When was the last time you told yourself “I love you”?
Weird idea? Maybe it sounds like it at first, but we as a community are desperately in need of hearing those words — especially from ourselves. And by “we,” I mean LGBTQ people and Christian people, and especially those of us who fit in both categories.
Many of us LGBTQ people have wrestled with our identities, trying to come to terms accepting ourselves, defining ourselves, discovering ourselves, exploring our own psyches, often even seeking professional therapy. We’ve had to struggle with issues with an intensity and prolonged duration that many of our straight friends never had to deal with. And that often has left scars of self-doubt, of fear, of insecurities and a need for acceptance, sometimes even of self-hatred. Thank God, now with greater social acceptance of non-hetero identities, the younger generation doesn’t have to go through this as much. But for many of us born before 1990, the mental and emotional bruises linger for years. Looking in the mirror can be an awkward moment. So getting to a point where we can honesty, truthfully say to ourselves “I love you” can be a milestone in personal growth.
The same goes for many Christians, straight or otherwise. If you were raised in a conservative environment, you probably had years of “humility” drummed into your head. Concerns over pride and ego, or selfishness or even self-indulgence took on eternal significance. It was unChrist-like. God despises the proud but exalts the humble. So again, uttering those three simple words could be a shocking, even rebellious act.
Now throw in some sex …
Throw in the sexual dynamic, and we’ve got a whole ‘nother ball game. How many of us, especially in religious circles, were taught (or at least led to believe) that any kind of sexual expression outside the holy bonds of matrimony were sinful, shameful, and deserving of God’s wrath? So if you were attracted to someone and began dating them, if things went beyond second base, the guilt could become paralyzing. Heck, even getting to second base could trigger hours of penitent prayer, trying to persuade God to forget it ever happened and to restore your state of divine favor.
Maybe you could soften the assault of guilt by rationalizing: we love each other, we may not be “married” but we care about each other… But what about those experiences outside even that degree of relationship? What about the occasional hook-ups, when you meet someone, and the chemistry between the two of you resembles a nuclear reaction. Your heart races, your eyes dilate, your palms begin to sweat. You smile nervously, and your brain nearly explodes when the look is returned. And later that night, you find yourself in someone else’s bedroom, or even in the backseat of your car, when the hormonal tide has cleared from your mind and you face that moment of reality. This wasn’t love. This was … just physical.
Do you love yourself enough to say, “That’s okay. God doesn’t hate me, and neither do I”? Or even more boldly, “That was good. I needed that. I connected with someone, even just for that short time, and I still feel the after-glow of that connection”? No guilt. Just acceptance of your own humanity, of your human need for touch, for connection with another. And confidence that God isn’t brooding with anger over it.
This “extra-marital” guilt thing even applied to physical self-gratification: masturbation. They used to call it “self-abuse”. Abuse! Really? How is that not supposed to make you fill sinful and dirty? They’d tie religious language to it: “if you lust after a woman in your heart, you’ve already committed adultery with her…” The mere thought of sex was equivalent to breaking one of the top 10 commandments! If you were raised in a religious family, your early teen years were most likely fraught with guilt and shame.
We can debate the morality of sex outside of marriage — whether in a relationship, just a hook-up, or just jacking off — another time. But the fact that sexuality is such a powerful part of our humanity, such a big part of defining “self”, of who we are as human beings, it can’t NOT take a toll on our self-esteem.
Let me throw in a Jesus-moment. The second great commandment he gave us was to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. That’s pretty much impossible to do if we don’t, in fact, love ourselves. That is, treasure ourselves, treat ourselves well, bring happiness (including sexual pleasure) to ourselves. Are we not worth it? And the Apostle Paul, when talking about married life, says that “husbands should love their wives as their own bodies… No one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, …” Huh. Not so sure about that “no one ever hated himself” part. But even Paul says that loving our own bodies is obviously important to a strong relationship.
Here’s the thing. The sex part is integral, but it’s secondary. The main point here is that too many of us, whether from struggling with our LGBTQ identity or just our Christian ego, do not even like ourselves, much less love ourselves.
And this is crucial. How can you love someone else, how can you love your neighbor, and how can you love your lover, your spouse, your significant other, if you don’t have a healthy love for yourself? What are you bringing to the table? And can you even know how to love properly if it doesn’t begin with you?
Here’s the truth: without healthy self-esteem and self-love, the thing you’ll feel for someone else is dependence, not love.
You FEEL like you love that person, you may feel the passion, the desire, the motivation to do good for them, to give them things, to express your heart — your feelings — to them, to show them how important they are. But what are you really feeling? You can become LOST in them, in those feelings. You are preoccupied, even obsessed, with the very thought of that person. And your world would come crashing down around your head if they ever left you. Is that a healthy view of self? Is that even really love?
Because you’re worth it!
You are significant. You have gifts and talents of your own. You’ve got a style, a way of thinking that no one else does. Without your unique expression of life on this planet, we are all a little bit poorer. All those “feel good” memes on social media have that kernel of truth to them. You have value — all by yourself. And the trick is to tap into that, to actually believe it.
And no, it is NOT a healthy thing to try to spiritualize it: “yes, in Christ I have value.” That’s just more religious brainwashing. God did not send Jesus into this world so that you would have value. He sent Jesus into this world BECAUSE you have value. You are loved and you have value in God’s eyes just as you are. (Being “in Christ” definitely changes your life, but it is not the sole grounds for your worth.)
Get out a pad of paper and a pen, if you must. Write down only the good things about yourself. The things you want a potential lover to see in you, to appreciate about you. Now, YOU be that lover. Appreciate yourself, love yourself for those reasons. Oh, and incidentally, all those negative things you’re probably mentally lining up in the opposite column on that page … yeah, there may be some truth in them, but most likely they are exaggerated way beyond reality by your own insecurities. You can love yourself, faults and all (cuz who doesn’t have faults?). So say it. Look at yourself in the mirror and say, “I love you. You are awesome.”
You’ll need to have this perspective if you’re to ever hold on to a healthy relationship with someone else. And it’s especially important if you’re single, when you spend those long hours at night longing for your One True Love. When you tell all your friends, “pray for me; pray that God sends me a husband or wife.” When day after day, you’re home alone, making dinner for yourself, spending the evening in watching Netflix. No, it’s NOT depressing. When you begin to love yourself, those moments can be remarkably peaceful and comforting. You can settle in on your couch or go out to your favorite restaurant alone — and enjoy it. Because you enjoy your own company. Because your love makes you complete by yourself.
Okay, I know it’s not as simple as that. If you’re like me, you’ve probably got years of history telling you the opposite. But once you tap into that realization that you are love-worthy, and begin to feel that way about yourself, your life begins to change. Things around you look differently. Even your sex life (yeah, I keep harping on that — cuz it’s a big part of who we are) … even your sex life, whether alone or with someone else, can be fulfilling — as an act of love for yourself. Of simply making yourself feel good, just as you would your future lover. Guilt-free.
It’s important. We need it. We need to love ourselves. How else can we fully love another person? And how else can we turn that love around to touch the world?
[box type=”bio”] STEPHEN SCHMIDT is the Teaching Pastor at Expressions Church in Oklahoma City. He is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, and holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity. He did his doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York.