minor matter that I am judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. 4:4 For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not acquitted because of this. The one who judges me is the Lord. 4:5 So then, do not judge anything before the time. Wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light the hidden things of darkness and reveal the motives of hearts. Then each will receive recognition from God (1 Cor. 4:1-5).
Mature believers who know who they are in Christ, why they are here, where their strength lies, where they are going, and their ultimate destiny and reward—issues that are to be settled in one’s heart by faith—will no longer be dependent on man’s standards of success or on the response of others for their happiness or sense of identity or value. Why? Because they are comprehending and accepting by faith the value God places on their lives.
So, do we have an identity crisis every time we are challenged, questioned, or rejected in some way, or when we hear of the success of a fellow believer, or fail to see the success we expect or want? If so, Why? Perhaps because we are (a) seeking our sense of well being from the response of others or (b) from always wanting to be right, or (c) from our own evaluation of our success based on the standards of men. Could it be because we are dependent on the responses of others or our visualization of that response to: How do I look (appearance)? How do I do (performance)? Or how important am I (status or position)?
Such a perspective is not only immature, but it will ruin us for ministry. It will turn us from the servant to the served. This is why men often act authoritatively or why some are afraid to delegate jobs or responsibilities or why some become prima donnas.
In John 13:1f we see Christ knew who He was, why He was here, and where He was going. Though rejected by men, these three things, “Who,” “Why,” and “Where” formed the mental foundation for faith and for His ability to love and serve others. He never sought His sense of identity from men or from the typical comparisons of the world.
Think of this: Christ left the eternal glory of the Father to suffer the ultimate humiliation of a shameful human death. Yet, He never complained because He had to abandon the glory that the other two members of the Trinity retained. If He had compared His role in redemption with those of the Father and the Holy spirit, He might have felt cheated. Why should He—equal with the other two members—be the one to become the scum of the earth?.
If Christ had compared Himself with other men (remember, He was fully human), He might have thought that He should be the greatest of them. Yet (incredibly) He became the lowest of them! When the disciples were wondering who would perform the duties of a household servant, Christ took a towel and basin of water and washed their feet!
How could the one who was so high stoop so low? One reason is that He did not compare Himself with others but cared only about meeting the standard that the Father had ordained. “I delight to do thy will, O my God” (KJV). That’s all that mattered.”40
By the world’s standards, Christ was a miserable failure. He was born in a cow stall, raised in the despicable little town of Nazareth, unschooled in the accepted schools of the day, lived without money and without a home of His own, was tried and crucified as a criminal, and died naked with the Roman soldiers casting lots for His robe, His only possession.
Now, an important question to ponder: What is one of surest signs of mature spirituality? It is possessing the heart and mind of a servant. But servanthood is impossible if we are comparing ourselves competitively with others and seeking our sense of well being and success by comparing ourselves with other men. When that occurs, we are seeking to be served by our environment—indeed by our own service.
To be an effective and mature servant, we too must know who we are, we must have an identity derived from God and His standards, and we must know why we are here, and have a sense of God’s destiny and purpose for our lives. We must serve with a view to doing God’s will no matter what, and with a view to heavenly treasures and rewards, not those based on human comparisons (1 Cor. 4:1-5; 2 Cor. 10:12).
In regard to our self concept and maturity, leadership, and ministry, spiritually mature believers also live in view of another vital biblical principle.
(4) They will have a high God-confidence level; Christ’s presence and provision becomes the source of their lives and ministry. Knowing who we are, what we can do and can’t do is important, but above all we must have confidence in the Lord followed by boldness to move ahead. This is important to the servant himself and to those to whom he ministers (Phil. 4:13; 1 Cor. 3:6f; 4:1-5; 2 Cor. 2:14f). None of us are ever sufficient in ourselves regardless of who we are, regardless of our training, our physical qualities, our spiritual maturity, or our gifts and talents. This is wonderfully illustrated in 2 Corinthians 2:14-16; 3:4-6, and 2 Corinthians 12:9-10. These passages remind us that God may use our abilities, as He used Paul’s training and keen mind—both gifts of God—but sometimes He gives us weaknesses and then works though us anyway to demonstrate His grace and power.
(5) They will seek to discover and correct those weaknesses that can be corrected. While all believers have God-given gifts and abilities, they also have weaknesses. Some of these can be changed and some cannot. Part of spiritual maturity is discovering those that can be changed and then seeking to correct them by the grace of God while learning to live with those that cannot be changed. God made us the way we are, not in our sinfulness, but in our basic makeup as to physical and intellectual limitations and as to our gifts and talents (Ex. 4:10-13; John 9:1f; Rom. 12:3, 4; 1 Pet. 4:10; Ps. 139:14, 15).
