They were the Greek gods of autumn. Green fields were their domain, and each fall we found ourselves drawn to those fields to see them play. They were the junior high soccer team in a small Christian school without the budget for football. But no one was thinking of that. These were the deities of our small world.

Soccer season was tough for doughy boys who like books. They didn’t measure up well to the lean warriors whose skill was so prized in our community. I was as aware of this as anyone, and it filled me with dissatisfaction. One evening this dissatisfaction boiled over, and I indulged in something I never had done before. I spoke out loud a thought that had been in my head plenty of times before. And I did it in front of my mother.

“I hate myself.”

You have to know something about my mother. She uses her words like a nesting hen uses her wings, always gently and for the care of her own. When I looked up, though, she was not looking at me. Her face had a strange steel in it. When she finally spoke, her voice had steel too.

“You have no right.”

I had awoken a deep offense in her. I’d expected pity. What I got was far better.

The Experience of Self-Hatred

We were made to perceive ourselves as God perceives us. Self-hatred means something has gone wrong with our perception of ourselves.

This post is part of a series that attempts to show how Scripture gives a framework for addressing different ways our hearts respond to the world that aren’t mentioned in their specifics. The introductory post laid out our guiding principle: God designed people to respond from the heart to the unique situations in which He has placed them. So the question this post addresses is, How should we understand self-hatred as an expression of the heart?

What is the alternative to self-hatred? The opposite of self-hatred is not self-love but humility.

Self-hatred is your heart’s attempt to condemn the person you are in preference for who you wish you were. The problem is that who you wish you were is simply a summary of your own desires. You form your opinion around these desires instead of forming it around God’s opinion of you. His preferences become secondary to yours.

On What Authority?

“You do not have the authority to condemn anyone, including yourself.” My mom’s words were brilliant theology. She was pointing out that I am not God, and therefore I am not in authority to condemn.

The Apostle Paul established this basic principle of self-perception in his letter to the believers in Corinth who were waffling in their opinion of Paul—was he a legitimate leader to follow, especially compared to other more impressive leaders? Instead of becoming self-loathing for not measuring up to the “super-Apostles,” Paul establishes this principle: What you think of me, and even what I think of myself, does not condemn or justify me. Only God’s opinion matters (1 Cor. 4:1–5).

Self-loathing is wrong not primarily because of who you are but because of who God is. His opinion is the only one that ultimately counts.

Who’s Informing You?

Who you wish you were is being informed by someone. In Paul’s line of thought, he escaped from the desires that could have controlled his self-perception, desires that the Corinthian believers had been pressing on him. The “super-Apostles” were more impressive. They looked better, spoke better, and succeeded better. Why was Paul such a failure?

Like the sunlit gods of junior high soccer, the “super-Apostles” had qualities that could have captured Paul’s wishes for himself. Similarly, who you wish you were is informed by the athletic prowess, physical beauty, leadership ability, natural intelligence, or knack for business that’s so prized in your circles. The problem with self-hatred is that God does not value these things in the same way the people in your circles do. He doesn’t measure you on the scale you’re using to measure yourself.

Humility over Self-Love

What is the alternative to self-hatred? The opposite of self-hatred is not self-love but humility. Self-hatred is so tricky because it seems like it’s a form of humility—after all, you are holding a low opinion of self. But that low opinion still flows from your own wishes.

Humility means submitting your wishes for yourself to God’s wishes for you. What God wishes for you is that Christ is formed in you. He wants His character increasingly to characterize the way you are, whatever your unique gifting, in whatever your unique context. In other words, He is far more concerned that you are characterized by love than by any of the things you tend to focus on about yourself (1 Cor. 12:12–13:13).

Stopping the cycle of self-hatred requires the humility to give over to God your dreams for yourself. This is one of the best exchanges we could ever take, since by doing it we gain clearer eyes to see Jesus’ love for us, which is far more powerful than our self-hatred could ever be.
Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series on Bible study and was previously published July 20, 2018. Previous post. Next Post.

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