I was reading an interview with a very popular female celebrity who, at the ripe old age of 17, was describing the depth of feeling between her and her soulmate, her love, her … boyfriend. She was certain these feelings were so new, so weighty, so breathtakingly profound, that none of us listening could possibly possess the ability to fathom what she and her beloved felt.
“I think we’re both deeper than normal people,” she mused and then shamelessly continued, “—what they think and how they feel.” Please forgive me; I actually laughed out loud. It might even have qualified as a snort.
But right after my snort, my next response was compassion. Her self-absorbed youthful proclamations could be forgiven as one of the many typical follies of simply growing up. It’s a challenging time. Most likely, we’ve all had comparable struggles. In fact, I have no problem finding many similar such declarations that I, in my younger years, afflicted upon my own parents. I remember watching a famous scene from the classic movie Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, in which the Sidney Poitier character angrily explains to his father that once you choose to give birth, you owe the child everything, and that same child owes you nothing in return, not even gratitude—because that is your job as a parent. I excitedly glommed onto this liberating revelation and ran to share it with my own father. My sweet dad was not a man who enjoyed confrontation, but he still conveyed much when he quietly shook his head and said, “I can’t say I actually agree with that.” Enter: the fatherly sigh.
When we hear such things from the young, we typically smile, gently correct, and forgive such missteps because we know that the blossoming of the mind, from child to adult, is an awkward process. Many different ideas, philosophies, and attitudes are tried on—much like hats—to see what fits. And blessedly, most kids eventually figure it out. However, if those attitudes persist into adulthood, we aren’t quite so forgiving.
The Fear of Self-Love
Most adults work hard to avoid being labeled self-absorbed, self-centered, or the newly dreaded word—narcissistic. And understandably so. The self-
esteem movement born of the 1960s has arguably given rise to the notion that our self-worth can be measured only by how much more special we are than those around us. Not a good place to be—for us or, obviously, those around us.
For Christians, the fear of self-love is fueled by the added biblical admonitions to put others ahead of ourselves.
For Christians, the fear of self-love is fueled by the added biblical admonitions to put others ahead of ourselves. Romans 12:10 instructs us to “be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor.”
In the church community, we’re always on the lookout to do just that—to be of service. We often hear sermons on serving, perseverance, sacrifice, loving the sinner, loving our neighbor, even loving our enemy. But we seldom talk about the idea of loving ourselves. We view any example of self-care as suspect, running the risk of putting us on the dreaded slippery slope leading to ungodly self-absorption.
But then what do we do with the Jesus-ordained word regarding self-love?
In Mark 12:31, Jesus instructs us to “love your neighbor as yourself.” This assumes some level of self-love. And it’s not just a one-off. This phrasing of loving others as ourselves occurs elsewhere in the Bible. (See Lev. 19:18; Lev. 19:34; James 2:8.) Jesus used this given of self-love as the starting point to help us know what compassion for others should look like.
Some Christians have argued that Christ wasn’t encouraging self-love, but only acknowledging its ubiquitous presence. They maintain He simply recognized that it was a given, even if an ugly one, and used it as a basis to teach us how to love others. Perhaps. But if this self-love was an ugly thing, why would the Lord use it as a standard to show how we should treat others? And if He wanted to condemn it, He certainly could have. Sin is also ubiquitous, and Jesus had no problems condemning that. Instead, He was pulling from something that is not only natural in us, but, in its right form, also healthy, and suggested we apply that same standard to others. Self-love and self-sacrifice are not mutually exclusive. In fact, we can see how the balance is supposed to look, when done well, by simply noting how the Lord Himself lived.
The Jesus Model
When we think of Jesus, we typically think of self-sacrifice, and understandably so. Indeed, the whole value in our faith is the idea that a perfect sacrifice had been found, and more astonishingly, He voluntarily stepped into this sacrificial role, all on our behalf. To miss this is to miss the crux of our beliefs. But we also shouldn’t miss the fact that Jesus modeled self-care as well. While He clearly knew when to stay and preach, or stay and heal, or stay and teach, we also have examples of Him stepping away from the crowd and going off to be by Himself, to mourn, to be with friends. We find Him allowing others to serve Him a meal, permitting others to finance His ministry. We even find Him going to a party. So, clearly, even when one’s primary purpose is sacrifice, there is a balance in which self-care and self-love are part of the dynamic.
