In the summer of 2013, I worked at a summer camp for girls in the mountains of northeast Alabama. It was an incredible experience and I did many things I considered impossible for me, such as lead a troop of 11-14 year olds, teach six year olds how to knit, or work a ropes course.
I struggled with many of the ropes course tasks because, for one, my hand-eye coordination is not as high as some people’s. I never was good at kickball or basketball or football or P.E. in general, for that matter. Another reason is that while heights are thrilling for me mentally and emotionally, my muscles tend to shut down that high up. My hands would get all sweaty and my fingers would lock up. My arms would go numb. My legs would stop holding me up. It was nasty. Needless to say, they eventually resigned me to the on-ground positions, like belaying climbers up a rock wall or helping little girls off the V-swing. Sometimes I got up in the air on break times just to keep on top of my game, which was always fun.
Of course, even though I was usually assigned to the ground, I had to be trained on all the elements, even the up high ones. This mean hours of training, running the same elements multiple times as both a facilitator and a participant, which always led to uncomfortable wedgies. On one of these days, one of the trainers (a girl named Ali), remarked on my ability to stay calm and patient during the stressful parts. She said, “You’re really patient with yourself.” I think back to that experience quite a bit, and I resonate with her words. That experience was how ropes taught me patience. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that patience is the first characteristic of love in 1 Corinthians chapter 13.
This morning at church, it hit me that I am in the midst of learning the second characteristic from that passage: love is kind.
If you’re like me, you may have had a difficult experience (or several) in your formative years or even since then that has affected how you view yourself. Many times we don’t acknowledge or deal with these experiences – we just know that we are affected in some way, even if we don’t know how. Other times, a counselor, a traumatic event, or a faithful community brings these issues to light and we have to work them out in God’s timing. I once worked with a lady whose uncle told her she had ugly knees and since then she has always worn pants, even decades later. It may be a slightly humorous example, but it was extremely painful for this woman nonetheless.
Often, a situation has affected us for years. Maybe divorce; death of a loved one; abusive elder, peer, or romantic interest; absent parent; constant bullying; lifelong and/or mishandled medical condition; mental illness in ourselves or those around us; unfaithful friend; moving many times as a young child… There are any number of issues, and each person responds to these issues in a different way. A cross-country move may be a traumatic event in one child’s life, while his or her sibling may enjoy the move and make new friends easily. It doesn’t matter what the situation is… What matters is how it affects us. When we struggle with issues today, we may not realize that they are often directly linked to a difficult situation from earlier.
Personally, I struggle with negative self talk. There are a variety of places it could have come from, and I believe it was a combination of all of them. To deal with this struggle, I sought out the only thing I could that made it seem better… Accolades. I figured out by high school that I could take on responsibilities and lead or co-lead something and enter my writing pieces into contests and make A’s in all my classes, and I could run off those accolades like gas in a car. When I felt my self-esteem dropping, I would just remember that my teachers and peers (no more P.E. classes by this point, thankfully) and parents thought I was smart and good at what I did, and I would reign that negative self talk back in. Yeah, sometimes it got to me, and fluctuating teenage hormones did not help a bit, but I was able to be in control enough to be a happy and busy person. I was constantly busy. In college, it was the same way: busyness, good grades, ministry of various types, part-time job, leading and co-leading, staying up late and waking up early. Listen: There is nothing wrong with any of those things. Those are very good things. But when we use them to gain the approval of others, we are neglecting the God who has already given us His approval. I lived on the accolades and approval of others. I also lived for the feelings of success when I accomplished something – sometimes not as pride in a job well done, but as a more haughty, looking-down-on-people-who-couldn’t-do-it pride. Of course, I would have never said that back then, but I began to realize that’s the way it was when I got into the “real world” and people were not constantly giving me accolades and approval. Professors loved me in college, but my boss in the “real world” thought I was okay. And there’s nothing wrong with that… With time, I will get better at what I do, but I’m still learning. It’s okay that I’m okay. Unfortunately, I didn’t see it that way at the beginning of this “real world” adventure.
When the feelings of not measuring up and not meeting standards took its toll on me (from new my job, my new dating relationship, my new living arrangement… see a new pattern here?), I let that negative self talk have its way. It was not pretty. I’ll just sum it up by saying that almost a week ago, I had a horrible night. I was crying nonstop, I couldn’t sleep, my stomach ached, and I could not stop the demeaning thoughts. If it wasn’t spiritual warfare, it was pretty darn close. I couldn’t pray, I couldn’t remember or read Scripture, and I couldn’t calm down enough to think rationally. The negative thoughts had had their way with me. I had listened to them for months now and I could not take it any longer.
But grace found me and I eventually fell asleep. A few good talks with godly people, worship music, and a restful breakfast date with God later, and I am doing much better.
The point I’m making is that I have a propensity for negative self talk and low self-esteem due partially to difficult experiences when I was younger and partially to being a hormonal young woman in multiple new situations at the same time. Regardless, I was faced with the reality that I wasn’t loving myself when I let that negative self-talk into my head. Love is kind, and I was not being kind to myself. When Paul talks about taking every thought captive, he means more than staying away from sexually impure thoughts – he also means avoiding thoughts that put yourself down. You are a child of the Most High God, created in his image to do the good things he has prepared in advance for you to do. Why would you ever put yourself down? Later, in Philippians 4:8, Paul urges us to “fix your thoughts” on things that are true, honorable, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy. Can you focus on those things while at the same time telling yourself that you are worthless and inadequate over and over again? Can you focus on true, lovely, and honorable things while dismissing your God-given gifts and dwelling on your human weaknesses? Can you focus on right and excellent things while ignoring God’s strength and staying in a place of self-deprecation?
As Christians, we are called to love, and I believe that this command extends even to ourselves. How can we love others if we don’t love ourselves? It’s a difficult balance to find, as we don’t want to become inflated and prideful, either. However, I believe that a positive understanding of God’s sacrifice and grace for us combined with an appropriate conceptual grasp of our teeny-tiny but nevertheless significant roles in his grand plan will help us to find that balance.
In fact, as C.S. Lewis wrote: “Humility is not thinking less of ourselves. It is thinking of ourselves less.” Self-hatred and self-pride are both examples of selfishness, as they are both thinking of ourselves more often than thinking of others.
There is a beautiful place in the middle there where we are at peace with our identities in Christ and we can humbly love others without hidden agendas. It may take an entire lifetime to get to a point of consistently walking in that place. In the mean time, we must deal with our own difficult memories and painful issues in order to love ourselves well. And we must keep loving others, and extending to them the same things we are extending to ourselves, especially when it is difficult.
Love is patient, love is kind… I wonder what God will show me next? (Read 1 Corinthians 13 to find out!)
P.S. Let me just stick a postscript in right here… Even as I’m learning about this incredibly important aspect of agape love, I’m realizing that I very often treat those around me with a lack of kindness, even people I claim to love. Why is it so easy to treat those close to us (family, significant others, close friends) with the least love? For this, I apologize, and want to remind those closest to me that this is a learning process for all of us. Thank you for your forgiveness and acceptance, even when my words, thoughts, and actions do not convey love.