How should knowing this concept affect one’s life? This doesn’t mean that we are to accept sin as a way of life or sinful tendencies, habits, or mediocrity. It means we are to do the best we can with what God has given us (1 Cor. 15:9-10). It means we should be satisfied with our best and never covet another man’s greater ability. However, we should seek to change what can be changed through the grace of God and according to the standards of the Word, not the world.
For instance, if I am physically out of shape so that I can’t go up a flight of stairs without breathing hard, I should get in shape through the proper exercise and diet. If I can improve my mind by study for the glory of God and to enhance my ability to serve Him, I should. If I am in school and I can make A’s, I should, but if, after hard work, consistency, and faithfulness, I end up with C’s, then I need to thank God and move on. I should not sit around and mope because of my inability or another person’s ability.
Understanding this concept should lead to at least four important steps:
- We need to thank God for who we are, unique and distinct with a message to unfold (Eph. 2:10; Ps. 139:14; Rom. 12:3; 1 Pet. 4:10).
- We should seek to know our strengths and develop our abilities to the fullest degree. In other words, we need to be all that we can be according to the creative and providential work of God in our lives. Remember, we are each the product of: (a) God’s creative handiwork, (b) His providential direction and provision, and (c) our response to Him. For God’s providence and provision compare Proverbs 16:1f; Mark 4:8,20; and 1 Corinthians 3:5-7 For man’s Responsibility compare Colossians 3:17,23; 1 Corinthians 10:31; 15:10; and 2 Chronicles 31:20-21.
- We should seek to correct and change in our life what can be corrected as good stewards of God’s grace and according to the directives and standards of the Word.
- We need to accept those things that cannot be changed, trust the Lord’s design, and utilize the strengths of others in the body of Christ. No one should never try to be a one-man show.
The things we cannot change: Some weaknesses or deficiencies we can’t change; these are not moral issues or problems of sin. Rather, these are what we can call the unchangeables. There are certain things in our lives that we cannot change and from which we may inherit certain limitations (cf. 1 Cor. 2:1f; 2 Cor. 12:5-10). They include: ancestors, time in history, race, national heritage, gender, family, physical features, mental abilities (natural aptitudes, mental limitations, and talents), physical size, abilities and handicaps, and aging and death.
The things we can change: These we will call the changeables and include things that we can do something about. In some cases these become issues in one’s spiritual life while in other cases they are not issues at all. Where they are an issue and hinder one’s walk with the Lord or capacity to minister, they become issues for change. The changeables include: weight, physical condition, physical strength, spiritual character or maturity, knowledge and its use, dress, posture, attitudes and viewpoint, facial expressions, habits or patterns, and skill, etc. Obviously, anything that is clearly contrary to the Word or the moral will of God is sin and needs to be dealt with by God’s grace (Rom. 6:1f; Eph. 4:22f; Col. 1:9f; 3:4f; Proverbs., Ps. 119).
There are two large problems that face us as we seek to appropriate this mark of a Christian maturity:
(1) Our pride—the spirit of covetousness and the desire for public recognition, fame, applause. Let’s face it. This is a spiritual issue. It is basically an unwillingness to rest in God’s purposes for our lives and an unwillingness to wait for His evaluation (1 Cor. 4:3-5; Prov. 3:3-6; Ps. 37:4-6).
(2) Man’s yardstick and scale of values. This has always been a problem even in the church as we see in 1 Corinthians 3 and 4 and in 2 Corinthians 10:10-12, but it has become an even greater threat and problem in our day because of the mediums of modern communication and the great notoriety that men so often receive. We face the “superstar syndrome” and people begin to compare their leaders and their churches by those of the superstars. The yardstick they use is far too often not that of the Word, but that of the world.
Naturally, this often results in (a) discouragement—I couldn’t make a dent, I am not good enough or smart enough, (b) apathy—why try, I could never compare with so and so, (c) fear—I would fail. I simply can’t measure up to people’s expectations, (d) pride in self or other people, the fan club syndrome—”I am of so and so” (see 1 Cor. 1:12; 3:4) and (e) divisions, cliques (1 Cor. 1:11f).
Again I would call our attention to the apostle Paul as an illustration of a spiritually mature leader who knew who he was in Christ, why he was here and where he was going. As a result, he was always able to minister to others as a mature servant in the most difficult of circumstances as is so clearly evident from the following passages.
1 Corinthians 4:1 People should think about us this way—as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. 4:2 Now what is sought in stewards is that one be found faithful. 4:3 So for me, it is a minor matter that I am judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. 4:4 For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not acquitted because of this. The one who judges me is the Lord. 4:5 So then, do not judge anything before the time. Wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light the hidden things of darkness and reveal the motives of hearts. Then each will receive recognition from God.
