It’s safe to say that Christianity has often been indifferent toward self-love. In fact, when I imagine the typically response to the possibility of self-love, I would describe it like this:
Self love? Meh.
Our own Reformed and Presbyterian tradition has often been downright negative about self-love. Within our tradition great emphasis has been placed on our brokenness and our sinfulness and our need of forgiveness – and great emphasis have been placed on the tremendous love of God toward us in Jesus. Our tradition has emphasized grace – everything we receive is through the grace of God – the undeserved love of God.
But in that kind of framework there often hasn’t been a lot of room for self-love. In fact self-love has often been seen negatively. In sermons and in books on Christian faith you will often hear that we are too preoccupied with ourselves, too focused on ourselves – this is an expression of our sinful self-absorption. We are too focused on ourselves and on what we need and what want – so focused on ourselves that we fail to love God and fail to love our neighbour.
So our self-love really becomes a problem here. It’s a barrier to obedience. It’s a barrier to trusting God’s love and God’s grace toward us.
So, in this tradition: Self love? Meh.
Now the society around us today obviously thinks very differently about self-love. Self-love is highly valued in our culture. It seems fair to go as far as to say that our culture holds up self-love as one of the most important things in life. Our culture values self-expression, and self-actualization, and self-determination, and self-esteem, and self-love. The healthy person, we think, is one who esteems and loves him or herself in this way.
So here we’ve got a bit of a dilemma – or at least a question.
Our faith tradition seems resistant, at best, to the idea of self-love.
But our society is preoccupied with the goodness and necessity of self-love.
Where does that leave us? Should we just forget about our culture and forget about ourselves, and take up our cross, and follow in the sacrificial way of Jesus? Should we simply concentrate on love of God and love of neighbour? Never mind self-love? Should we join the chorus, Self-love. Meh.
Well this is a huge and a complicated question. But I do want to try and say a few things about self-love this morning. I want to do so by looking at a story from the Old Testament – the story of Daniel. I should say that my reflections are in many ways informed by an article I read this week by Nicholas Rowe – he’s a professor in South Africa now who looks at the history of colonialism and who is also involved in peace studies.
So the first thing we need to know is that the story of Daniel is in many ways a story of oppression and colonization. The people of Judah, God’s people, have been attacked by the Babylonian empire; many of the people of Judah have been taken into exile – they’ve been forced to leave their homes and their land and their temple – they’ve been forced to leave it all behind to go and live in Babylon. And Daniel is one who has been uprooted from his home and forced to live at the heart of the empire.
Our Old Testament reading for this morning was from the opening chapter of the book of Daniel, and what we find right there at the beginning of the story, is the Babylonian King trying assimilate four young Judean men to his empire – Daniel is one of those four young men. The king is trying to reshape these young men for service to the empire – he is trying to assimilate them to Babylonian culture so they will be competent administrators within that society. There are three very specific ways that this attempt to assimilate them takes place.
In the first place, these four young men are to be taught the literature and languages of the Chaldeans – the Chaldeans were probably a dominant and privileged minority within Babylon. So these young men are to be taught the literature and languages of the Chaldeans in order to make them useful to the elites of the culture – to make them useful to the king. The idea is to reshape their minds, and reshape their understanding, and reshape their view of life according to the language and literature of Babylon, rather than according to the language and literature of their homeland Judah. They must adopt a new way of seeing and living.
Not only this, but the assimilation of these four men to Babylon will also be accomplished through their diet, by having them eat the food and wine of Babylon. But of course this is a problem. Within the religious faith and within the Judean culture of these young men, there are clear rules about what you can and cannot eat. Changing their diet will mean giving up a big part of who they are. But from the point of view of the empire, controlling their diet is yet another way of to ensure the conformity of these four to Babylon. Controlling their diet is a way of saying – you are not yours, any more, you are ours.
And then the third and perhaps the most insidious way that these four young men are forced to submit to Babylon. They are to be renamed.
Daniel becomes Belteshazzar
Hananiah becomes Shadrach
Mishael becomes Meshach
Azariah become Abednego
What’s really interesting here is that most of us probably don’t remember the Hebrew names of Daniel’s three friends. Most of us know only their Babylonian names: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. In other words, today we remember these young men according to an identity that was forced upon them – an identity that was alien to them – an identity to which they were forced to submit. It is only Daniel whom we remember by his Hebrew name, rather than by the name that was given to him by the Babylonian king.
So here we have this situation. These four young men are exiles from their homeland – they have been forcibly displaced from their homes and their country and their place of worship. We have this situation where they are further cut off from their own identity through a program of education, through a change of diet, and through a change of name. As the phrase goes from the old Star Trek episodes: “You will be assimilated.” You will become useful to the empire. Daniel and his friends are being assimilated in service to an empire that demands their bodies and minds and their lives for its purposes.
