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.

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25 Comments

  1. Very thoughtful article. It clarified how God’s love, and our recognition of that can work in us, enabling us to love ourselves and others. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Dear Bishop, I sit here almost unable to articulate a response. I cried when I read this meditation because I too have felt that “worthlessness” as a young man. I now bow in adoration at the joy of knowing that the Father peers through the lens of his son and sees me not in my brokenness but in perfection transformed by Grace.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. “God’s love creates us every day as the beloved.” Awesome! Sending / sharing love to you folk in Western Louisiana from my home in Tapanui in the far south of New Zealand.
    “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God” 1 John 4:7

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  4. Thank Bishop Jake. This is a message many of us need to hear. So much so that I’ve taken the liberty of publishing it on my own website – kiwianglo. Have a truly Blessed Holy Week and Easter. Agape, Father Ron (ACANZP)

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I’ve placed my order. Your caught in the crossfire with your father resonated for me. Just yesterday, I journaled about my scars from observing my father abuse my mother and then being victimized by men; my father, my brother, other relationships that set me up for expected rejection and disappointment (even if it’s not their intent, it’s a learned response of my soul). More so, my adult son is currently in turmoil due to the pandemic and so many “finally it’s worth it” things he is (was) on the cusp of. I’m hoping to pass the book to him when I’m done. If you feel led, please utter a prayer for Austin. Thank you. P.S. now that I purchased, Amazon says you’ve only for 1 left! 😊

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for ordering! And thank you especially for sharing this today. It makes me even more grateful that we connected through our blogs. I have offered prayers for Austin and will continue to do so.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Wow. What a riveting testimony to the power of God. It shows how God uses the most painful things that happen in our lives for the good, as you went on to become a Bishop who not only serves God’s Church faithfully, but lifts up so many with your powerful writing. “When I am weak, then I am strong” is what immediately comes to my mind. God never wastes a hurt when we turn to Him in faith. Brought up with severe emotional abuse and neglect myself, I can very much relate to your sharing and look forward to reading your book. Thank you for using your God-given gifts to give us all hope, especially during such a bleak time in the world. God bless! Sue Hanna

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    1. Just read your self-description at your blog. While I view such bios with some skepticism, the person—real or fake—described there did sound interesting. Not, as you say, reliably nice. But interesting. So, just for the record, institutional religion frequently disappoints me (even though I happen to be a bishop in the Episcopal Church). But I’m powerfully drawn to the spiritual life. Does the idea of a spiritual yearning make any sense to you, or is that nonsense in your view?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I believe in spirituality, hell I even believe in a higher power – be that the Universe or God. But I totally disregard religion. I feel like stories meant to teach children/people how to be good, kind and compassionate have been turned into means of mass manipulation.

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        1. I wonder how you developed this perspective. How you came to distinguish spirituality and religion and arrived at your conclusion about religion. And I wonder how you express your spirituality.

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          1. Other than looking up at the sky and mouthing a ‘thank you’ in gratitude I don’t express any spirituality at all. Also, I’ve grown up in a 3rd-world Eastern European country where people have been so brain washed by religion that 80% of the things they say don’t make any sense. 🙂

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