Spirit of Love: Loving Self

Romans 12:3-21




This summer in the season after Pentecost we are exploring the movement of the Spirit in the life of Christians. As followers of the resurrected and ascended Jesus, we are alive in the Spirit of God. The Holy Spirit empowers the Church (capital-C) to keep reinterpreting the story of Jesus in each new place and each new time. That’s what the Holy Spirit does for us. We are beginning this series on how we can be alive in God’s Spirit with a mini-series on the Spirit of Love. We’ve talked about loving God and loving neighbor, which means today we are talking about loving ourselves. If you’re not sure why these three are tied together, it’s because of what some people call the greatest commandment. In the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus affirms that the greatest commandments are to love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and soul and strength and to love your neighbor as yourself. 

Several months ago, Joyce was talking about this commandment to love yourself with the women at Delaware County Jail and she asked me for some other scriptures to use, and I don’t think my answer was very helpful. Because honestly, the kind of individualistic exceptionalism and self-aggrandizement  that is popular in our culture right now is really not found much in the Bible. Throughout the scriptures the concept of love is always very tangible and active, so to “love” your neighbor as you love yourself most likely meant to take care of your neighbor the way you take care of yourself, to provide for your neighbor in the way you provide for yourself, making sure they were safe and fed and sheltered. There’s a lot of scriptural back-up for that.

However, I think this idea of loving ourselves is not out of place, because God loves us, and because my perception is that this is something that we are struggling with in our culture. We tend to fall at either end of a spectrum, or perhaps to swing back and forth between two extremes. At one end is the belief that I am worthless, deeply broken, and undeserving of anything good. And unfortunately people have cherry-picked and twisted some scripture to make that claim. Too often a presentation of the gospel starts with the assertion that there’s something wrong with you, that you are so sinful that you can’t be in relationship with God.

At the other end of the spectrum, the other extreme is that I am awesome, fantastic, amazing, that there is nothing about me that needs to be changed, and that everything I do should be affirmed, or at least permitted because it’s my choice. Also unfortunately, I don’t think this extreme is actually very Christian either. Although we are called not to judge one another, the reality of God’s way of life judges all of our choices. We are not always right. We all have some tendencies that get out of line with what God intends for us. 

So both ends of the extreme are neither Christian nor healthy. This morning I want to see if we can find something in the middle.

First of all, you cannot love God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength if you think your heart and mind and soul and strength are worthless, that there’s something inherently despicable about you, that you are not deserving of love and belonging. This is garbage. This is never what God says about us. The word God speaks over all of humanity is the word “good.” At our core we have goodness because we are all created in the image of God.

AND, we all sin and fall short of the glory of God. That’s Romans 3:24 It’s just a fact. None of us is living in line with God’s plan for the wholeness and flourishing of all creation. We all have broken relationships. We all do things we regret. We all have spot where we seem to trip over and over and over. That doesn’t make us worthless; it makes us human. It should not be source of shame because we are also all justified freely by God’s grace. That’s Romans 3:24. We are all equally beautiful and equally broken, equally we fall short and equally we are justified by grace. The foundation of loving ourselves, I believe, comes from being able to embrace that balance of beauty and brokenness, of knowing we fall short and knowing that we are accepted. So we feel free to love God with all our heart and mind and soul and strength because we know that we are made in God’s image and fully accepted and cherished by God even though we fall short of what we know God calls us to.

Secondly, we cannot love our neighbor as ourselves if we are constantly comparing ourselves to our neighbors. It makes me crazy when people portray Christianity in a way that has God saying we are not enough. As I said before, that’s not the voice of God. That is the pattern of the world. It’s our culture that tells us we are not enough. Despite how awesome we might be in some areas, there’s always an area where the system says we fall short. We may be awesomely attractive, but the world says we could be wealthier. We may be awesomely wealthy, but the world warns we are getting older. We may be in the prime of our physical health and our career, but the world shames us for not spending more time with our family. We will never be awesome in all the areas. There’s always going to be someone else who is more awesome at something that we are. The pattern of this world will always say we aren’t awesome enough. 

So what if we stopped trying to convince ourselves that we are awesome? I get that we want to celebrate who we are, but we can take that too far. My friend Rev. Sara McSwords refers to this as the idolatry of individualism. What if we stopped chasing “awesome” and were satisfied with being “enough”? God says we are enough, exactly as we are. Had an amazing day where you felt like you nailed it at work? You are enough. Had a day when you yelled at your kids? You are enough. Had a day when you finished your longest run? You are enough. Had a day when you were so discouraged that you don’t feel useful anymore? You are enough. In every situation, in every stage of life, in every victory, in every defeat, we are equally beautiful and equally broken, equally falling short, and equally justified by grace. Not despicable and not awesome because both of those pretty quickly lead to comparing ourselves with other people. In all things, God says we are good and we are enough. 

What I’m suggesting to you this morning is that our love of ourselves can be rooted in being loved by a God who sees all our failures and disappointments and still declares that in all things we are enough. We can love ourselves, seeing all our own failures and disappointments, and yet trusting that we are enough. We don’t have to be perfect. We don’t have to be awesome. We can grow in the places we are weak, but we are already enough. God already cherishes us, even as God urges us to move forward, as any good parent would. 

The only response to being loved like that is to love back, to love God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength. And when we know we are loved like that, accepted as we are and challenged to grow, the only response is to love our neighbors, giving them the same grace that we ourselves cling to each day. Love of God, love of neighbor, and love of self are inextricably tied together as we seek to come alive in God’s Spirit of Love. Amen.

Reflection:

Lest you think I forgot about the Bible this morning, I want to offer you this time to reflect on scripture. As Brian comes back to the piano, would you relax and center as we do each week and let the Spirit of God speak to you in your own uniquely personal way as we listen for the word and wisdom of God in Romans chapter 12:

“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

“For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.

“Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.

“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.

“Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
    if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

Now I’ll say a closing prayer: God Who Is Love, help us to live in your love. May we remember each day, each moment, that we are enough. Help us to love our neighbors with the same love you have extended to each of us and all of us. Amen. 

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