Barney struggles to raise his oversized purple head, weakened by the gradual loss of viewership in recent years. Once a formidable voice in children’s TV programming, he now grasps weakly at his friends, who stand quietly beside. He manages to seize a fistful of Elmo’s scruff and draws him close. “One thing you must never let a single child forget: ‘You are special.’” The falsetto-voiced monster puts a furry hand on Barney’s and turns to look at the others. All of them knew that a very important message had been entrusted to them. Of all moral lessons in children’s TV programming, this was to be foundational.
And if you notice, whenever kids shows step away from silly fun or situational problem solving and toward moral admonition, it is usually on this very topic: the importance of a positive self-image and the confidence that should result from it. And so, educational TV coaches us to think positively about everything from our hair color to our particular set of interests as the means of instilling confidence for living.
I am not advocating a low self image, of course. I am simply pointing out that insecurity seems to be the only thing appropriate for public correction. In fact, we could say that in the moral universe of children’s programming, insecurity is the chief sin. Why?
Before we attempt to answer that question, let me present another: I believe that God calls insecurity sin, too. But why?
The answer to the first why? and the second could not be more different. Our cultural instructors disapprove of our insecurity because it is an offense to individual worthiness. God disapproves of our insecurity because it is an offense to his Son’s worthiness. God’s problem with insecurity is worth pondering.
Insecurity and Confidence in the Flesh
It may be counterintuitive, but according to the Bible, insecurity is what Paul calls “confidence in the flesh.” But how does it make sense that insecurity and confidence can be related? Every coin has two sides. On the top side, confidence in the flesh is the self-assurance that comes from possessing those attributes that supposedly determine worthiness. But the bottom side of the coin is just as dangerous: the insecurity that comes from not possessing them. In both cases, we place our confidence in personal attributes we think bring life.
In the apostle Paul’s religious and cultural setting, he possessed all of the prized features that commended him to God and others. You and I have probably never met anyone who wants to be publicly known as a Pharisee or wishes he had been circumcised on the eighth day. In our culture, these are not particularly commendable things. But we all know the things that are. And more poignantly, we all have felt the desperation of not having them.
For some of us, this is the background static of our regular thinking, and we need to realize that it’s not wrong primarily because it makes us unhappy, as our various puppet friends would emphasize. Insecurity is sinful for more serious reasons than that. Here are at least four of them:
1. Distraction with Self
Insecurity gums up our ability to do what God made us to do: love him and others. How many times have you been in a situation where you should have offered care to someone or approached God privately in prayer, but your mind is slogging through another round of how awkward you look in your pants that morning or how much smarter the person you’re talking to is? Being self-conscious is being conscious of self. We are not loving others when we are obsessing with ourselves; we are not in humility counting them as more significant and more worthy (Phil. 2:3).
2. Dissatisfaction with God
Insecurity is often nothing more than grumbling for better manna. We are sick of adequate nourishment; we want extraordinary flavor. We don’t like what God has given—money, position, appearance, personality—and we grumble for something better. Such discontentment is a snare of “many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction” (1 Tim. 6:9). Our dissatisfaction with self is often nothing more than our dissatisfaction with God. Insecurity is not sin primarily because it is an insult to our value (though it is), but because it is an insult to God’s wisdom.
3. Justification from Others
Insecurity reveals that we long for justification before people more than before God. He does not care whether your inseam is 28 inches or 34, or about whether you rent or own. We know this, of course. But we still care . . . because they still care. We care more about the attributes we think make us worthy before people than we do about what makes us worthy before the Almighty. Righteousness is what pleases the Lord. But we would rather have an enviable reputation. When our minds are pining after more Facebook attention or a better career as a boost to our worthiness, we forsake the righteousness of Christ that actually makes us worthy (Rom. 1:16-17).
4. Justification by Works
Insecurity shows that we are still in some way believing that our justification is based upon our own attributes and accomplishments. Most of us are not tempted to think ourselves worthy because we are of the tribe of Benjamin, but we may wish we at least had a bigger church, more impressive children, another degree behind our name. But finding confidence in those things is a direct rival to finding confidence in Christ.
And this is the sanity the apostle Paul brings to us in our insecurity: “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Phil. 3:7-8a). Paul would not say to us in our relentless insecurities, “I know you don’t feel worthy, but you are. God made you special.” If being special were the solution, our lives would be an endless cyle of crash diets and job searches. But these are only our pathetic attempts to flip to the top side of that same corroded coin. It would still be confidence in the flesh.
Paul tells us to abandon finding our worth in anything other than Christ and his redemptive work on our behalf. Privately cycling through another round of self-derision cannot be compared to abandoning ourselves to the service of others. The weariness of continual grumbling cannot be compared to the gain of godly contentment. The fickle admiration of people cannot be compared to the hearty approval of the Almighty. The wobbly confidence we maintain in ourselves cannot be compared to the surpassing worth of confidence in Christ.
If Paul had a parting message, it certainly would not be that you are special. It would be that you are righteous in Christ, and the crowning proof of this awaits you at the finish line, so press on in faith (2 Tim. 4:6-8). We should not be so concerned with being special that we fall short of being found in Christ.