Loving the Enemy that is Yourself
Last week I listened to a Pray as You Go podcast focused on Matthew 5:43-45:
43 You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. (NRSV)
This passage is, of course, a familiar “difficult saying” of Jesus. However, the podcast reflected on it in a way I had never heard before: suppose the enemy you are to love is yourself. What then?
The idea that I am sometimes “my own worst enemy” resonates deeply with me. Perhaps we all have times when we dislike or hate ourselves, such as when we do something that transgresses our own values. But, I think at least some of us can also struggle with a lurking sense of self-hatred that never seems far away. This is true for me. I don’t notice it all the time, but when it’s around it feels like a genuine part of who I am, my identity, not just a temporary reaction to something I’ve done or failed to do. Its source seems to be the sense that I’m “not good enough,” as evidenced by any number of things on any given day.
How great to be informed by Jesus that I ought to take an attitude of love even toward the self-hater, the enemy, in me. But, how to do this? My strategy, I suppose, is the same strategy I take in trying to love anyone I’m struggling to love: look for the good in that person. Thomas Aquinas taught us that the cause of love is “the good”. So, if he’s right about that (and I think he is), we will only come to love something if we view it as good in some respect.
There is, of course, something pretty bad about my self-hating side (if I’m not careful, I might slip into an infinite regress here), but if I strain I can still see some good things. First, at least in my case, he tends to hold high standards, moral or otherwise. Granted, the problem he typically points out is that I fall short of these standards. But, nevertheless, there is something idealistic and good about holding high standards. And, the self-hater holding these high standards is part of me, so there’s something good about me in there.
Second, his origins lie (I think) in a part of my life story that can actually stir compassion for myself, when I think about it. My parents separated when I was young and my father wasn’t around very much during those early years. As a child I think I internalized a sense of responsibility for his leaving, which caused me to view myself as bad or defective. To my young mind, it seemed that he left because of me. Despite having made peace with this part of my life and with my Dad some years ago, I still carry this sense of being defective or bad. It’s kind of like a mental scar. Anyway, when I reflect on that story, I feel genuine compassion toward the self-hater: it’s not his fault he hates me. He was led astray by some tough early circumstances. He’s really just a young child who doesn’t see things quite clearly.
Finally, my self-hater is only a part of me. He is inseparably joined to other parts that I quite like and that are easy to view as good. So, when you view the whole package, on balance there is plenty to love (if I may say so!). Both faith and experience tell me that we are all a mixture of right and wrong, light and darkness, good but fallen creation. Remembering this about myself helps me recall the good that God has put in me—if only the good of being a person that a perfectly good God chose to make. And more often than not, when I see this, I end up loving myself.
It also turns out, in my experience, that having compassion and love for myself—even and especially in those moments when the self-hater is ascendant—diminishes this enemy’s power over time. Somehow loving the enemy that is myself gradually makes him less my enemy.