Why does it bother me sometimes when she looks so happy in her Instagram photos? Why does my heart sink when I get up and look in the mirror in the morning? Why do I keep beating myself up for sins and failures I’ve already confessed to God and been forgiven of? If you can relate to any of these statements, you’re not alone. It’s one of the spiritual pandemics of the modern world – the nagging feeling that I don’t measure up – and I hate myself for it. It’s called “self-loathing” – and it’s a soul killer. "Loathing" and "hatred" seem like strong words. But think about how harsh, unkind and mean you can be toward yourself sometimes in your self-talk. We berate ourselves for our failures. We criticize ourselves for our flaws. We can even resort to name-calling. I remember one time I was mad at myself for something I had done, and I blurted out in frustration: “You idiot!” And Lisa heard it and said, “Honey, don’t ever talk to yourself that way. You’re not an idiot.” It was the tip of the iceberg. It was a rare audible utterance of a name I had called myself for years. And my wife’s gentle rebuke woke me up to the self-loathing I had allowed to develop in my heart without realizing it. I have since realized that when Jesus taught us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves (Matthew 22:39, Mark 12:31) he is obviously referring to the natural tendency we all have to seek our own highest good, but that command can also be applied to loving ourselves as well. Would you talk to others like you talk to yourself sometimes? Would you treat others like you treat yourself sometimes? Sometimes we treat strangers better than we treat ourselves. And that breaks God’s heart. When you love someone, you want them to be happy. God loves us and wants us to be happy. So, when he sees us sinking into the downward spiral of shame, self-hatred, and depression, he reaches out his hand to pull us out of our deathtrap – usually through scripture. Consider the hand-up that Zechariah 3 provides us: “Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the LORD, and Satan standing at his right side to accuse him” (Zechariah 3:1).
Here, Joshua symbolizes us, standing before the angel of the Lord, who represents God. Meanwhile, Satan stands beside us, hurling his hateful accusations against us to God, our judge. The footnote in the NIV Bible for this verse even reminds us that the name “Satan” means “accuser.” So, what will happen next? Satan’s accusations are hateful, but true. We are guilty of all of the sins Satan accuses us of—and more. We stand accused before the sovereign judge of the universe, and we are guilty—guilty as charged. But the angel of the Lord’s response surprises us: “The LORD rebuke you, Satan! The LORD, who has chosen Jerusalem, rebuke you! Is not this man a burning stick snatched from the fire?” (Zechariah 3:2). The Lord rebukes Satan – not us! God is indignant at Satan, not because he is lying about our sins, but because he is lying about our forgiveness. Yes, we are burning sticks, but we have been snatched from the fire by God himself. And then, he does this for us… "Now Joshua was dressed in filthy clothes as he stood before the angel. The angel said to those who were standing before him, “Take off his filthy clothes.” Then he said to Joshua, “See, I have taken away your sin, and I will put rich garments on you.” Then I said, “Put a clean turban on his head.” So they put a clean turban on his head and clothed him, while the angel of the LORD stood by. (Zechariah 3:3–5)" Joshua’s filthy clothes represent the filthy sins that clothe each of our hearts. The Lord takes our filthy clothes off, washes our hearts clean, and then puts new clothes on us. This is the essence of what it means to be clothed with Christ: “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (Galatians 3:26–27). If we have been baptized into Christ, then we have been clothed with the righteousness (the acceptability to God) of Christ. When God looks down on us from heaven, he does not see the filthy rags of our sins anymore, but the pure robes of Jesus Christ adorning our hearts. The barrier of sin between us has been removed and we are reconciled. Now, imagine if Joshua turned to the angel of the Lord and said, “No, Lord, I agree with Satan. I’m a jerk and these clean clothes are only hiding how awful I am.” How do you think that would make God feel? When we spurn God’s love and forgiveness, we are spurning God himself. So, why would we ever spurn God’s love and forgiveness?
There are many possible reasons for this that are not our fault, like physical, sexual or emotional abuse that make it difficult for us to feel lovable.
But the underlying issue with most self-loathing is actually pride. It’s not that we don’t believe God forgives us. It’s that we haven’t forgiven ourselves. And that’s why we’re so down on ourselves. Why would we not forgive ourselves? Because we can’t accept ourselves for who we are in the flesh – sinners, broken people in a broken world, living broken lives. And it’s our pride that won’t admit that. We’d rather see ourselves as better than that, more capable than that, more worthy and meritorious than that. And so, we never get to a point of true brokenness and humility – where we can be in a position to accept God’s love and forgiveness, and truly love and forgive ourselves. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4 Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” (Matthew 5:3-4) As long as our ego is bruised and our pride offended, we will always hate who we are in the flesh – broken sinners in need of grace – thus, forfeiting the comfort that could be ours. But the poor in spirit can receive the kingdom and the mournful can receive comfort – because their self-esteem has to be based on God’s grace, not on their merit, performance, or how they look to others. So, pride is the biggest reason we spurn God’s love and forgiveness – not intentionally, but functionally, since we are refusing to love and forgive ourselves.
How do we know when self-loathing is coming on? Two of the tell-tale signs for me are: 1) competition 2) and how I treat others 1) Competition C.S. Lewis points out that pride (the root and cause of most self-loathing) is inherently competitive: “Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man... It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest. Once the element of competition is gone, pride is gone.” So, when I start feeling competitive with others (comparing looks, skills, accomplishments, popularity, etc.) that’s when I know I’ve begun to base my self-esteem on my perception of how others are viewing me, instead of deriving my self-esteem from how our Heavenly Father views me. 2) How I treat others Another tell-tale sign that I’ve begun to sink into self-loathing is that I begin to get irritated, angry, and frustrated easily at others; or I start having a critical and judgmental spirit toward others. This is often only a reflection of how I’m treating myself. It’s actually revealing irritation with myself, anger toward myself, frustration with myself, being critical of myself, judging myself harshly, and generally being unkind toward myself. I treat others that way because I’m treating my own heart that way – so it just spills over to others. (“Out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks.” Luke 6:45, NIV 1984) This is another reason God wants us to forgive ourselves – because until we do, we are not free to love others. The blood of Christ not only objectively cleanses us of sin, but must also subjectively cleanse our consciences so that we’re free to serve God and others: “How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!” I can’t pour out what I don’t have. If I’m not full of God’s love and grace for me, how can I pour out God's love and grace to others? So, self-loathing not only hurts us – it also hurts those around us and hinders how God can work through us. So, how do we grab the extended hand of Jesus to pull us out of the downward spiral of self-loathing? Let’s explore that question in the next blog post.