It’s a story that has played itself out so many times in history – under the weight of so many empires – under the influence of so many powers. Even in speaking these last words we cannot help but think of our own recent, Canadian past and the legacy of residential schools.
This story of Daniel and his three friends – the story of their oppression – helps us to begin thinking about self-love in the context of faith. And what we want to say is that self-love is about remembering who we are. In the context of Daniel and in the context of our own life with the risen Jesus, self-love is about affirming and embracing our identity. And we sometimes discover that it take immense courage and strength and resistance to do so.
When Nicholas Rowe looks at this story of Daniel, especially as it continues to unfold from those opening verses, he sees Daniel resisting the empire – fighting back against the empire’s attempt to suppress his identity – fighting back against the empire’s attempt to remake him for itself. This resistance is, I think, an expression of self-love. There are three ways he resists the empire.
In the first place, Daniel asks for, insists on, a simple vegetarian diet in line with his faith and culture. We can imagine that this was not a straightforward thing to do. It probably took courage for Daniel to insist on a diet that was faithful to his identity and that of his friends. They were standing up to an empire by refusing the food and drink of Babylon. It was a risk. It was not easy. It required strength.
Not only did Daniel insist on a simple vegetarian diet, but throughout the story told in this book, the narrator insists on using Daniel’s Hebrew name – which suggests that Daniel himself also insisted on using his own name. Daniel’s Babylonian name, Belteshazzar, is used only 8 times in the narrative – but his Hebrew name Daniel is used over 70 times. Daniel claims his identity – claims his Hebrew name – claims his identity as young man from Judah who belongs to the covenant people of God.
And finally, Daniel resists his assimilation through prayer. As we know from later on in the story, it is his resistance through prayer that leads to the famous incident in the lion’s den. Whatever demands are placed on him – whatever attempts are made to recreate him as a child of Babylon – Daniel resists through prayer. Remembering his identity through prayer. Remembering his people’s God through prayer. Understanding whose he is, through prayer.
If it required strength and courage to insist on a diet that was faithful to his identity; and if it required strength and courage to insist on his own name – I am Daniel; then it certainly required strength and courage to insist on his own practices of prayer before God when everyone was commanded to bow before a golden statue of King Nebuchadnezzar.
The story of Daniel is a story of self-love – a particular kind of self-love.
This self-love insists on faithfulness to the God of my people.
This self-love is the courage to claim my name.
This self-love is the insistence that I will speak my language.
This self-love is the embrace of my culture and community.
Self-love is resisting those institutions or individuals or communities or countries that would undermine my identity for their own purposes.
As followers of the risen Jesus, we want to think about this self-love finally in terms of our life on the way with Jesus. And once again we will stay with our pattern of thinking in threes. Three things that we can understand.
Self-love means knowing Jesus’ love.
What’s interesting is that self-love doesn’t begin with ourselves or with affirming ourselves. Self-love isn’t simply me affirming myself. Self-love isn’t simply me expressing myself. Self-love isn’t simply me esteeming myself. In the context of our faith, self-love begins with Jesus. Self-love is the realization that I have my life and I have my joy and I have my forgiveness and I have my identity and I have all of my love with him and in him.
Self-love is me understanding who I am – I am beloved of God and embraced by Jesus. This is the deepest thing and the truest thing I can say about myself. And when I realize this deep and true thing – when I acknowledge this deep and true thing – when I live in this deep and true thing – that is self-love. Knowing Jesus love is self-love.
Self-love is also about knowing that we are led and gifted by the Spirit. We don’t have our lives in isolation from other people. We don’t have our identities in a vacuum. We don’t have our identity as beloved of God outside of Jesus. And we don’t have our life and our gifting and our calling to service outside of God’s Spirit – who equips us for service to one another.
Self-love is understanding who I am in the Spirit – I have gifts for service – gifts for teaching, gifts for caring, gifts for leading, gifts for hospitality, gifts for compassion, gifts in teaching. The Spirit of God is alive in the world – God in Christ has sent his Spirit among his people. Sometimes it takes immense courage and grace to trust and to live in openness to the Spirit who dwells among us and gives gifts to God’s people – but the Spirit gives that courage and gives that trust as we discover who we are and offer our gifts for service. This way of discover and service simply is self-love.
Self-love is setting aside time to seek the God of creation.
Self-love is opening ourselves to the risen Jesus and his call.
Self-love is attending to the Spirit that comes to renew and equip.
Self-love is in praying for strength to be God’s child.
Self-love is in praying for courage to live true to my identity in Christ.
In prayer we discover that self-love isn’t about me. It’s about knowing the love of Jesus that surrounds us, the gifts of the Spirit that are given to us, and the God of creation who embraces us. This self-love, true to our faith.