The affirmation crisis
The affirmation crisis
18 April 2022
My twin boys started school this year, and gosh, it was such a relief. After all these lockdowns and freak weather patterns that kept kids indoors for days and days, finally having a few hours of peace was so good. I missed them a little bit, but mostly I was relieved.
As I was taking them to their first day at school, a memory popped into my head about my time at school. I had a flashback to the fifth grade. Our teacher made us do a creative writing piece, which I was quite happy about because I liked writing. So, we wrote these stories, handed them in and went out for recess.
When we came back, I saw that the teacher had made photocopies of my creative writing piece and gave one to every class member. She then announced, “This story has the worst spelling and grammar of all the creative writing pieces I’ve gotten all year. So, as a learning exercise, we as a class are going to go through it and correct every mistake.”
It was absolutely humiliating. Super, super humiliating.
The thing about humiliation is that we easily remember the experience. We remember every detail and how we felt. I can barely remember anything about primary school, but I can recall every time I felt humiliated – getting out for a duck playing cricket in the playground, calling my teacher “Mum” by accident, and, of course, the time my teacher passed around my poorly written creative writing piece. I’m sure nobody else remembers all these things ... but I do.
Being humiliated make us feel ashamed and worthless. We become anxious that a new humiliation might be coming soon. We get beaten down by humiliation, and it’s a sad truth that once we get beaten down in life, it is extremely hard to get back up.
So what can we do about this? How can we feel decent about ourselves?
The antidote to humiliation is glorification. Glory makes a difference here. To be glorified is to be affirmed significantly. Glorious things inspire awe and delight. They are worthy of praise.
Famous with God
A while back, I was driving to Newtown (the urban hipster part of Sydney) on a 40-degree day. I had spent the week at the world’s dullest conference, and I hoped some time in a record store might lift my spirits.
As I was waiting at some traffic lights, Tim Rogers, the lead singer ‘You Am I’, one of Australia’s favourite alternative rock bands, dashed across the road in front of me. Despite the heat, he wore a purple suit but had no shirt on, so his chest hair was glistening in the sun. He was tall, and his long hair was blowing in the wind like a lion’s mane. He was bold and exuberant. As I watched him, my spirits lifted, and I thought, “Wow, look at this fella, he is magnificent!” I covered him in glory.
In the Gospels, when Jesus spoke of being crucified, he said he was “going to his glory”, and he was. To give your life for others is always a praiseworthy thing. Sacrifice is glorious, and this was the great sacrifice.
Then Jesus was resurrected, which made him even more glorious. A sacrificial death and then resurrection is an incredible thing. Magnificent indeed. From then and forevermore, Jesus lives covered in glory as our Saviour, as our way-maker, as our hope. He is truly glorious.
But here is the really mind-bending part. This is the good news part. In John 27, just before Jesus went to the cross, he prayed to God. He prayed that the people who followed him would be glorified just as he was. That what he did on the cross was done on behalf of those who follow him and that they too would be glorified.
Jesus was glorified so that we could be glorified.
CS Lewis preached on this and said that to receive the glory of God is to be famous with God. It means that God can look upon us with even greater delight than I felt when I saw Tim Rogers in his purple suit. That God would see us like he sees Jesus. Glorious. Magnificent in his eyes.
But Lewis concedes that this might not seem all that great at first. Most of us have received an accolade or two, and they don’t seem to stick as easily as the humiliations. Affirmation is a temporary high. It is a fickle thing. Humiliation seems to tear us down way more quickly than glory builds us up. Humiliation is more potent than glory.
But this isn’t regular glory. This is God’s glory. God is the true judge of our worth, and he judges us to be glorious.
Charles Taylor is one of the great philosophers of our time. He was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University and became a professor there. He is published by Harvard and has won nearly every prestigious prize a philosopher can win. Taylor is a significant thinker.
Later in his life, he wrote a book about the self and how we form an identity, and he says that we all have a deep need to have our identity affirmed. We need to be told that we are good and worthwhile people. But we never seem to get this affirmation, we have an affirmation crisis.
Then he tries to work out how we can overcome this crisis, and he works through all the dominant approaches to affirmation of the human self in the western world and shows that they all agree that it can never be achieved.
Take Nietzsche, for instance. He agreed that we all want to be good people, but he believed that ‘goodness’ and ‘morality’ are just myths that we’ve constructed ourselves, and because they are myths, we can never live up to them. Nietzsche’s solution is to get rid of them. We must, he says, abandon morality or be doomed to live as moral failures. It’s a kind of ‘if you can’t win the game, quit the game’ solution, the merits of which you can consider in your own time. The point here is that even Nietzsche acknowledges that there is an affirmation crisis.
A spiritual solution
Taylor concludes that nothing on earth can give us the affirmation we need. Nothing at all. Not one thing. The depth and fullness of affirmation that we crave can only come from a divine source: God. Taylor writes, “There is a large element of hope. It is a hope that I see implicit in Judaeo-Christian theism ... and in its central promise of a divine affirmation of the human, more total than humans can ever attain unaided”.
We all so desperately want to be good and worthwhile people, worthy of love, worthy of acceptance. We need affirmation. But the affirmation we get here on earth is never enough to satisfy. We need something greater, something deeper, something with more intensity. Our need points toward God. A greater, deeper and more intense being.
The affirmation crisis is a spiritual problem in need of a spiritual solution, and the system God put in place to solve this problem is not one where we earn glory for ourselves but one where Jesus earns it for us.
And you, dear reader, may doubt. You might think this is all very strange. This idea is that there is some kind of divine affirmation out there, and it is given to us if we trust in Jesus. It’s wild. It’s a large leap into unusual territory.
But remember that you already have a fear of humiliation and a deep need for approval. In many respects, you are already in this territory. The solution is no more mysterious than the problem, and you already believe in the problem.
You believe in the darkness; now it’s time to believe in the light.
Jesus died for you. He gave his life so that you could be glorified. Believe in Jesus. Trust in the Saviour, and the next time a past humiliation pops into your head, it will shiver at the sight of God’s great glory.
 Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self. The making of the Modern Identity, Cambridge U.P., Cambridge, 1989, p. 521