Loving Yourself

by Mike McKenna

Recently I have been learning a great deal about codependence. I have been learning about the effect of codependency in my life and relationships, but even more recently in how codependence effects my spiritual life. I've been amazed at what I have learned. The more I understand the effects of codependence on my life, the more I see an exact parallel to the messages in the scriptures. The principles of God's word follows the same principles that those who are recovering from codependence do. In essence the Bible is the master plan for recovering from codependence. However, this understanding did not come overnight.

At first the thought of learning about codependence, that ubiquitous self help buzzword of the 90, brought to my mind far to many cliched images to take it seriously. Men and women. sitting in small plastic chairs, forming a circle in the middle of the classroom of a community education center. The group leader would remind everyone that we are all smart enough, good enough, and doggone it people like you. Everyone would do self affirming tasks. To start today's session everyone give their inner child a nice big affirming hug. Next take 15 minutes and write down everything that they like about themselves. They use crayons to write with big strokes on the paper with no lines or boarders to hinder the flow of the positive reaffirming actions studies. If you feel 'yellow' today, use a 'yellow' crayon there's no judgments here about you and your crayon choices. The session ends with a group hug and a 'positive phrase' for the week. Some trite trendy phrase to keep them 'thinking positive' throughout the week. Something along the lines of 'When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.', would be a good one. Blech! Let me be the first to say that if life kept consistently giving me lemons, I'd often get rather pissed off, and I certainly wouldn't like lemonade! And hugging all the tress in the world won't change that. I know who I am and what I'm all about and I don't need to give my inner child a hug, especially in the middle of the kindergartner's home room. Besides, Christians love others. It's a built in byproduct of being a Christian. We spread Gods love to others and He showers us with his love and care. Or do I?

Despite my prejudices there seemed to be something that I could learn from this concept of codependence, so I looked further. I needed to understand what codependence was. What I found was that codependence is not an easy thing to define and there is no one definitive definition. It means many things to many people and has many forms, some are subtle, others are not so subtle. Here's my understanding of it. Codependence is a set of what I call life patterns that produce pain. Somewhere in the codependent's life (usually in their childhood) they were taught, directly or indirectly, through words and actions, that their own personal feelings and needs were secondary. Codependents are taught that talking about or even having feelings and needs was wrong, and that placing any emphasis on getting their needs or feelings taken care of was not necessary or not worth much attention. Those messages developed into life patterns which are called codependent behavior. It is codependent behavior because it is placing the needs of others before the needs of self, which is what causes the pain. This may seem obvious, but to someone who has codependent life patterns, this is a mystery. I know it was a mystery to me. It didn't dawn on me to make the connection that paying attention to my feelings and needs was OK until I understood what codependence was. God gave us our bodies and our minds.

Ro 8:5

For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.

Ro 12:1

I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.

He gave us our feelings and needs for a purpose. They are the indicators that tell us how we are doing, what we need, and where we need to go. And they are a vessel for the Holy Spirit to talk to us. The Holy Spirit is our counselor, and a counselor helps give us understanding of ourselves.

Luke 12:11-12

And when they bring you before the synagogues and the rulers and the authorities, do not be anxious how or what you are to answer or what you are to say; for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say.

John 14:26

But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.

That's the connection to God (or as 12 step programs refer to one's 'higher power') that is missing or broken in a codependent person's life. The unfortunate thing is that these codependent life patterns not only block this connection, and in effect deny these truths, but they also attract other codependents. This only makes things worse. One codependent person not thinking about their need and feeling coupled with another codependent person doing the same thing is a disaster, guaranteed. Because of this the life of a codependent person becomes unmanageable. They often live a life that is an emotional roller coaster, make bad decisions in relationships, have a tendency to rescue people and manage others emotional state, or often have addiction problems stemming from trying to get their needs me in other things. They feel victimized when their needs aren't meet, but they don't know how to ask for or understand what their needs are. They can feel guilty for standing up for themselves or angry when others don't come to their rescue. Although these statement are greatly generalized, they are also widely accepted by codependents. Basically the focus of their attention is on someone and/or something else, and their own essential feelings and needs are pushed aside. The result is a downward cycle that is self-perpetuating, and a big mess. In short, codependent people don't know how to love themselves. Or put another way, I don't know how to love myself.

