YOU CAN’T LOVE OTHERS UNTIL YOU LOVE YOURSELF



MYTH #5

YOU CAN’T LOVE OTHERS UNTIL YOU LOVE YOURSELF

ME FIRST

“The bottom line is that you can’t love others if you don’t love yourself first,” writes Victoria Osteen, wife of megachurch pastor Joel Osteen. Her husband has preached the same: “If you don’t love yourself in the right way, you can’t love your neighbor. You can’t be as good as you are supposed to be.”


According to the Osteens, God’s love empowers us to love ourselves, which enables us to obey Jesus’s command to love our neighbors. Self-love is possible only if we first love ourselves.


The Osteens are simply reiterating an idea that’s been popular in Christian circles for decades. In the 1970s, books like Love Yourself by Walter Trobisch, a German pastor, and The Art of Learning to Love Yourself by Cecil Osborne, a Baptist minister, were published by Christian publishers. These books argued from both a theological and a psychological perspective that self-esteem and self-acceptance play crucial roles in Christian life in that they determine how well we can love other people.


Author Jen Hatmaker makes the same argument in her book For the Love: “We love people the way we love ourselves, and if we’re not good enough, then no one is.” These Christian leaders echo the sentiment of singer Miley Cyrus, who expressed it best in an interview with Elle about her marriage to Liam Hemsworth: “Why are we trained that love means putting yourself second and those you love first? If you love yourself, then what? You come first.” It’s worth noting that, sadly, their marriage dissolved in less than a year.


According to this line of thought, loving ourselves is a prerequisite to loving those around us. That gives us a good (even a biblical-sounding) excuse to focus on ourselves before and instead of focusing on the wants and needs of others. The reasoning claims its roots are in Jesus’s central command to love our neighbors as ourselves. If we don’t first love ourselves well, then the love we give other people won’t be good either.


But Cyrus understands something self-love promoters in Christian-ish circles aren’t willing to admit: to commit to self-love is actually to commit to selfishness. Whereas Cyrus and her secular cohorts regard selfishness as a virtue, followers of Jesus do not.


Jesus’s command to love others as we love ourselves is not a command to love ourselves. “[A]s you love yourselves” assumes self-love, because Jesus, who created us, knows self-love is innate. This doesn’t mean we look in the mirror and always like what we see, or that we consider ourselves talented or likable. In fact, we can think horrible things about ourselves and still be practicing self-love. The love that we were born feeling for ourselves isn’t romantic or affectionate but is a love that looks out for our best interests. As Blaise Pascal explains in his 250th Pensé, “All men seek happiness without exception. . . . It is the motive of all actions of all men, even of those who contemplate suicide.”


We are born looking out for our well-being. Those who harm themselves and end their own lives are still looking out for their own interest, as they’re seeking a way to alleviate their pain. Meeting our own needs comes more naturally to us than anything else in life.


Self-love shows up not just as an innate drive for self-gratification and self-preservation but also as self-justification. Not only will we do whatever possible to meet our own basic needs, we also insist upon seeing ourselves in the best light possible. As C. S. Lewis points out The Weight of Glory: “In our own case we accept excuses too easily; in other people’s we do not accept them easily enough.”


We’re quick to justify our actions, even while condemning the same action done by others. That’s how fiercely—and blindly—we love ourselves.


I know what you’re thinking: but what about the people who really hate themselves? The kids who blame themselves for their parents’ divorce? The woman who thinks her boyfriend’s abuse is her fault? What about the girl who picks herself apart every morning when she looks in the mirror? Don’t they need a crash course in self-love?


It’s true that these people have unhealthy views of themselves and may be wrestling with self-loathing. That’s who I was in college, as I was attempting to rebound from rejection by starving myself and downing Crystal Light and vodka four nights a week. I was looking for satisfaction and affirmation and love in all the wrong places. I looked like a case study in self-hatred.


And I did hate things about myself. I was insecure. I did feel inadequate. But I never stopped loving myself. I was living the life I was living because I thought it would make me feel better. Even in my self-consciousness and loneliness and insecurity, I never stopped considering my best interest. I was just wrong about what my best interests actually were.


Frankly, I was self-obsessed. I was constantly thinking about what I deserved, wondering “why me?” and looking for new ways to make myself feel better. Self-obsession and self-hatred aren’t mutually exclusive. Most of the time they go hand in hand. This is a hard to admit but universal fact of human nature.


We don’t have a self-love deficit in this country—or anywhere. We never have. Despite how insistently psychologists for the past half century have told us that the key to better behavior and more satisfying lives is higher self-esteem, the research—even in secular circles—just doesn’t hold up.


In 2002, Lauren Slater wrote a piece for The New York Times titled “The Trouble with Self-Esteem.” In it she highlights the failures of decades of theory that have asserted that the higher view we have of ourselves, the more responsible and fulfilled we’ll be. She says this:


“It has not been much disputed, until recently, that high self-esteem—defined quite simply as liking yourself a lot, holding a positive opinion of your actions and capacities—is essential to well-being and that its opposite is responsible for crime and substance abuse and prostitution and murder and rape and even terrorism.”


But this simply isn’t the case. Slater continues:


“In 1986, the State Legislature of California founded the Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility. It was galvanized by Assemblyman John Vasconcellos, who fervently believed that by raising his citizens’ self-concepts, he could divert drug abuse and all sorts of other social ills. It didn’t work. In fact, crime rates and substance abuse rates are still formidable, right along with our self-assessment scores on paper and pencil tests.”


