Love Self ~ Middle School Wisdom
(Part 3 of 3)

Working with middle school children is a mixed bag of blessings and curses. It is a roller coaster. Sometimes, Jr. High kids seem so naïve, borderline clueless. And sometimes, they see the world exactly as it is with profound perspective.                

I take middle-schoolers on a choir tour every summer. One Saturday in July, we stood around the Federal Building Bombing Site in Oklahoma City. This town closes on weekends. Fortunately, we made arrangements for lunch in a diner just across the street. The genuinely kind owner of the restaurant gave up his day off to open the doors and feed us; although, I assume the thought of 130 prepaid lunches was motivation enough.                  

We filed in. The lunches were prepared and sitting on the tables. It was blistering hot outside and we were blessed with the opportunity to have a devotion with air conditioning. Earlier in the week we had discussed “loving God” and “loving neighbor.” Today, we would attempt the topic of “loving self.” This is an important topic to me, especially with middle school kids. Taking the time to teach them to love themselves was, and is still, a high priority for me. There we sat, with the diner all to ourselves, with the memorial just outside the window. We began a discussion about love. I asked the kids, “Can someone come up with a definition of selfish?”

Seemingly every kid in the restaurant had a definition to offer. Finally, Gabriel raised his hand. Gabe is one of those extremely intelligent kids who never demands the center of attention, but is confident when he gets it.

“I think selfish people are the kind of people who make their agenda the primary agenda in all situations.”                       

There was a collective silence for a moment as we tried to grasp the thing Gabriel just spit out of his mouth. But Gabe was right on. I looked around the room.

“Who then, is good at this? Who in this restaurant is good at making their agenda the primary agenda in all situations? Who is good at being Gabriel’s definition of selfish?”              

To my shock, half of the room rocketed their hands in the air. They began to brag about their skills. As I looked at the faces of the confessors, I had to agree. These young folks were good at the art of being selfish and proud of it! The confession made us laugh.

Trying to regain the focus of the room, I asked, “Then, what does it mean to be selfless?”

It took no time at all for the room to rally around Gabriel’s definition, restated in opposite fashion. Someone in the room said it, but I couldn’t discern the voice from the collective conversation in the room.

“Selfless people are those who put their agenda as the last agenda in all situations.”

I began to wonder who fit this selfless definition and I polled the room. “Who then, is good at this? Who in this restaurant is good at keeping their agenda as the last agenda?”

For some reason, I chose to add a bit more to the request. “Who are the folks who pride themselves on flexibility, bending with the perceived needs of others, ducking out of the way and avoiding conflict?”                        

I really don’t know what I expected, but the other half of the kids could not raise their hands high enough. All of the pleasers in the room (including Gabriel) stretched their hands in the air. Yes, they were not as verbally loud in their response (being pleasers), but were equally confident of their role in humanity. Then, Blair took the stage. This was not unusual. Blair has the gift of volume and is not afraid to use it.

“I think that selfless people are actually selfish.”

We sat there, a bit stunned with the comment. But Blair did not give up.

“Well, if selfless people are motivated to ‘make their agenda the last agenda’, and ‘making their agenda the last agenda’ is their primary agenda, when they succeed at ‘making their agenda the last agenda’ then they are still making their agenda the primary agenda!”

We all were a bit shocked. Her perspective was. . .insightful! And the comment came from Blair! Many in the room didn’t get her point at first, and each table began to explain the depth of her insight. Is this true? Are we, all of us, basically selfish individuals? This middle-school definition surely seems to suggest it.

I tried to rally the individual conversations into one collective debate. “If we have defined selfish behavior to our satisfaction and we can agree on selfless behavior, then what is self-love?”

Immediately, a table of 8th grade boys made inappropriate self-love gestures in the air and I lost control of the room. The 8th grade parents were mortified. I tried my best to calm the chaos. Finally, God was good and a small table of wonderful, clueless 6th grade boys raised their hands, ready to sincerely answer the question.

