At moments in my life, the words “I am a child of God” have touched me with awe and respect for my fellow human beings. But I have evoked the words far more often to remind myself that I am special and loved. I don’t know if God intended us to feel special by virtue of being his children (I suspect that he would have preferred us to feel more humble), but I believe that is what those words mean to many children (and former children) who are immersed in a religious and secular culture that assures us that we are all special, capable, and full of unlimited potential. It is, after all, a very gratifying idea. I am just not sure that it is a useful one in our secular and spiritual lives.
Ensuring that children have a healthy amount of self-esteem is important, but we now often harbor expectations for ourselves and for our children that are unrealistic. As much as we might hope that all children have the potential for superior achievement, most of us will turn out to be simply average, whether because of innate limitations or our own choices. Although this hardly seems like grounds for distress, I am surprised by the number of people who have shared with me a sense of disappointment that they did not or could not accomplish something (often unarticulated) that they deemed better and have wandered from job to job in search of the passion they think must find. Recently, I heard a psychologist on the radio discuss how many of his patients were upset because they believed they were destined for better, more significant careers than they had reason to expect: why couldn’t they, too, be on American Idol when their teachers said they could be anything? He went far enough to suggest that the makings of our current financial crisis lie in part in adults who were trained to think about the world in ways that reflect certain popular ideologies rather than realities, and who therefore did not pay attention to facts in the financial sector. Some obvious political examples also come to mind here. Although this point of view might be somewhat extreme, I think it express something problematic about our current secular and religious culture that reassures us all of our specialness: that feeling more special than we are leads to bad decisions and disappointed expectations.
But does my belief that God feels that I am special lead me to distorted religious expectations? Two years ago, when I was reading through nineteenth-century diaries in which mothers wrote about the deaths of their children, I was struck by how many of them viewed religion as an act of sacrificing one’s own will to God’s. In a period in which death was frequent and humans lacked significant control over nature and disease, it makes sense that they saw sacrifice and obedience as proper religious qualities. By contrast, I now act with the assumption that if I only did more, then I could resolve many of the natural and social problems that were formerly seen as acts of God. Rather than seeing religious participation as an act of sacrifice to God’s will, my religious view focuses on how I, as a gifted and special individual, can serve to correct the world’s problems, whether they be in my neighbor’s home or in third-world countries. To be religious is to fulfill my special potential to be a force for good, while failure to do enough is a problem I am accountable for.
The idea that we are all special beings how can become like God as we make the world a better place is an idea I find deeply appealing. However, it is also an idea that sometimes leads me to forget about Christ, because it encourages me to think that we have unlimited potential to help the world on our own. When I fail, I typically do not think to ask for Christ’s help, but instead ask myself how I could do better next time. So has a belief in my special, eternal potential made me overlook my continuing need for God’s presence in my life?
I love the assurance that being a child of God gives me. But, sometimes I probably need to remember that I am a CHILD of God, not God, who still needs help and who comes with limitations that by no means detract from my worth in His eyes, a worth that is probably only equal to that with which He views everyone else.