Sabbatical, Day 88: Body Image, Self-Esteem And The Gospel

“When I grow up, I want to be slim like Sophie, not fat like Louise.”

That was Rebekah (aged six, if you’re new here), at bath-time tonight.

She had said the same during the Easter holidays when she returned from a two-night sleepover.

Six years old and worrying about body image.

The other day, she’d been telling me she was stupid.

“Who tells you you’re stupid?” I enquired, knowing that we might get frustrated with her but we never call her that.

“I do,” was her reply.

So tonight when she came up with the slim versus fat line again, we reinforced all we’d said before (to no avail). The most important things are to know you are loved, and therefore to be happy and want to be healthy. Yes, slim is better than fat, but only if you are loved and happy.

But with it not having worked before, we explained further. Big mistake. We explained about how some get so obsessed with being slim they make themselves ill, and even die.


At this point, Mark starts wobbling and dissolves into tears. “Am I going to die because I’m not eating?” He never eats much when he’s ill (as at present), and we’d totally put the wind up him.

It took a lot of reassurance. No Mark, remember how we’ve been saying that you’re heavier than your sister, even though you’re younger? This sort of thing generally happens to girls. Etc.

I think we got out of jail alive. But were we both devastated to have that effect on our son.

It’s one of our major goals to build up our children’s sense of self-esteem and self-worth, not for any pop psychology reasons, but because we believe that’s a consequence of the Gospel. It’s in creation: we’re made in the image of God. It’s in redemption: God loves us so much he gave up his Son, and even wants to dwell within us by the Holy Spirit. We even build something into our nightly prayer with the kids, where we pray that they will know how much God loves them and we love them, and that this will have a positive effect on them psychologically and spiritually. OK, we don’t quite use that language, but that’s a summary for grown-ups.

In my work as a minister (to which I shall be returning in an active sense on Sunday week), I find there is an epidemic of low self-esteem in our churches. It isn’t just the obvious theological causes, where people have been brought up to live in permanent fear of divine wrath, or with ‘worm theology’ (“I’m just a worm”). There is also the damage so many carry around from various life traumas, not least their upbringing. These damaged people then damage others, both within the church family and in the next generations of their biological families.

And yes, I know that a central component of the Gospel is that it addresses the problem of human sin. And yes, I also know that ‘grace’ makes little sense without an understanding of why we need it. And yes, I’m aware it’s easy to turn talk of God’s love into ‘Jesus is my boyfriend’ slogans. But – without losing those things – I want to share all the more the knowledge of a God who is passionately committed in love to his creation, who doesn’t stop with weeping over human sin but who also, in the words of Zephaniah, rejoices and dances over that creation. 

Of course, I could be crazy. What say you?


  1. For me, it’s a question of what is the bottom line: does God love his creation or hate his creation?

    The preacher who says to himself ‘I must not preach God’s love as primary – even if it’s true – because then people will think they have a licence to do whatever they want’ is going to communicate the message ‘God doesn’t like you’. Furthermore, this sort of preaching shows a lack of faith on the part of the preacher. The implicit belief is that God is not actually able to change the hearts of people for the better, so I’d better preach a message that tries to control their behaviour.


    1. I have a lot of sympathy for that point of view, Pam. One irony in this for me is as follows: the most literalist of Christians, who clearly believe in a good creation before the Fall, should of all people be those who preach some kind of ‘original goodness’ rather than beginning with ‘original sin’. I know there are major issues with the way someone like Matthew Fox expresses his doctrine of original blessing, but there is a serious point about beginning with the goodness of God and that God’s love for creation. They may quote John 3:16, but you wonder what the nature of that love for the world by God is. Of course, if they begin from the primary characteristic of God as being sovereignty rather than love, then the problem is magnified.


  2. Having grown up in fundamentalism, I think there is a lot of fear there. What I call the ‘better safe than sorry God’.

    God [i]might[/i] be good and he [i]might[/i] bless us, but who knows? Better safe than sorry and act as if God is a policeman waiting to pounce on us if we break the law.

    Endulge me in a tangent. I just started reading Neil Richardson’s new book ‘Paul for Today’. He begins the book by saying something alone the lines of ‘We’ve all grown up knowing the Gospels and the parables and teachings of Jesus but how many of us are familiar with Paul? How many of us have heard Paul preached in church?’ Now, I probably don’t preach Paul much myself but my reaction was ‘What!?!?!? I grew up much more familiar with Paul than with the teaching of Jesus! And I always thought it was because Pauline writings could be interpreted as commands about what we should and should not do and should and should not believe. Because the teachings of Jesus were too vague and too open to interpretation.’ That’s the difference between him coming from a Methodist background and coming from a conservative Lutheran background (I think this also applies to a conservative Calvinist background as well).

    We read the creation story basically as ‘You had a chance to live in God’s good creation and you blew it and wrecked all of God’s good work and now creation and you are entirely sinful.’ (How did humans manage to wreck all of God’s goodness, I ask?) We had Paul’s remarks about human sinful nature selectively drummed into us and the passages on love were avoided. ‘Grace’ and ‘salvation’ were legal categories. God can’t afford to indulge in the emotion of love or he could not be just. (Did they really want God’s wrathful justice to come down on their heads or on the heads of others?) I think I have oft repeated the observation that ‘God doesn’t want women to be ministers because women tend to be compassionate and you can’t have wisdom if you are compassionate.’

    None of this entirely describes why the goodness of God’s creation is ignored but it gives a description and an inkling of the mindset.


    1. Your tangent is most welcome! It’s very pertinent to my own current reading, which is Tom Wright’s new book, ‘ Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision’. Most of it is a frustrated riposte to contemporary new Calvinism, especially John Piper, who fail to read ‘the righteousness of God’ within its OT context of meaning ‘God’s covenant faithfulness’ and see it instead as ‘God’s concern for God’s own glory’. With the particular slant they bring, it does make, I think, for another picture of a severe God for whom love is an afterthought. Whatever the strengths and weaknesses of the New Perspective (and of course there are disagreements between Wright, Dunn, Sanders and other proponents), it seems to me that one of Wright’s great strengths is that he places the saving work of God in Christ within a positive controlling narrative of salvation history.


  3. I agree with you about Wright and I think he’s also very Wesleyan. He’s recapturing for many – well, for me at least – the Wesleyan idea of New Creation. I read his essay riposte to Piper and I’m assuming that this book is an expansion of that.


    1. I haven’t read the essay riposte to Piper, but yes, the book is an expanded rebuttal. I have to say, it doesn’t read in as fluent a way as Surprised By Hope does. It’s full of parentheses and frustrations about Piper and his allies just not getting what he’s previously written. It also betrays signs of hurry, and he admits he didn’t have the time to send Piper a draft before publication in the same way that Piper sent a copy of his book to him. However, it does read as a good primer for much of the material in his ‘Christian Origins and the Question of God’ series of doorstop books.


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