Self love is a hard thing. I don’t think I could tell you how to do it, and even if I could tell you, being told how to do it and actually learning how to do it are two very different things. But I might be able to share a helpful thought or two.
Before you can really tackle self love, you first have to wrestle with whether or not you think you are lovable. For a long time, I didn’t think I was. It wasn’t until I went through a world of pain and almost took my own life that I came to terms with the fact that I actually am lovable. And that realization only came when I finally understood that God truly loved me for absolutely no perceivable reason. I brought nothing to the table. I was doing a lot more harm than good. I consistently chose to go against His will in full knowledge that what I was doing was wrong. I wasn’t just a sinner in theory or in belief. I knew I was a sinner. It was so obvious exactly how I was a sinner. And in the depth of my sin, painfully aware of my unworthiness, God still said to me “I love you.” For me, that answered the question full-stop, though not in the way I had hoped. I was lovable because I was loved. I have no clue why God loves me. I just know without a shadow of a doubt that He does.
With that certainty and a lot of counseling and healing, I eventually started to shed layers of shame. Do I love myself? I think that’s a hard question to answer because love is a complicated thing. It’s both a passion and an action—internal feelings and external displays. Love is always both. But love is also fundamentally other-focused. So it’s hard to think about self-love. I think self-love can be a huge danger for a lot of people because it can devolve into self-obsession, narcissism, and conceit. That’s obviously not what you want. I think that kind of self-love is what the world pushes for. And that’s the kind of self-love I was searching for before. I wanted to find reasons to prove to myself I was lovable. Whether it was thinking of myself as physically attractive, or looking at how good a student I was, or how funny I was, or how many people considered me to be their best friend. It’s all self-centered. And it’s all fickle. One bad hair day, a disappointing grade or missed deadline, a joke that fell flat, an ignored text—that’s all it would take to toss me headlong into anxiety. Those things make terrible foundations for self-love. I didn’t truly realize I was lovable until I stopped looking at myself and saw how much God loved me for no reason.
So do I love myself? Honestly, I don’t think about myself like that all that often. Yes, I do think I’m a decently attractive guy. I do think I’m pretty funny. I really am a good student. I have a lot of close friends. But none of those things are tied to my thoughts about self-love. I don’t really know if I love myself, but I love God, and I know He loves me. And that’s hype. Jesus says the summary of God’s law is to love God and to love your neighbor as you love yourself. So when I learn about how Christians are called to love each other, I always have to apply that to myself. Am I being kind to myself? Am I being patient with myself? Am I taking time to rest? Am I holding myself accountable? Am I pursuing righteousness? Am I letting other people love me in these ways?
I don’t know if any of this is resonating with you. This might not be helpful at all. What I’m not telling you to do is to get yourself caught up in a nasty sin habit and come within a hair of taking your own life. By all means, don’t take the path I took if you can avoid it. But try to arrive at the same destination. Stop trying to prove to yourself whether or not you’re lovable if that’s what you’re doing. If you’re anything like me, you’ll never find a reason within yourself. Instead, search the heart of God and listen to Him say to you “I love you.”
That’s your starting point. There’s plenty of stuff to do after all that. But this is all your first few steps. This is what unconditional love is. God gives no reason for why He loves us. No conditions; that is, no reasons. We don’t know why, we just know that He does. And if there was never any condition to earn His love in the first place, there’s no reason He would ever stop loving us. Total certainty. Eternally lovable because we’re eternally loved.
A follow-up thought: as image-bearers of God each of us has innate dignity and worth. As lawbreakers, each of us has forsaken our image-bearingness and deserve our holy God’s judgement. Though God is just to judge us, our sinfulness does not give the rest of sinful humanity the right to deny our innate dignity and worth.
It matters what other people and say and think for at least two reasons. First, it matters because those things change you. When people hurt my feelings with their unkind words, that matters because I matter, and it’s never insignificant when a human being subjects another human being to undue pain. Second, it matters because those other people who say and think awful things are also image-bearers of God, and their callous hatred is a sign of their brokenness. Hurting people hurt people. Their lashing out, whether conscious or not, is a desperate plea to be healed. Those people matter, too.
That doesn’t mean they’re right. They’re dead wrong. They ought to shut up and have a change of heart. Because words have power. And you matter. And they matter. Treating others so unkind is offensive to human dignity—both yours and theirs.
