Living in the season of the Spirit, always brings us back to the center – to God’s heart. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength; and you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:30-31). We have talked about loving God and loving neighbor. Today we address loving ourselves.
This one has always tripped me up, and it may be one of the most difficult loves to navigate for us as human beings. So I am particularly grateful to Brian McLaren for his approach on this one. He puts it in the context of the biblical teaching of wisdom. I had never thought of that, but when I read his chapter, it all fell into place.
I have always resisted the teaching to love ourselves. I first heard it from the prosperity preachers. And it landed with a clang on my ears. When love for self was tied with the prosperity gospel, it just didn’t ring true for me. Love God, and God will give you everything you want. Seeking God in order to find personal wealth and happiness just did not seem to be what Jesus taught.
For this reason, I have always been dubious of those who taught that we should love ourselves. It seemed like an excuse for self-centeredness. And so I resist self-love.
Our economic system is built on the concept that trade and industry are held in private hands, for personal profit. In theory, this is good for the whole of society. But when altruistic capitalism turns selfish, it loses it’s focus on the common good, loses regard for morality, and centers on self-interest and personal gain, with little attention to the oppression it causes. It is a short step from capitalism to Machiavellianism, to self-interest unbridled by morality. And so I resist self-love.
A particular threat for us as Americans, is the way both the media and politicians call us to connect with our personal self-interest. Buy what you like, you deserve it!, they say. Vote for what makes the most sense for your bank accounts! It is everywhere, we are hypnotized by it. Do what is best for you! It is the American way. But I want to resist this kind of self-love.
So in the context of all this pressure, how do we achieve a healthy and holy self-love?
The crucible may be pleasure. The self is a pleasure-seeking entity. The desire center within us demands, “what I want, when I want it, as much as I want.” This demand can quickly become destructive if it is allowed to control us. The problem of pleasure is perhaps as significant as the problem of pain. What do we do with our pleasure centers? If we judge them good, we easily let them run our lives; if we judge them bad, we strangle our lives in perfunctory duty. Pleasure has the role of giving us delight, invigoration, a reason to live, yet it easily becomes an end in itself.
Some look from outside of Christianity and see the God we serve as a sort of cosmic killjoy. Famous sermons, like “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” by Jonathan Edwards, play into this perspective. Victorian Christianity tended to equate its own morality with the will of God. And so, God acquired the reputation of despising pleasure – particularly pleasures of the flesh, like sex or alcohol.
But if we look closer at the Bible, we find that it is God who created pleasure. God created the five senses – taste, hearing, touch, smell and sight. With these senses, an amazing array of pleasure is available to the human being. Are they all evil? Are any of them evil? Are we not created to enjoy the pleasures of the Garden of Eden? God made us with perfect receptors to enjoy all the beauties, smells, sounds of creation. Human beings are a perfect match for the abundance of the world we were created to live in.
But the Bible also contains many warnings about pleasure, and rules which limit it. This is the quandary in which we find ourselves. The delights of this world are so many and abundant, that it is easy to let the pleasure sensors of our bodies take over for our minds and hearts. And this will get us into trouble every time. The rules are there to form boundaries, warning signs for us that too much will become destructive. When we indulge in pleasures without self-examination, self-control, self-awareness, we too easily lose ourselves altogether. When pleasure is in the driver’s seat, it can do all sorts of damage!
There are not enough rules in the entire world, let alone in the Bible, to cover all the situations in which we encounter pleasure. Indulge or refrain? How do we know? We can’t write enough rules and laws to cover every situation.
Rules about how to handle pleasure have an important place, but they speak primarily to our minds. Scripture teaches that we are to love God with our heart, soul, mind and strength. We don’t just serve God with our minds to judge what is right and our strength of will to do it; we need to get our hearts and souls involved. In the Presbyterian language, we call this working from both the justice and love sides of ourselves. Love and justice must work hand in hand.
