Valentine’s Day is my birthday, and I’ve always felt extra special for that reason. The appearance of candy conversation hearts in the store made me downright giddy (until the year I ate them til I threw up… okay, I was 23). Even when I hit the lonely single years, at least I still had my birthday cake and gifts. Getting old can be the pits, though, as the gluten-free-dairy-free-soy-free-nut-free-sugar-free cake is far too much work, and on the days when my Lyme-brain can even remember my age, I’m in too much shock to believe it. This year, though, I am celebrating Birthentine’s Day with the fact that I completely, whole-heartedly, unashamedly, LOVE MYSELF. (And I’ve even reconciled with my arch-nemesis, physics; perfect love really does cast out fear!)
This joy has set me free, and even more shocking than the candles on my non-cake, I can’t believe the source of the chains that kept me bound in shame and humiliation my entire life. Today I share a very intimate part of my journey. Today it’s all about love. (Please note all purple text is links to references! Use them if you need to!)
The Secret of Love
To summarize, and put it quite simply, we should love who we are because God loves who we are. He created us in His own image and likeness, and He went to great lengths to be reconciled with us. Not begrudgingly, but with fervent desire to be near us. If God thought we were worth the grief and sacrifice, then we should believe it too. That’s a pretty digestible message for everyone, I think.
But if I word it like this: “I love myself!”, “I deserve some me time,” “I need to focus on what serves me,” the Church (as an institution) gets its panties in a bunch, and we Christians get all uncomfortable and guilty, and run back to the altar to sacrifice our selfish selves to the god of Service. I don’t like this.
This doctrine made chronic Lyme Disease all the more traumatic. If my identity is in losing myself (I mean, just think about that statement for a minute… right?!), what does that mean when I’m a blob on the couch, unable to serve or even unable to “bless others” by letting them serve me? As if my body, mind, career, and life itself being reduced to nothing wasn’t bad enough, the last thing (I thought) that anchored me to God’s love – my dutiful service to Him – was now gone. I literally survived Lyme by learning to care for myself, first and foremost. My hope of having a future lay on a foundation of knowing how to feed my body properly, know my limits, enforce my own boundaries, and live by my own truth, even when that contradicted science, medicine, politics, and culture. I was lost. Healing from Lyme Disease and Depression required letting go of this die-to-self concept; healing my relationship with God, I found, required the same. The all-too-common attitude of the Christian Church in this matter doesn’t make sense, and does not bear good fruit. This self-loathing, sin-nature-rooted, humiliating (rather than humble) theology fills our hearts with an others-loathing, sin-judging, humiliating evangelism. Garbage in, garbage out. Hating yourself will literally destroy your physical brain and body with illness. Likewise, hating yourself will destroy your view of God and your ability to love others.
A religion based on the self-loathing confessions of St. Augustine and a life based on brain-loathing mental illness is a recipe for bondage. I broke them both with the same axe. There are no words for this kind of joy. It’s been a long, traumatic, soul-shaking journey. Parts of me are still on my face and mute with revelation. So I’m going to start with the really simple context that laid it out for me, before I ever even started messing with the foundation of my theology.
The Joy Joy Joy Joy That Breaks Down my Heart
“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” Jesus said to him, “‘You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”
If you are a Christian, you likely know this verse. It is the bedrock of our morality, reigning over all the Ten Commandments. You may remember being taught the very clever recipe for J-O-Y: Jesus first, Others second, Yourself last. Our most important duty as Christians is to love God first and foremost. And then we must love others. Everything we do, in church, at work, at home, at school and play, is to fulfill those commandments.
I believe there is a great deception in this teaching (from the Church, not Jesus), and it looks alarmingly like the Fall in Eden: repeating God’s own commandments gives a sense of security, yet they are embellished so subtly, and saturated with the saccharine sweetness of achievement, that it dupes everyone. I wouldn’t believe it myself if I hadn’t spent over three decades being surrounded by such teaching and those who lived to obey, and we all ended up with the opposite of JOY. We ended up with toxic stress, burn-out, animosity, and many of us, with debilitating chronic illness.
And then we were taught, not to rethink our interpretations, but that our physical destruction is fulfillment of our “suffering for Christ’s sake.” Christians are supposed to suffer. We are “martyrs” of our own obedience. Friends, what do we get from a Church of self-persecuted martyrs? A dead Church.
