By Hugh Farquhar
The Gospel Reading prescribed in the Lectionary for next Sunday is Matthew 22:34-40. It contains some of Jesus’ most memorable words, including: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Whitney Houston had a big hit that stayed on the charts for months called “The Greatest Love of All.” The key line in the song asserts that “learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all.”
She was criticized in some quarters for singing a song that seemed to encourage people to be turned in on themselves, but I think those critics missed the point of the song. Mind you, I’m not sure that learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all, but it sure is an important component in the process of healthy human development.
Somehow a lack of self-worth begins to grow early in life for many. We know that emotional or physical abuse in childhood profoundly affects how people feel about themselves in adulthood. But even if not abused, it seems to be naturally easy for us human beings not to feel good about ourselves, not even to like ourselves, let alone love ourselves.
We have been helped along that road by various influences, not least of which has been religious. I learned early that I was ‘a miserable sinner.’
Religion has not done well at encouraging people to love themselves. Jesus put “as yourself.” in there as something linked with loving God and loving others. But it sometimes gets lost as people are overwhelmed by the message that focusing on oneself in any way is inappropriate, even selfish, and sinful. Loving oneself sounds off base and feeling good about oneself seems prideful. So, I grow a self that puts myself down and keeps my self-esteem in check!
I facilitated church youth groups every year for over thirty years, and I had an exercise I used to do with them. I asked them to write down in two columns things they didn’t like about themselves in one and things they liked about themselves in the other. The result was always the same. They were more comfortable putting themselves down than they were making positive statements about themselves. There seemed to be a prevailing atmosphere of low self-image. Many of them didn’t see themselves as valued in this world or as important in the scheme of things.
I have thought a lot about this, and I have come to the conclusion that it has something to do with the tendency in our culture to find our validation from the outside in, rather than from the inside out. By that I mean that we depend on outside influences to make us feel good about ourselves: what we look like as compared to the ideal posed by the media and advertising, the magnitude of our achievements, other people’s opinion of us. It is why we hear praise in whispers and criticism in shouts.
This tendency is by no means confined to young people. We carry it into adulthood, and on into our senior years too. Maybe we are particularly vulnerable in our senior years, especially if we have found our identity and selfhood in our work. When we no longer feel as useful, when we no longer get the ego strokes, when we no longer wield authority or power, who are we?
Jesus taught people to find their validation from the inside out. We can love ourselves because we are created in the image of God, because we are loved unconditionally by our Creator God, and so from the get-go we have innate value and importance that we don’t have to achieve or earn.
To love others is to reach out of our deepest heart to give them affirmation. But if in that inner space, I do not affirm myself, what do I have to give? I will be loving my neighbour as myself, which is to say, not very much!
Hugh Farquhar is Minister Emeritus at St. Paul’s United Church, Rivervjew, NB. For the past twenty-eight years he has been a Sessional Instructor in Biblical Studies at Atlantic School of Theology, Halifax, NS.