That's the message I began to understand, and it didn't take long for me to find the deeply codependent areas of my life that were causing me pain. Indeed in some areas of my life I wallowed in it. But now I had understanding, thank the Lord! It was time to start changing my codependent behavior. Yet something bothered me about this codependence thing, What bothered me is that I felt uncomfortable putting value in my own feelings and needs, and that brought up images of tree hugging and crayons again. It became obvious to me that if I was to break free from the codependent areas of my life then I was going to have to start attending to my feelings and needs, and stop trying to manage other people's feelings and needs. Despite what I read and how this seemed correct, it also felt like a strange contradiction to my Christian lifestyle. I honestly couldn't remember if addressing my thoughts and feelings like this is important to God. I don't think that Christians are to walk around in sackcloth all the time, eating gravel and locust, and smiling because God loves them. Rather, my understanding was that my focus was to be on God (Prov 3:5-6), I was to be a witness and a servant to others (Matt 20:25-28). Jesus came as a servant), but I'm not to focus my attention on myself too much (putting off of the old self). I hit a road block. Does recovery from codependence parallel with the Christian message? Is codependence something that the Bible even addresses, or is it just a 90's new age self-help detour? I didn't know. I couldn't fully move on with my recovery from codependence till I got an answer to these questions. I needed an answer quick because what I was learning about codependence was making lots of sense. The answer that I got was that the last part of my understanding of Christianity, namely not putting too much emphasis on self, was skewed. The correction to my thinking came in this verse:

Lev 19:18

You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.

It's the last part of the verse that got me; 'love your neighbor as yourself.' I've heard that a million times before, but this time it struck me differently. I realized that there was something that I was doing that made that verse impossible for me. The simple formula written there was broken in my life. I wasn't doing that. I didn't love myself. I couldn't, I didn't know how.

Now, I knew that this verse was a key one. It's one of the 'golden rules'. I've even heard people use it as an argument against Christians who are behaving badly. It's one of those universal truths that almost everyone knows and try to obey. But according to this verse it is a command. It was part of the Ten Commandments. Right? Wrong. I had to re-read the Ten Commandments to double check. That verse isn't in the Ten Commandments at all. So where was it that I read it which made me remember it was an important concept for Christians? If it's not one of the Ten Commandments, then what was it? It's here in the words of Jesus himself:

Matt 22:34-40

But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they came together. And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question, to test him. "Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?" And he said to him, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets."

Jesus was putting great emphasis on loving you neighbor as yourself. In fact, Jesus was putting it as the second most important law to live by, right next to loving the Lord God with all you heart. And these two laws combined are what Jesus said holds together the message of the Bible. Now why would Jesus do that? What did Jesus see in that law that I didn't? I had to dissect these few verses a bit to uncover the importance.

Loving the Lord God with all you heart part is somewhat straight forward concept for the Christian. He's God. The Bible says He is ever loving, all knowing, and on our side. He loves us in ways that we can't even contemplate, and He has only the best promised for us. He is our salvation and our source. He has forgiven our sins through His son Jesus. We are only complete with God, life without Him is empty. Loving God with all our heart is the stuff that the daily Christian lifestyle is all about. In general terms, it starts with realizing that our lives are incomplete without God, accepting Jesus as our savior, making a daily commitment to live a life centered on Him, listening to His Holy Spirit for guidance, reading His word and acting upon it, and spreading His love to others. That's the first goal of the Christian, and to Jesus it is the most important law to remember.

The loving your neighbor part also seems straight forward. Of course I should love my neighbors, those people whom I'm in contact with. Why not? God is good to me. I should pass that along to others so that through God's love their lives can be changed. But the trick here is that Christians are to love others 'as yourself'. That implies more that just being nice to others. The key is that I must first know how to love myself before I can love others. I read the verse from Leviticus again, but now I read it like this; love yourself, then love your neighbor as yourself.

I can see several reason why Jesus put so much emphasis on this second law. Jesus is the perfect example of love and understanding. Modeling my patterns of self love after the love and understanding shown to me through the scriptures builds a firm foundation in healthy self love. When I learn how to take care of myself in the correct proportions, to be accepting when I fail, to forgive myself and to ask God for forgiveness, to do things that make me feel good, to build relationships that are healthy, and to stop rescuing people, I am loving myself like God loves me. When I learn to model my feeling and needs after the characteristics of God, I am loving myself.

