I like my Christianity simple these days. I have young kids; I don’t have the time or energy to dissect complicated concepts, and I’m usually trying to explain faith on a preschool level. So the straightforward words of Mark 12: 28-34 have been kicking around in my brain recently. That’s the part of the Bible where a teacher of the law challenges Jesus to name the greatest commandment, and Jesus answers, “The most important one is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”
It’s that second commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself” — something I’ve heard my entire life — that recently crashed over me like an ice bath. Previously, whenever I’ve heard this passage discussed, the emphasis has been on “Love your neighbor,” with the assumption being that it’s really difficult for us lazy, selfish cretins to look beyond our laptops and love other people. I think this assumption is correct. BUT what recently hit me was the second part, the part that usually gets swallowed up: “as yourself.” Because, if you’re supposed to love your neighbor as yourself, that means that you’re supposed to love yourself.
Did you get that? Let me write it again, verrrrry slowly: I think the Bible tells us that YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO LOVE YOURSELF. Maybe this has been obvious to everybody else all along, but it took me three decades to figure out, and it scared the heck out of me when I finally got it.
I grew up as the only child of loving parents who affirmed my strengths, and I grew up going to church. But somehow, whether it was through subtle messages passed down through my hard working immigrant ancestors, or through a church that didn’t place much emphasis on grace, I grew up fooled into believing that being a good girl meant that you didn’t think too highly of yourself. In fact, it was okay if you kind of hated yourself, because you wouldn’t want anybody to think you were stuck-up. And being a good Christian meant that you had to constantly be a little sin sleuth, tracking down your deepest darkest yuck and repenting for it. If you’d asked me ten years ago, I probably would have told you that it was a sin to love yourself.
I think that culture, whether it’s church culture or secular culture, fools us into believing that we’re not supposed to love ourselves – or gives us the wrong idea of how to love ourselves. Churches tend to ignore the “as yourself” part probably because they think that’s not the biggest problem in our selfish, consumeristic society. Instead, church culture focuses on waking us up to the needs of others or our own failings (which is not, in itself, a bad thing!). On the other hand, the economy thrives by encouraging us to be self-centered and materialistic, and produces ruthless advertising campaigns to make us feel that we’re not quite good enough (unless, of course, we buy what they’re selling). So here we are, stuck in the middle, with our churches telling us we’re too selfish and our society telling us we’re not selfish enough. Maybe we just don’t have the right words, but “loving yourself” like I’m talking about is much different — and harder — than being selfish or shopping a lot.
Here’s what I mean by “loving yourself”: I mean that you believe, REALLY believe, that what Psalm 139:14 says is about you: “I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” I mean that you believe that you are — we all are — a beautiful son or daughter of God, with your own marvelous and peculiar mix of gifts and talents, and that you were put here to share yourself with the world.
Bear with me while I clear up some conclusions that you may be jumping to:
1. I do not mean that we’re supposed to be vain and self-centered. Obviously, that would negate the “love God and your neighbor” part. If you’re only looking out for #1, there’s no room left to love others. But here’s what I DO think: I think that loving our neighbor and loving ourselves are two sides of the same coin. I think it’s almost impossible to really love your neighbors if you don’t love yourself. If you’re not okay with yourself, then loving your neighbors will turn into something you do to fill your own gaps. Service to others will become your own personal performance art; you’ll serve other people to earn their love, or to impress whomever’s watching — whether that’s other people or God. There’s also the danger, if you don’t love yourself, of serving others while ignoring your own needs — needs for rest, sleep, food, fun. If you love yourself, that means taking care of yourself so that you don’t burn out.
2. I do not mean that we’re all perfect just the way we are. Loving yourself doesn’t mean that you don’t have things to work on, because you will always have things to work on. Our pastor gave a great illustration of this based on the local saying that in spring, Vermont farmers harvest rocks. Because of the annual freeze and thaw, every spring new rocks get pushed up to the fields’ surfaces and need to be dug out. This is just like us; every year I feel like I’ve got something new to clear out of my “field.” Took care of some of that anger? Great! Now here’s some envy to work on. But loving yourself means saying to yourself, “Sure, I’ve got junk that I have to keep working on in order to become a better me, but I’ve also been covered by grace. So I don’t need to waste time beating myself up for every little sin, because that check’s been picked up, baby!“
Al Franken used to do a hilarious Saturday Night Live routine called “Daily Affirmation with Stuart Smalley,” in which he played a smarmy self-help guru who sat in front of a mirror and intoned, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.” I laugh as hard as anybody when I watch those sketches, but when I think about it, he’s basically right: loving yourself means to stop exhausting yourself by striving to be somebody you’re not. You ARE good ENOUGH, you ARE smart ENOUGH — God made you ENOUGH for who you are and what you’re supposed to do. Now you just have to get out of your own way, which means getting rid of self-doubt, self-hatred, and guilt.
Before I close, I feel like I need to address another thing Jesus said, which could be interpreted as an argument against loving yourself. In every single gospel (Matthew 10:39 and 16:25, Mark 8:35, Luke 9:24 and 17:33, and John 12:25), Jesus says some version of: “The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (John 12:25). Jesus is not saying that it’s wrong to love yourself, but rather that you shouldn’t love your life (in the other gospels, “love” is replaced by “wants to save his life” or “tries to keep his life”). In my understanding, loving your life means that you fear death and/or losing the trappings of your life (possessions, relationships, reputation) to the extent that you’re paralyzed from fully living. But that’s quite different from a healthy love of yourself; you can love yourself and still hold loosely to your life.
I guess the bottom line is: Jesus loves you. He died for you, and you don’t do that for people you’re lukewarm about. If we’re supposed to be imitators of Jesus, that means that you should love you, too. (But love God the most. And while you’re at it, love other people just as much.) If you’re anything like me, you’ll need God’s help for all of the above: loving self, loving neighbors, working on your junk. But don’t be fooled: I’m pretty sure that it’s not a sin to love yourself.
Maybe you can start by taking yourself out for coffee.