Proper Love of Self
In the Gospel of St. Matthew, 22: 36-40 we read, “‘Master, which is the great commandment of the Law?’ Jesus said unto him, ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul and all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. The second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law of the prophets.’”
When we hear the Lord Jesus teaching us about the greatest of the commandments, He explains to us the greatest, of course, is the commandment of love. “Love the Lord your God and love your neighbor as yourself.”
Many, many sermons have been preached on the subject of loving your neighbor as yourself. I want to focus upon a particular problem that I’ve found working in our particular area of ministry since 1984. Many simply don’t understand the proper place of loving your self with a view to loving your neighbor.
Beloved and Baby Suggs
In the film Beloved, produced by Oprah Winfrey and based on the book by Toni Morrison, there is a beautiful scene that speaks to this issue. The scene is an outdoor meeting led by Baby Suggs. Baby Suggs is a matriarchal preacher in Cincinnati. The setting is the reconstruction Period after the Civil War. After Emancipation, African Americans were dealing with the trauma of slavery and its effects on their souls and their family’s. What we find in the particular sermon she’s about to deliver is an understanding of loving your self.
The setting is not too dissimilar from what Professor Albert Raboteau spoke about a few years ago at this conference when he related how slaves commonly would meet in the woods to have prayer meetings. They would gather together and pray and dance and sing and cry out to God. In the midst of such a scene, Baby Suggs lifts her arms to draw all present to her heart. She urges the community that’s gathered there to love themselves as proof of their love of God. She declares:
“Here, in this here place, we flesh. Flesh that weeps, laughs - flesh that dances on bare feet and grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don’t love your eyes. They just as soon pick them out no more than they love the skin on your back. Yonder they flay it, and oh my people, they do not love your hands. They only use, tie, bind, chop off and leave empty! Love your hands! Love them! Raise them up and kiss them! Touch others with them. Clap ‘em together! Stroke them on your face ‘cause they don’t love that either. You got to love it - you! And no they ain’t in love with your mouth. Yonder out there they will see it broken - break it again. What you say out of it they will not heed. What you scream from it they do not hear. What you put into it to nourish your body they will snatch away and give you leave’ns instead. No, they don’t love your mouth. You got to love it! This is flesh I’m talking about! Flesh that needs to be loved. Feet that need to rest and to dance. Backs that need support. Shoulders that need arms. Strong arms I’m telling you. Now my people out yonder hear me - they do not love your neck unloosed and straight, so love your neck. Put a hand on it. Praise it. Stroke it and hold it up and all your inside parts, that they’d just as soon slop for hogs. You got to love them. The dark, dark liver — love it! Love it and the beats and the beating heart, love that too. More than eyes or feet, more than lungs that have yet to draw free air, more than your life holding womb, hear me now — love your heart, for this is the prize!”
“Love your flesh! Love it hard!” Many Christians in an attempt to fight against selfishness and self-centeredness have gone to an extreme where they basically view all love of self as basically evil. This has led to much distorted thinking about who we are and about how to exist in this world. The purpose of this talk is to put love of self in its proper view, according to the Church, so we can effectively love our neighbor as our self. Then healing can come - not a disintegration or a denying that there is a self at all.
Orthodox View of Love of Self
In the Orthodox catechism it asks a question under the section entitle, The Division of the Commandments into Two Tables.
Question: But why is there no commandment of love to ourselves?
Answer: Because we love ourselves naturally and without any commandment. “No man ever yet hated his own flesh, but nourisheth it and cherisheth it,” Ephesians 5:29.
Saint John Chrysostom, when he comments about this verse “for no man ever hated his own flesh but nourisheth it and cherisheth it” says, “he tends it with exceeding care, regarding the flesh.” When we look at Baby Suggs we hear, and we feel her actually restoring her people to that which normally would come naturally — nourishing and cherishing one’s flesh. She’s speaking to people that have been robbed of security, nation and identity. She is trying to bring them and make them aware of the restorative place of people positively loving themselves. What’s needed for a people is the same that is needed by many individuals in America today.
Culture of Narcissism
There, of course, is a love of self that is contrary to God. When I say ‘love of self’ this is what most Christians think of. Selfishness. There was a book that was written in the 70’s, called The Culture of Narcissism, by Christopher Lasch. It showed some amazing things…Jerry Rubin, one of the Chicago Seven who was calling for revolution back in the late 60’s, had become a stockbroker! Many changes occurred in people who, at one point were calling for deep kinds of radical social and personal changes had ‘evolved’ to become a part of things as they are.
