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naked before the Lord

March 1st, 2004 by Jason · No Comments

It’s important that I love myself. Sound like a blurb from a self-help book? Or the mantra of pop-psychology? Certainly not the topic of a sermon in an evangelical church. Why do Christians, and especially evangelicals, react so strongly against the need to love oneself? The idea is met with skepticism, raised eyebrows, and sometimes disdain. However, loving myself is both biblical and essential in order to be a disciple who sacrificially gives of myself for others. To love myself is not easy. It requires that I come naked and vulnerable before the Lord. However, the good news is that I come away wrapped in his cloak with the realization that I am valued, protected, and cherished by one who will not leave.

Why is loving myself treated with such skepticism today? Part of the answer is that one of the foundations of evangelicalism is that we must come to God fully convinced of our sinfulness and God’s holiness. Some, however, have difficulty moving to the next stage where there is a realization that they have been made right in God’s sight, and are becoming sanctified people who will be worthy to spend eternity in God’s presence. An equally important reason that loving myself has become so suspect is that love has become a mushy term for what we like, admire, and desire. Because we love both ice cream and our spouse, and love both the latest shirt on sale at Gap and God the word has become almost meaningless. Thus, to say I love myself often comes across as a bland statement of how much I like my looks and abilities. In order to adequately understand what is meant by loving oneself we must redefine love according to Scripture.

Love is embodied and defined by God. God is love (1 Jn. 4:8) and God’s love was embodied when God sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins (1 Jn. 4:10). Thus, an essential aspect of love is that it is self-giving. It pours itself out for others, even for it’s enemies. There are several other things love does: it is patient, kind, protects, hopes, perseveres. And there are things love does not do; it does not boast, delight in evil, keep a record of wrongs, or become easily angered (1 Cor. 13:4-6). This picture of love, the essence of which was embodied by Jesus, is not the affection one has for one’s dog or the satisfaction of a tasty dinner, as good as those things are. When we love ourselves with the kind of love described in Scripture we are both patient and honest with our faults and gifts. We despise our propensity to be mired in the destruction of others and ourselves and rejoice in God’s salvation of us from that mire.

Loving myself not only entails actions, it also involves knowing the depth and complexity of my inner self. After his eloquent description of love in 1 Cor. 13 Paul describes the process of growing out of our spiritual immaturity into people who can embody love. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known (1 Cor. 13:12). Paul is acknowledging that when we love perfectly we know the one whom we love perfectly. We no longer see only glimpses and distortions of the one we love, rather we see them face to face. And we one day come to know ourselves as completely as God knows us. The portion of an iceberg that is above water is only 1/9 of its total size. And like an iceberg there is a vast amount of our history, personality, assumptions about others and the world, and valuable gifts that lay unexamined. If we are to love and minister to others we must know ourselves. We must know where we will need support and correction, and what gifts we have to offer. The more we know our quirks, contradictions, values, and assumptions, the better we will be able to love those who are different, annoying, and even those who inflict pain upon us. We cannot love that which we do not know.

Knowing ourselves honestly and thoroughly, however, cannot be done without a deep conviction and experience of God’s unconditional love. Often what we find when we turn inwards is unpleasant and disturbing. We may find dark emotions of spite, envy, anger, loneliness, pride, worthlessness, or a desire to use, manipulate, and despise others. In a metaphor for Israel God describes just such a person. As a baby she was thrown out into a vacant lot and left there, dirty and unwashed—a newborn nobody wanted. Yahweh found her miserable and bloody, helpless and filthy. And Yahweh had compassion on her because she was naked and vulnerable, fragile and exposed. So Yahweh wrapped his cloak around her, bathed her and washed away the blood. Yahweh’s love did not stop there. She was provided with everything precious and beautiful by her Lover. Yahweh then lets her know, with searing honesty, that despite his love for her she has been unfaithful and given herself as a whore to the other nations. Yet, Yahweh does not give up on Israel. In fact, he tells her you’ll remember your past life and face the shame of it, but when I make atonement for you, make everything right after all you’ve done, it will leave you speechless (Ezekiel 16, MSG).

In this metaphor Israel is forced to know herself and all her ugliness. But she also learns of her beauty and the intense passion Yahweh has for her. Perhaps, most astounding is that God does not give up on Israel. She has abandoned him, but he will not abandon her. These two convictions, God’s desire to make us beautiful and refusal to leave us, allow us to look inward and love what we find. The ugliness we find inside is washed away and the beauty and splendor of God is put in its place.

It is not enough to know intellectually that God finds us beautiful and will not leave us; we must also experience it for in order to be transformed. I have experienced these truths afresh recently. I came to church one Sunday afternoon with my mind racing and my stomach tied in knots with worry. As is common for me I was distressed over what others might think of me. What if I didn’t finish the project at work? What if the kids I ministered to decided I was a loser? What if I failed to be a good husband? Then, instead of avoiding these questions, I began to look at them squarely. What if I really did lose all that I value so much: the respect of others, the love of friends, wife, and family? Would there be anything left of me, or would I just sink into oblivion? Then it struck me as it never had before: God would not leave. I felt God’s love wash over me and fill in the empty holes I was so desperately trying to fill with the approval of others. I finally began to understand why Paul prayed so earnestly that the Ephesians would experience the love of Christ, though it is so great you will never fully understand it (Eph. 3:19, NLT).

Out of this experience I began to understand why I could love myself and, in turn, others. It is because my identity is solidly rooted in Christ that I can make myself vulnerable and love others who will, at times, hurt me. It is because Christ’s love will never be pulled away from me that I can look honestly at myself and begin to see myself as Christ does. If I did not have this secure anchoring the risks involved in loving others and the weight of my faults would be too much to bear.

Now that we have a Scriptural foundation for what love is and the need to love ourselves, how do we begin to live this out? One way we love ourselves is by learning to say yes and no. We stop despising ourselves and denying that we have been gifted and made beautiful by God. When the community of faith and the Holy Spirit shows us a gift or talent God has given us we use it. We say yes to usingLastly, we endeavor to be transparent and vulnerable with others, by sharing our temptat our gifts for the church and for the world. We also say no to demands from others that we know we cannot bear. We refuse the temptation to try and overcome our weaknesses and flaws on our own.

Loving ourselves is not a cheesy self-help slogan, but an essential aspect of discipleship. If we do not love ourselves we cannot put into practice Jesus’ commandment to love our neighbors as we love ourselves (Matt. 22:39). It is only as we come to experience God’s power to transform us and commitment to pursue us no matter how many times we fail him that we gain a secure enough footing to reach out to others in love. Having this foundation of God’s love for our lives we can safely peer inward to examine who we are, knowing that there is nothing we will find that God will not redeem. Knowledge of ourself and an appreciation for the person God has made us to be allows us reach out to others in vulnerability, by sharing our temptations, failings, successes, and hopes with them. We are God’s beloved; let us live as such.

Tags: theology