4:6 I have applied these things to myself and Barnabas because of you, brothers and sisters, so that through us you may learn “not to go beyond what is written,” so that none of you will be puffed up in favor of the one against the other. 4:7 For who concedes you any superiority? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you received it, why do you boast as though you did not? 4:8 Already you are satisfied! Already you are rich! You have become kings without us! I wish you had become kings so that we could reign with you! 4:9 For, I think, God has exhibited us apostles last of all, as men condemned to die, because we have become a spectacle to the world, both to angels and to people. 4:10 We are fools for Christ, but you are wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are distinguished, we are dishonored! 4:11 To the present hour we are hungry and thirsty, poorly clothed, brutally treated and without a roof over our heads. 4:12 We do hard work, toiling with our own hands. When we are verbally abused, we respond with a blessing, when persecuted, we endure, 4:13 when people lie about us, we answer in a friendly manner. We are the world’s dirt and scum, even now.
2 Corinthians 10:12 For we would not dare to classify or compare ourselves with some of those who recommend themselves. But when they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are without understanding. 10:13 But we will not boast beyond certain limits, but will confine our boasting according to the limits of the work to which God has appointed us, that reaches even as far as you. 10:14 For we were not overextending ourselves, as though we did not reach as far as you, because we were the first to reach as far as you with the gospel about Christ. 10:15 Nor do we boast beyond certain limits in the work done by others, but we hope that as your faith continues to grow, our work may be greatly expanded among you according to our limits, 10:16 so that we may preach the gospel in the regions that lie beyond you, and not boast of work already done in another person’s area.10:17 But “The one who boasts must boast in the Lord.” 10:18 For it is not the person who commends himself who is approved, but the person the Lord commends.
1 Thessalonians 2:1 For you yourselves know, brothers and sisters, about our coming to you: it has not proven to be purposeless. 2:2 But although we suffered earlier and were mistreated in Philippi, as you know, we had the courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in spite of much opposition. 2:3 For the appeal we make does not come from error or impurity or with deceit, 2:4 but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we declare it, not to please people but God, who examines our hearts. 2:5 For we never appeared with flattering speech, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed—God is our witness— 2:6 nor to seek glory from people, either from you or from others, 2:7 although we could have imposed our weight as apostles of Christ. But we were little children among you—like a nursing mother caring for her own children.
Appendix: Discussion Questions for Marks of Maturity
MEN 7/52 is a men's ministry of bible.org. Our desire is to see all men become true followers of Jesus Christ 7 days a week/52 weeks a year.
These studies were developed in a team training environment where men were being trained for their role as church leaders, as fathers, and as effective members of a society that desperately needs to see what authentic, biblical Christianity looks like. So, exactly what does a mature Christian look like? A mature Christian is a believer whose life begins to take on the character of Christ-likeness. But what exactly is that? What are the specific qualities that mark out a person as Christ-like? This is the focus and point of this study.
The qualities that should characterize Christian leaders are also the marks of spiritual maturity as described in the Bible. While all of the qualities that will be discussed in this series are not unique to Christianity and are often promoted and taught in the secular world, many of them are, by their very nature, distinctive to the Bible or biblical Christianity. Thus, the characteristics that should mark out a Christian leader are also the marks of biblical maturity which are in essence the product of true spirituality. In fact, biblical spirituality can be described by the term maturity since Christian maturity is the result of growth produced by the ministry of the Spirit in the light of the Word over time. It is this biblical/spiritual element, at least in part, that makes the marks of Christian leadership distinctively Christian.
1. Describe the paradox that the subject of self-image creates?
2. What is the result of acting “in harmony with our mental self-portrait”?
3. Two key things are needed if we are to effectively lead or minister to others. What are they?
4. Why is thinking in these terms so important?
5. List the five biblical truths that are needed for a mature concept of one’s self-image.
6. What are the three alternatives to worldly self-love, self-esteem, and self-fulfillment?
7. Describe, in your own words, the biblical concept of your self-image.
8. How does this differ from your actual self-image? Please be specific.
9. What are the five points that comprise a biblical standard for judging success?
10. Using the Scripture passages in the text, describe how each of these points are an integral part of your measurement of your successes.
11. What happens when we use the wrong standards of measurement?
12. Describe the four results that are the consequences of using false standards of measurement?
13. In what areas of your life do you use false standards as a measurement of your effectiveness and success? Please be specific.
14. What are the four false standards identified in the text that we often use to measure our personal feelings of significance?
15. Describe the circumstances in your life where you use these standards to measure your personal significance. Again, please be specific.
16. What are the five marks that identify a mature believer who lives by faith in biblical truths?
17. Please describe the following in detail:
- Your identity in Christ:
- Your God-given abilities, talents, and gifts:
- God’s purpose for you in this life:
- Your God-confidence level:
- Your process of discovering and correcting your correctable weaknesses:
18. What four steps are necessary for discovering and correcting your weaknesses?
What must we do, beginning now, to discover and correct the two problems we face in having a true biblical concept of ourselves? How must we help each other in this process?
- Our pride – the sprit of covetousness and the desire for public recognition, fame, and applause;
- Man’s yardstick and scale of values.