When I speak to women about loving themselves, some are confused and uncomfortable. Is it okay to love myself? they sometimes ask. I encourage them to be kind to themselves and to understand their worth. I ask them to notice things they are doing well. If I feel good about my accomplishments isn’t that pride? If I do something nice for myself isn’t that being selfish?
Many women struggle with feelings of self-worth. Women in abusive relationships struggle in personal and painful ways. It is difficult for them to find themselves amid the abuse. They struggle to understand the doctrines of charity, forgiveness, and unconditional love.
Some who are in abusive relationships feel that having unconditional love means putting up with the abuse. They wonder if the abuse is their fault. Because they want to be Christlike they will stay in a harmful relationship to show they have charity. They may put on a cheerful face and minimize the abuse. They forgive the abuser and allow the abuse to continue, because they think that is what forgiveness means.
To any who struggle with self-worth or boundaries in a hurtful relationship, I tenderly offer some clarification.
Perhaps you are confusing unconditional love with unconditional acceptance. In other words we are told that our Heavenly Father cannot show the least degree of acceptance for sin, yet he always loves the sinner.
If you had two children and one was a bully, would you love the bully less than your picked on child? Would you love him unconditionally, even when he beat up the other child? That is charity. Out of that charity, would you allow him to continue to abuse your other child? Would you counsel the child with the broken nose, two cracked ribs, and a broken spirit to lie down and take it so that he could show unconditional love for his brother?
Forgiveness is essential. Loving the sinner is a commandment. Accepting the sin is foolish. Allowing the sinner to repeat unacceptable behavior out of charity is misguided.
If someone raped or murdered your daughter, your sister, your best friend, you might try to feel love for this person. You might have to dig deep to find this love, but you are a disciple of Jesus Christ.
You might ask Jesus to help you find forgiveness in your heart. Forgiveness is hard, but you will try. You might pray for charity, or unconditional love, but you do not want the rapist, the murderer, to go free and be allowed to repeat his crime. You might be able to find forgiveness, charity, unconditional love, but you want this man locked away from society where he can never hurt anyone again. Forgiving does not remove the consequence for unacceptable behavior. Having charity does not remove the consequence either.
Some years ago I was invited to address a small group of pastors about sexual abuse. It was a powerful experience. One pastor told of a man who had abused a child many years ago and his family still did not trust them with their children. He felt sorrow for this man, and pain, but forgiveness does not equal trust. Charity does not equal trust. Trust must be earned.
Suppose a man robbed a bank, then paid his debt to society. Suppose he served a prison term and then repaid the debt. The bank forgives. The law forgives. Society forgives. If it is your bank, will you then rehire him?
If we must have charity for the abuser, we must also have charity for the abused. If your child was being abused you would take your child out of the situation if it were possible. You would rescue the child no matter the cost, wouldn’t you? Or would you instead counsel your child to submit to the abuse in the name of charity?
Perhaps we should have said to our neighbors in Iraq, “We encourage you to show charity for these insane creatures who are murdering, raping, and pillaging you. Don’t try to defend yourselves, and don’t ask for help. This is for your own good. This is a time for selflessness.”
I do not believe that allowing others to abuse you is charity. The commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves opens at least two other questions. 1. Who is my neighbor? 2. Am I supposed to love myself?
In truth, the commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves is also a commandment to love ourselves. How could it be otherwise? We can only love another to the degree that we love ourselves.
When we carefully consider this commandment, there are other questions. Can I show charity for myself? Is it possible? Will I do it? Will I feel guilty if I do? Is it selfish to give up being a doormat? Does being a doormat make me more celestial? Does allowing myself to be abused make me more loving, more Christlike, more charitable? Is submitting to abuse helping me to learn unconditional love? Is it making me a better person?
I do not believe that charity is synonymous with selflessness. Selfless service is beautiful thing, but selflessness implies a loss of identity, a loss of value. Jesus gave selfless service, but he never lost his value or his identity. Selfless service cannot come from an empty heart, any more than money can come from an empty purse, or food can come from an empty shelf.
To the woman taken in sin the Lord showed love and charity. He did not rebuke her, he frankly forgave her. He also counseled her to go and sin no more. Is it possible that mistreating herself was part of the sin? Is it possible that allowing someone to mistreat a child of God is a sinful act?
For some these are difficult concepts, and you may not agree with the words that I have written. I believe that they are true. You matter to Heavenly Father. He cherishes you. Ask him to tell you how he feels about you. Ask him if there is a thread of truth in my words. Ask him if it is okay to love yourself.