The root of our self-worth?

If it is true that we are being created in God’s image, we have found the deepest source of our self-worth

A friend of mine who returned from volunteer work abroad, joined a London-based Charity. For a fraction of the salary her qualifications would entitle her to, she agreed to counsel people who are in trouble. Since she needed a place to live, she approached a bank for a mortgage.

“What are you worth?”, the bank manager wanted to know.

She soon realised this meant the sum total of her assets, savings and regular earnings. These amounted to little. Her request for a mortgage was refused: she wasn’t worth it. “I hope I’m worth a little more in God’s eyes”, she said to me.

Now we all may feel a measure of sympathy with the banker who, after all, was only doing his job. The question the incident raises, however, is real. What are we worth?


Few of us are silly enough to imagine that the real value of our life is written on bank notes. The marketing consultant who demands £3000 + VAT for half a day’s service, puts a price on his time. But the same man will probably gladly spend an entire night nursing his sick baby daughter, changing her nappies and carrying her in his arms, without even thinking of payment. There is more to life than money.

Psychologists tell us that the dominant drive in our lives is the need of self esteem. Yes, physical security, food and sex are basic cravings. But our survival as a human being, as a knowing, searching, conscious individual, depends on something else: on finding our own value. The most important thing for all of us is to know that we are worth something, that we mean something to other people, that our existence makes a difference, that we, as individuals, are worth knowing and loving. The supreme law of life, as Alfred Adler put it, can be summed up in one commandment: “Thou shalt not diminish the sense of worth of thyself” (see: H.ANSBACHER, The Individual Psychology of Alfred Adler, Basic Books 1946, p. 358).

People want to fulfil their fullest self, to realise their potential, leave an impact on the world, make something worthwhile of their life. Extensive research on European values systems bears this out in two principal spheres of activity: the family and work.

What do we ask from life?

In marriage, for instance, though an adequate income (37%) and good housing (34%) are welcomed, most people attach a higher priority to values that affirm the self: to having a partner who is faithful (84%), who shows respect (84%) and tolerance (79%), and with whom one enjoys a healthy sexual relationship (63%). It is as if people say: As long as I am recognised as a person, as long as I am loved and can give love, my marriage is a success.

The same approach can be observed in people’s attitude to work. Good pay (69%) and job security (57%) rank high as priorities, for obvious reasons. But generous holidays (25%), absence of pressure (25%) and even favourable working hours (40%) are considered as of less importance. People prefer a job that stretches their potential:

  • “an exciting job” (62%);
  • “a job that meets my abilities” (53%);
  • “a job in which I feel I can achieve something” (53%);
  • “a job which gives me opportunities to use my initiative” (47%);
  • “a responsible job, that is useful to society” (44%).

In other words: people want meaningful jobs (see: S.ASHFORD and N.TIMMS, What Europe Thinks. A Study of Western European Values, Aldershot 1992, pp. 50-54, 74-77.)

Self worth and meaning are closely related. When people measure their worth by their family and their job, they are saying to themselves: “I mean a lot to my husband and my children”, or “What I do is meaningful to my colleagues, my pupils, my customers, society at large, and so on”.

In fact, we spend a lot of time throughout the day reviewing and assessing the daily events that give us, or deny us, self esteem, that make us feel approved or rejected. We are so engrossed with this that psychologists call it the `inner newsreel’, the endless testing and rehearsing of what is going on between us and other people. “Yes, I’m worth something. No, I’m not”.


But what if relationships at home turn sour and if my job collapses? Do I have any worth in myself? The playwright Noel Coward stated: “My sense of my own importance to myself is tremendous. I am all I have: to work with, to play with, to suffer and to enjoy. In the final analysis it’s not the eyes of others that I’m wary of, but my own.” What am I worth in my own eyes?

Underneath the immediate relationships that give meaning to our life lurk deeper questions.

Who gives me my worth?

” The constant harangue that we address to one another: “notice me”, “love me”, “esteem me”, “value me”, may seem debasing and ignoble. But when we tally the sum of these efforts, the excruciating earnestness of them, the eternal grinding out of the inner newsreel, we can see that something really big is going on — really vital.

” When you pose the question: “Who am I? What is the value of my life?”, you are really asking something more pointed: that you be recognised as an object of primary value in the universe. Nothing less.”

E.BECKER, The Birth and Death of Meaning, Penguin 1971, p. 84.

Am I an object of primary value in the universe? This is the real issue that is at stake. It evokes the question of ultimate meaning, and thus of religion.

Seen through the eyes of religion, we derive our ultimate worth from our occupying a unique position in a created universe. The Bible teaches that God made man and woman in his own image. God created the human being in his image,in his own likeness he created them, male and female he created them (Genesis 1,27)

In other words, we carry in us the imprint of an infinite, mysterious, timeless Reality. We reflect `God’. Surviving in demanding circumstances, through our consciousness and free will, we are like gods and goddesses ourselves. And we enjoy the love and friendship of the mysterious Origin of all that exists. 



The text in this chapter is from How to Make Sense of God by John Wijngaards, Sheed & Ward, Kansas City 1995. Tom Adcock designed the cartoons. The Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada awarded the book a prize on 25 May 1996.

View the following film on the meaning of creation