A few days ago, while looking through my memories on Facebook, I saw an old post of mine. In this post, I was talking about how, at the time, I genuinely believed that I was unlovable. I saw myself as someone who didn’t deserve love or companionship because I felt inherently broken. I couldn’t envision anyone wanting me in their lives.
I’ve been intentionally working towards breaking that mindset and learning to love myself for a few years now. I still have my struggles, but I am seeing progress in this area. I am, however, still untangling why I found it so hard to see myself as a human being who is, purely by merit of existing and being created in the image of God, worthy of love.
A day or two after that, an article from Desiring God appeared in my news feed. This is the big quote that stood out to me.
“To know you’re a Christian, you have to know how bad you are, and hate it, and turn, and by the Spirit, make war on your sin. The Spirit bears witness that we are the children of God by leading us into war, killing on our sin, our own sin, and thus a clear mark that rises up in my heart and testifies to me: You’re saved. You hate your sin, and are taking steps to kill it.”
-John Piper, How You Can Know You’re a Child of God
I paused for a moment and I thought about what this is actually saying.
Piper is equating sin with who we, as individuals, are. It is not just our sin that is bad: we are bad. He is telling us that we will know we are truly children of God when we hate our sin, wage war with our sin, and understand how bad we truly are. He is actively teaching that, if we want to be accepted by God, we must hate ourselves.
And just so we cannot write this off as a misunderstanding of what Piper is trying to communicate, The Gospel Coalition (an online ministry where Piper serves as a council member) tweeted out this photo the other day:
This sort of understanding around sin and self is not limited to the fine folks at The Gospel Coalition. I did a little bit of digging into how other popular teachers/ministers approach this topic.
From Grace To You:
‘…So what Jesus is saying here is if you want to enter into My Kingdom, if you want to follow Me, if you want to be forgiven of sin, if you want eternal life, you have to start by hating everything you are apart from Me, recognizing that all the good about you is filthy rags, despising everything about you.’
‘Jesus was always calling sinners to hate themselves.’
John MacArthur,The Gospel: Self-Love or Self-Hate?
“A self-love that blinds me to my mistakes and minimizes my sin is dangerous. I understand myself properly only when God opens my eyes to my sin. A right view of self understands that we’re completely depraved—every part of us: our minds, hearts, and bodies.”
Deepak Reju, Loving Ourselves
“The statement “love your neighbor as yourself” is not a command to love yourself. It is natural and normal to love yourself—it is our default position. There is no lack of self-love in our world. The command to “love your neighbor as yourself” is essentially telling us to treat other people as well as we treat ourselves. Scripture never commands us to love ourselves; it assumes we already do. In fact, people in their unregenerate condition love themselves too much—that is our problem.”
You may have heard this sort of teaching in your time with Evangelicalism. The assumption, generally, seems to be that it is normal for people to love themelves. It is this norm that we must become aware of. This norm, we are told, is the sinful part. Unless we can move past the part where we love ourselves, we must assume that we are living outside of God’s forgiveness.
This is all very confusing, because Jesus is literally telling us to love our neighbour as ourselves. He doesn’t say that loving ourselves is wrong. He doesn’t say that loving ourselves is sinful. He takes this “default” position and says to extend it to our neighbours.
We are being taught to read into this text something negative and inherently sinful about the concept of loving ourselves. We must be extremely careful not to put words in Christ’s mouth.
In fact, we should be aware that in teaching us to identify with our sin, these men are actively contradicting the Bible. God, Himself, does not equate us with our sin – that was the entire point of the cross:
Those who look to God will shine;
their faces are never ashamed.
– Psalm 34:5 (CEB)
“So then, if anyone is in Christ, that person is part of the new creation. The old things have gone away, and look, new things have arrived! 18 All of these new things are from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and who gave us the ministry of reconciliation. 19 In other words, God was reconciling the world to himself through Christ, by not counting people’s sins against them. He has trusted us with this message of reconciliation.20 So we are ambassadors who represent Christ. God is negotiating with you through us. We beg you as Christ’s representatives, “Be reconciled to God!” 21 God caused the one who didn’t know sin to be sin for our sake so that through him we could become the righteousness of God.”
– 2 Corinthians 5: 17-21 (CEB)
I would also argue here that it should not be assumed that self-love is the default position for all people.
It should be our default.
Most of us come into this world knowing only how to love ourselves. As infants, we instinctively understand how to identify our needs and we know that they must take priority. We learn how to communicate these important needs to those around us. There is zero feeling of guilt or hesitancy in making those needs known because we know they matter. We expect and trust that our caregivers will value our needs as much as we do.
But how we continue to view ourselves as we grow up is largely dependent on our environment – how our parents and authority figures respond to us will tell us a lot about how we must come to view ourselves.
As we’ve seen, the conservative Evangelical church appears to have a vested interest in stripping away our ability to love ourselves.
