As most of you know, we have been following a sermon series according to the chapters laid out in this book by Brian McLaren – We Make The Road By Walking. As I was preparing today’s message I looked back to the beginning of this series and realised that the person who kicked things off didn’t actually properly introduce the book! I’m a practical guy, and having a proper beginning and ending is very important to me.
So this morning I’m going to hit rewind, and re-lay the groundwork a bit, hopefully giving you a better idea of what this book is about, and where we are headed with this series, before I get into my message proper.
The entire premise of the book is summed up in the first line of the introduction. The first line reads: “What we all want is pretty simple, really. We want to be alive. To feel alive. Not just to exist but to thrive, to live out loud, walk tall, breathe free.” McLaren’s idea of aliveness really speaks to me. This search for aliveness sums up my own spiritual journey, and answers for me the question of why I come to church, why I involve myself in ministry. McLaren believes that when people say “I’m spiritual”, what they mean is simply “I’m seeking aliveness”. Or, as Christ promised us in John 10:10, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
McLaren further addresses the reader: “You are not finished yet. You are ‘in the making.’ You have the capacity to learn, mature, think, change, and grow. You also have the freedom to stagnate, regress, constrict, and lose your way. Which road will you take? … I believe that all of us play a role in choosing and creating our futures – as individuals and communities. We don’t need to wait passively for history to happen to us. We can become protagonists in our own story. We can make the road by walking.”
This idea that our spiritual lives are essentially journeys of personal growth is one that I subscribe to very strongly, and which undergirds my message today. I am fully mindful that not all of us share this same view of spirituality. Years ago Su-Lin our previous pastor led the congregation and cell groups through the Theological Worlds Inventory, which is essentially a spirituality personality test. It lays out 5 different ways in which a person may view and experience spirituality, and personal growth was just one of them. If you haven’t done it before, I highly recommend taking the time to do this exercise with friends or in your cell groups. Especially in your cell groups, because it can really help you understand yourself and each other better. You can easily google it or approach me for the soft and hardcopy versions. For those of us who do not view personal growth as a dominant way of experiencing spirituality, the message today may be challenging, but I hope it at least prompts you to consider a different way of looking at things.
Now that you have an inkling of what this book is supposed to do for us, we can come back to the topic at hand. Today’s message falls within period of the lectionary calendar known as the Season after Pentecost. Mark kicked things off with his Pentecost Sunday message on the Holy Spiral of God. The next week Pauline checked our aliveness by asking us “Are you breathing?” Susan then delivered one hell of a sermon, claiming she was “doing her own thing”, but obviously she has not been reading this book because the topic of the week was Loving God, and I thought she could not have discussed it better. Last week Miak had a guest speaker who challenged us on how we actually view and define the neighbours we are called to love.
I’m sure most of you can by now figure out the topic of today’s message. The title of the chapter we are following this week is: “Spirit of Love: Loving Self”. And I have titled my message: “The Missing Commandment”.
Before talking about actually loving the self, we have to be clear what the self really is, and especially, what Christians view as ‘the self’. Then it hit me that Christians actually have a very conflicted love-hate relationship with the self. I don’t know about you, but the first verse that popped into my head was Romans 3:23 – “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”. Or as a favourite hymn goes – “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me”. Even Christ himself says in Matthew 16: 24 – “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me”. I know I am taking these verses rather out of context, but before I get struck by lightning, can we honestly deny that today’s prevailing Christian doctrine about the self is tremendously tainted by the negative? Just as Susan quoted two weeks ago: “Selling guilt on one hand and redemption on the other is what has kept the church in business.” Modern church teachings preach about how unworthy and sinful we all are, and outsources our redemption and salvation to God and Christ. Psychologically speaking, not a very healthy starting point.