This idea of narcissism is rooted in the word narcissus, coming from Narcissus of Greek mythology. He was a young man who, walking by a pool, saw his own reflection there. He was so mesmerized by this figure in the water that he couldn’t move his eyes. So later he died looking at his own reflection. Later a flower grew up in that spot and they call that flower the narcissus flower in memory of Narcissus.
Indeed there is today a self-worship that’s taken this to an extreme. It’s what St. Paul referred to in II Timothy 3:2 when he said in the last days men would be lovers of self. It’s this kind of narcissistic self-centeredness that St. Paul is referring to.
“Without Natural Affection”
Yet, St. Paul went on to write, “Know this, that in the last days difficult times will come. When men will be lovers of their own self, covetous, boisterous, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, without natural affection.” It’s a very interesting thing that in the same verse where he talks about this kind of inordinate love of self he also says that people would be without natural affection. Now the teaching of the Church says that people would naturally be able to nourish and cherish their flesh. Something has happened, though, today. Many are without natural affection. The kinds of bonds that link people together have often been broken. We have to stop and consider - what is really going on? The same generation that on one hand promotes self-worship, on the other hand is losing natural affection. The Church saw it as natural for someone to love themselves. But at a time when people lose natural affection that which previously came natural has to be re-taught.
Many today need to be re-trained in what would come natural. Our Lord Jesus Christ’s teaches us to love our neighbor as ourselves. It’s a very straightforward command. But for someone who is very confused about properly liking himself or her self, love for one’s neighbor as myself becomes very confused. Their inner dialogue goes something like this:
“Hmm…Love my neighbor as myself. Well, when I have a problem it’s my fault and I deserve it so if this person has a problem he must deserve it too. He’s just getting what comes to him. That’s what I say to myself!”
“When I see my neighbor hurting I tell him, ‘Well the people in India have it far worse because…That’s what I say to myself.”
In other words, rather than having empathy or feeling a deep sense of sympathy for the person that’s suffering, the person will minimize their needs and then excuse themselves from getting involved. The neighbor, as a result, doesn’t receive support or comfort but rather a feeling of blame and shame. It’s like a little boy that just pounds his thumb with a hammer and then his parents comes and say you should be thankful that you didn’t cut your arm off like Mr. Jones who had the accident at work. What’s needed for that little boy at the time is for the mother or father just to hold the little boy and say, “Listen, it’s going to be OK. Let’s go in and put a Band-Aid on it or some ice on it and take care of it.” That teaches the child the feeling of taking care of the thumb as something that is basic. That kind of neglect, though, happens in multitudes of families, and the child is often times felt feeling that some how it’s their fault that they are having pain and it’s a problem and as a result the proper self-love or proper self-comfort is actually cut off from the child’s soul. What’s needed at that time for that little boy or that little girl is love and support - not minimizing the pain.
When a child receives the proper kind of love for himself or herself then he’s able to naturally feel love for his neighbor. When he sees his friend that hurts his thumb then his response will also be to go and get ice and try to comfort or help him, because that was what was done to him. And in this very simple analogy we find that this very lack is often what causes the kind of inability to effectively love our neighbors as our selves.
Unfortunately for many what comes natural is hatred for self rather than love for self. To love our flesh as Baby Suggs puts it is not to love what Saint Paul calls the old man and what he calls the flesh (i.e. the selfish tendencies inherited from Adam.) But, to love our flesh as she spoke of is survival! It’s healing! It’s restoring ourselves to what the catechism talks about when it says we love ourselves naturally and without any commandment. For abused people and for people coming out of dysfunctional families, or alcoholic homes, the tendency naturally is actually to hate one’s self. This is revealed in acting out on our selves with self-harming behavior, continuing in abusive relationships, or repeating abusive cycles when we grow up. The messages from the past abuse say to us, “See you’re bad. God doesn’t love you! Give it up!” Often the inward pain results in exploding on others with violence or verbal abuse or imploding on ourselves with self-harm, destructive behaviors and addictions. These are all indications of the failure to properly love ourselves or to naturally love ourselves.