Of course, their words don’t matter insofar as they can’t change truth. Lies hurt deeply, but they’re always just lies. Someone can tell you that you’re not lovable. That will never change the reality that you are loved. So it’s not wrong to be hurt by those words—the alternative is to be totally disconnected from your emotions. Not getting hurt is not possible. It’s better to be hurt and be honest about it than to be so cold you can’t be hurt, or so proud you can’t admit it. You’re also right to rebuke those words. Call those hurtful words lies. Tell the person off for their cruelty. Bring your broken heart back to the Lord, and let Him restore it with His unshakable love. And rinse and repeat every time someone tries to sell you that lie. The Christian life is no less than that.
It’s certainly far more. We can be assured of our worth because it has been secured in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Our value is not primarily tied to our status as image-bearers in the order of Adam. Jesus Christ is described as the Second Adam, the Better Adam, the True Adam. When we become Christians, we are described as “new creatures.” We’re no longer image-bearers like Adam. We’re image-bearers like Christ. When God sees us, we are not merely the man in the garden of Eden. We are the Man in the garden of Gethsemane. That’s a higher level of value. And it’s far more secure, because the first Adam was able to fall from grace—to make himself unlovable. All possibility of that dies with Jesus on the cross and stays dead when He rises from the grave. By our union to Christ, God’s love of us is as stable and eternal as his love for his Only Begotten Son.
That might sound great in theory, but letting that reality soak into the bones of your being requires far more than rational assent. Knowing that these truths should change you is categorically different than being changed by them. How might you encourage the leap from knowledge to deep-seated, embodied change? I have a few practical suggestions, but they all boil down to the same principle: listen to God when He tells you He loves you, and trust that He means it.
First, listen to God when He tells you He loves you. Seriously and literally, listen. One of the ways you can do this is to evaluate the names and titles you call yourself, and contrast them with the names and titles you have in relation to God. Many of the names I instinctually call myself are not positive or accurate. Some of my most frequent are “Stupid,” “Incompetent,” “Fraud,” “Ugly,” “Boring,” or “Lazy.” Learning to identify those names is helpful. Even more helpful is learning to replace them. Think of all the names and titles of our triune God we’re given in Scripture: Father, Creator, Judge, Lord, King, Savior, Shepherd, Prince of Peace, the Bridegroom, the Word, Lamb of God, Lion of Judah, Holy Spirit, Comforter, Helper, Wisdom, and many more. Take some time in prayer and simply list each of those names and titles, and more that you can think of. Linger on each as you say it and consider what it means.
Then, after you’ve worked through those names and titles, start to name and title yourself in relation to them. You might be amazed at who you are in relation to God. You are, to name a few, human, created image-bearer, sinner, forgiven, beloved child, servant and subject, washed clean in His blood, temple, royal priest, and precious bride. Let those names and titles dominate your self-image. They’re more true than the lies that whisper those negative names you might be used to calling yourself.
A second, complimentary strategy is to saturate yourself in Scripture. Follow the advice of Colossians 3:16 “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” Listen to hymns like “How Deep The Father’s Love For Us.” Regularly read John 13-20. Meditate on the fact that God never gives a reason for why He chose Israel over all the nations of the earth. Ask God in prayer to reveal His love for you in new ways. Surround yourself with people who will constantly remind you that God loves you.
Finally, trust that God means it when He tells you He loves you. You might not feel like He does all the time, but your confidence in God’s promises can outweigh your feelings of doubt. Feelings are important, but they are not necessarily a reflection of reality. Don’t dismiss your feelings, but don’t be enslaved by them. Be captivated by the word of God. That will very often look like telling your negative self-naming to shut up a hundred times every hour. The Christian life is non-stop; we are engaged in an unceasing battle against our own sin and a spiritual enemy that loves to entice us to hate ourselves. And that can be exhausting. This is why things like daily quiet times and checking in with fellow believers regularly is so essential. And it’s also why it’s okay to not do this perfectly. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve slipped back into self loathing over the fact that I’m not loving myself well. Give yourself grace and have a sense of humor. Sin is ridiculous. Laugh at it, and shame loses a lot of its power. That laughter can be a joyful prayer of dependence on a God who meets us where we are and loves us perfectly, even when we don’t love ourselves well.
Again, this is a process, and this letter is a starting point. Don’t expect to get all this right after reading this—and if you’re realizing you do expect yourself to get all this right, stop and laugh at yourself. Best of luck to you on your path forward. Cling to Christ.
A fellow human, created image-bearer, sinner, forgiven, beloved child, servant and subject, washed clean in His blood, a stone in His temple, royal priest in His service, and member of His precious bride.