When I was at university, my friend Grace made me the most thoughtful gift I have ever received.
It was a mirror that she had framed with papier-mâché and plaster over chicken-wire and painted purple. Over the top, in silver pen, she had written dozens of affirmations of my worth, many taken straight from the Bible. As I looked at myself in that mirror I was surrounded by messages of love: “you are precious in my sight,” “you are made in my image”, “you are fearfully and wonderfully made”, “you are my beautiful child”.
I loved the mirror and was overwhelmed by the time and thought that had gone into making it, but the voice in my head was still louder than any words from a friend or from God about who I was. I believed I was inferior, ugly, spikey and difficult; flawed and too broken to be of much use. School bullies and the depression that had dogged me since I was 13 years old made their case persuasively and I’d accepted their verdict.
Psalm 139 says God knit us together in our mothers’ wombs, saw our unformed bodies and knew all about us before we even took our first breath. His love surrounds us, and his Spirit pursues us with fiery dedication from the very beginning of our existence, because every person is precious. Self-worth is our divine birthright.
But from day one, most of us have to contend with a bruising world: absent or abusive parents, unkind teachers, persistent media messages about what constitutes an acceptable human size and shape, rejection, failure, nasty bosses and rude bus drivers. It is very hard to resist the force of judgement from those who don’t love us. A survey in 2014 done by Glamour magazine in the US found that 80% of respondents felt bad when they looked at themselves. This is a very common problem.
For me, the decision to accept myself was mostly based on three revelations.
Firstly, I came to understand that I needed to love myself to love others. You don’t just damage yourself by allowing a negative self-image to cement: “Low self-esteem has been linked to violent behaviour, school dropout rates, teenage pregnancy, suicide, and low academic achievement.” (Alexandra Delis-Abrams, PhD www.selfgrowth.com/articles/Abrams1.html). Jesus commands us to love our neighbours as ourselves. Think about that for a minute.
Secondly, I realised my depression was telling me bare-faced lies, not hard truths. When I was low, I was not a reliable source of information about myself. As I sought help and became well, the constant accusations of failure ceased. I wasn’t suddenly under the illusion that I was perfect, but I was much kinder to myself.
One in five people will experience clinical depression during their lifetimes. If you are one of them, please don’t pay attention to your assessment of yourself. Hold onto biblical truth, cling to the love of your family and friends, distract yourself with books and TV, and the beauty of creation. And if you haven’t already, go and see your doctor.
Thirdly, I accepted that if God was willing to dwell in me then who was I to question the standard of accommodation he deemed liveable? Revelation 3:20 says, “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.”
I wasn’t about to leave God on the doorstep because it was in too much of a mess inside. What hope did I have of getting clean if he wasn’t in there with me?
I turned 40 last December. Since leaving university I have moved seven times and, somewhere along the way, I lost the mirror. But Grace’s gift began a shift in me. I’m not someone who invests a lot of time in personal grooming, but when I catch my reflection as I drag the brush through my hair or, on special occasions, splodge a bit of lippie in the general direction of my lips, I know the face looking back at me belongs to a cherished and beloved daughter who makes her heavenly father very happy.
Hear these words and let them into the deepest part of you – they are for you as they are for me:
“The Lord your God is with you,
the Mighty Warrior who saves.
He will take great delight in you;
in his love he will no longer rebuke you,
but will rejoice over you with singing.”