Loving the Image of God
The catechism goes on to explain, “What relative order should there be in our love to God, our neighbor and ourselves? Answer: we should love ourselves not for our own, but for God’s sake, and partly also for the sake of our neighbors.”
So here we find that the key to us loving ourselves is for God’s sake. What does this mean to love ourselves for God’s sake? First of all, you and I are not accidents. We are very carefully planned by God. The scriptures say that everything created by God is good. This inward sense of goodness is something that definitely needs to be instilled within children. I often hear young mothers say to their babies “You’re bad! You’re bad!” What they’re transmitting is something much deeper than what you just did was bad. They are actually communicating a sense to that little baby you are bad. You are defective! You are messed up! And so, as a result, often that child grows up with this deep sense of alienation, separation, badness. They tend to feel crushed, ashamed and separated. Yet, everything created by God is good, including you and me.
The scriptures speak of us being made in the image of God. A story deep in meaning in the life of Jesus is when some of the religious leaders were coming to test Jesus with a coin. They thought that they had trapped Him. They were thinking, “Ah, He is going to tell us not to pay taxes. Then we can report Him to Rome!” So they pulled out a denarius with the image of Caesar asking Him, “Should we pay taxes to Caesar or not?” Jesus simply replies, “Well, show me a denarius.” As they pull it out, He asks them, “Whose image is on this?” And they say, “That is Caesar.” And He says, “Then, give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, but give to God, what is God’s.”
Let us think about it. The coin had the image of Caesar. But whose image was on the face of those very men that came to Jesus bringing the coin? That of God Himself. Give to God what is God’s - your body, your soul, everything that you are as a human being, in that it reflects the image of God. It belongs to God. Because of that belonging, in order to truly understand ourselves, we must love ourselves for God’s sake.
We’re not creatures doing our own thing on this planet. We’ve been created for God’s glory. We’ve been created in such a way that we can be able to do something in cooperation with our Creator so that love can pour out of us back to Him again, because He gives it to us. And so we start to see ourselves in partnership, cooperation with God. A proper love of self for God’s sake then is to show respect for ourselves and to seek what is best for us from God’s point of view, and from the point of view of eternity. It is not selfish or narcissistic to seek what is good for our souls in our lives. Part of glorifying God in our bodies is to do what is best for us so that we can serve God and others.
Love of Community
In St. Paul’s letter to the Christians in Galatia, Chapter 6, there is something that Baby Suggs said that needs to explored more deeply. She said “love your flesh.” Think of the context of that statement. She was looking around at former slaves, at those who had suffered, at those who had been beaten and oppressed, at those who had been rejected and made to feel less than human. And she said, “Love your flesh.”
In other words, it’s not only that I properly love the flesh of my body, but I also love the flesh of my brothers and my sisters, i.e. my “flesh and blood.” In comparing two verses back to back, Galatians 6:2 and 5, at first they almost sound contradictory. Yet when you put them together they reveal the Wisdom of God.
“Bear ye one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ” Galatians 6 v2. Then, verse 5 says, “For every man shall bear his own burden (or load). Each man shall bear his own load but bear ye one another’s burdens.
The idea is this; each person in their lives is given a knapsack, a pack to travel with. It’s that particular area that God has entrusted to each of us. You’re given a body, you’re given a soul. The Lord expects you to take care of that body. The Lord expects you to take care of that soul. Just as the Lord expects you to eat and feed yourself when you become an adult, you have to understand also that the needs of your soul are to be taken care of by your contact with God, by watching yourself and making sure that those inward needs are being lifted up and not neglected. When this happens something very deep starts to occur. You’re starting to take care of your own responsibility for your own self.
Because of that something else will start to occur. As we take care of our own burden, this ‘backpack’ that God has entrusted to us, we find that some of us are given bigger backpacks than others. In the realm of our responsibilities, some of us have children to care for. We have responsibilities at work or with our godchildren. We have responsibilities for a number of other things that are within the particular realm of “our backpack.” Different people can carry different loads. So we seek to carry our particular backpack in our journey.
