I am learning the value of me. To my ears, that sounds conceited. Yet I am coming to find that learning to love and respect one’s self is a fundamental and sometimes difficult task. Especially for religious folks. I am sure that I am not alone in my struggle. Actually, I believe that many of our problems with other people have roots in how we view ourselves. Frankly, I have found that I will say things to myself that I would never say to someone else… never! Socially and spiritually, this negative self talk becomes a real problem. Let me use the Bible to help me make my case:
Mark 12: 24-34
One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”
“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”
“Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions.
The context of this story is that Jesus was being badgered by religious leaders because he was becoming popular. These leaders were asking questions designed to trap him into making statements they could use to show him to be the fraud they believed him to be. Their problem was that Jesus understood their game and kept delivering his message. Their questions gave him a sounding board to teach people a new, authentically spiritual way to live. When asked the above question, Jesus began with reciting the Shema, an ancient Jewish statement of faith which every Jew would recite every morning and every evening. The Shema affirms the distinctiveness of God, and it ties humanity, in every facet of who we are as individuals, relationally to him. Next, Jesus’ words do something very interesting: he ties my ability to love my“neighbor as you love yourself.” I find a general principle of human interaction here. On a deep level, our love and caring for other people goes only as far as our love, respect and affinity for ourselves and God. It is a relational triad, where each affects the other, and can be limited by the others. For instance, I find most irritating the actions of others which are most like what I dislike in myself. The weakness I have is what frustrates me in other people.
Unless and until…
I learn to accept and love who I am created to be, with all my strengths and weaknesses. I was created as a work of art! I am one of a kind. And that is very good. I have innate value because I was created with it. God designed me with remarkable gifts, talents, and abilities. My task is to acknowledge, be thankful for, and live those qualities out in the world within which I have been placed. Yet those qualities aren’t self-sufficient. They need the affirmation and direction of God to be dug out of the depths of myself, honed, and then used effectively. They also need the strengths and talents of others to be appreciated in their fullest measure. That is the beauty of community. That is the joy of the Kingdom of God.
But the task isn’t easy. It takes work. We must recognise our own value. In a religious context, my experience has been that we are taught to do the opposite! Even though the Bible points us in a healthy direction:
Psalm 139: 1-16
O LORD, you have searched me
and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue
you know it completely, O LORD.
You hem me in—behind and before;
you have laid your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
too lofty for me to attain.
Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,”
even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place.
When I was woven together in the depths of the earth,
your eyes saw my unformed body.
All the days ordained for me
were written in your book
before one of them came to be.
the son of man that you care for him? You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
and crowned him with glory and honor.
You made him ruler over the works of your hands;
you put everything under his feet:
all flocks and herds,
and the beasts of the field,
the birds of the air,
and the fish of the sea,
all that swim the paths of the seas.
Again with the poetry! A song, no less! The writer tells us we are co-managers of the natural world in which we live. Like an artist with his interns, whose efforts create and sustain beauty. As with interns, we learn from the master artisan, yet we have each been chosen by him for the tasks given us. Our master chooses tasks specially for each of us, because our talents fit the task well.
Yet my religious background tended towards denial of my own worth. I always felt like I wasn’t good enough. As if there were something lacking in my own make-up. However, when viewed within the context of the community of God, I am perfectly tailored. I fit!
But it takes courage to believe that!
Where I live doesn’t always seem that way.
Sometimes I am alone.
I feel intimidated by my lack of resources and tools.
Like a cracked pot, I leak….
And it feels like a pot without cracks is desired by others.
But my perceptions of who and where I am are based on habits of thinking. The words I say to myself are as well. So I must, in all honesty and humility, remind myself who I am:
Abba’s Child, by Brennan Manning
Because of how we feel about ourselves, it’s sometimes difficult to believe that we are accepted by God. As numerous Christian authors, wiser and more insightful than I, have said: We cannot accept love from another human being when we do not love ourselves, much less accept that God could possibly love us.
One night a friend asked his handicapped son, “Daniel, when you see Jesus looking at you, what do you see in his eyes?”
After a pause, the boy replied, “His eyes are filled with tears, Dad.”
An even longer pause. “Because he is sad.”
“And why is he sad?”
Daniel stared at the floor. When at last he looked up, his eyes glistened with tears. “Because I’m afraid.”