Slater cites Nicholas Emler of the London School of Economics, whose research found that “there is absolutely no evidence that low self-esteem is particularly harmful, and that people with low self-esteem seem to do just as well in life as people with high self-esteem.” Researcher Roy Baumeister of Case Western Reserve University found that “low self-esteem is in most cases a socially benign if not beneficent condition but also that its opposite, high self-regard, can maim and even kill.”


If we’re honest, we’re a little offended by their findings. You’re telling me that it’s okay—better, even—for me not to think of myself highly? Not to think I’m beautiful or talented or strong or full of potential?


Our minds have so intertwined self-affirmation and success that we’re afraid that if we stop telling ourselves how great we are, our lives will take a nosedive into misery. We’ll start to wallow in self-pity, our relationships will grow toxic and codependent, and we’ll fail at work because we’ll be crippled by our own self-doubt.


But that fear ignores the reality that as Christians, our options aren’t boiled down to high self-esteem versus low self-esteem, or self-love versus self-hatred. We choose neither. Instead, we operate out of total self-forgetfulness.


Tim Keller illustrates this truth in his book, The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness. In it he explains that “the essence of gospel-humility is not thinking more of myself or thinking less of myself, it is thinking of myself less.” I love how he describes what this looks like:

Gospel-humility is not needing to think about myself. Not needing to connect things with myself. It is an end to thoughts such as, “I’m in this room with these people, does that make me look good? Do I want to be here?” True gospel-humility means I stop connecting every experience, every conversation, with myself. In fact, I stop thinking about myself. The freedom of self-forgetfulness. The blessed rest that only self-forgetfulness brings.

Blessed rest indeed. Depending on our own self-esteem for healthy relationships or lifelong fulfillment is exhausting because it depends on a variety of factors that change every day: our job performance, our weight, our popularity, our mood, or our ability to think good things about ourselves. Instead, we choose self-forgetfulness, and we replace our self-love with God’s love, which is dependent on a factor that will never change: our salvation in Christ. Contradicting everything our culture tells us, it turns out the prerequisite for real love is self-forgetfulness, not self-love.


And what a relief this is. Because of Jesus, we have an answer to our insecurities, our self-criticism and self-doubt, and it’s so much better than flimsy, shallow self-love. Our answer is him, the eternal, unchanging Creator and Sustainer of the universe, who paid for our sins on the cross, declaring us forever forgiven, innocent and righteous before a just and holy God. What deeper and surer confidence could we ask for than to be irrevocably purchased by Jesus’s perfect sacrifice, not as a reward for our goodness but as a gift by his grace?


This same Jesus calls us not to self-love but to self-denial and full obedience. He doesn’t tell us to learn to love ourselves before we love other people, because his love for us is more than sufficient to equip us to love those around us.


Philippians 2:3‒4 says, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”


That is the kind of love Jesus is calling us to when he tells us to love our neighbors. As we look after our own needs, look after theirs. As we seek our own interests, seek their interests. As we fight for self-preservation and self-justification, be quick to make provision for them, and give them the same benefit of the doubt you give yourself.


The love we show our neighbor may not manifest as affectionate feelings, because there are times we may not feel affection for them. Love of neighbor is about applying the same instincts we have to take care of and be kind to ourselves to other people as well.


This will mean, as the Philippians 2 verse says, counting others as even more important than we count ourselves, and sacrificing our needs for the good of others. I first learned what this looked like in high school.

YOU DON’T HAVE TO WAIT

The love that we, as Christians, show people—as unlovable as they may be—is a reflection of God’s love for us. We, too, are unlovable. We, too, are undeserving of God’s approval and affection. And yet even while we were yet sinners, God made a way through Christ to have a relationship with us (Romans 5:8). We don’t have the right to ignore or dismiss people because they’re hard to love, because God didn’t dismiss or ignore us.


That means we are free to love people right now, rather than waiting until we have positive feelings toward ourselves.


When we put off loving other people because it’s hard or we think we need to commit to self-improvement first, three things happen: we disobey God by ignoring people’s needs, people’s needs go unmet, and we miss out on life-giving, empathy-building experiences that make us more like Christ. I learned this for the first time in high school.


My older brother, Daniel, is on the autism spectrum. He is kind, funny, a lover of history, and a treasure trove of random facts. He’s also had a difficult life.


Daniel has always been on the outside looking in. Making friends has never come naturally to him, no matter how hard he’s tried. Growing up, my other brother and I attended the same school, but Daniel never could. While we had places to go, people to see, and normal teenage challenges to face, Daniel never knew what it was like to be “in.” He still doesn’t.


When I was little, I would pray that God would make him “normal.” I didn’t understand why he didn’t talk like everyone else, why he couldn’t read well, or why he went to a different school. As I matured, I realized “normal” wasn’t a goal Daniel would or should ever aspire to. His differences are exactly what make him who he is—gentle spirited, brutally honest, and curious.


God has used Daniel to help me take notice of other people like him. The summer after my junior year of high school, my church took a group of students to a camp for people with special needs called Camp Barnabas. For a few days of the year, campers whose disabilities range from severe to minimal are able to do things “typical” people get to do on a daily basis: swim, go down slides, go camping, play sports, and hang out with people who look and act like them. As volunteers, we each served as a camper’s “buddy” for the week. We stayed by their side all week to ensure their experience at camp was the best it could be. It was the hardest, most rewarding experience I’d ever had, and I was in love.


