I recently wrote a blog post asking who we are allowed to hate. It is a topic that appears to dominate much of our discourse. But there is one target of hate I did not discuss, and it is a fairly consistent one: self.
Self hatred is everywhere. I have heard many a Christian say things along the lines of “I am the worst sinner I know”. It is almost a competition for how much we can talk ourselves down (which even can be viewed as a perverse way of talking ourselves up); I think many want to liken themselves to Paul and to own his story, but let us not forget we are talking about a man who went around killing Christians (or seeing that they are killed). When he says he is the “chief of sinners”, he was not just using some grand flowery language: he meant it. We should be very careful before taking on that kind of a label for ourselves.
I once heard someone say “If you are the worst sinner you know, you should probably march yourself down to the police station and turn yourself in!” It is a really good point: in a world with so much evil and people showing a great capacity to harm others, if you really think you are the worst, you probably know you need to be locked up to keep society safe. But, realistically, people do not actually believe that. I suspect a lot of this talk is an interpretation of the doctrine of “total depravity” that views everyone as utterly evil and equally bad. A casual look around at the world, however, tells us there are real degrees of evil; we cannot all be the worst. As a side note, I will mention that RC Sproul taught that there is a difference between “total depravity” and “utter depravity”, and that the former means people are imperfect in every area of their being, but not that they are completely evil with no good in them. More recent thinking about total depravity does not seem to distinguish. But, this is beside my point, and I will leave it as a discussion for the good reformed folks to work out.
I have belabored the point, but all this “talking down of self” really amounts to self hatred. We think of ourselves as evil creatures, ugly and unlovable. And, in fact, I have heard more than one person come right out and say it: they will claim to hate themselves and talk about how awful they are. Some pastors openly preach it. For example, Paul Washer has been quoted as saying “The moment when you take your first step through the gates of hell, the only thing you will hear is all of creation standing to its feet and applauding and praising God because God has rid the earth of you. That’s how not good you are.” All creation applauding your demise certainly sounds like hatred.
But self hate does not square with what the scripture says about humanity, or what Jesus taught. We all know John 3:16- “For God so loved the world . . .” God’s love didn’t come after He redeemed us: it was the driving force. And not only did God demonstrate His love for us, but He commanded us to love others. Jesus and Paul both said it was the highest law. We ARE lovable. We are lovable even in sin. God created us, in His image, to be loved. And if God Almighty loves us, and commands others to love us, who are any of us to say “No, you may love me, but I hate myself”? In a very real way, that would be rejecting the truth about ourselves and placing our own views above God’s views. Definitely a place to tread carefully. None of us should be so audacious to hate what God loves.
I do understand that the scripture teaches us not to think too highly of ourselves, and there is also warning about self love, though it is clear what is meant by self love is narcissism: thinking of oneself so highly that you place yourself above others and care only about your own needs. But, that is not the same as thinking of yourself as a lovable person, created in the Image of God. That kind of love is not self seeking, nor is it sinful. It is an accurate reflection of the love God has shown us.
I have heard of so many people who struggle with self hatred. For some, it is a persistent darkness, and one that their experience with church has only encouraged. This is heartbreaking, and I think we need a reversal; the church should be about showing people how lovable they are. We should encourage people to care for and think well of themselves, because God does. Yes, we are sinners. Yes, we are broken. But God has made it clear that we are still lovable. We do need a Savior to clean up our mess, but that does not make us unworthy of love.
Finally, I believe if we are going to take seriously the challenge to “love our neighbor”, we have to see ourselves as worthy of love. When we practice self hate, what love do we have to offer others? When we live in darkness of spirit, how can we bring light to the world? Instead, we should glow with the knowledge that we are lovable, and loved, and that should radiate out to others, our neighbors, and show them that they too are lovable.
When we look in the mirror, we should resist hating what we see; we should work on our vision to see a person created in God’s Image, loved and cared for. Yes, we should love our neighbors, but we should also love ourselves. Anything else is a rejection of the truth God has given us about ourselves and our value. And our value is so great that he sent his Son to die for us. What greater act of love is there than this?