However, there are times in our lives when traumatic things happen. A certain sickness comes along and can wipe someone out. A person takes a fall, a person suffers a major loss. At such times, they need a helping hand. When their load becomes too heavy to carry, when they can’t any longer continue on their journey, it’s time to bear one another’s burdens. It’s time to help each other out. So to love your flesh is to love the flesh of those close to you. First, take care of those responsibilities, that soul, that body that you’ve been given, but then, in addition, love your flesh - your brothers and sisters that walk with you. Walk in community. Become aware of what you can do to help carry those loads that are around you.
Unfortunately, this can lead to being a busybody. The word ‘busybody’ is a very interesting word in the Greek language. It actually means ‘someone else’s bishop.’ You actually start to look over everybody else as if you are the bishop! You’ve made it your personal duty to make sure that everybody else is ok. (You might think it’s a nice distraction because of the fact you don’t have to worry about yourself!) You see your job as the FBI of the kingdom of God! Your job is to make sure everybody else is doing their job. Then, you might think you can rest at night! Unfortunately it doesn’t work that way. You still have a body to take care of. You still have a soul to take care of. You still have your personal needs that reveal the need to continue to connect with God. Without this personal work and personal connection with God, we can’t be effective in reaching out to somebody else. Thus, we have to bear our own burdens - this pack, this load and then be able to bear one another’s burdens.
Removing the Log from Our Eye
Although these truths may sound simple, they are some of the most neglected truths that I see right now within many of my brothers and sisters in Christ. As a result, they are stumbling right and left. In attempting to fix someone else’s problems they often make things worse. This is why the Lord Jesus said, “First remove the log from your own eye, then you can see clearly to help the brother remove the speck in his eye.” This idea of the log is quite a picture. I remember one time reading a book called The Humor of Christ, by Elton Trueblood. This parable was one of the illustrations he used. If you actually picture this image that Jesus is giving us here, it’s a man with a very big log coming out of his eye, and he is turning around and he says, “Here brother let me help you with that speck”. All the while this big log is sticking out of his eye! So our Lord is saying we’ve got a lot of work to do.
St. Moses the Black was one of the Desert Fathers that emphasizes this the most. His teachings, written in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, again and again call us to pay attention to dealing with these things regarding our souls, rather than obsessing about our neighbor.
Love of Self and Healing
A proper love of self is essential to heal from abuse and from neglect. An abused person hears within their soul, “I’m bad, if you really knew me you really wouldn’t want to get close to me.” So, as a result, self harm and drugs, cutting, sexual abuse, prostitution, gambling-these are all echoes of a deeper pain. A pain that shows love somehow didn’t connect with that little part of us. That part of us that must become like a little child to open up to the Kingdom of Heaven within. That is where we can open up in wonder, in open-eyed amazement, in tenderness, all the while protected by that rational, assertive part of us that protects us from abuse and from the fake and from the thief.
A proper love of self enables the soul to receive the message of the Gospel, apply it to ourselves and then share it with others. We begin to say yes, I do want what is good for me; I do want this love from God. And we begin to have hope that God really does love me. God wants me to receive this goodness.
A long time ago someone taught me a very simple principle in reading the scriptures. Whenever you find a phrase that refers to people in general, put your name in there specifically. Let’s consider an example:
Most of you probably know John 3:16. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Begotten Son that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” Whenever you find a “whosoever,” put your name there. So, if you believe in Him, you won’t perish but have everlasting life.” He promises that if I believe in Him I won’t perish, but I will have everlasting life. What the Lord Jesus Christ did for all He surely did for you. The fact is that you’re a part of this.
It’s amazing to me how many people say things to me like, “Well I believe that God will do that for others but I don’t believe He will do it for me. I believe God will really answer other peoples’ prayers but I don’t believe He will answer my prayers. So, these messages that we hear of Our Lord Jesus Christ we can apply to ourselves.
Now St. John the Apostle said in 1 John 5:19, “We love Him because He first loved us.” Think about that “We love Him because He first loved us.” Love has to be initiated and then there is a response. The Lord is the lover, our soul is the beloved, it’s that which is loved, and by being loved it enables us then to love others. Ideally this is what children would receive - the kind of love and nurturing that would enable them to reach out to other people.
One of the things that are important for us to stop and hear in the Scriptures is that God loves you. Wounded souls can pray, “I don’t understand this Lord, I’m asking You to reveal it to me. I’m asking You to pour out into my heart this love.” In the Epistle of St. Paul to the Romans he says, “The love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit has been given to us.” When the Holy Spirit touches a heart, that deep place inside begins to feel love. Then a spiritual healing actually begins to occur.