The next year, I spent six weeks at Camp Barnabas as a staff member, coleading a cabin of campers and volunteers. It’s hard to describe the exhaustion and joy that comes with caring for so many women with such a wide variety of spiritual, emotional, and physical needs. Feeding, bathing, comforting, holding, helping, encouraging, and loving people who could do nothing for us in return required a level of sacrifice I hadn’t reached until that point. Self-denial was the mode of operation, and self-forgetfulness was the norm.


I think back to my seventeen- and eighteen-year-old self, and I see, in most ways, a typical teenager. I was a self-focused, moody, insecure girl who just wanted her boyfriend to love her and for her parents to leave her alone. But God was working on me, and he used Camp Barnabas to show me who he was.


Though I was raised in a Christian home, I didn’t have a personal relationship with Christ until I was a junior in high school. I had a Bible teacher who challenged us to ask hard questions about God and to dig into Scripture for the answers. He led discussions and debates that sparked my interest in who Jesus is and what following him would look like. I started reading C. S. Lewis, and his book Mere Christianity made faith seem more real to me than it ever had.


I stopped going to the church I was raised in and switched to a church of my choosing. It was this church that led me to Camp Barnabas, where I learned what it was like to be Jesus’s hands and feet. If I’d waited until I loved myself enough to love other people, I would have missed out on the opportunity to love and serve people as Jesus loves and serves us.


Believing the lie that we have to love ourselves before we love other people will cause us to miss out on the most joyful experiences of our lives. And even more important, there are people whose needs won’t be met because we’re too busy meeting our own needs to pay attention to theirs.


I think of all the campers at Camp Barnabas, many of whom had never had a real friend. Some of them will never know what it’s like to be invited to a party, to have a job, or to get married. They are dependent on their parents for everything—eating, going to the bathroom, getting dressed. Imagine what would happen if their caretakers suddenly decided they needed to focus on themselves instead of spending so much time with people who can’t give them anything in return?


I think of Daniel, who will likely always struggle with fitting in. And I think of the people who have taken the time to get to know him even though he’s shy, who have had a conversation with him even though he can be hard to talk to, and who have loved him even though he doesn’t always know how to show love back. Daniel has been ignored, rejected, put down, and excluded more than most of us have. I don’t want to think of a world in which the people who have loved him so well chose not to because they needed to work on themselves first.


Consider all the souls untouched and mouths unfed if missionaries tried to find the perfect balance of self-love before they helped other people. Consider the lives unsaved and the freedoms unprotected if soldiers waited until they could celebrate their flaws before they laid their lives on the line. Consider all the people without shelter or sustenance if volunteers at homeless facilities decided they needed to work on their self-esteem before they could lend a hand to those who need it.


The people who suffer from our narcissism are the most vulnerable. The idea that “you can’t love other people until you love yourself” reeks of entitlement and elitism. While we’re busy trying to come to terms with cellulite on our thighs, there are people who are desperately hurting, lonely, and in need of our love and care.


That we have to wait until we love ourselves to love other people like this is a lie from the pit of hell. Satan would love nothing more than for us to waste our time with fleeting efforts in self-betterment while people around us are suffering. Jesus shows us a better way.


He gives us an example of what it means to love others as ourselves through the parable of the Good Samaritan. A Samaritan helps a Jewish man who was robbed and left for dead on the side of the road. Unlike the priest and the Levite who passed the victim by, the Samaritan took the time to help him, bind his wounds, and pay for his stay at a local inn.


The key context of this passage is that at this point in history, Jews and Samaritans hated each other. That means the love demonstrated by the Samaritan isn’t one of admiration, it’s one of determination. It’s the kind of love we would naturally show to ourselves even when we look in the mirror and don’t like what we see. It’s one defined by kindness, protection, and preservation.


As C. S. Lewis says, “Love is not an affectionate feeling, but a steady wish for the loved person’s good as far as it can be obtained.”


We can see this steadfast love demonstrated by Christians whose sacrifices have weighed far more than mine. Christians are the most persecuted religious group throughout the world. In Syria, China, North Korea, India, and elsewhere, Christians are silenced, imprisoned, tortured, and martyred for practicing their faith. Martyred missionaries like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Jim Elliot are examples of the kind of radical love Christ requires of his followers.


Christlike doesn’t always look like physical martyrdom. My aunts, who live in Arkansas, have both dedicated their lives to ministering to the poor and the homeless in their communities, helping them obtain food, clothing, transportation, and helping them get jobs. Local Christian pregnancy centers do incredible work for moms and their babies, not just offering free pregnancy and STD tests and ultrasounds, but many also offer parenting classes, affordable clothing, and other resources to help families start off on the right foot.


Anytime we deny our own wants, needs, and priorities to show kindness and share Christ with someone else, we glorify God. And not only do we not have to wait until we’ve accomplished self-love to do it, helping others even when we feel our worst fosters a joy that self-absorption can’t give.

I’ll be the first to admit I fail at this often. I choose selfishness. I choose convenience. I choose to love myself more than I love other people. I’m greedy with my time and stingy with my energy. I want comfort, safety, and happiness. I don’t want to expend too much for other people at the risk of feeling burned out.


It’s so easy to get caught up in the busyness of our own lives and forget that there are others who desperately need our love, time, and resources. But this selfishness is a sin we need to repent of. In a day when people are literally dying of loneliness, Christians have the responsibility to offer a love that can save lives—both now and forever.


Maybe this means volunteering at church or a local nonprofit, maybe feeding the homeless, maybe coming up with a solution to a problem you see in your community. Or maybe it means something more drastic: joining the on-the-ground fight against sex slavery or teaching skills to women in Kenya. These are endeavors in which God can be trusted to lead you as you pray and seek wisdom from the godly people around you.


