Yes, you’re right, I am evil. Yes, you should be afraid of me. You don’t even know why, but I do. You want me to be pretty and sit still and be quiet. When was the last time you told me you loved me? It would be so much more convenient for you if I would just die, but you can’t make me. 'The only time I take off my mask is to wash my face.' I know you think it’s because of the people I hang out with, but really these scars on my arms are just tally marks on the prison walls. You didn’t see me when I was perfect. Do you see me now that I’m an embarrassing mess for you to clean up? Too bad, really. I used to be such a nice girl."
Today, looking back, the start of my downward spiral is quite evident. It just took me a long time to see the connection.
Understandably, Christian piety is apt to recoil from the self-focus of secular psychology. We tend to reach instinctively for often-confused imperatives about denying ourselves (Matthew 16:24), hating our lives (John 12:25), and yea, hating our loved ones (Luke 14:26)--all while virtually ignoring the call to love our enemies (Matthew 5:44), incidentally enough. How is any sane rationale supposed to discern between all this loving and hating?
First of all, as anti-climactic as it may sound, it’s incredibly helpful to engage in some learning about the basic structures of the biblical text. If you happen to remember any literary terms from high school English, you might be aware of hyperbole as a form of figurative language which exaggerates a point in order to make a point. In John 12:25 and Luke 14:26, for instance, Jesus uses hyperbole to make a big comparison/contrast: compared to the way we’re to love Jesus, our love for anyone less than Jesus will look as if we hate them. But in the greater context of Scripture, we know that loving Jesus means loving each other the way Jesus loves (I John). That means loving people selflessly. So if we’re truly loving Jesus, then we are, by extension, loving people rightly.
So what are we supposed to do with all of these love-hate verses, then? As author Edward T. Welch summarizes, "Need people less. Love people more." (When People Are Big and God is Small: Overcoming Peer Pressure, Codependency, and the Fear of Man)
Of course, when one has no point of reference to practically observe how self-sacrificing love is different from self-seeking love, it's difficult (if not impossible) to understand how denying our wants and whims will actually result in better relationships and a better quality of life. There's a reason Jesus came to show us the better way: before we saw His example, we didn't see what we were missing.
After all, the message of denying self flies in the face of a self-gratifying mainstream culture that loves everything except God. In many respects, our world is not one bit removed from the ancient cultures the Bible was written to speak into. That's why Christ followers are repeatedly exhorted to let ourselves be known by our love. We're called to show the love of Jesus because, until we see the love of Jesus, we don’t know any better than what the world has to offer. And that's an awfully lonely, hostile place to be looking for love.
Finally desperate enough to begin my journey back toward Jesus, one step at a time, I began to look back over the patterns of my life. For the first time, I became aware of how much energy I'd spent twisting and agonizing over my refusal of faith. At 11 years old, alone and crying in my bed, I’d told God, "I don't believe in You anymore." And God didn't argue with me, so I didn't talk to Him again for another 15 years.
Meanwhile, my discontented intellect had taken off on a frenzied obsession to convince my battered self that I was right and the “Jesus Loves Me” song was wrong. Whether or not God was real, the rumor of His love for me looked like a big, fat lie. I could see the reality in the way the tight-lipped, church-going folks of my small Midwestern town looked away from my family and ignored the signs that I needed help.
In high school, I delighted in philosophical exposition, which confirmed my sense of worthlessness. In college, I studied world religions, which each appealed to one or another of my wandering preferences. I felt fleeting attractions for elemental forces and no-win patterns of reincarnation, but I was frustrated by beliefs that required worship of statues and fickle deities. Later, as a young professional who got my big break writing for a Native American newspaper, I resonated with indigenous respects to sacred places and a mostly uninvolved creator-spirit. All along, I remained dissatisfied by the demeanor of the everyday Christians I knew at the time, finding their convictions to be either uninformed or uninspiring. I'd stated my hypothesis, and I was looking for someone to prove me wrong. But no one seemed interested... not by my seething standards, anyway. The atheists and agnostics at least showed some passion for the cause!
Meanwhile, I was dying inside, having turned quickly to substance abuse to fill the void. Every alternative spiritual path led me back to a familiar precipice of emptiness and self-hatred, and I stumbled closer to suicide every time I drank, popped pills, and blacked out.
