Leviticus 26:9-13 ; Romans 8:31-39
[Sung in imitation of Justin Bieber:] “Cause if you like the way you look that much, oh baby you should go and love yourself.”
Loving yourself should be easy, right? You’ve got to live with yourself. But because we are messy inside, it’s not always so easy. And our inability to rightly love ourselves may lie behind a lot of our problems. So I want to talk about it today. Now, loving yourself might sound like the opposite message I just spent many weeks on: leaving behind your ego in mystical oneness with God. But as you’ll see, they go together quite well.
I remember a friend long ago confiding in me: I’ve been told all my life that God loves me. And I know I’m supposed to love and accept myself. But there are things I’ve done in the past, things I got away with and wasn’t punished for. And there are things I did that I’m not proud of. I may not understand why I did them, but I did them and I can’t forget. And even now—I’m no criminal. I’m not an obviously bad person. But I know what a truly good person looks like. I see some of them here at church. I know I’m not one of them. And I have these thoughts that dart through my head—mean thoughts, petty thoughts, selfish, maybe even violent thoughts. I have fantasies that I don’t want to have, but they’re in my head. And I’ve got this habit I cannot master, I cannot break. I tell myself again and again I won’t do it next time, but then I do. And I kind of hate myself for it. But I don’t let on. I don’t disclose my feelings to anyone. I cover up the discomfort I have in my own skin by masquerading in friendly smiles and busy hands. Or I retreat into indifference. But underneath all that, I don’t know how to love myself, because I know myself too well. Telling me I’m forgiven doesn’t work on me. It doesn’t make me a better person. It doesn’t make me love myself. And it’s hard to love others when I don’t love myself. Love has to come from a fullness within, doesn’t it?
Ok, that wasn’t just one friend speaking a long time ago. IT was a little bit of all of us. The Bible tells us that we are good creatures who do God’s will; but in its capacious wisdom and insight, the Bible also sees us deep down for the sad and broken children of God we are, who don’t know how to love ourselves.
Now we’ve been hearing all our lives that God loves us. God accepts us just as we are. It’s actually hard to find a Scripture that says this. The Prodigal Son does, maybe. Our reading from Romans assures us that “nothing can separate us from God’s love,” but it seems to be talking about threats outside of us—“hardship, distress, persecution, famine…”—not our own inward guilt and shame.
But we’ve made this our message: God loves us no matter what. And that inspires some folk to be able to love themselves. But not everyone. Maybe we need to tweak our message for those folks who hear again and again the God loves you, and still they don’t find the deep-down peace of loving themselves. What about you? Hearing about the love of God that, to quote another bad song, is “soft as an easy chair” may make you feel good temporarily, but has it healed you? Or do you go home after church to the same dismal thoughts? I put that as a question because only you can answer it for yourself. I hope I’m wrong.
If you are not fundamentally at peace with yourself, it can come out in all kinds of bad ways. Maybe you feel the need to boost yourself and show yourself better than other people and even put them down. Maybe you let others put you down and can’t shake it off when they do. Maybe you hold on to hurts and grudges, you nurse them because you need an opponent. Maybe you resent others who think they are more successful or better than you. Or maybe you feel inadequate when you compare yourself to others. If you’re not at peace with yourself, maybe you become more inflexible and insist on your own way. Or maybe you let others push you around and don’t know how to stand up for yourself. Maybe you don’t value yourself enough to do what is good for you, and chaos reigns in your life. Or maybe you clamp tight to maintain control, doing everything you can to hold chaos at bay.
We are complicated and messy. The same lack of self-love, of peace with yourself, can manifest itself in so many contrary ways, depending on everything else that went into us. Sermons aren’t great for addressing this problem, because our challenges and hang-ups are so individual and personal. Counseling is better, and some of you have shared freely with me and I really appreciate it.
But what I can do in a sermon is look at the ideas and assumptions that may be causing us problems. So what is it about our ideas and assumptions that makes the words “God loves you” sometimes ineffective? Powerless? Why do those words often just bounce off of us like a beach ball full of air? They should be sweeping us off our feet; healing us; changing us.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently. Because life is complicated, there are a lot of reasons. For instance, if we hear “God loves us,” but we aren’t loving one another, then those words will sound empty. But at one church I attended, the minister at the passing of the peace told us to greet one another, saying God loves you and so do I. Dare we try that? I won’t, But why do we resist?