If you’re a mom (especially a mom of babies, like me), you may not have time to start a nonprofit or even spend an afternoon volunteering. Same goes for students and caretakers and those of you whose “nine-to-five” all but consumes your life. As we talked about in the chapter on work, what we do on a day-to-day basis can also be used to love others and share the Gospel.


Romans 12:2 calls our bodies a “living sacrifice.” This means that our whole lives are meant to be dedicated to God in worship, not just certain compartments. Being a mom or student or employee who does our work with joy and excellence for the glory of God and the good of others is also an act of Spirit-filled generosity.


We are to take every opportunity to be generous with our time and energy and money on behalf of the people God places on our path—those in loneliness, destitution, and lostness—and we’re to do so with the express purpose of showing them Jesus Christ and leading them to the well that never runs dry.


Prioritizing self-love over love for those around you doesn’t just affect your generosity toward the people who need your help; it also affects your most important relationships.

THIS IS SO MUCH BETTER

One of the reasons young people are waiting so long to get married today is because we’ve been convinced that we have to do all the things we want to do before we get there. We want to love ourselves, find ourselves, and know ourselves before we can truly give ourselves to someone else. But, honestly, this is a waste of time. Explicitly avoiding marriage for the sake of self-discovery does nothing more than defer the joy that’s found in building a life with someone you’re committed to.


I met my husband, Timothy, in September 2014, shortly after I’d begun recovering from my eating disorder and rampant partying. I was in a good place: I was happy being single, figuring out life in a new city, and I’d decided to start a new workout routine. I’d joined a CrossFit-type gym outside of Athens, and that’s where I saw him for the first time.


I don’t remember very much about my first impression. He was cute and in shape, and that’s all I noticed. We were both in the 5:30 p.m. classes on the weekdays, and after a couple weeks he struck up a conversation. Small talk eventually led to afterworkout chats, which eventually led to lingering discussions in the parking lot. One night, after several weeks of conversation after class, we talked in the parking lot for four and a half hours! It was then that we realized we probably should just go on a date.


After that long parking lot conversation I texted a friend and said, “I think I’ve found my husband.” She thought I was crazy, and I honestly did too. I remember hearing married people say when I was in high school and college that “when you know, you know.” I didn’t believe them. How do you just know? Aren’t there a million things to think about before you make a decision like that? I don’t know how to explain it, but they were right. I just knew. Five months later we were engaged. Four months after that we were married.


We didn’t wait until we loved ourselves to choose to love each other. We were imperfect, grateful, and sure. This timeline certainly isn’t right for everyone, but it worked for us, and we haven’t looked back.


Before I get into what I’ve learned in marriage and how it’s taught me about self-sacrificial love, I want to take a second to give you some practical dating/engagement advice. This stuff is based on what I’ve learned through my experiences, and I don’t have a Bible verse to attach to every line. But I know how confusing relationships can be, especially when you’re trying to figure out whether to marry the object of your affection, so I’m going to give you the best advice I know in the hope that it will add clarity to your own dating life.


First of all, if you’re a Christian, your spouse needs to be a Christian too. And not just an I-was-raised-going-to-church Christian. If you’re serious about becoming more like Christ, he needs to be serious about it too. The goal of your dating relationship, whether it lasts or not, should be to bring you closer to Jesus. While no guy and no relationship is perfect, both of you should be working to make this a priority both individually and together. This point alone covers a lot of bases.


Second, you need to like him. I know this sounds obvious, but believe it or not, there are many Christians who don’t think this is important. I was one of them! I remember hearing a sermon in college that said singles were being too picky with their spouses and just needed to pick a Christian and go for it.


And yes, unrealistic standards may leave you needlessly miserable. Arbitrary characteristics like eye color will probably need to go to the wayside. But you absolutely should be attracted to—both physically and emotionally—the person you’re with. This is the wonderful part of living in the West in the twenty-first century: we have options, and we get to enjoy the benefits of God-given romantic love and attraction.


One thing I love about Timothy is that we make each other laugh. He thinks I’m clever, and I think he’s funny even when he’s not trying to be. I also love how we can have deep, satisfying conversations. These have always been the things that have drawn me to him.


It’s not selfish to ask yourself if the person you’re dating makes you happy. I mean, it certainly sounds like the lovers in the Song of Solomon were enjoying themselves. This doesn’t mean your boyfriend worships the ground you walk on and never makes a mistake or even makes you happy all the time. But—are you happy to be in his company? Can you be bored together and still enjoy each other’s presence? Do you want to spend time with him after one of you goes home? Can you see yourself with him forever?


If the answer is no to any of these questions, you should ask yourself: Why are you still with him?


You may be afraid of a few things: that no one is going to love you as much as he does, that you’re never going to find someone as good as he is, or that you won’t know how to function as a single woman. Maybe you’ve been through a lot together, and you just can’t imagine starting over with someone new.


I’ve feared these things too, and I can tell you from experience that none of them is a good enough reason to stay with him. Fear isn’t a good justification for getting married.


Here’s what I’ve told more young women than I can count: you should not be convincing yourself you want to be with him. Likewise, you shouldn’t have to persuade him to be with you.


If you’re in this kind of relationship, it may mean you’re making an idol of dating or marriage. If you’re willing to be miserable just because you don’t want to be alone or deal with the pain of a breakup, there could be something much deeper going on in your heart than incompatibility with your boyfriend.


The sense of assurance I had with my husband was a huge difference from what I felt with the person I thought I was going to marry in college, the one who met all my qualifications on paper but about whom I had nagging doubts from the beginning. Feelings aren’t everything, but they are something, especially if they’re giving you warning signs that something’s not right.


