Self-Love and Self-Care

Valentine’s Day and the Focus on Love
Valentine’s Day is approaching rapidly and it focuses our attention on love. Actually, our thoughts were drawn to this celebration long before we approached February. It seems that just after the Christmas items came down at local stores, Valentine’s Day items quickly appeared. But it’s not just our stores; it’s everywhere – T.V., radio, emails and just about every medium one can imagine.  And with it comes all the trappings associated with this occasion – chocolate covered strawberries, heart-shaped boxes filled with a variety of chocolates, beautiful flower arrangements and the list goes on. Valentine’s Day’s is all about showing love in tangible ways. Besides its obvious commercial and monetary interests, Valentine’s Day does provide a reminder of the importance of love. It particularly calls to us to express our love to others. However, as I thought about the focus on love on Valentine’s Day, I thought about another appropriate kind of love that is often ignored. Here, I am thinking about self-love, particularly as it pertains to those serving within church ministries.

The Denigration of Self-love
This notion of self-love doesn’t find wide approval in some Christian circles. It fact, such a love is often repudiated. I know persons whom I love and respect who would vehemently deny the existence of anything named self-love. To such persons, self-love completely contradicts the Christian ethic and message. Instead, such persons emphasize a two-fold love that involves loving God and loving others. It is a perspective that leaves little to no room for loving oneself. To support this belief, many point to this passage from Matthew 22: 36-40. There, in response to the question about what is the greatest commandment, Jesus replied:
“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (NIV)
It has always puzzled me that persons look at this portion of scripture and only see a twofold love; that is, a love of God and love of neighbor. Such persons argue for a vertical love to God and a horizontal love of others. In the process, they seem blind to or deliberately omit the phrase “as yourself.” Instead of attaching a twofold idea to love, it ought to be attached to the two-fold commandment, or the first and second commandment. However, even in this twofold commandment, there is one reality, in that the two make up one great commandment - the command to love. This one reality is expressed in a threefold way; toward God, self and others. No Christian would debate the primacy of a love toward God. Neither would they debate the need to love one’s neighbor. The problem comes when they treat the phrase “as yourself” as if it did not exist. In reality, it appears that love of neighbor is predicated on love for self. To love one’s neighbor is to give to one’s neighbor that which one has already given to oneself. In other words, love of neighbor is patterned on one’s love for self. In a 2007 article which appeared in the Journal of Psychology and Theology, A.C. Tjeltveit called attention to this relationship and the unity of these two loves by hyphenating the phrase to read loving-neighbor-as self.

An Ordered View of Self Love
My own reading of scripture as it pertains to love of self is that it is something assumed or taken as a given. Ephesians chapter five provides one such example. While speaking about one’s love for one’s wife, Paul connected a husband’s love for his wife with Christ’s love for the church. Christ demonstrated this love for the church by purifying it and presenting it holy and without blemish. Paul followed up this statement by exhorting the husband with the following words: “In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself” (Ephesians 5:28). In this passage, Paul clearly validated one’s love for one’s spouse. However, this love equates to one’s love for oneself; it is one’s love for oneself that provides the wellspring for spousal love. In speaking in this manner, Paul echoed Jesus’ perspective on love in the passage from Matthew 22; namely, that love of others (including love of a spouse), is vitally related to love of self. What’s more, the love Paul exhorts is not some lesser kind of love; in fact, it is a love patterned after Christ’s own love for the church.

John Wesley also held a similar perspective on love. In a letter to the Rev. Conyers Middleton, he used the term social love and equated it with love of neighbor. He then noted that this love “…is absolutely different from self-love, even of the most allowable kind; just as different as the objects at which they point.” There are two emphases here. First, in some ways these loves are different. The qualifying statement that follows indicates that the difference lies in the different love objects – others versus self. Second, Wesley noted that there was a self-love that was allowable. I take this to mean that this kind of self-love is not of the disordered kind. However, Wesley made another point that in some ways turned the initial thought of different loves on its head. Speaking of these two loves, he wrote: “And yet it is sure, that, if they are under due regulations, each will give additional force to the other, till they mix together never to be divided.” By “under due regulations” Wesley likely meant that they are rightly ordered through a primary focus on God as the first object of our affections. This singular love for God puts everything in its appropriate place. It transforms love from something that could easily degenerate into an unholy thing and makes it a thing of beauty and holiness. This transformation applies to love of self, and not just love of others. Ordered in this manner, these two loves reinforce each other and mirror each other to essentially become one love. In The Art of Purifying the Heart, Cardinal Špidlík made a similar point as Wesley. He stated the following:
“Christianity wants to unite both loves, of self and others, in one love. Whoever rejects this union possesses self-love, but on its own it is self-centered, perverse. Loving self, the egoist also destroys himself because he breaks the relationship with others and thereby diminishes his being “person.”
For Špidlík, from a Christian perspective love of self and love of others should be one love. Without the other, love is incomplete. Self-love without a corresponding love of others becomes a perverse thing and rank narcissism. I suspect he would find similar deficiencies in a love of others that is separated from love of self. We often see the latter’s harmful consequences in ministers who are so intent on loving and serving others, they totally neglect their own well-being and that of their families. It is never a pretty picture.

