My generation has had an obsession with self-love for as long as I can remember, and as we have grown up and gained a voice as adults in society, the obsession has only become more pronounced. Everywhere I look there are voices selling the ideas of positive affirmations, good vibrations, manifestations, and interpersonal boundaries as pathways to the ultimate ideal of loving oneself.
At one time I would have dismissed them all as self-centered and superficial, narcissistic and idolatrous. And in many ways, I still do. But as someone who once hated herself enough to inflict self-harm, I can't completely ignore the implications of what is all too common in our society: the desperation for external praise, the almost subconscious need to self-sabotage, the pious-sounding self-deprecation that masquerades as humility but is actually a manifestation of pride. These ugly traits pervade even in the church, leading me to wonder if self-love is a bit more necessary than most Christians I know would admit, myself included.
Self-love - it just sounds sinful. It seems to fly in the face of the death-to-self requirements of following Jesus. And in the way it's being preached right now in the secular world, that's true.
But the opposite epidemic of the church - the wallowing in self-degradation, martyrdom, guilt, misery, and the identity of "dirty, rotten sinner" - flies just as horrifically in the face of the truth of the Gospel that we say we believe.
So what's the answer? Where's the line between glorifying God for His transformational work in our hearts and setting ourselves up as idols to serve? How can we view ourselves rightly, and in so doing honor the God who created us rather than constantly trying to destroy what He has made?
What does self-love look like for the disciple?
1. Self-love for the disciple starts with celebrating who God is (not who we are).
A right view of God is foundational to a right view of absolutely everything else in this life, including ourselves. When I was a prisoner of self-hatred trying to get free, the Bible passage that I turned to over and over again, every single day was Romans 9:20-21:
Who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, "Why did you make me like this," will it? Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for common use?
The context of this passage is, of course, God's right to show compassion on the Gentiles or the Jews as He so chooses. But the bottom-line truth is that God is sovereign - He has the right and the ability to do with me whatever He wants, for His ultimate glory. He is the potter, I am the clay. That means I don't get to complain about how He made me - I just get to celebrate that He is sovereign, that He knows why, and that He doesn't act without purpose. I am not an accident.
Where the world starts with the celebration of self - with self-focused exercises like complimenting yourself, making lists of your best traits, etc. - we begin with a celebration of our God. Everything we are must be credited to who He is.
2. Self-love for the disciple celebrates who we have become (because of who God is).
When we start with who God is, we can then give Him our highest praise for what He has done in us. The practice of preaching the Gospel to ourselves repeatedly - daily or hourly, if necessary - should become our reflexive response to any kind of self-diminishing behavior. And by this I do not mean repeating words like "I'm a dirty rotten sinner, saved by grace."
If you have truly been saved by grace, you are not a dirty rotten sinner anymore. You are a saint. You are a temple of the Holy Spirit. You are bought with a price - God put a value on you, and it was a value so great that we can't even measure it: His Son's own blood. These are the truths that deserve repetition, that should become the foundation of your prayers of thanksgiving. This is what God has done for you - this is who He has re-created you to be.
The truths listed above came out of 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 - contextually a passage warning against sexual immorality, but again the bottom-line truth is that God owns you. "You are not your own," Paul writes. Not only do you not have the right to defile your body physically with immoral behavior, you also don't have the right to defile yourself mentally or spiritually with lies.
Speak truth to yourself - the truth of who God is and the truth of what He's done on your behalf, to make you who you are meant to be. If God loves you this much, if God believes you are priceless and worthy of salvation, then how dare you contradict that truth by living like it's false?
3. Self-love for the disciple is characterized by humility and grace (not pride or guilt).
While our world praises those who don't need anyone - who make their decisions based entirely on their own needs and desires in order to find some kind of self-fulfillment in this life - as disciples our own quest for "self-love" might better be called a quest toward grace.
We are in awe of who God is. We are inexpressibly grateful for the grace He has shown to us. The only meaningful response we can have to such extravagant love is to turn around and extravagantly love others.
When we're busy hating ourselves, needy for outside affirmations and obsessing over our failures, we don't have the capacity to show God's grace to those around us. We're too self-focused, too filled with pride to see and meet the desperate needs of others. We can't possibly give that which we haven't opened our own hearts to receive - and thus our attempts at love, grace, and humility become feeble and self-powered, rather than mightily fueled by the incredible love, grace, and humility that's been poured into us by God Himself.
As C.S. Lewis said, "Humility is not thinking less of yourself. It's thinking of yourself less." I think in the church we have been confusing those two for a long time - substituting real other-person-centeredness with a self-focused "aw shucks I'm not really good at anything" mentality that secretly feeds the ministry-killing sins of pride and guilt.
When we can serve God selflessly and then go to sleep at night satisfied with having His approval alone - knowing, without feeling guilty or proud for thinking it, without anyone else saying it, that we have done well - then we have achieved a truthful and God-glorifying view of ourselves.
God wants us to see ourselves the way He sees us.
As with everything, the concept of self-love has become twisted in the hands of the secular world, who have made it all about fulfilling oneself without God (and thereby setting self up as a god). But their perversion of the truth shouldn't make us run away from the concept of self-love altogether. The truth is that God created you, and God doesn't create trash. God created you, and that means He has a reason for your existence. God created you, and He declared your value to the world when He shed His own blood on your behalf.
You need no other voice to tell you that you're needed, beloved, beautiful, and set free.
Now live in the truth so that you can pour the truth into others.