by Kristen Kuempel
I am going to be straight-up honest here: I am the absolute worst person to be asked to write an article on loving yourself.
Instead of writing them, I should just paper my house with articles written by others in the hopes that I would absorb some of their wisdom through osmosis. Unfortunately, not only do I not know how to love myself, but I am also afflicted with pride—so when I was asked if I would write this, I wouldn’t allow myself to say, “No.” Because then, when I stared at the blank screen of my laptop for hours and days trying to come up with something to write, I could be critical of myself for saying “yes” in the first place. “You thought you could write this article?! Are you nuts?! What could you possibly have to offer a reader?! You’ve met you, right?!” The paradoxical way my pride and my self-doubt tag team is pretty impressive if you think about it.
So here I sit. Feeling a great deal of responsibility to you, dear reader, to provide some sort of clarity around the concept of loving yourself. The mug sitting beside me has held hot coffee that turned into cold coffee, hot tea that turned into iced tea. I’m giving serious consideration to retiring the mug in favor of a wine glass, and still, I have no pearls of wisdom to give you.
Except this: I don’t think that self-love is possible. Not in any real way. Loving yourself (or the inability to do so) seems like something we’ve invented rather recently. I’m fairly confident that previous generations didn’t worry about loving themselves. They didn’t have the free time for crippling bouts of existential dread that their descendants would enjoy—they were too busy trying not to die of cholera.
If I had gone to my beloved grandmother who died at the age of 97 and confessed, “Gram. I don’t know how to love myself,” she would have looked at me like I had lost my blessed mind, then sent me outside to pick worms off her tomatoes. Gram was a firm believer in the restorative power of picking worms off her tomatoes. The truth is that whether previous generations worried about loving themselves or not, there is a deep sense in our current culture that we are missing some sense of being beloved. Of belonging. Of being missed. Of being accepted. Of being wanted.
We cling to social media, substituting likes and retweets in the place of honest connection that leads to feelings of belonging and worth. As we look for connection and validation in an app, the only face we see is our own, reflected in the screen. No wonder we feel disconnected from ourselves and others.
In early January, the church remembers the Baptism of Jesus. Often just a week or two after Christmas, we hear the story of a dove flinging itself from heaven toward a wet and dripping Jesus while God, who sounds suspiciously like James Earl Jones in my mind, proclaims, “This is my son, the Beloved. With him, I am well pleased!”
I sat in our church, looking at my two children sitting next to me, wondering if they felt like they were pleasing to me. One was staring out the window. One was texting a friend across the sanctuary. Neither was paying attention to what was going on in the church service. As a pastor and a bishop, that should have bothered me.
Instead, I gloried in the way my youngest child’s cowlick defied any and all attempts at being subdued—and always had. I admired the way the long and elegant fingers of my eldest child danced across the touchscreen until she caught my eye and guiltily tucked her phone under her thigh.
When we stood to sing, I marveled at how tall they both were and remembered with gratitude the days when they fit into my arms. There was literally nothing about them that moved me to offer anything but a deep and heartfelt thanks to God for trusting me with them. They are far from always well-behaved, and they are teenagers, so . . . you know. There’s some degree of grossness in our daily lives, but there is never a time I don’t delight in them, rejoice that they exist, and give thanks that they are mine.
In baptism, we are reborn children of God. In the baptismal liturgy we are marked with a cross and told, “Child of God, you have been sealed with the Holy Spirit, and marked with the cross of Christ forever”. In essence, what is happening in our baptism is the same thing that happened at the baptism of Jesus (minus the dive-bombing dove, probably). God speaks out over the chaos and tumult of life to announce to the universe, “This is my child, my beloved. With her I am well-pleased!”
God loves me. Not even Instagram me, but the real me. The me that makes mistakes, messes up, hides her insecurities with humor and sarcasm, eats too much ice cream and doesn’t exercise nearly enough. Not the selfie me, where I manage to get the angle just right so that my double chin can be erased if I kick up the brightness level and use the right filter.
The real me. With chin hairs and stretch marks and a tendency to pick my cuticles. Not just the publicly poised and confident me, but the me that charges in where angels fear to tread and speaks my mind so emphatically that I frequently end up putting my foot in my mouth. The me who only cleans the bathroom when company is coming over. The me who doesn’t change her sheets nearly as often as she apparently should. The me who doesn’t regularly make sure that her children are brushing AND flossing. The me who often falls asleep without kissing her husband goodnight. The me who drives entirely too long with the “check engine” light flashing. The me who forgets to pay bills. The me who finds entirely too much joy in dropping f-bombs, or skipping church, or binge-watching reality television, or any of the millions of other reasons I have for finding myself unlovable—that me is God’s Beloved. That me is me that pleases God.
Paul wrote, “Consider your own call: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth” (1 Corinthians 1:26). Or as Eugene Peterson translates the verse in The Message, “Take a good look, friends, at who you were when you got called into this life. I don’t see many of the ‘brightest and best’ among you, not many influencers, not many from high-society families.”
It makes no sense to me. I have filed this state of being beloved under the heading “Mysteries of Faith”—which means that I have found some way to accept this reality, even though I have absolutely no ability to explain it. It just is. Like the love of my Gram and her therapeutic tomato worms, this belovedness has become foundational to my life, and I find it a far firmer foundation than me loving myself. I mean—I’m a mess! Have you met me? My love is nothing to build a life on. But the love of God? That’s something that will stand the test of time.
1. Is the truth that you are God’s Beloved easy or difficult for you to accept? Why?
2. Scripture tells us that “we love because God first loved us”. How does loving others connect you to the love of God?
3. Does loving others make it easier to believe you are also loved by God?
God of all, I am an unholy mess. And yet, you have made me your child through baptism, named me your Beloved and take pleasure in my life. I do not understand how or why you would do this, so help me trust in your love that holds me all my days. Teach me to see myself through your eyes and guide me to see those around us as your beloved children. Amen.
Kristen Kuempel serves as the bishop of the Northwest Intermountain Synod (formerly Eastern WA-ID). She loves to work with congregations around future planning and vitality, and looks forward to where God is leading the Church.