When I know how to love myself I am in touch with my feelings and needs, which are in direct connection to God and the Holy Spirit. When I am listening to my feelings and needs, and expressing that to God through my thoughts, prayers, and actions I am communicating to Him using the tools that he gave me, my heart and my mind (which govern my feelings and needs). I'm walking closer to God. I have a better understanding of myself and I can see more clearly how God works through me and with me. I can talk to God directly and the Holy Spirit interacts with me on a deeper level. I am dealing with the root causes of my actions and not the surface issues. I know that the Holy Spirit works at the heart of the matters in my life, not on the surface issues, and that ultimately God is interested in the condition of my heart. Avoiding my feelings and needs makes me react on a surface level, and never deals with the real issues, which the Holy Spirit wants to council me on, and which God wants to heal or change.

It follows that when I know how to love myself I'm better equipped to love others in the right proportions and in the right ways. When I know how to separate my codependent thinking from my healthy thinking I can eliminate the actions that cause me pain, and my spiritual life will skyrocket. But I am also able to discern when and how to love others because I have built a foundation of loving myself based upon the example of Christ.

So how do I love myself without being too self centered and detached from others? How do I obtain and keep that balance between knowing myself and loving myself as God loves me, and being too self righteous and detached from God? I think in order to answer that question we need to look at what God's word says about loving ourselves and how God loves us.

The extreme opposite of self love is self-righteousness, pride and arrogance. These are characteristics that are often rebuked in the scriptures.

Pr 11:2

When pride comes, then comes disgrace; but with the humble is wisdom.

Ps 10:4

In the pride of his countenance the wicked does not seek him; all his thoughts are, "There is no God."

1Jo 2:16

For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, is not of the Father but is of the world.

Rom 3:21-26

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from law, although the law and the prophets bear witness to it, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies him who has faith in Jesus.

The idea here is that if we are to love others as ourselves we are going to have to have a 'self' to love, or a concept of a 'self'. If we are our own worst enemy, how much love can we spread to others. According to the verse from Matt 22:34-40, none.

But where does this concept of 'self' come from? We only have two choices, the world or God. We can listen to our own hearts and thoughts and make our own conclusions based upon our experiences, our own performance, and how others react and interact with us,

Gal 6:3

For if any one thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself.

or we can take our image of self from the image that God has of us and use that as the basis of our self image or self worth. For me this is a new concept. I had to go looking for the evidence in God's word that his image of me worthy of embracing and calling my own. Here's some things that I need to remember:

I am not condemned by God:

Psalm 103:11-12

For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him, as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us.

God's steadfast (hessed) love never fails:

Psalm 107 and 136.

What else do the scriptures say about how God feels about us?

Once we know how God feels about us, and we understand the gift of grace and forgiveness that He has given us, we can start to adopt these thoughts as our own, and can begin to use them as our blueprint for developing our self image and in essence our identity. Scripture clearly gives us an invitation and an opportunity to build up a new 'self' in Him.

Eph 4:22-24

You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires to be made new in the attitude of your minds and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.

Col 3:9-10

Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.

Phil 2:12 -13

Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed-- not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence-- continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.

Gal 5: 22-23

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.

I believe the scriptures are telling us to form healthy images of ourselves, based upon how God see us. The scriptures also show us that God is more than willing to help us change our inner self through reading His word, the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and fellowship with other Christians. But not only is He willing to do that with us, he wants us to do it! For when we do we will be able to stand on a self image that is built on the ultimate foundation, Christ. A self worth, and a lifestyle built on Christ is at peace. No matter what the world will throw at us, we can stand and we are free to carry out the two most important laws Jesus outlined;

Matt 22:34-40

But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they came together. And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question, to test him. "Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?" And he said to him, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets."

Perhaps it is time to ask God to shake up our inner selves. Perhaps it is time to pray that God will help us individually create a new self. And perhaps it is time to let go and ask God to show us how to love ourselves the way that He loves us.

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April 11, 1998