Don’t ignore the pressing into your gut that tells you your boyfriend or fiancé isn’t right for you. If you’re with them out of fear, that means you may be hanging on to an idol that you need to let go of.


And when you do let go, it’ll hurt. That doesn’t mean you didn’t do the right thing. Do what I wish I’d done after my college breakup: be patient as God heals you. Pray, meditate on Scripture, remind yourself of his promises. Go to church and be with friends who will lead you to the cross, where Jesus, the bearer of burdens, will take your weighty baggage and give you rest.


I can’t promise that God has your future husband waiting around the corner, or even at all. God doesn’t promise us earthly blessings in exchange for obedience. He promises us a peace, a joy, and a deep contentment that far surpasses any happiness an earthly relationship could bring.


The seventh chapter of First Corinthians describes singleness as a gift because those who have it are undistracted from the troubles that come with marriage and are able to fully devote themselves to the Lord. Christians who remain single aren’t “missing out”; they are offered the same satisfaction in Christ as those who are married, and, bonus: they have the time and capacity to do things married folk can’t. As big of a fan as I am of marriage, it’s important to me that all of you reading who want to be married and haven’t found a guy to lock it down yet know: marriage is not the goal of the Christian life. It is not when our “real life” begins. Your real life began when you decided to follow Jesus, and, because of his commitment to lead you down a path for his glory and your good, you have everything to look forward to. Marriage is one of many ways Christians may be called to sacrifice. But nothing’s stopping you from loving the people in your life today.


Of course God directed me toward marriage, and I am thankful he did. When our relationship started, we were like most couples who fall in love quickly. We couldn’t get enough of being together. Every spare second was spent either in each other’s presence or on the phone. We sent long emails to each other at work. We wrote letters. Being apart was physically painful. When I hugged him, I felt like I could never hold him long enough. I knew marriage was the only way to satisfy what felt like an unquenchable love for him.


And, as it turns out, it was. Marriage turned out to be all I’d hoped it would be and more. I got to come home to my favorite person every day, eat food together, and watch Netflix. For all the talk of marriage being a trap, I’d never felt freer or had more fun.


I still feel this way. Almost five years into marriage, I still couldn’t ask for anything more. But that doesn’t mean it’s been easy.


I heard a saying once as a teenager that I’ve now learned to be true: marriage is a four-letter word, and it’s not love—it’s work. Work is the best word to describe this past year of our lives.


Everything in our lives, including our marriage, shifted when we welcomed our first baby in July. We went from focusing on each other to giving all our attention to this child who’d so drastically captured our hearts. For those first few survival-mode weeks, we barely had a conversation. When we did talk, it was in frustration or disagreement. He was overwhelmed, I felt underappreciated, and neither of us had the energy to communicate our feelings. Instead of hashing it out, we let the tension grow.


More major life events happened: we moved houses and both of our grandmothers died all within a span of two months. Pulled in a million different directions, we started to grow apart. The rare quiet moments together in the evenings were spent on our phones and computers with the TV on in the background. We’d get in daily, petty fights because one of us nagged the other or overreacted about a change in plans. There was always tension when we were in the same room, and we knew we could easily erupt in an argument if the other so much as stepped in the wrong direction. We were stressed, and instead of helping each other, we were tearing each other down. We were far apart in the same home.


Seasons like this are when commitment isn’t fun anymore, love isn’t natural, and conversation isn’t easy. Gone are the dating days when you couldn’t get enough of each other. Now it’s an effort to spend more than fifteen minutes together without fighting. This is when you’re required to make a choice to either deny yourself and love when you don’t feel like it, or do.


The culture of self-love tells us life’s too short to stay in a marriage that doesn’t make us happy. As a post on the self-love account @femalecollective argues: “Reminder: relationships are supposed to make you feel good.” That logic makes sense only if the self is the highest priority. But if everyone really thought that way, we’d all end up alone.


My husband and I held on to each other through a tense season of marriage by reminding ourselves and each other that even when this doesn’t feel good, we’re in it for the long haul. We chose to forgive when we wanted to hold a grudge. I chose to bite my tongue when I wanted to criticize. He chose to say sorry when he wanted to defend himself. These are things we’re still practicing every day.


We’re only in the beginning of our life together, and we’re by no means experts on marriage. Fortunately, we both have parents who have modeled marriage well, and we’re able to take wisdom from people who are ahead of us. This is wisdom we’ve gleaned not just from our own experiences but from the experiences of people who have endured far more. We’ve known marriages that have survived deaths of children, bankruptcy, infertility, chronic illness, and even infidelity. We understand that surviving every level of trial in marriage requires a laying down of ourselves for the sake of the other.


A question you may be wondering is: Why? Why stay in a marriage that doesn’t always feel good? I can give you both a practical and a profound answer. First, for the practical.


A study published in The Atlantic by General Social Survey in April 2019 showed that “married young adults are about 75 percent more likely to report that they are very happy, compared with their peers who are not married.” A 2019 Pew Research study reports that married people are also happier than unmarried couples who live together. A 2018 study by Dr. Paul Amato found that marriage quality improves for couples who stay together through discord.


All marriages go through rough patches and seasons of serious challenges. Even so, couples who fight through them and stay married typically have a greater chance of happiness than those who don’t or those who are unmarried. The happiness that comes with marriage isn’t always a feeling but rather an abiding contentment knowing that you’re part of the team that will stick together through the troubles life brings.


