Towards an Ethic of Self-Love (Part 1 of a 2 Part Series)

self-image-self-love I did it again. Rushing in late, sandwiched in between appointments, with only about a five minute window to breathe. This has been my life over the last several months. Doing more than full time graduate studies, working multiple jobs, and still trying to keep up a somewhat vibrant social life. Trying to balance blogging, freelance writing, and actual homework, all the while trying to put in at least some effort into spending devotional time with God and still finding time to exercise. Interestingly enough, during my year at L’Arche I took one course on Self-Care in Ministry. Easily one of the most important courses I’ve ever taken, I learned such skills as when an emergency is truly an emergency, how to incorporate things I love and am passionate about into the mundane tasks of daily living, and how to make space for de-stressing after a long day at work. And yet, not four months later, I find myself busier than before I took this course. It’s like all that learning has simply gone out the window.

As a result, I’ve been spending a considerable amount of time recently looking at this strange concept of Self-Love. Self-Love is something that I think counselors may have some idea about. It’s quite easily related to the themes of self-care and self-esteem. It’s something that we do to show ourselves that we think we are important and meaningful. AND YET, it’s something that most Christians, especially pastors, are inherently bad at doing.

You see, for those of us who grew up in church, especially those of us who grew up in the more evangelical or even Anabaptist streams of the church, we are taught that our first priority after loving God is to love others. Jesus Himself said so. In Luke 10:27 Christ distilled all ten of the commandments down into a bite-sized chunk when He simply said “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and love your neighbours as yourself.” (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke+10%3A27&version=ESV). As Christians we place a large priority of our time and resources into helping those who are less fortunate. The homeless, the marginalized, and those caught in sex trafficking. We learn to exert our efforts in hopes of making someone else’s life just a bit easier. We are often incorrectly taught that servanthood and humility are synonymous with a complete debasement of self.

Taking it one step further, for those of us who grew up in the evangelical church, we are often taught a dismissive type of worldview called “worm theology”. It goes something like this “Jesus loves me, worm that I am. Despite doing these terrible things in my life, the Holy Spirit has given me a second chance that I am nowhere near deserving of. I could never do enough good things to earn my way into heaven. All of my righteousness is as filthy rags. It is only by God’s mercy that I am forgiven. I pray and read my Bible, but not as often as I should. I can always be doing more. I can always be doing more to love others, to serve the needs of my community, and to spend more time meditating upon the Word of God.”

At first glance, this type of theology actually has quite a bit of truth to it. It is true, according to Scripture, that on our own we are not capable of getting into heaven. God’s gift of Salvation for us is based not upon our own merit; otherwise we would spend all day boasting about it, but rather is a free gift for all who believe (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Ephesians+2%3A9&version=ESV).  It is also true that even the best of our goodness cannot compare to Christ’s infinite love for us. So, in this way, “Worm theology” does carry some level of truth to it.

On the other hand, “worm theology” sets us up for failure. By constantly placing our guilt before us, we begin to develop low self-esteem and an almost dangerously low opinion of ourselves. We spend so much time dwelling on the Scripture verses telling us that we aren’t good enough, that we almost completely ignore the fact that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Psalm+139%3A14&version=ESV). Hand-crafted and hand-designed by God. We get so caught up in the injunction to “love our neighbours” that we forget the qualifier of the sentence “as yourselves”. You see, love of others, must flow out of the love we already have for ourselves.

Loving ourselves is not the same as being prideful or arrogant. In the truest sense of the phrase, loving ourselves will not imply narcissism. On the other hand, loving ourselves means having a high regard for who God has created us to be. It’s living into our gifts and abilities. It’s seeing the good in ourselves. It’s telling ourselves that we deserve a rest when we are tired. It’s pacing ourselves so that we don’t get burnt out in ministry. It’s a kind of “unselfish-selfishness” that is generous with itself in order to be continually giving into the lives of others.

Unfortunately, I don’t think many pastors, missionaries, or other church leaders seem to “get” that. It’s no wonder then that the majority of ministers face burn out in their first five years and that many pastors will not even retire in the profession in which they started. I believe a large part of this is because they have never truly learned to love themselves. I believe this is because many congregations and seminaries teach pastors to keep going even when their physical bodies are screaming for them to stop or at least slow down. I believe this is because we have failed to see how truly important we are in the eyes of Christ.

Not practicing self-care is perhaps one of the most unethical things a pastor can do. It is unethical in that we get so worn down that we end up wearing out others. It is an injustice in the fact that when we are stressed we can often become short tempered with others instead of genuinely listening to them. It is unfair not only to ourselves, but to our spouses and children – the very ones who should have the first priority in our lives after God Himself.

When Christ said that we need to love others just like we love ourselves it means that we must first have a high regard for who we are and for who Christ has made us to be. Christ knows our breaking point, unfortunately, many of us do not. As a culture we push ourselves past our breaking point almost weekly and then some. Listen. There is a reason that God created the Sabbath. Christ Himself told us that “the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath.” (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Mark+2%3A27&version=ESV).   In other words, the Sabbath is a gift. It’s something given to us for our own rest, renewal, and enjoyment. It’s not meant to enslave us. It’s not something to get legalistic about. And it’s definitely not something to just add more activities to our already growing to-do list. Rather, it’s a time to practice radical self-care and radical self-love.

Therefore, we must seek to practice self-love in all aspects of our lives and our ministries if we truly want to be the people who God has destined us to be.

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