The Self-Love Seesaw
We humans have long demonstrated that we can take anything, even a good thing, to extremes and ruin it. We do it with food, freedom, sex. Pretty much any good thing God has given us, we’ve pushed to the brink, twisting it into an unrecognizable and even grotesque form.
Self-love is no different. On the one extreme of the seesaw, we easily see the self-absorbed folks who preen and primp, demand and deny, creating unnecessary drama wherever they go. They are happy to give themselves grace, almost as a get-out-of-jail-free card. They are the ones giving self-love a bad name.
If Christ wanted to condemn self-love, He certainly could have.
But on the other extreme are self-loathers, a group for whom we agonize as they struggle to find any self-worth at all. Here, the problem is not one of excessive self-love, because they actually hate themselves, and this often emerges in very self-destructive behavior. The many ways to self-harm fill up (and yearly refresh) the diagnostic psychiatry manuals.
Both of these extreme behaviors call for extreme interventions.
But what about the middle—the place where, if the bell curve is valid, most of us live and breathe?
The Grace Withholders
Most Christians I know work very hard to put others above themselves. It’s a core value in the church body. But what we more often seem to struggle with is how and when to give grace to ourselves, the same grace that we easily give to those around us.
Here’s an example. A good friend and neighbor endured an exhausting night dealing with a teenage daughter who ignored curfew and came home at 6 a.m. This same neighbor went off to work the next day, sat in on a group meeting, and when a contentious point surfaced, he spouted off at a coworker in a way that he never would have previously. Had he been rested, the moment would have been handled in a completely different manner. But in the end, the move cost him a promotion.
What would you say to your friend? Probably stuff like …
- You’re only human.
- You were exhausted.
- Everyone has moments of extraordinary tiredness.
- One mistake does not define you.
- We all have bad moments.
In other words, you encourage him to embrace his humanity, to take hold of the been-there-done-that we can offer. Somehow, just hearing that another human being likes us, in spite of our gaffes, is soothing; it’s balm to a wounded soul.
But when we’re the ones who blew it, we often aren’t willing to provide that same grace for ourselves. Our think-speak may be more along the lines of …
- You should have kept your mouth shut.
- What were you thinking?
- What will people think?
- You’ve lost your chance.
- You just can’t cut it.
- This is unredeemable.
- This is unforgivable.
In the previous comments to your neighbor, you were willing to bring grace and pour it over your wounded friend. But somehow you don’t provide it for yourself. When it comes to self-care, grace is suddenly in short supply.
As Christians, many of us don’t need to learn the lesson of how to love our neighbors as ourselves; we need to learn how to love ourselves as we do our neighbors.
The Old New Idea
There is something deeper at work here. When we are hard on ourselves, we are typically using a hyper-rigid standard that we would never apply to others. It might surprise you to know that it carries a somewhat arrogant hidden message: I expect more from me than I do from you. It’s an exercise that actually serves to distance us from others.
But when we pour those same grace-filled words over our own wounds, we tap into our common humanity, our sameness, our kinship of imperfection. We admit that we make mistakes. Like. Everyone. Else. This action, instead of distancing us from others, actually connects us, heals us, removes the acid of self-condemnation, drops us in the cool pool of humanity, and allows us to move on.
Don’t misinterpret this as a way to avoid taking responsibility. We never get to skip the step of owning our mistakes, of admitting our errors, of doing what we can to correct our course and heal the harm. Of repenting. That center spot of the seesaw is where repentance and self-care find perfect balance. In fact, the soul-cleansing act of repentance is one of the most self-caring things we can do.
But after that—after that moment of genuine contrition—what comes next?
I think this new and trendy concept of self-compassion is actually just tapping into something old, ancient even, something glorious and healing—something God has been calling us to all along.
Not just for others, but for ourselves.
Illustrations by Sam Chivers