Choose any moment of any day and you can hear the cacophony of the world ringing in your ears. It’s a wonder we can hear ourselves think, much less hear the voice of God.
Then come the voices with which we contend even in moments of solitude. These are the voices within. Everyone hears them, but most feel helpless to silence them. Recognizing the power of the voices within, Nicole Johnson, author of A Fresh Brewed Life, wrote, “These voices keep our souls chained in the basement. They make us fearful to try anything new, anxious about what others think of us, and they keep us on the treadmill of performance.”
We have listened to these messages and obeyed them for so long that they have taken root in our hearts and become the words by which we live. Words of inadequacy, failure, ugliness. They are the lies that we know better than truth.
Ironically, when we feel the nagging desire to know beauty beyond this world, we hurriedly stifle these longings so as not to create any greater tension within us. What results is the masking of our true desires with a superficial sense of belonging.
For many years, I believed I was alone in my struggle to love myself and see myself as beautiful. I had shared many secrets with friends, but not the overwhelming sense of inadequacy I felt. We talked about our love for God and our families, but we didn’t share our fear that we could not learn to love ourselves.
Over the years, I have listened more closely to the voices of others, and I have learned that I do not struggle alone.
Few people knew the deep dissatisfaction I felt toward myself when I was growing up. I always appeared to be a self-assured young woman. I had learned to bury my feelings of dislike under a mound of activities and accomplishments. I couldn’t comprehend my inherent value, so I created value in a long list of club activities and academic achievements. When the voices told me I’d never be beautiful, I answered their litany of accusations with my own litany of accomplishments. Because I could not separate what I did from who I was, to fail at what I did was to fail at who I was.
After graduating from high school, I left home to enter college. Despite my desire to leave behind the familiar but unfriendly voices, they traveled with me.
While in high school, I had received feedback on each homework assignment, quiz, test, and paper. In college, however, homework assignments involved large quantities of reading. Quizzes were almost nonexistent; tests and papers were assigned over the course of a whole semester and sometimes were not returned. I struggled to find my bearings. I knew that my grades had been important to me, but not until I no longer had them to use as a measurement did I realize how much they meant. I had
made my grades and accomplishments the sum of who I was. Instead of paying attention to this truth, I tried even harder to silence it.
Activities became more important than ever. I joined clubs and vied for leadership positions on campus. But the voices were always with me. To control and suppress their tirade, I spent more time focusing on what I ate and when I exercised. While these pursuits were not wrong, my motivation was. Unhappy with who I was, I attempted to find my worth in things other than God. My actions were motivated by the desire to please others rather than God.
The harder we try to silence the voices of society by finding meaning in transitory things, the louder the voices within us cry out that we have no value. I knew I was supposed to find my value in God, and even in the midst of my internal struggles I knew God to be faithful. However, I was always left to wrestle with the abiding tension between my desire to know more of God and my desire for the approval of others.
More important, I had difficulty transferring what God thought about me to what I thought about me. I clung to the words God spoke to Israel through the prophet Jeremiah because I knew they held truth for me too: “For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon Me and go and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart” (29:11-13).
I wanted God’s will for my life; I just didn’t understand that God’s plan for me involved accepting myself as He had made me and giving up my search for peace outside myself. When I achieved confidence in my appearance, the assurance of success, and the approval of others, I thought that then I would know God’s will for my life.
When the activities left me still longing, I convinced myself that when I found my soul mate—the one with whom God would have me spend my future—I would find the longed-for peace and self-love. Having someone love and pursue me would prove to me that I had value. Surely then I would understand the depth of God’s thoughts and feelings about me.
Every young girl longs for the day when she will find her knight in shining armor. Having regularly engaged in reading the timeless romance of Anne of Green Gables, I needed no encouragement to hope for the man who would be my Gilbert. Schoolgirl romanticism has its place in stirring our dreams and our hopes for the future, but taken to an extreme, it is deceptive. From the schoolgirl point of view, the story ends as the woman and her knight marry and live happily ever after. But sometimes the perils of struggle follow the lovers as they ride off into the sunset. Sometimes the knight cannot rescue the maiden.