Wouldn’t Satan love a dead church? Wouldn’t it be the most perfect deception if, when some of us want to embark on a journey of truth, healing, worship, and fulfilling commandments through personal communion with the Holy Spirit, he could stop us with an avalanche of guilt from God’s own words?
The First-and-a-Half Commandment
Please read the second commandment again:
“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Between these lines, between the first and second greatest commandments, is an assumption. That you know how to love yourself. Love your neighbor as you love yourself. The first-and-a-half commandment is that you have to love yourself.
I know, heresy.
I have to smile at my own unwitting prophecy. Back in my pre-Lyme past, burdened with the chronic and “incurable” label of Major Depressive Disorder, I used to examine my own behavior with shame: jealousy, discontent, slander, malice, unloving, unforgiving (and the whole rest of the list from 2 Timothy and Romans 1) and retort, “I’m only fulfilling the great commandment! I love my neighbor as myself… and I hate myself. With every fiber of my being.”
I find so much of what I lamented many years ago in illness to be the key to my healing. And I had no idea. Garbage in, garbage out. Disgust with myself in, disgust with others out. And no, disgust with others is not “loving the sinner, hating the sin.” It’s not love at all. (1 Cor 13)
But putting myself before others seems so wrong. How do I know how to love myself? How can I trust that it’s really okay? Well let’s start with the first and most important commandment:
“You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.”
My first question is, what do I love God with? My heart, my soul, and my mind. I can’t attend to any of these commandments or even love God, until I’ve learned to use my own heart, my soul, and my mind. The first and foremost relationship that I am commanded to be concerned with is the one between me, myself, and God. If “Others” come between us, I don’t get J-O-Y, I get toxic comparison. From the end of that line, J-O-Y, in order to see Jesus, I have to direct my gaze through Others. I start comparing myself to them, and them to God; I judge who is worthy of my time and service, and I judge myself for not being more cheerful, more generous, more humble. I start focusing on all my failures. Jesus warned us, “Judge not, that you be not judged.” And when we order the importance of other human beings compared to ourselves, judgment abounds. My eyes need to be focused directly on God, so I can love Him with all of me.
But what about Paul’s instructions in Philippians 2:3-4?
“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.”
Let’s look at the first commandment again:
“You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.”
I would hardly call it selfish ambition or vain conceit to concern myself first and foremost with my own relationship with God. It is, in fact, what He commands!
The Love Triangle
But I’ll ask again: what do I love with? My heart, and my soul, and my mind. Three separate entities. It’s interesting that Jesus distinguishes them. I get two insights out of this. First, I am made of three parts – heart, soul, and mind. A physical body, a communing spirit, and mental thought (often referred to in holistic practice as mind-body-spirit). Guess who also has three parts? God Himself! Father (the mind: thinker/planner/creator), Son (the physical body), and Holy Spirit (the communicator). When I focus first on my relationship with God, I am reminded that I am made in God’s own image and likeness! David wrote in Psalm 139:14, “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well.” I am one of God’s works, and His works are wonderful. My soul should know this, believe this. God made me and saw that it was “very good.” God loves me, and as one of His beloved, chosen, wonderful works, I should have self-respect, and self-love. To hate and humiliate my body on account of a "corrupted flesh" is to deny God’s goodness, and scorn Jesus’s salvation. I can, and must, love my self!
Because I am made in the image of God, I can also understand my created nature by looking at Him. The triune nature of God is that though He is three, they are separate, but inseparable, interactive and dependent. I am too: I am heart, soul, and mind, separate but inseparable, interactive and dependent. My heart is a physical organ, my soul is spiritual, and my mind is the thinker. They are three separate functions, but inseparable from each other. My heart will pump blood whether my mind thinks about it or not. My soul can love God even when my mind is distracted by wicked thoughts. My mind can be angry, and cause my heart to pump faster. My spirit can soar invisibly, but I can feel lightness in my physical chest. They are individual, but cooperate. And they depend on each other. If one dies, they fall apart. Mind-body theory in medicine, even the science of psycho-neuroimmunology, has demonstrated again and again that what we feel about our bodies, what we think of our selves and our lives, how we view love, will drive our physical health! And of course, poor physical health deteriorates our minds and spirits! Our own triune imago dei tells us so much about God! The more we examine ourselves in a pure light, the more we know God! And I just love that about me!