All Forms of Love Can Become Disordered
If this presentation on love of self is valid, as I believe it is, why then do some persons in the church invalidate it? I suspect the reasons are many but I will offer one. I think many hold the view that love of self is the only one of the three loves that can be disordered. By this I mean that love of self is seen as corrupted and lies on a path paved with blatant narcissism. In Getting It Right: Christian Perfection and Wesley’s Purposeful list, I argue that all three loves can be corrupted and disordered. Think about one’s love for others that becomes misshapen because it approves everything the loved one does and pampers and supports the individual in destructive habits. And what about one who proclaims a love of God but does this in a destructive way? Here I am thinking about a suicide bomber who proclaims a love for God but is willing to destroy self and others as a demonstration of a love for God. Surely such a love is disordered!
However, if love can become disordered, there also exists the possibility that love can be rightly ordered. How does love become ordered? It depends on the object on which love is focused. For example, as previously stated, if one is focused on God, all forms of love can become rightly ordered. I suspect this is the reason for the order of loves in the Matthew passage. Matthew’s order suggests that it is primarily a love for God that can rightly order all other loves, including love of others and love of self.

Self-Love and Self-Care
Having briefly laid out a basis for rethinking a love of self, it leads me to ask the following question: What does self-love have to do with self-care? Ironically, there seems to exist a similar response to self-care as there is to self-love. In some camps, self-care is impugned as something selfish and unchristian. This belief seems especially prevalent among those in active ministry.
Besides the similar attitudes to self-love and self-care, an ordered love of self actually provides the basis for caring for oneself. It is love for oneself that is more likely to promote taking an active part in loving one’s own life expressed in protecting one’s well-being. This means giving appropriate attention to one’s entire being including one’s spiritual, physical, emotional and relational health.
The Priority of Self-care
In some of my presentations to ministers, I have actually drawn on a couple of John Wesley’s sermons to demonstrate the importance of caring for self as a first priority and the basis for providing a healthy foundation for caring for others. Of course, the sermons are not directly addressed to ministers; instead they provide general guidance for all Christians. One of the sermons is titled The Duty of Reproving One’s Neighbor. The second is titled The Use of Money. I will draw on this second sermon. Some may recognize a statement from this sermon that is often quoted in Christian circles. The statement is “Earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can.”  Beyond this quotation, this sermon presents a perspective on spending money that begins with appropriate attention to the self. This appears when Wesley speaks about the priorities in spending money. Given our general knowledge of Wesley, his priorities in spending money may surprise us. Rather than beginning from the outside in, Wesley began from the inside out. His first named priority in spending is to provide things that are necessary for preserving one’s bodily health. This means providing food, clothing and whatever else is necessary for bodily health.  Once one has provided for oneself, Wesley believed one’s next priority in spending was to care for one’s own household including one’s spouse and children. Wesley then advised that if there was a surplus, one should provide for the household of faith. Next, with additional surplus, one should do good to all humanity.  

Self-care Promotes Holistic Salvation and Thriving
I believe Wesley held such views because he valued the people under his care including those who ministered under him. He believed in holistic health and this did not simply mean the forgiveness of sins but as much healing as one might reasonably achieve by God’s help. In a 2007 article which appeared in the Journal Methodist History, Randy Maddox stated that John Wesley encouraged followers and contemporaries alike to pursue truly holistic salvation. This meant not only pursuing forgiveness of sins and its implication for spiritual health; it also meant pursuing healing where possible in all areas of one’s life. This is the kind of holistic salvation that can be fostered by appropriate self-care. However, this is unlikely to occur when one does not possess an appropriate and ordered self-love.

Besides its implications for experiencing a holistic salvation, self-care also promotes thriving. Thriving is a term that has gained some traction in recent years. In the United States, The Lilly Foundation, Inc. has even backed this emphasis with financial grants that seeks to promote thriving among clergy with a goal of growing thriving congregations. Sometimes one will also see the term used interchangeably with the word flourishing. The terms generally highlight the need for ministers and congregations to grow vigorously. In the 2013 book, Resilient Ministry, Burns, Chapman and Guthrie described it as a key ingredient in long-term success in ministry. They also saw thriving as shielding one against negative health outcomes.
Denominations and religious organizations are coming to know the reality of this statement more and more. They know they need to help facilitate thriving in their ministers. Accordingly, over the years, I have been invited to conduct seminars on self-care and related topics for several denominational groups. Four years ago, at the request of a Christian university, I developed and have been teaching a course on flourishing in ministry for a Christian organization. I have been encouraged by many of these ministers who create and follow through on plans for their own thriving. Through reading their papers outlining their plans, I know that the self-care which promotes thriving mostly springs from a realization that they need to love and serve themselves even while they seek to love and serve others.

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