There is no shortage of people who have been taught to deny themselves to the point of not being able to love themselves.
I recently asked around on social media for people to share their stories with Evangelicalism. I wanted to hear from those who had been actively taught, as I was, to not love themselves. These are just some of the responses I received:
I lost confidence and trust in myself because my heart was “deceitful and wicked” so not to be trusted. Since psychology was “unbiblical” I pursued a career that was entirely wrong for me. I’m just starting to find my voice and I’m going to use it to help others have confidence in themselves.
It taught me to hate myself in completely new ways! I was already a self loathing teen at the time but to constantly hear every week that I am a sinner & going to church and accepting Jesus was the only way to ‘be better’ sure was the icing on the cake. Thankfully I now realise that there is a better way
I was taught from the time I was born that I was depraved and nothing about me was worth loving. it took me so many years to learn otherwise
Feeling like I’m only lovable IF . . . #conditionallove
It is no wonder why so many of us struggle with this concept of self-love when we begin to dive into the fundamental doctrines taught to us by our churches, our pastors, even our favourite authors and teachers.
These are people with massive influence over our spiritual and mental health. We’ve given them authority over those areas of our lives and, just like with our own parents and caregivers, they will be influential in how we learn to view ourselves, speak to ourselves, and self-parent.
If you find that you struggle with concepts of self-love, self-acceptance, and compassion towards self, it would be worthwhile to take some time (perhaps with a licensed therapist) to evaluate the sorts of authorities who have been speaking into your life on these topics.
In order to understand what healthy self-love is, we need to start defining what it means to love our neighbour.
Let’s look at the example Jesus gave when asked to define what love in action looks like.
“30 Jesus replied, “A man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. He encountered thieves, who stripped him naked, beat him up, and left him near death. 31 Now it just so happened that a priest was also going down the same road. When he saw the injured man, he crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way. 32 Likewise, a Levite came by that spot, saw the injured man, and crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way. 33 A Samaritan, who was on a journey, came to where the man was. But when he saw him, he was moved with compassion. 34 The Samaritan went to him and bandaged his wounds, tending them with oil and wine. Then he placed the wounded man on his own donkey, took him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 The next day, he took two full days’ worth of wages and gave them to the innkeeper. He said, ‘Take care of him, and when I return, I will pay you back for any additional costs.’ 36 What do you think? Which one of these three was a neighbor to the man who encountered thieves?”
37 Then the legal expert said, “The one who demonstrated mercy toward him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.””
– Luke 10 (CEB)
Let’s break this down.
We have an individual who is hurting and in need of immediate nurturing attention.
A priest walks by and avoids this individual. The priest shows no love by ignoring the needs of this man.
A Levite walks by, and he too ignores the needs of the individual. He shows no love to this man.
A Samaritan walks by. He sees this man in need of help. He makes him his first priority. He tends to the man’s wounds. He houses him. He provides the man with much-needed resources.
He cares for him.
This is not just a picture of how we are to love those around us. This is a picture of how we are to love ourselves.
Switch this around to insert yourself into the parable. The thieves are the spiritually and emotionally abusive people who have intentionally and actively taught you to hate yourself. They’ve broken you down and left you for dead.
The good Samaritan is your self-parent learning to care for your very real physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual needs.
We aren’t loving ourselves when we ignore our own needs. We earn no points with Jesus by “dying to self” in order to serve others. We gain nothing by hating ourselves.
God expects us to identify and meet our own needs. He expects us to monitor ourselves for wounds that need healing, to find resources for that healing, whether it’s in the form of a doctor, a therapist, or even learning skills to become thriving individuals (such as setting boundaries, perhaps).
Christ expects us to care for ourselves.
Jesus expects us to show kindness to ourselves as we would to others. To show compassion to ourselves. To show understanding to ourselves.
Christ isn’t looking for followers who tear themselves down or hate themselves. He does not teach his children to hate.
And if anyone tries to tell you that He does, just know that they are preaching a false gospel.
Loving and tending to God’s creation is an act of worship (Genesis 1:28-31). This is also true when it comes to learning to love ourselves.
You are not your sin. You are not defined by your sin.
Loving yourself is not sin.
God created you. God loves you. Give yourself permission to love yourself also.
“31 So what are we going to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? 32 He didn’t spare his own Son but gave him up for us all. Won’t he also freely give us all things with him?
33 Who will bring a charge against God’s elect people? It is God who acquits them. 34 Who is going to convict them? It is Christ Jesus who died, even more, who was raised, and who also is at God’s right side. It is Christ Jesus who also pleads our case for us… I’m convinced that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord: not death or life, not angels or rulers, not present things or future things, not powers 39 or height or depth, or any other thing that is created.”
– Romans 8:31-34, 38-39 (CEB)