I remember a dear friend of mine shared with me that when he was little he used to sit and listen each night to his parents say things like this, “I never wanted him, it was your fault that he came into this world. I can’t believe that he is here now, he’s the black sheep of the family.” Night by night he would cry himself to sleep listening to these kinds of statements. So one day he decided he was going to the railroad tracks and let a train run over him. While he was out there at five years old, he heard a voice come to him, a wonderful presence - a peaceful presence came all over him and he felt love. This Voice said, “They might be able to say that they don’t love you, but you can never say that about Me.” And he began to understand that God loved him. It totally changed his life. As a matter of fact, it was through his testimony that I became a Christian. Something so deep had touched me through the awareness of the love of God that I began to realize that it’s possible for a soul to be repaired.
It’s possible for a soul that had missed out to experience it, and to be able to realize something very deep, “I can become something because of God’s love.” We love because He first loved us. If that transmission was messed up, it can be repaired through beginning in faith to act on the declared love God has for us. By acting on faith we read it, meditate on it, and step by step begin to live according to it. “Lord, I don’t feel it now but I do, in faith, take it that you love me. Help me feel it and know it more.”
A second thing is receiving from and modeling our lives after the inspiration of Saints or healthy Christians. It’s important to realize that oftentimes people don’t know how to properly take care of themselves. Where are they going to get this idea from? Find healthy Christians that you are close to and start to talk to them. Find couples that, in observing their children, you see that they are feeling loved and cared for. Get to know them, talk with them. Find out how they are living and try to say, “Ah, that was something that I missed out on earlier and begin to try to treat yourself accordingly.” Remember that God is present. Remember that God is a healer. Remember that it is good to learn to properly love ourselves and take care of ourselves. This especially includes receiving God’s love personally for us.
Being Comforted by God and Self
Let’s consider now some examples of Scripture about this point. The theme of Second Corinthians is comfort, the comfort of God. It’s one of the most wonderful letters regarding those who are experiencing troubles and sufferings. “Blessed be God even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. The Father of mercy and the God of all comfort.” (2 Cor. 1:3,4) Did you hear that? The God of all “comfort”. “Who comforteth us in all our tribulations that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble by the comfort where with we ourselves are comforted by God.”
So, receiving comfort for ourselves from God enables us to comfort others. Often I see people trying really hard to be good, trying really hard to love people, trying really hard to be able to do the right thing but inwardly there is a lack - a connection is not being made. A friend of mine years ago said to me, “You know many people are going to miss the kingdom of God by 18 inches - the distance from the head to the heart.” Many are functioning and trying to do the right thing, but inwardly they are cut off. They need help to make that connection. The scriptures declare that God IS the God of all comfort. “You mean this soul of mine You can comfort? This soul of mine You can lift up and You can encourage?” Absolutely.
The Prophet-King David once suffered his family forcibly taken from. In addition, the people who formerly loved him turned away from him. Furthermore, he was being pursued by King Saul to the point of death. In 1 Sam. 30:5, the Scriptures say, “But David encouraged himself in the Lord His God.” He encouraged himself in the Lord His God. One of the things that is desperately needed is that we realize our souls, our self needs to be encouraged. How did he do it? In the Lord His God.
It is important that we pay attention to those places that give us help. Those things that bring comfort to us. Those things that lift up our souls. If it’s quietness in prayer, do more of it. If it’s gospel music that lifts up your soul and that can bring you out of it, listen to gospel music. If it’s inspiring films that lift up your soul and help bring you out of it, then listen and watch inspiring films. If it’s walking in the woods that lifts you out of it, then go do that. If it’s playing with a toy that does it, then do that. If it’s helping little kids somewhere then go do that. If it’s doing a canon [an Orthodox prayer service], then do that. Whatever that particular thing is that lifts up your soul and puts your mind back on track, do it. Then you say to your soul, “God’s here. He’s for me. He’s not against me. Living really is good. God really is able to help me.” You start to lift yourself up as David encouraged himself in the Lord. St Seraphim, the Russian saint that lived 150 years ago, spoke about trading in those things that bring grace to you. The idea was that if fasting brings you grace, then practice fasting. If alms bring grace to you, then continue to do alms. Look for those things in your life that bring grace to you so that you’re able to continue those things and be helped as a result of it.
