I had a high school friend who was insecure, socially awkward, and overweight. He envied the skills (and good looks) of classmates; he vilified himself for his frequent social blunders; and he castigated himself for his shortcomings.
My friend, however, was in the top five percent of the honors class of a magnet, honors high school; he just never reached the top one percent. And he was the second chair trumpet of a nationally recognized orchestra; he just never made first chair.
Despite his many successes, he saw others do better and it discouraged him. My heart went out to him. We became friends and in the lunchroom I listened as he told story after story of how students, teachers, and his parents misunderstood him.
His discouragement deepened into depression, and he finally sought a counselor. The counselor said his problem was self-hatred, and that he needed to grow his self-love.
I thought he loved himself too much.
And I still think so
I don’t mean to be harsh—this was a friend for whom I cared deeply—but the counselor’s advice increased his troubles; he didn’t grow more joyful, he grew sorrowful. His problem wasn’t self-hatred, and the solution wasn’t heightened self-love.
Real hatred fosters ill-will for the hated one; it delights in the humiliation, pain, and failures of the hated object. My friend harbored zero ill-will for himself, he disliked his pain and humiliation, and he was furious at his failures. He wanted the high marks, good looks, and social acceptance of others. He was angry at himself for their absence.
He was angry because he loved himself so much.
Elie Wiesel (a Nobel Laureate and holocaust survivor) said, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.” So, the opposite of high self-love would be high self-indifference. If my friend lacked self-love, he would be indifferent to his sufferings.
Yet my friend was anything but indifferent about himself. In fact, “himself” was all he thought of, and “he” was the topic of every conversation. His counselor’s advice simply exacerbated his self-absorption. To paraphrase C. S. Lewis, my friend had a “ruthless, sleepless, unsmiling concentration on the self.”
What’s the other option?
Too many Christian teachers today have adopted that secular counselor’s message of heightened self-love. They see the commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” and claim that it contains the hidden commandment: “Love yourselves more.”
I understand why the world cheers on greater self-love (what other option do they have?); but I can’t understand why Christians, like lemmings, leap into this trap as well.
Love is more than a feeling; love is action. (That’s why lovers promise devotion: “I will love you to the end of days”—they mean, “I’ll care for you no matter what, even on the days I don’t feel it.”) But my friend’s actions were already devoted toward himself. He didn’t need more self-love with its selfish-action; he needed something better.
He needed an attitude of self-acceptance. He refused to accept his own gifts, looks, body-style, personality, and intelligence (which was quite high—just not the highest).
Isak Dinesen wrote, “Godly pride is faith in the idea God had when He made you.” My friend lacked Godly pride. He was disappointed in how God made him. He envied the gifts of others; he coveted their personalities, looks, and intelligence.
He was mad at himself for lacking such gifts; he was angry with others for having them; and he was furious with God for his design. All because of his devotion to self. *
So what are we to do?
Most of us have friends who suffer the agony of self-dissatisfaction. Many of us personally suffer such self-disgust. The throbbing anguish is almost unbearable. Instead of increased self-love, I urge us to consider that we really need self-acceptance.
Scripture says God chose us and made us his most prized treasure (Duet. 7:6) and that we are his joy (Heb. 12:2); God declares us to be his poem, his masterpiece (Eph. 2:10).
Imagine the genius Leonardo da Vinci (not DiCaprio) giving you his Mona Lisa. What would he say if you whipped out a paintbrush and said, “Let me just fix that smile”? He’d shout, “Stop! It’s my masterpiece. Anything you add to it will subtract from it.”**
We are God’s masterpiece. Anything we add will subtract. Even if we’re not perfect.
Self-absorption is usually a sign of envy
Augustine said, “Envy is sorrow at another man’s good.” Envy sucks joy from our lives. Sir John Gielgud (a famous English actor) exposed the torment of envy as he admitted,
“When Sir Laurence Olivier played Hamlet … and the critics raved … I wept.”
The cruel, double agony of envy is this: we are mournful at our failures and we are grief-stricken at the success of others. Envy’s sorrows rob our souls of joy.
Only in the acceptance of “the idea God had when he made us,” will we have joy. No longer sensing the bitter envy of self-love; just contentment as his masterpiece. No longer hiding a masterpiece behind sheets of shame; no longer burying our talents.
What we most need
Thomas A Kempis wrote, “Self-love is more harmful to you than anything else in the world. The proportion you give love to a thing is the proportion that thing will rule you. If your love is pure, simple, and well ordered, you will be a slave to nothing.”
In the end, we need something beyond self-love or self-acceptance: the love of our maker. We need to be filled with the love of the Master artist who loves us as we are.
* Attaining balanced emotional health is complex. Sometimes we need more rest, sometimes better diet and exercise, sometimes counseling to deal with past issues, and sometimes we need to correct a chemical imbalance. But we all need a “Godly pride” for his “idea” in making us, and we all need to resist envying the gifts of other.
** (I first heard this masterpiece metaphor, or something similar, in a Tim Keller sermon.)