By Annie Downs
It’s fairly popular right now in entertainment and media to preach the message “Love Yourself!” The world tells us to raise our self-esteem, to like ourselves more. It’s not that they are wrong, I think that is a great message. But the question they don’t answer is why we should do it. There is this funny verse in the Bible that we read all the time, but I wonder how often we really know it. It has stung me a time or two, as one who wrestles with loving all of me, when I realize what it is really asking me to do.
Matthew 22: 34-40
Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the law and the prophets hang on these two commandments.”
I remember being a junior in high school and my mom was giving me a ride home from soccer practice. I hadn’t talked much to my parents about the issues that were swirling around in my head, so it surprised me when she brought it up.
My mind was full of evil whispers of how unlovely I was, how much I needed to change, and how God had messed up when He made me. I heard these things in my head, I didn’t know I could call them lies, so I let them fester and grow until they were a tangled mess suffocating my soul. And I lived like that, in the self-hate, for years.
Why didn’t I just talk about it? It’s a question I’ve rolled around in my mind for years. In the end, I think the truth is that I didn’t talk about those things in my head because I didn’t know that I had a choice to think of them as anything but truth. It is the classic story of someone eating a mud pie because they didn’t realize they were sitting in the yard of a bakery.
We took the curve a mile from my house and I remember watching the houses pass as Mom said, “how do you think you can love your friends if you don’t love yourself?”
I was puzzled. ‘Who cares if I love me?’ I thought. I remember genuinely considering that my mother did NOT know what she was talking about- no teenager ever does.
She didn’t push me, she just let it mull over in my mind. I don’t know that I even answered her, or if I did it was something teen-angsty about “Uh, Mom, you don’t even understand how much I love my friends and I love God and that’s all that matters.” And then I probably got out of the minivan and took my sweaty soccer self and sat on her beautiful couch waiting for her to cook dinner for our family.
That conversation has stuck with me for over fifteen years. And as I grew up, and God rescued me from many of those lies and taught me how to fight for truth, I realized (gasp) that my mother was right.
While we are capable of loving others even when we are drowning in self-hate, there is a freedom in love that comes with following the second greatest commandment.
Do you love yourself? Do you see yourself the way God sees you? Do you recognize how absolutely loveable you are? Because when you do, when you see all that truth, you can’t help loving your neighbor.
To love someone is to believe in them. When someone believes in you, it changes everything – how you carry yourself, how you treat others, how you live day after day.
The beautiful thing here? God loves you. God believes in YOU. And when you see how truly amazing He thinks YOU are, it’s hard to resist loving yourself too.
Another interesting thing about this passage of scripture is that Jesus is talking to the Pharisees. I think that is fascinating. He is answering their questions, but there is also something about how Jesus always spoke truth to the His specific audience.
Maybe I’m over-analyzing, but isn’t it true that sometimes those of us who are seen as the best behaved Christians are the ones who are struggling the most with self-approval? Those poor Pharisees (I’m not being sarcastic- I do feel a bit sorry for them, maybe because I am far too similar to them), working so hard to follow all the rules and maybe despising themselves a bit when they made a mistake. Yes, they were trying to trap Jesus, but maybe part of that motivation was they were sick of seeing Jesus obey and love so freely when they were working so hard. And I’ll bet it was frustrating.
That was me. I didn’t love me. Life felt hard. But I worked at it and worked at it, trying to conjure up faith and good works and earn the love that was already mine. And I was frustrated with others who made mistakes but still felt loved and accepted.
The thing about Jesus is that He always knew how He was loved by the Father. So He was free to love. And where the spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. Freedom to love and be loved.
For us, that means freedom to make mistakes because they don’t affect how God feels about you. Freedom from self-hate and freedom to love others well. To obey God’s commandment, in this verse, is to love yourself.
My prayer for you today is that as you seek to love God and love others well, that you will see the call to that third person in the commandment- yourself. You are free to love God, to receive love from Him, and to love yourself. And as you do that, you will love those around you in a freer and deeper way than you can imagine.
Annie F. Downs is a freelance writer in Nashville, Tennessee. She received her bachelor’s degree in Early Childhood Education from the University of Georgia, and became an elementary school teacher. Now an author, Downs uses those same skills from the classroom to engage, entertain and educate her readers. Her first book, Perfectly Unique, is now in stores. You can connect with her at www.Annieblogs.com.