When I met Scott, the man who would one day be my husband, I found a man whom I loved and whose opinion I truly valued. But the deep places of my heart had holes that Scott could not fill. My insecurities were not healed when Scott asked me to marry him, nor when we walked down the aisle and said our vows.
Marriage does not dispel personal misgivings. If anything, it magnifies unresolved insecurities. Struggles inevitably come, and their arrival reveals the condition of our hearts. We can no longer hide behind doors marked “private.” Marriage, as it should, makes us vulnerable, even in areas we pretend do not exist. The voices that I had effectively stifled while dating cried out even before we came home from the honeymoon.
I had eagerly anticipated the day Scott and I would know each other intimately, but I didn’t anticipate the nuances of miscommunication that sex can bring into a relationship. The idea that physical intercourse equals love is a difficult myth to dispel even when we know it is false. I began using the physical aspects of our relationship to judge my husband’s valuation of me. When he was too tired or too stressed for physical intimacy, I missed the opportunity to broaden my understanding of love. Instead, I listened to voices telling me that if I were thinner, he would want me regardless of whatever else he was feeling.
Even the way he spent his time became a measure of my self-worth. If I felt we weren’t spending enough time together, I concluded I was not pretty enough. Because my insecurities blocked the true nature of the conflict, working toward a solution was impossible. My self-esteem issues rather than my Creator were controlling my relationship with my husband.
The irony of these voices is that my husband’s voice never stopped telling me that I was beautiful or that he loved me. I simply wasn’t hearing him. More accurately, I was choosing not to believe him. My marriage, while one of God’s greatest gifts to me, didn’t silence the voices because my insecurities went deeper than my relationship with my husband. They went to the core of who I was—to my relationship with Christ.
I knew with my head, but not with my heart, that my beauty and worth are found in Christ. Because I valued the beauty of this world, I believed that my value could be found there. And because my values were based on the world’s standards, I expected others to determine my worth in the same manner.
When I joined a Christian-based weight-loss program, I thought I had found the answer. I would silence the voices by finding the body I’d always wanted—and I would be pursuing God in the process. My motive, though, was wrong. I was joining the program not to become healthy but to be thin. I wasn’t pursuing God so He could create a new heart in me; I was turning my weight loss over to God so He would create a new outward person for me to live in.
I had found a way to stifle the voices, but they still were not silent. When I looked in the mirror and heard I’m so fat, I followed the program more vigorously and fought the voices with my fat-gram tally sheet. When I looked in the mirror and heard No one sees me as beautiful, I replayed all the compliments I had heard from others on my weight loss. When I looked in the mirror and heard I’ll never have it together like other women, I looked at the smaller pant-size that now fit.
But I wasn’t really defeating the voices. I was feeding them. As long as I was losing weight, I could accept myself. My value still came down to my external appearance. Only now I had made losing weight a spiritual discipline. I even began to equate being thin with being spiritual.
Thirteen weeks into the program, I had lost 22 pounds. I not only felt in control of my weight, I felt in control of my spirituality. Pursuing God had become much more formulaic. Eating fried chicken was sinful while eating raw vegetables was godly. Likewise, the more I exercised, the more spiritual I felt. I believed that because I had been unhappy with myself, God had been unhappy with me. Now that I was thin, I could begin to please God. But my contentment hung by a tenuous thread.
I had asked God to change the way I looked, to help me diet, to help me exercise every day, to help me find the right clothes, to make me anyone but me. But in all my asking for solutions to my insecurities, I had never asked Him to change my heart. Until one Sunday afternoon. Arriving home from church, I walked to the bedroom and curled up on the bed, dress clothes and all. I had reached the bottom. Feeling broken and emotionally spent, I began to cry.
I begged God to change me. Saying the words aloud for the first time, I told God I hated my body and I hated myself. But I did not want to continue hating myself, and I did not want to continue chasing the shadowy image of beauty the world had offered me. On that day, I stopped asking God to make me thin and beautiful. Instead, I asked God to teach me to understand the beauty He sees in me. Those simple words began a journey—a journey to understand priceless beauty from the heart of One who paid the price with His life.
My struggle with the voices within has taught me that I must find my value in the One who gives me value. Surrounding myself with achievements and accomplishments cannot convince me of my value, seeking love from others cannot convince me of my value, and changing the way I look cannot convince me of my value.