To add insult to injury, not only are we spiritually ‘unworthy of God’, but physically and mentally we are not good enough for society either! I have no qualms stating that many of us live, work and play in environments which are stingy with accolades and generous with criticism. A friend once related to me how he had scored 7 distinctions out of 9 subjects he sat for during his O Levels, results that would have qualified him for any JC of his choice. Excitedly he called his mother to share the good news. “You only got a B for your Literature? You should have spent more time on it! If you had read a few more model essays maybe you could have gotten an A.” Even if we did not spend our formative years in an overtly negative environment, similar evaluations on our self-worth are unconsciously imbibed through messaging in the media and comparisons with achievements celebrated by society. Our notions of physical beauty, academic ability and financial success all serve to be sore points of personal ineptitude. And the sad thing is, success in one area or another provides no sure immunity from the emptiness of self-reproach, simply because no one can be perfect.
If everyone is having a hard time all round, then gay and lesbian individuals have it doubly hard, and our transgender siblings the hardest of all. The years spanning puberty to early adulthood are especially crucial in the construction of our identities and personhood. How is it possible to emerge navigating this period unscathed, with the constant pervasive message that some fundamental and immutable part of your self is flawed and objectionable? It’s no wonder that many LGBT persons develop a huge chip on the shoulder.
This chip is unfortunately manifested in a thousand and one ways in our daily lives, very often unconsciously. Our insecurities are one of the largest drivers of our behaviour, second only perhaps to our strongest dreams and desires. In fact, all too often it is our insecurities which dictate our dreams. Because we measure our self-worth by the amount of outside love we receive, we constantly seek external validation by investing time and effort in staying physically attractive, looking for relationship, having lots of friends and social events, and being successful at work. Not bad things in themselves, but we work ourselves to the bone to prove our worth to a master who cannot be satisfied, our own selves. We cope by compartmentalising our lives, playing up our strengths and masking or running from our shortcomings. We hide our sadness, loneliness, fear and anger behind humour, bitchiness, rationalisations, cynicism, all manifesting as dysfunctional relationships.
If I haven’t by now made you feel very sorry for yourself, you haven’t been paying enough attention. I’m supposed to be talking about Loving the Self, not Hating the Self. As someone who works full time in mental healthcare, this is a matter very close to my heart, because I firmly believe that much of our suffering is tied up with how we have immense difficulty learning to love and accept our authentic selves. That’s why I have titled my message today The Missing Commandment. We all know the two commandments of Christ very well. Love God and Love thy neighbour. But loving the self is only alluded to in the second commandment, and it is very commonly entirely overlooked. Really, it should have its own commandment! We all know that we must to learn to love ourselves before we can love others, but no one has ever really told us how we’re supposed to achieve that.
As Christians we tend to fall back on the idea of God’s love to justify our existence.
Conventionally, Christians are taught to see their worth based on the idea of God’s unfailing love. There’s certainly nothing wrong with this. It does work, as Henri Nouwen explains in his essay most of us should be familiar with, From Solitude to Community, to Ministry:
“I love Rembrandt’s painting The Return of the Prodigal Son. The father holds his son, holds his daughter, and touches his son and his daughter and says, “You are my beloved. I’m not going to ask you any questions. Wherever you have gone, whatever you have done, and whatever people say about you, you’re my beloved. I hold you safe in my embrace. I touch you. I hold you safe under my wings. You can come home to me whose name is Compassionate, whose name is Love.” If you keep that in mind, you can deal with an enormous amount of success as well as an enormous amount of failure without losing your identity, because your identity is that you are the beloved. Long before your father and mother, your brothers and sisters, your teachers, your church, or any people touched you in a loving as well as in a wounding way—long before you were rejected by some person or praised by somebody else—that voice has been there always. “I have loved you with an everlasting love.” That love is there before you were born and will be there after you die.”