If we are all about justice, we will be like elementaryschool children on a playground arguing about what is fair, and whose fault it was. But we need to move on to secondary school, to the higher learning of wisdom. As McLaren puts it:
From basic questions like: Is this right or wrong, legal or illegal? We graduate to questions of wisdom: Will this help or hinder me in reaching my highest goals? Where will this lead short-, medium-, and long-term? What unintended consequences might it entail Who might be hurt by this? Are there better alternatives? Is now the best time? Should I seek wise counsel before moving forward? [1, p. 222]
Wisdom is seeing the broader picture. Wisdom, on the one hand, leads us to temper our “I want it now” selfishness, and on the other hand, reminds us that excessively denying ourselves pleasure is itself unwise. Science is now finding, as wisdom would affirm, that one of the healthiest things we can do for our brains is to play – at whatever is fun for you, from sports (the first thing we tend to think of), to reading a book, to knitting a sweater. Play strengthens our imaginations and makes us more adaptable and healthy. 
Love your neighbor as you love yourself. This week, I saw something in this phrase that helped me. I have always heard it this way: you love yourself, so love your neighbor in the same way. It sort of assumes that love for neighbor springs from self-love. But it only rarely seems to work this way. Self-love doesn’t seem to give birth to neighbor-love, but only more self-love.
This time, when I reflected on this phrase, it came to me completely differently. It is not that we know how to love our neighbor because we know how to love ourselves. Instead, as you love yourself means, at the same time, equally, side-by-side. It is not so much about which comes first, but about doing both at the same time and with equal weight. Balance. Balance seems to be at the heart of wisdom, and it is at the heart of this command. It is keeping neighbor love and self-love balanced which makes us healthy. And it also is how we keep this commandment.
So when the young mother has spent herself caring for her children, wisdom calls her to take a warm bath with all the steaming, exotic scents. When the student has exhausted himself with final exams, it is time to go to a movie or go play soccer. When the long-married couple have filled their day with work, it is time to turn to pleasure, to restore the soul and nourish their love. Side by side, both-and, neighbor and self, not either-or. “A wise person in this way practices self-care, sometimes stepping on the brakes and sometimes stepping on the accelerator of pleasure.”[1, p. 223]
One more thing about loving ourselves. No one is more likely to ruin your life than you are yourself. “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I already know that. I am my own worst enemy.” Truly, I sometimes think that we are not natural self-lovers at all! In fact, many of us deal with self-loathing, shame and unforgiveness of ourselves more than loving ourselves too much.
Healthy self-love is all bound up with mercy. God’s mercy has reached out to us. And sometimes we need to be as merciful to ourselves as God is. We need to give ourselves a break.
This week I watched a movie called, “Insurgent.” The heroine, Tris Prior, is asked to pass five tests, the final one is the Amity test. In order to pass this one, she must be calm and at peace. Her sworn enemy is there giving her these instructions. She attacks immediately and instinctively – and failed the test. But by a twist of plot, she gets another chance. Again, her nemesis goads Tris’s hate and anger. Tris has become a bit more wise since her last attempt and she replies calmly, “I’m not going to fight you.”
The enemy says calmly: “Of course not. You’re going to fight her. The one you really hate.” And the camera pans over to show an image of Tris herself. The perceptive enemy knows that the one she really hates is herself. Because of her, those she loves have died, she has had to take the life of a dear friend, everywhere she goes, she seems to cause violence. Yes, she hates herself. She is tired of causing so much pain and destruction. And now, she must fight herself.
The other self says: “No one’s gonna love you, Tris. They’re never even gonna miss you. This world will be better off without you. One less [person] ruining everything. And no one will ever, ever forgive you for what you‘ve done.”
Tris, fists clenched, ready to strike, takes a deep breath and replies: “You’re wrong….(very long pause), ‘cause I will.” Her fists relax, her face reflects peace.
Tris passed the test by forgiving herself. Maybe no one else would, but she could and would. And it gave mercy enough for the story to go on.
You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
Sometimes I wonder if this command might be more powerful for those of us steeped in rule-based Christianity, if it were reversed: you shall love yourself as you love your neighbor. Somehow we get neighbor love. It is ourselves we fail to love.
Or maybe we should take it one more step: You shall love yourself as God loves you.
 Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking, chapter 44, pp. 221-225
 Insurgent film clip of Amity Sim: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AUd32wN7BLA