Well, that depends on what it means to “love yourself.” Does it mean that we should be feeding ourselves on messages about our goodness and worthiness? What did Jesus mean when He said, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 23:39)?
This is the one verse that suggests that we should love ourselves, or does it. Certainly, it doesn’t mean that we should be feeding our neighbors with a continuous diet of positive affirmations. If not, what does it mean? More likely, Jesus merely observed that we love ourselves by what we do. When we are cold, we dress ourselves warmly. When we are tired, we go to sleep. When we are hungry, we eat, and this is how we should love our neighbor – by being equally concerned about their needs.
This is an important distinction. My wife and I went to a talk tonight at the progressive Union Theological Seminary, where several professors urged that people of color need to find ways to love themselves, especially after having been degraded for so long. They weren’t talking about eating when hungry or sleeping when tired. Instead, they were talking about ways to boast self-esteem, either through positive affirmations or through the positive portrayals of Black people.
When I questioned this strategy, my wife was troubled and responded:
- I can’t understand why you questioned that. You are so familiar with self-loathing, and yet you dismiss their need for positive messages and to see positive role models.
Well, she is correct about my long struggle with self-contempt and all of the resulting depression. She therefore continued:
- We all need to know that we are precious and created in the very image of God. And you know that. Why are you denying it?
I wasn’t denying it. Actually, I was affirming what she said:
- When we remind ourselves that we are created in the image of God and that Christ loved us so much that He died for us, we are not affirming ourselves but are receiving the love that God is giving us. But when we tell ourselves, “I am intelligent; I am beautiful; I can be a success at anything I attempt,” we are building up ourselves with our own affirmations, which are often deluded and always counter-productive.
I had been a master at giving myself positive affirmations, and they became more exaggerated with the passage of time. At first, I convinced myself that the girls really loved me. In a short time, I had advanced to believing that I was God’s gift to women. However, even these grandiose beliefs failed me. I was still the loner I had always been, but now I had become very self-deluded and out-of-touch with both myself and with others.
I also had other strategies of self-aggrandizement. I would remind myself that I belonged to a people that had produced the Einsteins and 30% of the Nobel Prize winners. Although this gave me a minimal boost, it seemed that my depression of as thick as ever, perhaps even worse. These affirmations were no better than drugs, which never really touched the real problem. Could I kick the drug? Not a chance! Instead, I needed ever-increasing doses to barely make it through the day.
Even after Christ got ahold of me, I resorted to exalting myself with my positive affirmations. I convinced myself that I was deserving of God’s love, because I was more spiritual than others. It didn’t matter that there was absolutely no truth at all in my affirmations. I just had to believe them, and, to some extent, I did.
I required years for my Savior to break me of this horrid addiction. I suffered the most excruciating trials. I hadn’t imagined, even after decades of serious depression, that such suffering was possible.
Now, I can look back and say, “It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes” (Psalm 119:71). And I did learn them. I had to! I was sinking, and there was nothing else on which to cling.
What did I learn? That those who exalt themselves with their self-affirmations will be humbled, as Jesus had repeatedly taught:
- “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 14:11)
I had been exalting myself, and didn’t understand it until many years after having received Christ. Meanwhile, He was in the process of humbling me so that He’d be able to exalt me:
- “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:14)
- “So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’” (Luke 17:10)
In contrast to these teachings, I had been telling myself for years how much more worthy I was than others, as a dug my own psychological grave.
I explained to my wife, that I couldn’t be silent and watch my Black brethren pursuing destruction’s course. Yes, some might think that I was questioning this “logic” of self-love because I wanted to keep my brethren in a “degraded,” self-loathing condition. Although this possibility was troubling to me, I decided to risk it, knowing that I had to honor God’s Words.
I have sworn myself off all forms of this kind of self-love. Yes, I’d love to be exalted, but that is entirely in God’s hands. Instead, I will satisfy myself on His daily bread – the love and approval He has given me – and the challenge at hand.