My beef with this concept of divine love, and that we should hedge our own worth on it, is that it is simply too abstract to fully and properly grasp. The kind of love that Nouwen describes is not fully modelled in any tangible form in all earthly existence. We may learn about it, experience glimpses of it from time to time, but we certainly cannot prove it or see it exemplified well enough, and that makes it hard to truly internalise in a concrete way. So today I’m going to take a short detour off the beaten path. I’m going to take a leaf out of Susan’s book, and stop selling you God’s love as the answer to our insecurities. It may seem a little unorthodox at first, but we will still come back to our Christian roots in the end I promise. After all, like our Mathematics teachers always used to tell us in school, there is more than one way of working out the problem.
I will start by introducing to you the model McLaren uses to break down what self-love entails. Self-examination, self-control, self-development and self-giving. We start with self-examination.
Self-examination is simply the process by which we come to know and understand ourselves. We all know that reflection and quiet time are essential elements of Christian spiritual discipline. But how much of that time is spent examining the self? Do you engage in an active process of questioning your self? What motivates you, what drives your actions, what fuels your emotions and what shapes your dreams and desires? It is the process by which we uncover what usually resides in the unconscious parts of our minds, and make them part of the conscious. Without this deep knowledge of the self, we cannot address and embrace who we really are.
In this process of self-examination, it is very important that we learn to be kind to ourselves. People often avoid dwelling on their flaws and insecurities because they bring up negative feelings of sadness, anxiety or anger. We are our own harshest critics. You’ll be surprised, but sometimes the stuff we say to ourselves, we would never say out loud to a person we love. We must all learn to suspend judgement as we do our reflection. What many people don’t realise, is that we cannot take full responsibility for being the person we are today. Each of us is the cumulative sum of our genes, our upbringing, our culture, our experiences, our knowledge, and a large part of all this lies absolutely outside of our personal control. So why this tendency to judge ourselves so harshly?
Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk and writer, explains the process of mindful reflection very well in his book, The Heart Of Buddha’s Teaching. In the chapter titled Touching Our Suffering, he talks about looking deeply and first identifying what is causing our pain. Once we know it is there, we acknowledge that it is a part of us, and treat it with kindness and non-violence. He suggests we hold it like a mother holds her crying baby. “We stop running from our pain. With all our courage and tenderness, we recognise, acknowledge, and identify it.”
With awareness and kindness, we can look deeply at the roots of our problems and insecurities. In most cases, what is causing us pain is not the people or circumstances which trigger it, but rather the negative way we perceive ourselves in our situations. Therefore, self-examination doesn’t just stop there. It must lead to self-acceptance.
I use the term self-acceptance very intentionally. In the history of counselling and therapy, the aim has always been to help the person in need. In the past, helping professionals used to believe that this was best achieved by helping the client problem-solve or trouble-shoot whenever they ran into difficulties. In more recent times, the approach of therapists has actually shifted away from helping clients build up their self-esteem, to helping them develop self-acceptance. This is because one’s esteem is always dependent on the external rating of one’s abilities. I must be smart, humourous, attractive, successful in order to be confident, worthy of love and acceptance. When you take away these external ratings, the self-esteem collapses. That’s when a person goes into crisis because of negative life events. Those of us who can claim a healthy self-esteem should simply count ourselves lucky to be blessed with a set of fortunate circumstances. Therapists now understand that the only sure way of helping people find lasting happiness is to encourage them to accept themselves.
Looking at ourselves without judgement allows us to accept that we are as we are. This is reflected in the Christian worldview that we may all be sinners, but God fully loves us anyway. The problem is that this step is often overlooked or glossed over before we start preaching repentance. Without acceptance we experience guilt, which perpetuates the cycle of self-reproach. It is essential that we all come to the realisation that we are indeed individuals inherently worthy of love and support, regardless of our strengths or flaws.
Unfortunately this is the hardest part of the journey to self-love. It is incredibly difficult to change deeply ingrained negative beliefs into positive ones, all the more so because we often have nothing to base these positive beliefs on. Some Christians are able to reach this with the simple knowledge and faith in God’s absolute and unchanging love. I’m not going to pretend that this entirely works for me. As I said, I’m a practical guy. As a Christian, I see this love exemplified and lived out in the friends and faith community I have around me. As fellow seekers on the same journey, we constantly encourage and nudge, sometimes shoving or kicking, each other towards realising our authentic selves. Or, as a recently popular technopop beat puts it, “Girl, let me love you, until you learn to love yourself.” This is a journey that we should not undertake alone!