Encouragement of Self in Psalm
King David was one of these that understood how to get his soul encouraged in the Lord. The entire book of Psalms speaks to us about the inward life of this prophet King. Let’s look at just a few verses in Psalms because a proper love of self is expressed throughout the book of Psalms.
Let’s listen to Psalms 61 in the King James Version, verses 1 and 2. (It would be Psalm 60 in the Septuagint, the ancient Greek version of the Old Testament.)
“Hear my cry O God, attend unto my prayer. From the end of the earth will I cry unto Thee when my heart is overwhelmed. Lead me to the rock that is higher than I.”
He didn’t say inwardly “How are you doing?” “Oh, no problems, everything’s fine” and as a result deny the fact that he was having struggles. What did he say? “Lead me to the rock that is higher than I for my heart is overwhelmed.” He was experiencing at that point a feeling that comes to us as human beings, being overwhelmed, that feeling like, “It’s just too much - what am I going to do?” And he lifted up his soul to God.
In Psalm 42:11 King David asks himself,
“Why art thou cast down O my soul? And why art thou disquieted within me? Hope thou in God for I shall yet praise Him who is the health of my countenance and my God.”
He recognized how he was feeling. He recognized the condition of his soul. He was caught in a place of despair, sadness, but instead of allowing himself just to sink deeper and deeper, He began to lift up his soul to God. He began to pray “Unto Thee, O Lord, do I lift up my soul.” He went on to pray, “Rescue my soul, my darling, from the lions.” This is what is actually referred to in the scriptures about the human soul. This is the kind of care that the holy prophet had for his soul, his “darling,” so that it would be tenderly in communion with God.
Let’s look at Psalm 46:1 and 3. “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Though the waters thereof roar and be troubled, though the mountains shake with the swelling thereof. Selah.”
Before this time, everything felt secure, but, all of a sudden, he thinks and feels like he is going through an earthquake. What does he say? He says “Be still and know that I am God, I will be exalted among the heathen, I will be exalted on the earth.” He quieted himself, he got still with God and began to lift up his soul, his soul to God, and as a result the peace of God was able to come and calm him down.
Psalm 121 speaks to the same thing. This was said to be George Washington Carver’s favorite verse, Psalm 121:1.
“I will lift up my eyes unto the hills from whence cometh my help. My help cometh from the Lord who made heaven and the earth. He will not suffer the afflicted to be moved, He that keepeth thee will not slumber. Behold, He that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep. The Lord is Thy keeper, the Lord is thy shade upon thy right hand. The sun shall not smite you by day nor the moon by night. The Lord shall preserve you from all evil, He shall preserve thy soul. The Lord shall preserve your going out and your coming in from this time and forevermore.”
King David in other words knew where to get help from: “My help cometh from the Lord, who hath made heaven and the earth.” You take a little walk with Jesus - you get away with God. You start to pour out your heart to God. You start to allow your soul to be quiet and, as you lift up your soul to God, there comes what’s called the “peace that passes understanding.”
Another example is found in Psalm 130:2.
“Surely I have calmed and quieted my soul. Like a weaned child with his mother, like a weaned child is my soul within me.”
The idea is of a child leaning upon the mother’s breast. It say’s, “As a man has a tender feeling for his mother, so does our soul have for the Lord.” The picture of the Lord being like a mother is found many times in Scriptures. Our Lord Jesus Christ said “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how I long to wanted to gather you together like a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you weren’t willing.”
God is a comforter, like a tender mother. He’s able to be there. One of the Gospel songs we often sing is,
“Thank You Jesus, Thank you Jesus, You’ve been my mother. You’ve been my father. You’ve been my sister, my brother, too. You’ve brought me such a mighty long way.”
The Lord’s able to meet those deep inner needs that we have by the Holy Spirit. He’s able to calm us, quiet us, in those deep inner places.
King David also encouraged his soul to bless the Lord and as a result he was able to encounter or counteract all those negative things that were coming into his head.
At the beginning of the Divine Liturgy, we as Orthodox Christians sing from Psalm 103. Some people say that you shouldn’t be talking to your self. But listen to this, “Bless the Lord, O my soul.” Who is he talking to? “Bless the Lord, O my soul and all that is within me bless his holy name. Bless the Lord O my soul and forget not all His benefits.” A very key point: he starts to think about what God’s done for him.
