People say that you have to love yourself before you can love someone else. And yet, I’ve also found that you truly love yourself only once you love others.
That may sound like a vicious circle, like a dog chasing its tail endlessly. But it’s not. That’s because love comes from a deeper place than either your heart or mine.
I say this as a person who has struggled to love himself for many years and who now, more often than not, loves his life and loves all sorts of people. The turning point for me came not from loving myself first. Instead, my life changed when I realized that I am the beloved. The bedraggled and the shopworn to be sure, and yet still the beloved. And so are you.
Loving yourself and loving others are not discrete steps that must occur in a strict sequence. You love yourself through loving others. Loving others deepens and widens the love you have for yourself.
This is because love—true love—comes from God. God’s love is always God’s completely free initiative, not God’s reaction to something you or I did. God loves us first. And to receive that love—to make it part of who we truly are— involves giving that love away.
Christian Wiman puts it like this: “But for as long as we can live in this sacred space of receiving and releasing, and can learn to speak and be love’s fluency, then the greater love that is God brings a continuous and enlarging air into our existence.” (My Bright Abyss, p. 24)
God’s love creates us every day as the beloved. We do not become the beloved as a reward for our moral rectitude, our theological orthodoxy, or the consistency of our spiritual practices. We become the beloved because God loves us. And God’s love is always a gift, not a prize for our achievements.
Paradoxically, we come increasingly to know that we are deeply, relentlessly loved when we love others. We see that a power to make someone else experience themselves as the beloved flows through us.
That’s all very lovely. But let’s face it. Being able to feel in our gut that we are the beloved can be a fierce struggle. Even a mortal struggle. In the death and resurrection of Jesus, God enters that struggle with us. Jesus raises us from the death of condemning ourselves as the unlovable to the eternal life of perpetual, inexhaustible love. Jesus did that for me.
A number of my childhood experiences assaulted my sense that I was inherently lovable. In my book A Resurrection Shaped Life, I shared one that crystallized them all.
When I was nine or ten, I saw my father raging at my mother and pointing a pistol at her face. Stepping between the gun and my mother—the barrel now leveled at me—I spoke to my father with a calm that I still cannot explain.
“Don’t shoot my mother. If you kill her, you will go to prison. You will leave me an orphan.”
With a sneer, he spit out the words, “You’d be better off an orphan!”
What I heard him say—or more precisely the meaning that settled into my bones—is that the world would be better off without me in it. In a way, my father killed me that night.
He didn’t shoot me. But he fatally damaged any sense I had of myself as inherently lovable. From that point on, love was something I would have to earn and could easily lose. And the odds were stacked against me.
On the cross, Jesus cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46) And in his cry I hear Jesus feeling the misery and the confusion of that soul-shattering moment personally. He entered into my grief and sorrow and death with his whole being.
Jesus knows what it is like to be so undone that “My God!” is all that you can say. No, that’s not accurate. He knows what it was like for me to be undone. For you to be undone. For each creature in this universe to be broken and wounded and buried by the sense that love is nowhere to be found.
And that is what God’s love in Christ looks like. To join each of us—at the cost of unimaginable pain and suffering—in our very bleakest hour.
Christian Wiman writes, “I hear someone say on TV that one need only think of the million innocent children killed in the Holocaust to annihilate any notion of a benevolent God. True enough, I think, but that’s a straw god, and not there real one who felt every one of those deaths as his own.” (My Bright Abyss, p. 20)
Even your strongest love for yourself ends when you die. But God’s love goes even down to the grave with you. And there is no tomb that can hold the beloved forever. Remember, resurrection is coming.