So much of our self-love has to do with our parents. Were you raised with a rock-solid love and stability and affection from your parents? If not, there’s so much going on in the world that will make you feel judged and inadequate and not loved. It’s hard to replace the security we should get from early parental love. Again, counseling and therapy can be really helpful.
But is there a general insight I can share with all of you that might help? Here goes. God loves us. What do we mean by love? Do we mean admiration? Liking someone a whole lot? If someone loves me, is it because deep down I am worth it? (I bet Justin Bieber thinks so.) Does it mean I am unmarred by flaws? If so, then if I fail, if I show myself to have flaws, then the one that loves me might not love me anymore.
We expect our parents to love us no matter what. But is that because they look past our flaws, or remain happily ignorant of them? Don’t parents sometimes say, “No matter what happens, you will always be my beautiful baby.” That can be a limit to parental love. As we grow and become more aware of our flaws, it can be hard to share that side of ourselves with our parents. One of those flaws, of course, is a very normal resentment that we carry toward our parents. (We were all teenagers once, right?) Usually it is easiest for both parents and children to pretend that simply isn’t there.
But that leaves a gap between parent and child, an inevitable gap. Sure mom or dad love me, but they don’t know the real me. If love for us means holding on to an image of innocence and purity from my childhood, then it only penetrates so far. Because we carry conflict and trouble deep within our very being. We can never remain innocent and pure. Rooted in our biology are drives to self-assertion and survival and competition; this is part of the fabric of nature. And then there are all these forces of conflict inherent in human society, every human society. (Freud is really insightful about all of this.) There’s a lot built into us that wants to react with anger and violence; we want to assert ourselves at the expense of others; we are going to have uncontrollable thoughts that are disturbing or malicious. We didn’t have these thoughts as babies, although babies are very self-assertive: it’s called crying. We didn’t choose to have aggressive and conflictual impulses. But this is how we are, and it goes all the way down into our deepest selves. And as we mature we become more aware of all of these murky feelings residing in us. Not everything in us is beautiful and good.
But if we think of love as admiration for what is beautiful and good, then we either look deep within and feel we cannot be rightly loved, or we imagine that love must ignore the murky stuff within. And then that love looks superficial. Our parents and friends are good at loving our best selves. But that can leave us feeling deeply alone. Nobody knows the real me.
Maybe it will help if we think differently about love. Love doesn’t mean a blanket approval, or a looking past everything in me that is not beautiful and perfect. It certainly can include celebrating what is beautiful in us. But fundamentally loving each other means something different: simply that we belong to one another. God doesn’t say to us, you are so wonderful, so perfect; don’t ever think there’s anything wrong with you, or that you should change. “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” There’s no love like that to be found in the Bible, because that’s not God’s love. Of course we should change. Of course we should be truer to the good in us and leave behind what is false and petty. God’s love is a fire that calls us higher and higher, and that heals us because it changes us.
But fundamentally, God’s love is an unchanging belonging. God declares it to Israel: “I will be your God, you will be my people.” I’m yours, you’re mine. That’s both the fundamental origin of love, as between parent and child, and it is the maturity of love between spouses. That God loves us doesn’t mean we’re so hot or awesome or got straight As. God doesn’t admire us. God simply chose us to belong to God. In our Romans reading, Paul sees election as inherent to God’s love: “Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn?” To understand God’s love, we need to get comfortable with being chosen. God instituted this bond, this mutual ownership by which God is ours and we are God’s, and all of this mutual belonging of God and humanity comes to a head in Christ Jesus.
So if you look deep within and don’t like everything you see, or if you can’t keep those murky thoughts at bay when you lie awake at night, and you say, surely I’m unlovable—then how can you be sure of God’s love? You’ll not going to believe me. By your baptism. And if you aren’t yet baptized, you can be sure of God’s love, sure that you belong to God, just because you are here, listening to God’s claim on you as his very own. It’s a done deal and there’s no going back: you belong to God. And no misdeed, no disordered or nasty thought, no bad habit, no pettiness or small mindedness, no shame or resentment weighing you down from the past, no misplaced pride, no hatred you bear for others, is going to break that mutual belonging between you and God. And that, by the way, is the love that frees you from your ego and allows you not just to belong to God but to be God’s own presence and power.
So there you have it: God loves you. But just be aware of something else. God’s love is a belonging love, not a “everything you do is just perfect, don’t ever change” kind of love. Because we belong to God, God will also judge us. When we are ready, God will show us that we are not yet what we need to become, for the same reason: because we belong to God. If you don’t believe me, keep reading in Leviticus 26.