For some reason, I end up connecting with a lot of people who struggle with self-acceptance. As I talk with them, work with them and observe them, I am often amazed at how much an individual can not like themselves. Their lives and conversations are filled with personal put-downs, denials of personal worth, self-harm and self-destructive behaviour. And the deeper issue is that these are often people who have significant talents and gifts and abilities, who can be very caring and helpful, who are well liked and respected by others. But in their minds, they are worthless, their activities are insignificant, their talents are unimportant, and people are faking liking them.
If such a person is a part of a Christian group, particularly a conservative Christian group, they often find that their faith enables and encourages this self-hate. After all, isn’t self-denial the proper way for Christians? Aren’t we supposed to realize that we are worms and worthless with no abilities and incapable of making any contribution? A commitment to God through Christ must also include a commitment to putting ourselves down, doesn’t it?
But that sort of thinking misses entirely the whole point of the Christian message. The Good News that we have been given by God through Jesus Christ is that God loves us–not that he might love us if we weren’t so worthless; not that he could love us if we cleaned up our act a lot; not that he might hate us less is we hate ourselves more. No, the Good News is that God loves us, as we are. Sometimes, in an effort to help people understand this deep and essential message, I tell people something like, “If you, as you are right now, were the only person on earth, Jesus would still have gone to the cross for you–that’s how much God loves you.”
For years, I have struggled to understand the theological and psychological twisting necessary to turn God’s powerful and unconditional love into a call for emotional, physical and spiritual self-abuse. When we begin with the fact that God loves us no matter what, how do we then see a need to destroy ourselves with self-hatred? There is obviously a way to go from one to the other but it is a route that I simply don’t understand.
The issue of self-denial strikes me as an important one in the Scripture but I don’t think it means I have to hate myself. God doesn’t hate me so why should I hate me? Jesus, whom I am committed to emulating, doesn’t hate me, so how can I justify hating me? It is clear to me that the Biblical call for self-denial isn’t a call to hate myself.
Based on what I see in the Bible, it seems to me that self-denial is more akin to surrender or sacrifice or self-giving. I offer my whole being to God through Christ. I offer the good and the bad; the positive and the negative, the polished and the rough–I give it all to God so that he can help me discover the fullness of what I was meant to be. What I am surrendering is my desire to control my life.
It is clear that no matter what else I can say about myself, I don’t always make good choices. I don’t do what I know I should as often as I should. God, because of his infinite wisdom combined with his infinite love, knows far better than I do what is best for me and those I connect with. If I am willing to surrender my desire to make my own choices to him, he will help me make choices that are much better for me and everyone. God is going to love me with an infinite love whether I surrender or not but if I surrender to him, I actually become more me.
That is relatively easy to write–but the reality is that I am often very reluctant to surrender to God through Christ. And, having done it once, there is no guarantee that I will do it again. Learning to surrender and trust God takes a life time because we are going against our ingrained selfishness. But the one important constant is that God loves me and has shown the extent of that love in Jesus Christ–and if God loves me that much, I don’t need to hate myself in order to have God love me.
May the peace of God be with you.