“Worm theology” was popular in the past, but gets a bad rap nowadays. It describes a Christian piety that enjoys describing ourselves as “worms”! Christians produced and sang hymns and offered prayers using worm language to abase themselves and magnify the grace of God. Now, I expect there are Christian circles where “worm theology” still exists, but I suspect they are vanishingly small; I’ve certainly not heard Christians talking like that in the last two decades. Normally, when I do hear it, it’s Christians putting the boot in to it, saying how bad it is. The one exception is the song: “Alas and Did My Saviour Bleed?”, which has the line: “would he devote that sacred head for such a worm as I?”.
Now, I’m sure “worm theology” can become quite deviant. That is a danger of any biblical truth. One of Job’s friends, called Bildad, was into his worm theology, and he may well be an example of a worm theologian gone wrong. “Man… is a maggot and the son of man… is a worm” he reminded Job (Job 25:6). It would make an interesting Hallmark card slogan, wouldn’t it? But Bildad isn’t the only worm theologian in the Bible. Our Lord Jesus Christ says: “I am a worm and not a man” (Psalm 22:6). God says to his redeemed people: “you worm Jacob” (Isa 41:14), so it’s not language Christians can just ignore.
Jesus, the worm
When Jesus said: “I am a worm, and not a man” in Psalm 22, what did he mean? It is shocking language and it’s designed to shock us. Worms have a “yuck” factor; they’re associated with dirt and death. So, to think about myself as a worm belittles and humbles me.
Can you imagine a primary school teacher sitting her class down and saying, “Now, children! the Bible teaches we’re all worms in God’s sight”?! She’d be sacked for traumatising them, and lowering their self-esteem. It contradicts the positive self-image, which we’re told our children need. So, why does Jesus use this language?
He’s voicing the experience of his humiliation. These are not words that Jesus, seated at God’s right hand, can say today. They do not describe him crowned with glory and honour (Psalm 8:5)! But they do describe an important aspect of his humiliation. This is what he went through, as he stepped into the shoes of sinners. As he identified with us, the “the Lord of glory” (1 Cor 2:8) could say: “I am a worm”.
“Worm theology”, therefore, is describing the dehumanising effect that sin has on us. We regularly underestimate the devastation that sin has caused in human nature. Sin has disfigured us. Sin destroys beauty, and it is ugly. Paul’s letters descend down into dark and dirty metaphors to describe unredeemed humanity (e.g. Eph 4:17-22; Rom 1:26-32). This vivid imagery is designed to wake us up to the effect of sin. It is not a denial of the creation of man in God’s image, but it’s a lamentation of the ruinous effects of sin on our human nature.
In one version of Les Miserables, Jean Valjean, the convict says: “I don’t belong in the family of men, monsieur, I’m on the outside”. That’s what Jesus is talking about.
The church, God’s worm
“OK, but surely once Jesus has saved us, we’re no longer to identify ourselves as worms? After all, as Christians, we’re now saints not sinners, aren’t we?”. Well, I think it’s safe to say that we won’t be calling ourselves worms in glory, but that doesn’t mean we cut out the language yet.
We can’t get around the fact that God says: “Fear not, you worm Jacob, you men of Israel! I am the one who helps you, declares the LORD; your Redeemer is the Holy One of Israel”. In that verse, God doesn’t address his redeemed people, with prestigious titles like “chosen race, a royal priesthood” or “a holy nation” (1 Peter 2:9). No, he calls them a “worm”! Why? Why would God seemingly belittle his people? Well, it’s clearly not out of wrath, or to scare them. But I think it does two things:
i) It accents his grace. God does for his weak, disfigured people what they cannot do for themselves. It’s the same gospel logic as Paul, when he writes: “God chose what is low and despised in the world, even the things that are not, to bring to nothing the things that are” (1 Cor 1:28). It’s why Paul gladly labels himself the “chief of sinners” (1 Tim 1:15) and “the very least of all the saints” (Eph 3:8). Paul’s doing some powerful “worm theology” in those texts. The greatest saint on their death bed will still be able to sincerely sing: “Would he devote that sacred head for such a worm as I?”. So, to lose or reject that note, is to shrink God’s grace down.
ii) It pushes our hope in to the future. In the next verses of Isaiah, God makes clear he’s going to transform the “worm Jacob” into a triumphant people (Isa 41:15-16)! So, the language emphasises “we’re not there yet!”. God’s goal in worm theology is not to leave man crawling around in the dirt; its goal is to exalt us. “Worm theology” is not the whole story of the human race. It’s not where our story starts, and it’s not where it will end. But it is part of our story, and, it’s currently part of our story. So, when we reject “worm theology”, we reduce our eagerness to be “raised in glory … [and] power” (1 Cor 15:43).
I’m sure “worm theology” can, and has, led to a distorted doctrine of humanity. But the same is true of “grace” (Rom 6:1; Jude 4). When a doctrine is distorted, the answer is never to run away from it. Replacing “worm theology” with “worth theology” is a disaster. “Worm theology” offers a more expansive understanding of what it means to be a human made in the image of God, this side of the Fall, and this side of Judgment Day. In an age obsessed with self-esteem and loving yourself, it says it’s precisely by looking hard at ourselves in the mirror and taking seriously what sin and grace has done to worms like us, that we’ll understand who we are.
I suspect there’s a connection between “worm theology” and accepting hell as a place “where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:48). Lose one and you’ll lose the other. After all, the damage sin has done to the human race, and that grace needs to fix, really is very serious. “Worm theology” reminds us that quick routes to dignifying humanity won’t work. When done well, it exalts God’s grace, exalts the man Christ Jesus, humbles us, and points us forwards to our exaltation.