So great, I’m not vain or selfish by loving my relationship with God. But doesn’t all this cushy intimacy leave others out? Isn’t this the fatal flaw in my self-love? But wait! There’s more! A triune God, and a triune me, suggests there should be a third entity to complete a perfect God-reflecting triune fellowship. That’s where the Others come in. Other humans, also individually triune wonderful imago dei, complete another perfect set of three: God, Self, Others. And like the nature of Trinity, we are separate, but cooperative, and all necessary.
Let’s Get Physical
We form a spiritual atom. God and me, proton and neutron, cling to each other for dear life and love. And Others are the electrons, whirling around us. We all keep each other stable: if one part goes rogue, the atom becomes unstable and decays. My love for God attracts Others into orbit. Others’ relationship with us drives me and God closer together! This triune relationship is a revolutionary, ever-flowing unit, not a linear one. We don’t give all our energy up the J-O-Y line and empty ourselves at the bottom. We give and receive, constantly, in relationship, nourishing one another!
And this is the context of Philippians 2 that must be considered with the command:
“Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
My Me-and-God nucleus is beautiful, but it’s not complete. And I love this illustration: it’s a positive thing! A proton and a neutron make a positive charge! By accepting the negative electron into our relationship, we neutralize ourselves! We make ourselves nothing! And yet, in this obedience, we raise ourselves up to something more than a particle: we are exalted to an element! We fulfill God’s commands, we fulfill scripture, and we even fulfill the laws of physics! All to the glory of God! And all by allowing us to see our selves in the positive light! Our love for others was meant to flow in a sustaining triune circuit, not deplete us. We cannot burn ourselves out for the sake of others - it breaks our molecular bond of Love in Christ!
This is a wonderful thought. And it can be used as an ointment on all the other scary self-flagellating verses we pull out of the Bible to beat ourselves up with:
“The acts of the flesh are obvious… idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.”
“There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves… lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God.”
“For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.”
“[Love] does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.”
“Turn my heart toward your statutes and not toward selfish gain.”
It is crucial to understand the difference between selfish ambition, and ambition of uniting the self with God. When we see our own relationship with God as a necessary foundation of the triune relationship it takes to fulfill His commandments, we see that nurturing it is the opposite of selfish. Care for our own bodies, because of our personal trinity, equates care of our own minds and spirits in unity with God. And that positive nucleus is necessary to attract the Others we want and need to serve.
Can't Deny My Love
The final nail on my self-love coffin seems to come from Jesus himself:
“Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it.”
“What about this?” we say. “It’s all very well to read between lines and hop off on rabbit trails to make ourselves feel good, but Jesus’s own words insist I deny myself!” Keep reading!
“What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self?”
If you want to read the words of Jesus, I say read them! He’s concerned about losing the very self! And no, he doesn’t just mean the spirit – remember our personal trinity is like God’s – inseparable and dependent! What you do with one will affect the others. Jesus says it’s a terrible thing to lose the self! I ask this: what are we denying and why? We deny ourselves to follow Christ. We lose our life for Christ. In other words, the point is not that we forfeit all that we are and all we were created to be, it is that we surrender all that we are in the world’s eyes and our own eyes to set our focus on God and all He created us to be. We are to deny the self that we think we are (in psychological terms, the ego), all the stuff we believe about ourselves based on our possessions, our desires, our labels, our reputation, that “sin nature” we keep being accused of, to gain a life of love and purpose. We deny the self the serpent whispers about us in our ear, we deny the self that thinks Lyme Disease, or depression, or abuse, or addiction is all that we are and all we ever could be. We deny the self that thinks we can be good Christians by serving others to our own physical destruction. We deny the self that looks at anything but God, the self that would go anywhere but in the footsteps of Christ, who returns us to the Father.
Where does God live?
“Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.”
Self-care is Holy Spirit-care. Our triune nature, and our own science, tells us that when one suffers, all suffer. Care of the neutron is care of the nucleus is care of the atom. Taking care of your body is taking care of your mind is taking care of your spirit is taking care of your body. Loving yourself is loving God is loving Others is loving yourself. (John 15:9-12)
This has been a very long post, I know. If I could sum it up on a paper valentine and seal with a holy kiss, I would write from what has become one of my favorite books ever:
“Beloved, let us love one another [second commandment], for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God [first commandment]. He who does not love does not know God, for God is love.”
"We love because he first loved us [first-and-a-half commandment].”
I cannot fulfill the second commandment until I have fulfilled the first. And I cannot love God if I don’t know God. And to know God, I must know how very much He loves me. To know Him is to become more and more like Him.
So I love me too.