I’ve spent a lot of my time talking about self-acceptance because it really is the key element to my message today. The next three steps that come after it are simply building upon the self that you are now hopefully well on the way to accepting.
The next step McLaren talks about is self-control, and this is where he says we should apply the wisdom we have gleaned from self-examination. By intimately understanding what makes us who we are, we can begin taking responsibility for the outcomes of our actions and decisions. We graduate from simply asking if something is right or wrong, to asking deeper questions: “Will this help or hinder me in reaching my highest goals? What unintended consequences it might entail? Who might be hurt by this? Are there better alternatives? Is now the best time?” Many people go through life on auto-pilot, just living out their habits, doing things as they have always been done, without stopping to think. With wisdom and self-control, we learn when to hold back vs when to press on, when to give and sacrifice and when to look after ourselves. With self-control we stop making poor decisions which cause hurt and harm to ourselves and start making the right ones. Sometimes this involves changing the way we act, but more often than not, it starts with changing the way we think.
At this point I can imagine people itching to challenge me: “If I truly love and accept myself as I am, why do I still need to change?” My answer is that self-love does not stop at self-acceptance. Just as a parent’s love entails wishing for the best for their child, why shouldn’t our love for ourselves encompass the same aspirations? We should never stop at acceptance and settle. The next stage is self-development.
I’m sure most of you are familiar with this pyramid, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. The conventional understanding of this is that we need to satisfy our base needs before moving on to higher levels of needs. This is correct. What people don’t know, is that according to Maslow’s observations, only a small fraction of people ever truly reach the stage of self-actualisation. Don’t worry, if you’re sitting here on a Sunday morning listening to me talk about it, I’m pretty sure you’re at least on your way there. What is self-actualisation. The textbook definition of self-actualisation is simply “the full realisation of one’s potential, and of one’s ‘true self’”. It involves a state of motivation and evolution of the self.
It is very important to examine the motivation for self-improvement. Let’s use an example. Let’s take someone who is struggling with a weight problem. I am aware this might stir up some emotions among some of us, and I do apologise, but do bear with me. So this guy has been feeling lonely, and because of his weight and appearance, has been rejected by potential dates on many occasions. The overwhelming thought that he bases his self-worth on is “I am fat, therefore no one loves me.” The immediate logical thing to do is to diet and exercise and lose weight right? “Once I am slimmer and hotter, and not fat, people will love me.” But that is not the kind of self-development we are aiming for, because it is still dependent upon external validation, and is simply an avoidance of a negative self. With a bit of self-examination, he might come to realise that it is not absolutely true that he is not worthy of love because of his size. With self-control he might realise that Grindr or Tinder is not actually the best place to be looking for dates. Most importantly, with self-acceptance, he understands that he is not defined by his weight, and that weight loss may not be his utmost priority when it comes to self-development. Self-actualisation involves realising our hopes and dreams, which too often become clouded by our fears and insecurities. Sure, we may eventually choose to work on our flaws in the process of improving ourselves, but the motivation should come from wanting to better yourself rather than rectifying a shortcoming that you cannot accept. The difference may be subtle, but it can totally change your outlook on life.
So I hope you have a better idea of this model we are talking about. It is crucial to understand that self-examination, self-acceptance, self-control and self-development all go hand in hand. No one stage can happen without the rest. There’s no order to it either. It may start with examination, but as you get into it, you are constantly repeating the cycle. At the first turn you may understand it only superficially, but as you get familiar with it and it becomes habitual, natural to you, it starts to reveal deeper truths about yourself you didn’t realise were present all along. To bring us back to what I spoke about when I began my message this morning, this is how we grow and come alive!
