Several months ago, I attended a church service in which the senior pastor decided to tackle the issue of “health care in America”. He spoke thoughtfully about how the bulk of Jesus’ ministry involved healing sick people, and instructing his followers to care for the vulnerable members of society. During this part of his sermon, I felt that kind of uneasy feeling then that I really like – the kind of feeling that reminds me how far my own head can get lodged up my own ass, and then empowers me to think about practical ways I could be caring for my community.
Towards the end of the sermon, however, the pastor tried to drive home his point by reminding his audience that when asked which was the “greatest commandment”, Jesus answered,
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength”, and then immediately went on to say,”The second is equally important: Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these”. (Mark 12:30-31).
My immediate reaction to this sermon’s meant-to-be-powerful conclusion was to wonder whether or not church-going folks are any good at loving themselves, and whether or not the church does a good-enough job of teaching people how to love themselves. Because, I thought, without a basic capacity to love oneself, part 2 of the ‘greatest commandment’ doesn’t carry much weight or power.
Since then, I have checked in with several handfuls of my church-going friends and asked them if they feel like the church is good at teaching people how to love themselves.
I’ll let you guess what their answers may have been.
And here’s the thing: it’s a pretty big deal if the church and church-goers are missing the mark re: the ‘loving oneself’ target. Reading the gospels, I find a considerable amount of evidence to suggest that A) Jesus loved himself – i.e. received God’s love – without reservation and B) that he extended this same whole-hearted love to every person he met. In fact, this was a big part of what made him so controversial during his time on earth. The religious leaders of his time did not appreciate the unbounded enormity of his love for himself or for others.
Somehow (and grievously), while I was growing up in church, I got the impression that I was supposed to first accept how fundamentally bad I was – you know, that whole original sin drama – before I could authentically and earnestly beseech Jesus to lobotomize those bad parts of myself, and finally become more pleasing to him.
Well, it’s pretty near-to-impossible to love yourself if you you’ve been taught – explicitly or implicitly – that you are basically evil. It’s equally near-to-impossible to love others when you assume that, like you, they are also basically evil. And because of this unfortunate assumption about human nature, you are then psychologically primed to start searching for people who appear to have “conquered” their evil impulses, in order to reassure yourself that it can be done.
Public Service Announcement number 1: no one conquers “evil” (please click that link); we simply have an opportunity to become more and more psychologically and spiritually honest, which allows us to make wiser, and healthier choices.
Let me briefly explain why it is 100% impossible to love others well if we don’t first love ourselves well. I will use myself as an example:
When I am critical and intolerant towards myself, I am critical and intolerant towards others. If I notice some unacceptable aspect of myself – those shadowy, hard to admit parts of my psychology – parading around in someone else’s skin, my first defensive instinct is often to judge that person harshly, or perhaps to reject them entirely. Somehow allowing myself to feel curiosity or compassion towards them becomes threatening to me, as if I’ll have to admit my own similar shortcomings if I get too close to other peoples’.
Does that make sense? Maybe it’s a bit ‘Psychology 101’ for some of you, but I find that for a lot of people this is a fairly complex idea. So let me make it even more simple:
THINGS WE DON’T WANT TO ADMIT ABOUT OURSELVES x OTHER PEOPLE ACTING OUT THOSE SAME THINGS = PSYCHOLOGICAL CRISIS.
Here’s some good examples:
- A closeted gay person expressing homophobic ideas or actions.
- Someone that cares a great deal more than they’d like to admit about wealth and material things, who then condemns wealthy people for how they choose to spend their money.
- Deeply felt inferiority feelings parading around as machismo, or bullying.
- Systemically disempowered women being critical of “successful” women.
- Someone with partisan political sentiments (who cannot admit this blind-spot to themselves) dismissing another person’s political ideas as partisan.
- A compulsive over-eater who frowns upon compulsive [anything else].
- Someone who feels insecure about their romantic relationship (or lack thereof) being critical of other people’s romances.
- Christian extremists’ hatred for Islamic extremists.
- An arrogant person noticing someone else’s arrogance and pointing that out disdainfully (I’m real guilty of this one sometimes, ugh).
Do you get the picture? It’s impossible to be compassionate with others if we cannot first be sincerely compassionate with ourselves.
And, why do I think it’s the church’s responsibility to teach this to it’s parishioners? Because Jesus did it.
He embraced all types of culturally repugnant people, and offered them intimate counsel and friendship. Some of the religious leaders of his time found his associations very troubling, and asked his disciples why he would choose to “eat with such scum?” (Matthew 9:11). Jesus answered them by asking them to “go and learn the meaning of this scripture: ‘I want you to show mercy, not offer sacrifices.'” (Matthew 9:13).
I believe we have to “show mercy” both inwardly and outwardly simultaneously for mercy to be genuine. And I’m pretty sure Jesus said almost exactly this in his own cryptic, ancient semitc way:
“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love.
Love each other in the same way I have loved you.”
– (John 15:9, 12)
In a sense, I believe he’s saying “my ability to receive (accept, or believe in) love is directly correlated to my ability to give love. Now, follow my lead: open yourselves up to the divine love that’s always available to you, and then give it away in exactly the same limitless way you have received it”.
To boil it down further: if we can’t embrace the darkest, hardest aspects of our humanity, then we sure as sh*t can’t embrace other peoples’ dark parts either. And from what I can tell, the whole entire ministry of Jesus was about embracing others, especially those willing to stand humbly in own their humanity.
So, Church leaders: if you don’t know how to teach this kind of love, and especially if you don’t know how to genuinely receive this kind of love for yourself, you need to hire people that do. We can’t fall asleep at the wheel when it comes to loving ourselves, or we can’t love others well. And if we can’t love others well, we can’t be the church.