The voices within thrive upon weakness. But a deeper message is waiting to be heard: We were made for something more. God is to be our strength, and His strength is made perfect in our weakness (2 corinthians 12:9).
In our battle against the voices within and without, we must recognize four important truths.
First, we must allow the words that we hear from others to be filtered through Scripture, which indicates the thoughts on which we are to dwell: “Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things” (philippians 4:8).
Constructive criticism has its place, but accusations of failure and inadequacy do not. When we hear what others say about us and about themselves, we must determine whether our rehearsal of those comments will strengthen or undermine our understanding of who we are in Christ.
Second, we must change the way we speak about ourselves. When we deride ourselves, we curse God’s creation. We essentially tell God, “I know You called it good, but I don’t believe it’s good enough.” How can we claim to praise and worship God and, with the same mouth, curse His creation? Scripture says, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord, my strength and my Redeemer” (psalm 19:14) and Jesus taught, “out of the abundance of the heart [the] mouth speaks” (luke 6:45). Words of denigration reveal a heart problem. Our heart is listening to the life-taker and not the Life-Giver.
Third, we must learn to identify the words spoken by the one who seeks to destroy our souls. Satan is a liar. We know that he comes only “to steal, and to kill, and to destroy” (john 10:10). Deception is at the core of his being, and thus everything he speaks is void of truth. We can identify his words when we hear them—he speaks words of rejection, hatred, failure, and discontent.
“I’ll never measure up.”
“I can never be beautiful.”
“I am the sum of all my failures.”
“If I were thinner, I’d be happier.”
“I’m not good at anything.”
“If I had new clothes, I’d be satisfied with the way I look.”
“I’m so fat.”
All lies. Words of death, not life. If he can convince us that we’re worthless, he can immobilize us and keep us from fulfilling God’s plan for our lives. Out of fear of rejection, we won’t reach out to others. We’ll wallow in self-hatred. Out of fear of failure, we won’t follow our dreams. We’ll drown in discontent.
The clamor of voices rings in our heads while we bravely paste smiles on our faces. We quietly tell ourselves that we must live with the voices and pretend to have the peace and self-assurance that we long for but which slip through our fingers with every self-deprecating word. And then the voices become more vicious.
“If God really cared, He wouldn’t have made you look this way.”
“If you can’t believe God loves you just the way you are, His love must not be true.”
“If you were really spiritual, you wouldn’t struggle to love yourself.”
Lies. All lies. When we call them what they are, they lose their power and the truth becomes clearer. Beauty does exist, and God waits for us like a patient lover.
Finally, we must hear what God has to say about us.
Before the beginning of time, I knew you. I knew what color your eyes would be, and I could hear the sound of your laughter. Like a proud father who carries a picture of his daughter, I carried the image of you in My eyes, for you were created in My image. Before the beginning of time, I chose you. I spoke your name into the heavens, and I smiled as its melody resounded off the walls of My heart. You are Mine. My love for you extends farther than the stars in the sky and deeper than any ocean. You are My pearl of great price, the one for whom I gave everything. I cradle you in the palm of My hand. I love you even in the face of your failure. Nothing you say or do can cause Me to stop loving you. I am relentless in My pursuit of you. Run from Me—I will love you. Spurn Me—I will love you. Reject yourself—I will love you. You see, My love for you was slain before the foundations of the world and I have never regretted the sacrifice I made for you at Calvary. When I see every part of who you are, I marvel at the work of My hands, for I whispered words of longing and desire and you came into existence. You are beautiful, and I take pleasure in you—heart, mind, and body. You are My desire. When you turn your head in shame and despise what I have made, still I reach for you with gentle passion. You are My beloved and I am yours (author’s adaptation from 1 john 3:2; isaiah 43:1; matthew 13:46; ephesians 1:4; revelation 13:8; psalm 149:4; song of solomon 7:10; 6:3).
God longs for us to know His beauty, but we must choose how to respond to the voices we hear.
The voices from without and within skew reality. Hearing God’s voice above the destructive invective is an ongoing struggle. We may never silence the voices, but we can choose whether or not the voices define who we are. God stands waiting to lead us on a journey to know true beauty, a journey that begins by listening carefully to His heart and gazing into the mirror of His Word.