Thursday, May 27, 2010

Who Do You Love When You Love Yourself?

Self-hate, I think we can agree, is a less than positive trait. Some might regard it as harmless, maybe ignorable, because it doesn't seem to affect anyone else. But self-hate isn't merely a trait and it is far from harmless. Self-hate is sin and it causes nothing but damage.

Most kids have their worst horror stories from jr. or sr. high. My stories began in elementary school. During my five years in public school, the other kids picked on me, harassed me, or beat me up three times a week. At least, that's my conservative guess. It didn't take long for me to develop a poor self-image. I know it sounds like the usual formative years tragedy - nobody picking me for the basketball team, sitting by myself at lunch, having five kids beat me unconscious - so I won't go into all of it. One story in particular can sum up the five years of emotional wreckage leading to a lifestyle of self-hate.

After the last day of fifth grade, a few kids invited me to a tree house. When we got there, they had fireworks and sodas. I couldn't believe other kids wanted to have me join in their fun. Then another classmate came with a stack of dirty magazines. Dirty in every sense. Like, grimy and torn, but with content that even today makes me sad to recall. Immediately, I felt a mixture of embarrassment and nausea. I told the other kids I didn't want to look. They laughed and asked in mocking tones, "What's the matter?" One kid held me down and tried forcing me to look. I closed my eyes and kept them clenched despite his attempts to pry them open. Another kid began to read aloud the story surrounding the pictures. I clapped my hands to my ears and felt them pulled away. Eventually, the kids let me go and I walked home dazed. I didn't talk to my parents when I reached my home.

I realized many years later how I allowed this sort of treatment to birth an attitude of powerlessness in me. If I ever looked at porn again, I had this tiny reminder of the time I couldn't escape. Maybe, I would subconsciously tell myself, I should just let it happen and avoid the fight. The feeling of powerlessness quickly eroded my security. Any love I had for myself crumbled. I looked for ways to pretend confidence, to feel loved, to look cool. Smoking, gateway drugs, chasing (but seldom catching) girls, applause, academic achievements, heavy drinking - none of it rid me of those nagging feelings of powerlessness. I tried to enhance my identity so much I began to wonder if it made me a fraud. This only made me feel worse about myself and I redoubled my efforts in what I thought would fulfill me, only increasing the damage.

Of course, I still went to church. I studied my Bible. I prayed and even heard from God during this period. If anyone asked, I could tell them the two greatest commands as Jesus taught them in Matthew 22:34-40. Love God and love your neighbor. It appeared as if I love loved God. Maybe not the way Deuteronomy 6:5 instructs, what with my whole heart, soul, and might. I tried to be nice to other people, an attempt at following the command to love my neighbor. But if pushed by anybody, I would defer, cower, explain, or flee. I didn't show kindness. I showed niceness - the pleasant and non-combative behavior of a castrated church-goer.

It wasn't until my early twenties when I finally agreed to talk with someone about these issues. A pastor friend of mine, someone I could trust to challenge me, made two major points as we talked about my history. Genesis 1:26-27 tells how God created man in His image. First, my friend said this truth gives us dignity. We are image-bearers of God, special in this way from all creation. In hating myself, I despised His image and questioned His goodness. This led to my friend's second point when he asked, "Do you really love God when you hate His image? How is it possible to love your neighbor when you hate yourself?"

At first I wondered vainly if I had to love myself before I could love God or neighbors, as if it were a prerequisite. But reading more into scripture, I realized how loving God first allows me to love myself. To truly love God, I have to know Him. To know Him, I have to know something about Him. God tells of Himself in the Bible and while it doesn't exhaustively reveal Him, it does truly reveal Him. It was easy in my Baptist upbringing to understand God as perfect, righteous, and just (Deuteronomy 32:4), creator of the world, (Genesis 1), deserving all glory, honor, and praise (1 Peter 1:7). I wondered how such a magnificent being could care about a cowardly, sinful person like me. But when I read in the Bible how I am hidden in Christ (Galatians 2:20), how God cleanses me from my filth (Zechariah 3:3), and sees me as holy and blameless when i put my trust in Jesus (Colossians 1:21-23), I must believe these things are also true.

1 Peter 1:3-7 ties these passages all together. "Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In His great mercy He has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil, or fade - kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God's power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith - of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire - may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed." But then verses 8 and 9 explain what this truth should do to us. "Though you have not seen Him, you love Him; and even though you do not see Him now, you believe in Him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are reveiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls."

The truth of God's nature and the salvation He offers fills me with joy. It shows me His love for me. 1 John 4:19 says, "We love, because He first loved us." I received the love He offered and it allowed me to love Him in return. If I love Him and trust His word in the Bible, then I have to believe He created me in His image and sent Jesus to die for me. I find a great measure of worth in this. 1 John 4:20, however, makes a very serious statement. "If someone says, 'I love God,' and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother who he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen." Is it possible to substitute the word "brother" here and replace it with "myself"? Am I a liar if I say I love God but hate myself?

Earlier, I referred to Zechariah 3. In that passage, the prophet sees the High Priest wearing filthy clothes and standing before God's throne. Satan stands to the side accusing the priest until an angel of the Lord rebukes him. I believed all sorts of lies about myself thinking I was powerless, unlovable, and a fake. But when I put my trust in Jesus, I was cleansed and dressed in clean clothes like the priest. What would it mean if I were to find myself cleared of charges but then protest and agree with the accuser? If someone takes my trashed second-hand clothing that smells like another person's B.O. and offers me a tailored suit, how would my benefactor feel when I refuse to wear it because I don't consider myself worthy? It makes me think that self-hate, for the Christian, especially displeases God because it shows contempt for the salvation He offers. It makes me wonder if a person can receive salvation if they insist on showing it contempt. If you say you love God but hate yourself, then you're in danger of having God judge you as a liar.

Just wear the suit and let the Judge acquit you already.

1 comment:

Dan Knight said...

Thanks for sharing this, Isaiah. Attending Christian schools can be just as painful. Growing up judged just wounds our psyche down to the core. Only in the last 6 years have I begun to believe that God really does love me.

For me, that was the turning point from depression, fear, and anxiety attacks. For a while, I believed that God had turned against me, but over time I learned that he was with me in my pain, mourned over my wounds, promised to accept and love me, and would never abandon me. There was a lot of healing in realizing that God knows my every failing and loves me anyhow.

Since then, God has been transforming my life. I still have a slightly negative self-image, but it's worlds better than it used to be. Old habits - especially thought patterns - die hard, but I know that God makes everything glorious, and that includes me. Getting there!

Thanks for your honesty and the hope you share with others!