I am able to stand here and speak about this with conviction because this is how I have experienced my own journey towards understanding and accepting myself. Ever since I started dating I struggled with a narrow definition of physical beauty, and it really dampened my own confidence when it came to meeting people. When my 4 year relationship ended in 2011 I was in a bad state, even though I wasn’t really happy in it anyway. I was really clinging on because I just couldn’t imagine myself finding someone again. I was terrified of the future because being single didn’t seem like much of a future to me at all. Intellectually, I understood that much of this thinking was irrational, but it really took a long process of personal reflection, healing, love and support from my friends and cell group to help me come into new and more positive ways of perceiving myself. That was really a liberating time, because I was no longer bound and restricted by my fears and insecurities. That’s why it really struck a chord in me when Susan quoted Peter Rollins as having said: “There is another more radical form of freedom hinted at in the Gospels – not the freedom to pursue what we believe will satisfy us, but the freedom from the pursuit of what we believe will satisfy us.” The absence of fear allows us to explore new frontiers in actualising our divine potentials.
That brings us to the last step of McLaren’s model – self-giving, which I think happens quite naturally once you taste the fruits of the first three, or according to me, 4 steps. Self-giving lies at the interface between loving the self and loving your neighbour. Being happy and fulfilled puts you in the best position to be giving of yourself to others, and that, to me, is how we derive meaning for our lives. People give of themselves in a variety of ways – to family, friends, work and volunteering. But there is one form of giving that holds a special place for me, that is helping others find the path to happiness. That is what church means for me, how I live out the great commission and what gives my life meaning and purpose. I count myself extremely fortunate to be able to fulfil this calling, and I would like to encourage all of you who have benefited from the teaching and guidance you have received to pay it forward by helping all who step through our doors to experience the same freedom you have, be it in ways small or large.
Here’s where we go back to the beginning, of where this all fits in with our Christian identities. So far I have used rather unorthodox means of getting us to the answer, throwing in a bit of Buddhism here and some Psychology there. The picture is of course not as bleak as I painted in the first half of my message. There is hope for us Christians! I like to start from the creation story, where it is told that we were created in the image of God, and God Herself breathed life into us. Pentecost also gives us hope in the form of the Holy Spirit that was sent to continually guide and bless us with new understanding and revelations. The breath we draw is the very breath of God, and I believe we all hold the God-spark in us. Just as Henri Nouwen narrates so beautifully in his article, as Christians we must never give in to the notion that we are worthless or unlovable. And if our demons prevent us from fully believing in our divine worth at first, just knowing it can form a solid foundation from which to start our journey towards the authentic self.
In closing I would like to assure you that I am certainly not there yet. I don’t think anyone of us is there yet. I don’t even think that there is a ‘there’ that we can ‘be’. That’s why I have avoided putting this ‘missing commandment’ into actual words. Instead of defining it, it needs to be written in our souls and lived out in our lives; there is no faking it. Using the analogy of McLaren’s book, and borrowing from the walking song Bilbo sang as he left Bag End and embarked on his adventures, “the road goes ever on and on.” We can only see for certain the path under our feet, and, guided by the spirit, be clear in our minds the direction in which we want to go, and proceed forward bravely, or gaily if that’s what you prefer. And there is certainly more than one way of getting there. But if what I have talked about today is not something you can identify with, I hope I have at least impressed upon you the importance of working towards loving yourself. After all, as the great Whitney Houston once sang 3 decades ago, “Learning to love yourself; it is the greatest love of all.”
Allow me to conclude with the final verse of Proverbs 4, which I think sum up the process of Loving Self very well:
“Keep your heart with all vigilance,
for from it flow the springs of life.
Put away from you crooked speech,
and put devious talk far from you.
Let your eyes look directly forward,
and your gaze be straight before you.
Keep straight the path of your feet,
and all your ways will be sure.
Do not swerve to the right or to the left;
turn your foot away from evil.”