But there’s a much more profound and important reason to get and stay married, and it’s that marriage reflects Christ and the church. Because of that, a strong, Christ-centered marriage paints a picture of the Gospel to the world.


In Ephesians 5, husbands are called to love their wives as Christ loves the church, and wives are called to submit to their husbands as they submit to the Lord. In this way, husbands and wives are engaged in mutual and constant self-sacrifice that reflects the good news of Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross and his commitment to his church. Marriage serves as an earthly depiction of the eternal reality of God’s redemption of his people through his Son.


Though the world will call the Christian model of marriage outdated and oppressive, those who are in this kind of relationship know the benefits of security and unconditional love are far better than unreliable, unfulfilling self-love.


Christian marriage reminds us continually that we’re not enough—not for ourselves or for each other—and that God alone gives us our satisfaction and our strength to hang on when being together feels more like work than romance.


My humble advice: if you can, get married. And now. If you’re with the person you know you want to marry, go ahead and do it. Don’t wait until you graduate, until you have enough money, until you’ve traveled more, until you’ve lived more of your life single, until you get your promotion. If you’re engaged, don’t draw out your engagement. Yes, there may be real circumstances keeping you from getting married right away, but if there’s any way to rectify these circumstances so that you can say “I do,” don’t wait.


By waiting, you’re opening yourself up to getting closer to sex before marriage and wasting precious time you could be spending figuring out life together rather than separately. Just as you don’t have to love yourself before you love other people, your ducks don’t have to be in a row before you get married. Line them up together. It’s way more fun that way.


If you want to get married but haven’t found the person, please don’t lose heart. You will get married one day or you won’t, and either way, Jesus and his promises to be faithful to you and sustain you don’t lessen or change. The lessons of self-sacrifice and the joy found in generous love are for you to be enjoyed as much as they are for anyone. Enjoy the community of people with whom God has surrounded you. Be where godly people are. Invest in friendships, share your wisdom, obey God’s voice, and revel in the precious reality that your responsibility is to him alone.

MOTHERHOOD

If there’s one thing that pulls us out of our self-absorption even more than marriage, it’s being a parent.


As I write this, our six-month-old baby girl is sleeping in the room next to me. For those of you who are parents, you know what a whirlwind this newborn stage is. In a blink of an eye, your universe shifts. You realize you didn’t know what it meant to be tired or stressed before this. You start to forget what life was like before becoming a mom. What was it like to go to the bathroom or take a shower in peace? Do regular people finish meals? Will I ever drink a whole cup of coffee without having to microwave it sixty-seven times before nine a.m.?


Every single decision you make—from when you’ll go to the bathroom to what you’ll eat for lunch—is centered on the well-being of this child you’ve just brought into the world. Your entire schedule revolves around naps, feedings, baths, diaper changes, and playtime, even as you’re working or meeting other obligations. You can’t wait for them to go to sleep, but you miss them when they do, spending that precious hour of quiet staring at the monitor instead of checking off your to-do list.


I remember the day I found out I was pregnant. I had one test left under my sink, and I decided to take it, because why not? We’d been trying to no avail for five months and I was conditioned to disappointment, but it was around that time, so I went for it. I took the test, set it on the counter, then changed into my workout clothes. After a few minutes, I walked by to pick up the test and instinctively headed toward the trash can. Then I saw that fateful word on the screen: “Pregnant.” What? I was doubled over in disbelief. I was going to be a mom! And nothing’s been the same since.


I can be a pretty anxious person, and that was exacerbated times a million when I got pregnant. All of the things that were completely out of my control hit me at once. What if I have a miscarriage? What if I take a really hot bath and accidentally melt the baby? What if I’m sick for the next nine months, and I can’t do my job? What about birth? Can I give birth? Am I capable of that? Oh, my gosh, I hate hospitals; what if I have a mean nurse? What if something happens to Timothy or me? We’re all going to die, aren’t we?


I was constantly coming to terms with my own insufficiency—my inability to predict the future, to control the outcomes, to ultimately ensure the baby’s health and our safety. So much was completely beyond my grasp for the first time, and I learned in a new way what it meant to be not enough.


During birth, some of my fears were realized. Though I hoped and prayed and planned for an all-natural birth, that’s not what went down. At forty weeks and six days, I had a “failed” induction that led to a C-section, which was an outcome I’d never even entertained. My husband and I were both terrified. I was disappointed in myself, exhausted, anxious, crying, and shaking uncontrollably as they wheeled me into the operating room. This was not at all what I’d planned.


But it’s true what they say: none of that matters once they lay that sweet baby on your chest. Lying on the operating table with Timothy next to me, numb from the waist down and clueless to how the procedure was progressing, I heard the doctor say, “Hi!” Then, as if in response to her first greeting, baby girl let out a loud scream—the best sound I’d ever heard. They lowered the curtain in front of me, and showed me my wide-eyed, crazy-haired, seven-pound, ten-ounce precious daughter.


After that, I was changed.


Everything that was once big now seemed so small. And you know, in that moment, you would do anything—anything at all—for this child. You would stop at nothing to protect her and make her feel loved.


It’s a unique kind of love. A profound, unconditional, heartbreaking love that you’ve never known. It’s as if a giant tidal wave hits you and you realize—oh, so this is what God’s love for me is like. Now I’m starting to understand the kind of love that compelled him to send his only Son to die on a cross for us.


I have very little time, if any, to myself these days. I’m literally writing this at two a.m. because I can only find a quiet moment in the middle of the night. My daughter requires more of me than I ever could have imagined. And I’m not enough—that much is painfully true. I can’t be everything she or anyone in my life needs. I’m at more than full capacity at almost all times.