The sorrow of God lies in our fear of him, our fear of life, and our fear of ourselves. He anguishes over our self-absorption and self-sufficiency. Richard Foster wrote, “Today the heart of God is an open wound of love. He aches over our distance and preoccupation. He mourns that we do not draw near to him. He grieves that we have forgotten him. He weeps over our obsession with muchness and manyness. He longs for our presence.”
God’s sorrow lies in our refusal to approach him when we have sinned and failed. A “slip” for an alcoholic is a terrifying experience. The obsession of the mind and body with booze returns with the wild fury of a sudden storm in springtime. When the person sobers up, he or she is devastated. When I relapsed, I had two options: yield once again to guilt, fear, and choose to live as a victim of my disease; or choose to trust in Abba’s immutable love.
It is one thing to feel loved by God when our ife is together and all our support systems are in place. Then self-acceptance is relatively easy. We may even claim that we are coming to like ourselves. When we are strong, on top, in control, and as the Celts say, “in fine form,” a sense of security crystallizes.
But what happens when life falls through the cracks? What happens when we sin and fall, when our dreams shatter, when our investments crash, when we are regarded with suspicion? What happens when we come face-to-face with the human condition?
Ask anyone who has just gone through a separation or divorce. Are they together now? Is their sense of security intact? Do they have a strong sense of self-worth? Do they still feel like the beloved child? Or does God love them only in their “goodness” and not in their poverty and brokenness as well? Nicholas Harnan wrote:
This (brokenness) is what needs to be accepted. Unfortunately, this is what we tend to reject. Here the seeds of a corrosive self-hatred take root. This painful vulnerability is the characteristic feature of our humanity that most needs to be embraced in order to restore our human condition to a healed state.
The fourteenth-century mystic Julian of Norwich said, “Our courteous Lord does not want his servants to despair because they fall often and grievously; for our falling does not hinder him in loving us.” Our skepticism and timidity keep us from belief and acceptance, however, we don’t hate God, but we hate ourselves. Yet the spiritual life begins with the acceptance of our wounded self.
Seek out a true contemplative– not a person who hears angelic voices and has fiery visions of the cheribim, but the person who encounters God with naked trust. What will that man or woman tell you? Thomas Merton responds, “Surrender your poverty and acknowledge your nothingness to the Lord. Whether you understand it or not. God loves you, is present in you, lives in you, dwells in you, calls you, saves you and offers you an understanding and compassion which are like nothing you have ever found in a book or heard in a sermon.”
God calls us to stop hiding and come openly to him. God is the father who ran to his prodical son when he came limping home. God weeps over us when shame and self-hatred immobilize us. Yet as soon as we lose our nerve about ourselves, we take cover. Adam and Eve hid, and we all, in one way or another, have used them as role models. Why? Because we do not like what we see. It is uncomfortable— intolerable— to confront our true selves. Simon Tugwell, in his book The Beatitudes, explains:
And so, like runaway slaves, we either flee our own reality or manufacture a false self which is mostly admirable, mildly prepossessing, and superficially happy. We hide what we know or feel ourselves to be (which we assume to be unacceptable and unlovable) behind some kind of appearance which we hope will be more pleasing. We hide behind pretty faces which we put on for the benefit of our public. And in time we may even come to forget that we are hiding, and think that our assumed pretty face is what we really look like.”
But God loves who we really are– whether we like it or not. God calls us, as he did Adam, to come out of hiding. No amount of spiritual makeup can render us more presentable to him. As Merton said, “The reason we never enter into the deepest reality of our relationship with God is that we so seldom acknowledge our utter nothingness before him.” His love, which called us into existence, calls us to come out of self-hatred and to step into his truth. “Come to me now,” Jesus says. “Acknowledge and accept who I want to be for you: a Savior of boundless compassion, infinite patience, unbearable forgiveness, and love that keeps no score of wrongs. Quit projecting onto me your own feelings about yourself. At this moment your life is a bruised reed and I will not crush it, a smoldering wick and I will not quench it. You are in a safe place!”
A safe place. It takes courage to enter a safe place. Like a ship navigating around the rocks and reef to enter a peaceful harbor. It also takes honesty to look past our disappointments and failures of the past, present and future to learn that we are safe in the presence of God. So, tentatively, we open our vulnerable selves to God; we disrobe our naked selves as to a lover for the first time. Will they like what they see?
God does, very much, and it’s ok that we do, too….