Several years ago, I had an odd experience while in prayer. I don’t remember what I was praying about, and I’m afraid my explanation won’t do it justice, but the essence of it was God showing me what he loves about me. This wasn’t a generic “love of God washed over me” experience. Rather it was quite specific; God was showing me the particulars of how I am “fearfully and wonderfully made”. These were things about me that are precious to him and that he has purposed into me. Not only would I not be me without those things, but God would not be able to use me according to his purposes if I did not possess them. But here’s the rub: all of those things God showed me have caused me a great deal of difficulty and pain. I had often wished I could change or even be rid those things altogether. Or at least have them be less-so. And as he showed me these things, it was the gap between God’s love for how he has made me and how I felt about it that really struck me.
At the time that this happened, I had a spiritual advisor who I met with monthly. When I shared this experience with her she murmured, “the touch which reveals desolation.” Yes. That it was. (I forgot to ask her where the phrase was from and have never been able to find its source. If anyone knows, please do share!) You would think that having God show me these things as what he most loves and finds precious about me would have changed how I felt as well, but it’s never quite that simple. (My infuriating complexity would be one of those things God pointed to, of course. “You have hidden these things from the wise and learned” indeed.) Instead, what that touch did was say, “this is my view of you. I want you to learn to view yourself the same way as well.”
I’ve written a bit before about struggling to learn to be kind to myself. On the one hand, I’ve never been one for self-loathing. I’ve always thought I was fundamentally alright. I have a good heart. A gentle spirit. More than the usual amount of many good things. But being me has often seemed to be more trouble than it’s worth. It certainly hasn’t won me many friends over the years. Desolation was an odd, but good description of my feelings about myself. Devoid of self-loathing, yes. But also devoid of any real enthusiasm about or appreciation for what makes me me. But that touch challenged me to embrace the other side of the Great Commandment – to love myself as I love my neighbor.
I read a blogger this morning who claimed that “God never said to just love yourself“. I know that she was talking about a self-indulgent, self-serving love of self that excuses selfishness and sin. But of course, that sort of “love” isn’t actually love. It’s an inferior version of self-love that Christians ought to reject. However, this idea – that God doesn’t tell us to love ourselves – is just wrong. I know that there are those people who really embrace the sort of self-indulgent, self-serving love that our culture often encourages us to embrace. However, I know far more people who struggle to learn to love themselves than actually think their shit don’t stink. I suspect you do to. Especially in the church, there are many people who believe and teach that proclaiming our unworthiness and sinfulness and failings is what God requires of us. But if I am fearfully and wonderfully made in God’s own image and God loves me just as much as he loves any other human, then where do I get off embracing such a low, desolate view of myself?
I don’t think it was a mistake or just incidental that God links together love of self and love of neighbor. He could have just said, “love your neighbor” after all. Yes, pride and selfishness are real problems. But so are our struggles to love ourselves properly. And yes, I can tell you with a great deal of certainty that God does indeed want us to love ourselves. Really love ourselves. He wants us to be excitedly enthusiastic about and grateful for the design he has made. He wants us to look at ourselves with the same eyes that we use for our children, our friends, our spouses and others. Eyes that see the good, allow for struggles, encourage and appreciate. When we look at ourselves it should be with great expectations, yes, but also affection and even wonder to see the work of God’s hands.
I am still learning and trying to embrace this assignment. It goes against a great deal of what I was always told is acceptable. It is unseemly to be too enthusiastic about one’s self. Interestingly, in the process I have turned to just that connection which God points to in the Great Commandment: love for neighbor. I have worked hard to learn to love others well. There are people who are very different from me in ways that I would have thought were wrong or mistaken in the past which God has taught me to see and love as part of his design for them. So, I keep turning towards that trove of experience for guidance on how to learn not only to see others as God sees them, but to see myself as God sees me. So that in time, I will be able to say that I actually do love my neighbor as I love myself.