And yet I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I wouldn’t trade the sleepless nights, the diapers, the total lack of free time, for the world. God has humbled me relentlessly through motherhood, continually bringing me to my knees as I ask for things I can’t give her myself. I’ve never wanted so much that I can’t provide for someone. I want her to know truth, to be wise, to be healthy, to be strong, to be protected from those who wish to do her harm.


I can only do so much to bring these things to fruition so most of my time is spent surrendering. Surrendering my anxious thoughts, my fears, my plans, and my aspirations. And I’m not good at it. I like being in control. But pregnancy and birth and motherhood have taught me more poignantly than anything else that control is ultimately a myth. God is making me okay with that. He is teaching me to trust him more than I’ve ever had to.


There’s no question motherhood is hard. It is. Let me say, though, not just as a first-time mom but also as someone who knows moms who have way more kids than I do, who knows moms of special needs kids, who knows moms whose life as a mother has been exceedingly trying, it’s worth it. It is so incredibly worth it.


I am troubled by the stories of how our generation doesn’t want kids. A 2019 NBC poll showed that only 30 percent of Generation Z and millennials think having children is very important. BirthStrike is an organization discouraging procreation in the name of combating climate change, and they’re echoed by other antinatalists arguing for a hold on birthing babies. Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family is, believe it or not, a book that people are actually reading that proposes a complete obliteration of “natural motherhood” in exchange for paid surrogacy in an effort to break apart the nuclear family. Some people are against having kids because they just think the world’s too scary. Some people just don’t want to be weighed down or inconvenienced.


Vice published an article analyzing this phenomenon in 2019. The author, Hannah Ewens, noted: “[N]one of my friends in their late twenties talk openly about hopes of having a baby; rather, we flinch when we see a child walking around, out in public, on its hind legs. It’s a furry friend we want. One that’ll love us, not drain our minimum finances and not get in the way too much.”


This makes sense in light of what we know about many in our generation, considering how little sacrifice is required by pets in comparison to babies. Not only do they require less supervision, they also demand nothing of us emotionally. We don’t have to let go of our bad habits and hang-ups. We don’t have to mature. We don’t have to learn how to communicate effectively or set a good example for them. If we’re consumed by the culture of self-love and committed to worshipping the god of self, we don’t want to be put off by the demands of a child.


Here’s a hot take on that: the intense love many young nonparents feel for their pets is probably just an expression of their natural biological instinct to care for a child. I think about the shift that happened in our own lives when our baby was born. As much as my husband and I love our pets, they were both quickly relegated to second fiddle when we brought our daughter home. Though I insisted while I was pregnant that that wouldn’t be the case, I never could have guessed that the love we felt the second our baby came into the world would be so all consuming. While our pets are still well cared for, their significance to us doesn’t come within light-years of our love for our daughter.


And that’s how it should be. Humans, especially our humans, should be more valuable to us than animals. Not only because people are uniquely made in God’s image, but also because he made us to need human relationships—intimate family relationships—not just companionship with our pets. Christians have an obligation to demonstrate to the world the special value of human beings and specifically of children.


Abortion culture is rampant, as organizations like Planned Parenthood and NARAL work tirelessly to sanitize and even glorify the procedure that kills a defenseless baby, renaming it “freedom” and “choice.” Their language, propagated by a leftist-dominated media, perpetuated in schools and strewn across social media, has influenced a generation of young girls to believe that the life inside them that they helped create is nothing more than a parasite to be discarded as they please.


That’s why I think how we talk about motherhood, how we think about motherhood, and how we act as mothers matters. Motherhood is hard, but it is good. It’s a gift that we have the privilege of stewarding. As much as we can, our attitudes should reflect that, especially when we’re talking about being a mom to other people. Avoid toxic online mom culture that calls kids and toddlers brats and burdens. It may be sarcasm, but it has an effect on how people see parenting and family. Let Christian moms be the first ones to say: “No, as hard as this is, my baby is a blessing, not a burden.”


I don’t want to sound preachy or self-righteous by telling you how we should talk about our kids. I know I’m a new mom, and some of the struggles of having multiple kids or kids with special needs are unfamiliar to me. But I am familiar with both how mainstream culture speaks negatively about children and how, by contrast, God instructs us to view them: as a heritage for which we should be grateful rather than obligations we dread (Psalm 127:3). That doesn’t mean we can’t say when it’s hard and ask for help—we should, absolutely. But our prevailing message to the world about motherhood should be one of gratitude, not grumbling.


In a culture of self-love that’s convincing women that they need to love themselves before they can love other people, our cheerfulness as moms tells a different story: that there is joy in pouring yourself out, even when you don’t feel filled up. That sacrifice is worth it. That even though we’re not enough, that’s okay because God is.


My practical advice to you regarding motherhood is similar to my advice regarding marriage: if you can, do it. My husband and I did what many of you are probably doing: planning and waiting for the right moment. There is certainly wisdom in preparing for the future and creating as much security and stability for your child as possible. But if you’re putting off kids because you’re just not ready for that kind of commitment, I’ll tell you what someone probably should have told me two years ago: it’s time to grow up. It’s time to ask God to help your emotional maturity match your biological reality.


If you are a mentally stable and physically able married adult woman, you are ready to have children. Don’t buy into the secular nonsense that “adulting” doesn’t happen until you’re thirty-five and that not knowing how to do adult things well into your twenties is normal. It’s not. Our culture extends adolescence way too long, and as Christians who want to honor God’s design for marriage and the family, we should take joy in being adults and having responsibility. That doesn’t mean that paying bills or changing diapers at three a.m. is always fun, but we understand that these obligations are the good parts of growing up, and we accept them and thank God for them.


