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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.

Whoops.

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?