I was talking with a friend recently about the power of making lists of stuff we’ve done – just for ourselves, to fight against the inner negative voices that put us down. There was a phase when I was struggling with depression and started a notebook that I titled “today I did”. In my head I heard it with a stress on “did”, as opposed to “didn’t”, like I was saying to the negative voice in my head: look, there are some things I did do today. Depression hasn’t totally defeated me.
Those “I did” lists included even tiny things like putting the clean laundry away or answering a letter or going outside for ten minutes. At the time, I felt a very strong need to keep those records, but there came a point when depression had lifted and I realised I no longer needed this, so I stopped.
And now I find myself thinking about why I felt the need, why it’s so important to us humans to show we’ve done stuff – sure, there are times when it’s relevant to a specific situation, like answering to your boss if they ask what you’ve been doing all day when they actually pay you to work for them; but there seems to be something deeper than that, a feeling that we have to justify our existence? as though if we don’t do enough, we wouldn’t be worth… what? love? air to breathe?
We sometimes make judgements about people based on their behaviour and call them a waste of space. Is that what we fear for ourselves, so we must keep showing that we are useful, we do have value?
I find that thought so revolting that I’m finding it painful to contemplate it at all, because the implications I see are: older people being seen as having less value, people who are less able in all sorts of ways being seen as having less value – everybody seen through the lens of: what are you contributing to the world around you? Which is the opposite of grace, love, compassion for those who are more vulnerable or needy. And I know that without grace, love and compassion, this world would be unbearable.
Of course one of the ways we sometimes answer this is by showing how even people who seem, on the face of it, to not be doing very much, even those people (older people, people with physical or mental disabilities) contribute something to society. For example I used to tell people about our severely disabled neighbour, who had such an amazingly joyful attitude to life and was a real inspiration to me. Or there was someone I knew once who had Down’s and was always the life and soul of the party. And while that’s true, I now find myself feeling a little bit disgusted with myself for playing that game – for taking part in the: look, these people also contribute to society, let’s appreciate them.
A little bit disgusted with myself because now that I think about it I realise that the flip side of “let’s appreciate these people because of the joy they bring” is that there are other people we won’t appreciate. Those who don’t bring joy, and don’t contribute anything as far as we can see. The flip side of “this person has value because of what they contribute” is: look at that other person there – what a waste of space.
And I know that in God’s eyes nobody is a waste of space.
I know that my value in God’s eyes doesn’t depend on my “I did” list.
I know that his love for me is constant, he has loved me since before I was born and he is committed to loving me forever – not because of what I do or don’t do, not because of what I contribute, not because of anything in my attitude or my behaviour. That negative voice in my head that I managed to appease with an “I did” list? That voice didn’t come from God. That voice – like so much of the package deal that comes with depression – was a lying voice. The truth is: every human being has value, just through being created in God’s image. You don’t have to earn that. You don’t have to keep showing that you’re good enough or that you’ve done enough.
God loved the world so much that he sent his only begotten son to die so that anyone who believes in him could have eternal life.
That well-known verse speaks of our value in God’s eyes in a way that really should make it clear we don’t have to earn or prove our value. This same verse also speaks of another bit of truth – less nice and comforting but essential for understanding the full picture: it says if we believe in Jesus we won’t perish, and that’s because we do all deserve to perish. While we have humungous value in God’s eyes because we were made in his image, and he loves us so much he was willing to make such a huge sacrifice for us – at the same time, we are all sinners who deserve death and hell.
I mentioned grace earlier. Grace, love and compassion – that’s what God offers us through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus.
This brings me to another facet of “I did” – sometimes “I did” is not a proud and happy statement, showing off our achievements, but a sad and sorry confession. The thing is, if you put your faith in Jesus then both these “I did” lists ultimately don’t matter. The achievements you’re proud of? That’s nice but it doesn’t earn you points with God, and since he already loves you so much more than you can imagine, you can’t really increase that love through anything you do. And the bad things you’ve thought and said and done? Sure, they were bad, but the blood of Jesus is enough to cover them and to make you totally clean in God’s eyes.
If I stay in bed all day and do absolutely nothing whatsoever that would be of benefit to anyone else, it won’t change my value as a ransomed sinner, a human being made in God’s image and forgiven through the atoning blood of Jesus.
God’s grace – that’s where I get my value from. No matter what I’ve done or not done.