As long as we're living restless, irritable, and discontent, it's safe to say we are (at least subliminally) aware of what's missing from us. Many, many, many lost and broken spiritual seekers go desperately wandering just like I did, "searching for something" and bitterly denying the truth that will not leave the soul. Psychology and sociology assume people are the supply of what's missing from people, but theology understands we're not enough to fill ourselves--or each other. This is inconvenient revelation for self-seeking and self-sufficiency.
Dr. Terry Bell, adjunct professor at Oklahoma Wesleyan University, writes about this stubborn, ingrained awareness:
All anxieties, fears, frustrations, restlessness, and disorders represent man’s unconscious yearning to be restored to the state of Oneness that existed in humanity’s collective beginning. We cannot fully re-enter that first home since cherubim with a flaming sword block its entrance. Tension, in the human experience is in essence a “longing for home.” ... We are like orphans severed from a home longing to be adopted into an eternal home. It is the fracturing of the Oneness that has caused the human groan... When one misinterprets this human groan without understanding its true pathology of yearning for Oneness, the root of the problem is missed and band-aids and aspirins are prescribed to heal a cancer it cannot cure. As every counselor knows, the presenting problem is seldom the real problem." (The Love Ethic: Rediscovering Our Moral Compass)
In Galatians 5:14, Apostle Paul emphasizes that our outworking of the entire law is captured in this perplexing command. Love your neighbor as yourself. How do I love my neighbor if I hate myself? Not very well, frankly. It's probably no coincidence that in a nation where 25% of the population experiences mental illness, Americans claim a 50% divorce rate.
Ultimately, Christ-like love is far different from the self-centered infatuation we’re accustomed to chasing after, and this is why relationships fail. For Christians, "what we do" is defined as "how we love." The way we love other people is inextricably contingent upon our understanding of "self," which is a product of our love (or lack thereof) for Jesus. This is true regardless of how well we love, you see. If we care little for Jesus, then it's quite likely we'll dislike ourselves, and if we dislike ourselves, we'll probably treat others poorly, too. But where we're in right relationship with God, we're in right relationship with self and other people. Love of God means an accurate picture of "self" in relation to God. "This is love: not that we loved God but that he loved us" (I John 4:10). Frankly recognizing ourselves as sinners, and accepting that God loves us anyway... how can our response to God's love be anything but adoration for Him? And knowing His love for us results in proper value of others in relation to self. “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters” (I John 3:16).
This translates into recognition of our "co-heir" status as believers--brothers and sisters in Christ (Romans 8:17), where no one is any better or any worse than anyone else. We are not to play the top-down experts in the law, pronouncing judgments and criticisms on poor sinners. We are fellow recipients of grace (Ephesians 2:8-9), working to restore one another gently (Galatians 6:1), equipped to comfort each other in any troubles we may face (2 Corinthians 1:3-5), and resting on Scripture wherever we’re called to do any teaching, rebuking, correcting, or training (2 Timothy 3:16).
I've been thinking back this week, trying to identify the lies I told myself and where they began. All the years I spent vainly searching for God everywhere except where I knew to find Him, I had no use for any ideas about hell or Satan. Who needed a devil when there was a me in the world? In my abandonment, anger, and addictions, I was the very worst embodiment I could picture. I don’t remember any specific sense of guilt which drove me to this determination that I was surely evil incarnate; I only remember feeling unloved.
It wasn’t so many years ago that I re-committed my life to Christ and followed His call into ministry. There are places I tread extra cautiously while testing the foundation of this redefinition of “self.” I’m still finding plenty more uncharted territory, day by day, as I continue to learn what it means to be a woman of God. And what I keep finding, the more I learn about the Lord and the more I un-learn about myself, is oh, how He loves… and I had no idea.
Today, my heart is alive. My soul is filled. In my darkest hours, He is near. I feel His presence. I feel a lot. I feel affection for the Lord and sorrow for people. I cry more easily and reach out more willingly. I am joyful in His mercies and delighting in His grace. A couple of Sundays ago, a volunteer worker came up to me and said, “You have such a nice smile--I can see it from across the room.” I almost cried about that, too; I always hated my smile. But when I look through photos on my Facebook profile now, I see myself smiling in every picture, and I can see what other people see in me. And that’s all Him, folks. I could never change me like that.
Yet here we are. That means Jesus loves me... and now I know.