This week I surprised myself. For a long time, my counsellor has wanted me to say, “I am worthy of. . .” rather than “I am worth enough to. . .”
I have resisted.
“Worthy,” used of myself, has felt too presumptuous, too entitled. Too opposed to grace. In my mind, God alone is worthy, and all I receive is by grace.
And that is true. For many things, that word does belong only to God. God alone is worthy to be worshiped. God alone is worthy to receive glory and honor and power.
But this week, without prompting, I found myself changing an unhelpful and untrue belief to the statement, “I am human and I am worthy of presence and care even when I am sick.”
I'm realizing that the word "worthy" always begs two questions: Worthy of what? And why?
I'm realizing, too, that there’s inherent worthiness and bestowed worthiness and lived or earned worthiness.
Inherent: God is inherently worthy of worship. That’s who He is.
Bestowed: Every human being (and, for that matter, all of creation), is worthy of respect and care from ourselves and from other humans simply by virtue of being made and loved by God.
Lived: And we're called to live lives worthy of the call we have received, and to entrust leadership to those who have shown themselves worthy (Eph 4:1, Phil 1:27, Col 1:10, I Thes 2:12, I Tim 3:4, 8, etc).
In case we're tempted to get too big for our britches, God makes it clear: we are not worthy of his love. God loves us because He loves us, not because of our intelligence or service, our good behaviour or even because His image is woven into each of our cells (Deut 7:7-8). His love is freely given, sheer grace. This is good news. We did nothing to earn God's love, and we can do nothing to make Him stop loving and longing to draw us deeper into his love.
And yet, He makes it equally clear: His love bestows a certain worthiness on us. In the world’s economy, the man in the sleeping bag on the downtown corner and the woman too sick to talk or walk or sit may have a net worth of nothing, or worse than nothing. But in God’s kingdom, they are just as worthy of our respect and presence and care as we are, simply because we are all made by God in his own image, and treasured by Him (Gen. 9:5-6).
Why do I hazard a step into exploring this word that can be so easily misunderstood? Why not stay safely back in the realm where the word "worthy" is reserved for God alone, and think of myself as unworthy?
- Both Jesus and Paul use the word "worthy" more times of human beings than of God, and if I want God to shape my life, I need to prayerfully ponder Scripture and be open to God shifting the way I think of Him—and of others and myself.
- As Jeremy Begbie says, “All good theology is done on the cliff-edge—one step too far and you tumble into idolatry, one step back and the view is never so good.”
- As is evident in some of our beautiful old hymns, if we don't think carefully about what we mean by "unworthy," we can easily slip into the error of equating "unworthy" with "worthless." And that both insults the God who handmade us and leaves us trying to defend or prove ourselves, or give up on ourselves and the work we've been given, or any number of other unhealthy postures.
No one who has been individually crafted by the God of the universe to reflect His own glory, and has had the breath of life breathed into her by that same God who counts each hair on her head and knows what each of her days will hold and has planned and suited her for special work that only she can do, can ever be considered worthless, or unworthy of our love and care.
What, then, do we do when we recognize that while we are unworthy of God's love, we are, by that love, made worthy of the respect and care of ourselves and our fellow humans?
Well, what did Jesus do with his much greater worthiness? He didn’t cling to it, flaunt it, or use it to get his own way. He didn’t need to cling, flaunt, or manipulate, because He knew who he was. And so, having nothing to prove, He was free to humble himself, stooping with a basin and towel and letting his arms be stretched wide on the cross, so that we might begin to believe that we, too, are made worthy by His love. He lived the love He had received from His Father. He acted in a way worthy of the calling He had received.
He calls us to do the same: to rest in His love that makes us worthy, and then, secure in that love, to love others in a way that lifts them up too (John 15:4,9; Matt 11:28-30; Phil 2:5, John 13:14, 15:12-13).
"With this in mind, we constantly pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling, and that by his power he may bring to fruition your every desire for goodness and your every deed prompted by faith" (2Thes. 1:11).
 Jeremy Begbie, Theology, Music and Time (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 279.