I know many women who would love nothing more than to become moms but haven’t been able to. They’ve either suffered miscarriages or struggled for years with infertility. They would trade anything to have pregnancy pains or late night feedings. They’d love nothing more than to take this next step of marriage and adulthood, but they don’t know whether it’s ever going to happen for them. They feel hopeless. If that’s you, know that God is with you. He is for you; he is sanctifying you and teaching you; and you have no less value to him because you do not have a child. In Christ are all we need for love and contentment and joy. You are a Christ follower first—that is your defining and highest purpose. Any other title that comes along—or doesn’t—is secondary.


It’s a relief to know that I don’t have to wait until I meet an arbitrary standard of self-love before I can love other people. How would I ever know that I’ve finally loved myself enough to finally form relationships, have children, or help those around me? Know that you don’t have to wait either. God’s love is all you need for confidence and the ability to love others.


You’re not enough for your own fulfillment. God made you not only to need him but also to need other people. Popular culture will tell you to invest only in relationships that feel good and help you advance your goals. God tells us that sacrificial love is the goal.


Our culture’s fixation on self-love isn’t working. A 2019 Forbes article titled “Millennials and the Loneliness Epidemic” analyzed a study by The Economist and the Kaiser Family Foundation that found that 22 percent of adults in the United States “always or often feel lonely or isolated.” The piece notes that prior to the 1960s, single-person households were rare, but now that share has doubled, exceeding the number of households of married couples with minor kids. Another study found that 46 percent of women are more scared of loneliness than of a cancer diagnosis.


Couple young people’s loneliness with rising rates of depression and anxiety, and it’s obvious that whatever tactics the world is offering us to ease our pain and gain confidence aren’t cutting it. Young people are putting off getting married and having kids; they’re opting out of church; they’re sucked into their devices and enslaved by their jobs, all in an effort of self-discovery; and they’re still ending up lonely and discontented.


Waiting to love yourself before you love other people will only lead you down a path of selfishness that leads to a dead end of loneliness and misery. It’s God’s ever-replenishing love that gives us all we need to care for those around us (1 John 4:19).


While “the thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy” in the name of self-love, Jesus came that we may have abundant life through him (John 10:10). His way leads to joy, to peace, to wisdom, to comfort, to steadiness, to purpose—to all the things you’ve been told to look for in yourself but haven’t been able to find.


You’re not enough. You’ve never been enough. You never will be enough. And that’s okay.



                                          CONCLUSION


What I’ve learned over the years is this: the seasons defined by self-centeredness have been my most miserable, and the times in my life when I have felt peace and fulfillment have been the moments when I’ve removed myself from the center, reoriented myself around God and his truth, and remembered that I’m not enough.

Camp Barnabas, my discovery of the wisdom of the Bible in high school, my turning away from a lifestyle that was killing me and reminding myself of the truths I’d learned years earlier and had since abandoned, my marriage to my husband, and learning to be a mother to my daughter: these are the seasons and the things that have brought contentment. And not a single one of them came without sacrifice. Each of them was marked by denying my sufficiency, succumbing to my own inadequacy, and turning to God to tell me what’s true. Without him, I’d have ended up in the ditch of my own making.

My years as a selfish teenager, my recklessness during and after my last semester of college, and my refusal to let go of an addiction I knew wasn’t good for me were all a result of making myself my own god.

Placing ourselves in the center of our universes always leads us to confusion and chaos. It convinces us of our “enoughness” and leaves us disappointed when our sufficiency inevitably proves a mirage. It makes us feel we have the authority to determine our own truths, only for us to realize we’re unable to distinguish right from wrong on our own. It encourages us to chase after perfection—both within and outside of us—leaving us exhausted when we see that perfection was just a mirage. It tells us that our dreams are ours to have, that we deserve everything we want, leaving us bitter when we don’t get our way. It assures us we can only love other people when we love ourselves, ensuring we end up alone.

Getting to a destination is impossible without a map, and the same is true for life. Without directions, we’re aimlessly wandering, looking for love and fulfillment in places that can’t give them to us. The only adequate guide is the God who made us, and through his Word he shows us truth and righteousness, and in his Son, Jesus, we find purpose for both this life and the next.

The call of those who follow this Jesus isn’t one of self-love or self-affirmation, but self-denial. Jesus asks his disciples to take up their crosses and follow him. He is not a genie waiting to fulfill our wishes. He is not a cheerleader standing on the sidelines of the game of life. He is Lord. The Great I Am. Our Creator, Sustainer, Reconciler, and Hope. He is a King to be worshipped and a Leader to be followed. He does not exist for us, but we exist for him. He is counter to what the world offers us in self-absorption and fleeting happiness, and he’s so much better.

It is through the self-forgetfulness found in Christ and the humility of following his commands that we find life—nowhere else. When we recognize him as God, removing ourselves from the center, we find the “enoughness” we’ve been craving.

It’s not found in ourselves. We are not enough, and we were never meant to be. That’s good news.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Allie Beth Stuckey is host of the Blaze Media podcast Relatable, where she tackles theological, cultural and political issues from a conservative, Reformed perspective. Stuckey speaks to college students, Republican organizations, Christian ministries, and businesses across the country about the importance of biblical and conservative values. She also offers frequent commentary on Fox News. She and her husband welcomed their first daughter into the world in July 2019. This is her first book.



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