When we start keeping track of the deeds of God in our life it actually enables us to build a history of what the Lord has brought us through already. And so in the Scripture when we say “Forget not all His benefits O my soul,” we are reminding our very heart of those things that God has already done for us. “Who forgives all your iniquities.” Don’t you remember what you’ve done? Don’t you remember that God forgave you? Don’t you remember that God forgave you of that already? Well, He is going to forgive you, go on confess your sins. “Who healeth all thy diseases.” Don’t you remember the times that you were struggling with this or that and that’s gone. He is going to help you. “Who redeemeth thy life from destruction.” You start to think back of the times when you were in a pit, you were caught, you thought it was the end and God got you out of it. I mean some of you know what I’m talking about! Some of you have been in those situations and, as a result, He redeemed your life from destruction. You start to think about the goodness of God. King David said, “I would have despaired unless I had believed to see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.” Believing in the goodness of God counteracts despair. Goodness overcomes evil. “Don’t be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” St. Paul in Rom. 12.
We meditate in our soul about what God has done for others; what he’s done in the Scripture; what He’s done for me already, and that gives us the courage and strength we need to face another day. This gives the strength to go on and to try one more time to go forward in the things of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Moderation as an Expression of True Love of Self
The Holy Fathers of the Orthodox Church reflect this proper love of self in teaching another principle as well, that of moderation. They tell us NOT to do ascetic labors to the point where you damage our bodies, our minds, or our souls. They show that even keeping the fasts of the Church are according to one’s strength so that you have the ability to serve God and others. That’s the proper love of self reflected in moderation. Today we remember the feast of St. John Chrysostom. In his twenties he tried to overdo it with fasting. He actually experienced a very severe illness as the result of this. So, he had first-hand experience of this lesson of moderation.
Properly loving ourselves by opening up to God, to His love and learning how to treat ourselves in healthy ways, enables us to truly love our neighbors as ourselves. Without it we will treat our neighbors as abusively as we treated ourselves and that isn’t good news for our neighbor. That often means we will abuse them, neglect them, and then simply say they will get over it or it serves them right and a multitude of other messages that we never dealt with when we were younger. So now we have to take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ, to enter into unseen warfare, as the Patriarch Job said, to “eschew the evil and cling to what is good.”
The Church as a Therapeutic Hospital
During the Divine Liturgy, the priest prays that the Holy Gifts would be filled with the Holy Spirit. When we receive Holy Communion we’re actually receiving the very body and blood of Christ and the Holy Spirit is coming right inside of us to renew us and fulfill us and strengthen us right there. Love incarnate is coming inside us. It’s a very, very wonderful thing to approach the Holy Chalice with faith, expecting love to come into us at that moment.
Meditating on the scriptures of who we are in Christ, praying for the Holy Spirit to fill us with the love of God, learning from those further along the path of how to have safe and loving behavior, are all part of proper love of self. These practices enable us to receive love so that we can in turn give it, both to God and to our neighbor.
We love because He first loved us. The Good Samaritan represents Christ bringing that wounded man through His oil through His wine to the healthy community so that we can be restored. That ideally is what the Church on earth can represent to the wounded. St. John Chrysostom spoke of the Church as a hospital. He spoke of it as a place of therapia, as a place of healing. This is desperately needed in these times. When so many people around us are wounded they need to be able to come to the Church. In Swahili in Kenya they say, “We are going to be going to the Church.” The alternate translation is that “we are going to go to the hospital.” And the reason for that is that they know that is the place where they can receive healing for their souls and their bodies.
As our wounded souls are healed, as our wounded souls receive love, we’re then able to turn and express to our neighbor the same love that we’ve received from that Good Samaritan, the Lord Jesus Christ.
In reaching out to people with Orthodoxy, let us remember that the very essence of the commandments and the teaching of Christ is to love the Lord our God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength and to love our neighbor as our self.
Let us properly love our self so that we can properly love our neighbor, so that we will feel for our neighbor, so that we will feel the same sympathy for him that we have received ourselves from God and from those that are also in our lives that are bringing healing to us. As we hold that dear in out hearts let us continue to turn around so that more and more people can come into the family of Christ with open arms, growing in the peace and strength of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
In the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.