Thoughts about love pt. 2: Why we should love ourselves

My last post argued that we can practice how to love God within a marriage because, in marriage, one practices aspects of love (patience, deference, sacrifice, passion, &c) to one’s spouse, and those same aspects of love are due also to God. In sum, I said that we should “love God, love others, and love our lovers.”

I should note an unstated but core assumption: God is the center of everything. Even something as deep as a marriage is not the core of our pursuits. Marriage prepares us to love God better, not the other way around. So it is with each and every one of our pursuits, every situation, every temptation, every revelation, every triumph. Each should forge in us a stronger faith, and that faith helps us through, but we do not forge faith to help us through life–we go through life to forge a faith.

I said that we should love ourselves, but loving ourselves can put us on shaky theological ground. All of the texts stress God’s supremacy and singular, unquestionable, exalted status. Our status as beloved and cherished has nothing to do with our individual virtues or personal accomplishments–in other words, we see the good things in ourselves that engender our self-worth and that we believe entitle us to respect, but God does not necessarily see us that way. Moses took off his shoes and fell before the Lord in terror, having seen not his own insignificance, but God’s overwhelming presence, and God chose Moses not for Moses’s character, but for God’s purpose. Both Moses’s act and God’s act emphasize God, not Moses. Therefore, who are we, really, to love ourselves (at all) while loving and subjecting ourselves to the Conductor of the Universe as thoroughly as the whole text stresses that we should?

I think that there are Biblical arguments for why we should love ourselves, but in my limited studies, those arguments come by way of reciprocation or extrapolation, not by explicit commandments. Firstly, take the famous Genesis account: God created us in his image. If we love God, and we are each molded after him, then we should love ourselves, right? We should love others, too, because God also created them after his own very pattern. Our love of God precipitates, but also necessitates, love of self and love of others. If we love God, then we cannot hate something that he loves, so how dare we hate others if he loves them, and how dare we hate ourselves if he loves us? Secondly, as I mentioned in my last post, Jesus commands us to love others as we love ourselves, so we must love ourselves if we are to understand how we should love others. How can we show enact love to others if we don’t understand how to show love to our own selves?

Valid, valid. Here’s another way to think about it. You and I are only two unknown people among billions upon billions of unknown people past, present, and future. When we think of people in the abstract, we try to feel compassion, to crave justice, to want fairness, to wish prosperity, to give comfort, to grant peace; yet you and I, to someone else, are just two other people for whom they, too, have compassion, crave justice, want fairness, wish prosperity, give comfort, and grant peace. We are someone else’s neighbor, and thus we are worthy of the respect that we would show to our own neighbors by way of being someone else’s neighbor! To someone else, each of us can become the object of ministry and recipient of goodwill. I wouldn’t call my neighbor names or throw stones if he were down or if he’d screwed up; I’d do my best to enact Biblical love, to encourage him, to teach him. How can I then abuse myself if I am also a neighbor to whom someone else must practice love?

The best argument that I have comes from personal experience and lots of prayer. I struggled with depression for a while, and I did not love myself. Even then, loving myself or not loving myself wasn’t actually the issue. I couldn’t see beyond my own nose, so I couldn’t help anyone else. Depression fixates us upon ourselves, and its guilt condemns us for our selfishness. It’s a devastating cycle. I couldn’t do my homework, I couldn’t get out of bed, I couldn’t even take care of my cats who had fleas, so the house had fleas and I had fleas bouncing around my knees as I sat on the toilet… It was a pretty deep depression. Both the cats and I got the care we needed, don’t worry, none of us has fleas anymore.

I heard a metaphor that rang true for me: an empty glass of water has nothing to pour into any other glass. How could I pour anything into anyone else if I had nothing to give, no reason to get out of bed, no desire to live? I had to learn how to love myself so that I could live, and so that I could love others. After all, “Who praises God in the pit?” Of what use is a corpse? I didn’t learn self-love for vanity. What would you want for your neighbor suffering at the bottom of a depression? Would you wish death for him, too? I saw myself as my own neighbor, and I knew that I had to help as a service to God, even if I couldn’t do it as a service to myself.

I didn’t do it alone, no way, not by a long shot. I was the empty glass into which many good people poured their best efforts. I simply dragged myself to them and then let them do the work of the Gospel on me. Even then, not them, but God saved me. They did nothing by their own power, and I know for a fact that I did not save myself.

So, why should we love ourselves? To serve God, that’s why. I am convinced that we are allowed to do that. Love yourself so that you can testify to God’s love, so that you can get out of bed and do something for someone, so you can love your family and care for them, so you can explore the world, see something you’ve never seen before, read something new, write something bold, drink coffee, swim, run, climb, work, live! We love God, our neighbors, our brothers and sisters, our lovers, our children through the same love with which we love ourselves. To neglect yourself is to neglect someone that God has made and whom he loves. If you wouldn’t do that to someone else, why then is it OK to do it to yourself? It’s not, so don’t.

In my next post(s?), I’ll get to how to love ourselves, and I really do mean to give practical suggestions and things to practice, not just philosophical exhortations and hot air.

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