“Tim, we don’t really have a definition but we think we can describe it. Maybe, if we love ourselves just as God loves us, then we would understand self-love.”

I said, “Alright! Go ahead! Describe the way God loves us.”

“God pours love upon us like a waterfall that never runs dry. God forgives us over and over! God doesn’t care what we look like or how smart we are. Sometimes, if we need it, God kind of spanks us when we mess up but then encourages us and picks us up. Maybe, if we could love ourselves like God love us, that would describe self-love.”

(This is why I love middle school ministry.) “Alright boys, that’s awesome. Let me ask everyone something. I’ll say a word and you tell me if it is an issue of selfish, selfless or self-love. Cheating?”

A quick answer came from the back of the room. “Selfish. Not self-love.” And before I could reply, an honest addition came from the 8th grade boy table. “Alcohol! Selfish and not self-love.” And then a sweet, shy 7th grade girl raised her hand. “When you allow a bully to hurt your feelings, isn’t that selfless and not self-love.”

Then God poured grace upon a bunch of kids and reminded each one why and how they should love themselves. God is so good. After a time of imaging the way God loves, I asked the group, “Which is harder, to love your neighbor or to love yourself under this new definition?”

No one answered. Everyone, including me, just thought about it.

We opened our Bibles to I Corinthians 13 and explored the challenge of loving the way God loves. These words reflect God’s love for us, and God’s challenge for us to love ourselves, and then others.

“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.

It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;

it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.

It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends.”

It is not always easy. It holds us accountable. It demands nothing from us, yet inspires us to change. If only we could love like that, then we could understand self-love.

                                                        *           *          

When Jesus is asked, “What is the greatest Commandment?” he responds with profound simplicity: “Love God.” Jesus briefly elaborates on what it means to love God with one’s entire being. Then, Jesus adds a second, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Christ then inspires each of us with a parable on what it means to sacrificially love your neighbor and implies that we are to love ourselves.

Many faithful people struggle with loving themselves. While on the Jr. High Choir Tour mentioned above, one of my greatest goals is to assure each middle school kid that they are beautiful, wonderful people worthy of great love and loved by God.

The text, “love neighbor as yourself” is quoted nine times, found in both Old and New Testaments. Does this Scripture merely imply that we love ourselves and the challenge is to love neighbor with that quality of love? Or is it a command to love neighbor and a command to love ourselves?

But self-love seems to be so complicated. It is too easily confused with selfishness and selflessness. The church, too, is guilty of distorting Biblical texts to confuse self-love. Example? Faithful people have looked to the 29th Chapter of Jeremiah to justify material prosperity which conflicts with the Gospel. When did Christ ever lift up personal financial prosperity as a reward for faithfulness? The lure to justify selfish behavior is rampant, and even finds its way into our Scriptural interpretation.

Our culture breeds, encourages, and glorifies selfishness. It is so much a part of what it means to be American that we often no longer recognize a selfish culture even while we stand in the midst of it. For most of our country, selfishness has become a religion, a way of thinking, a hoarding goal, a lifestyle, a right, and a standard of measuring success.

It can be difficult to see selfishness. It hides well. It justifies itself with great success. Procrastination can be a beautiful example of self-love. However, it can also be the height of selfishness and the exact opposite of self-love. Pornography: selfish, definitely not self-love. Having enough to eat: genuine self-love. Gluttony is something else. Prescription drugs can be mandatory for self-love while prescription abuse is selfishness and often destroys relationships, (which violates the call to love neighbor.) Preaching can be a magnificent way to love our neighbor; yet sometimes, preachers fall into a need for the selfish affirmation that comes from preaching. Taking one day a year to work in a soup kitchen is an act of loving neighbor, but it can fall into selfishness if used it to justify personal accumulation.

Inappropriate selflessness is even more complicated and difficult to recognize than selfishness. When faithful, selfless people allow themselves to be abused (physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually,) then love is lost, harm is done, and this is not the will of God. Perpetuating this, allowing this, tolerating this, is not self-love. Avoiding conflict is often a selfless act but the opposite of self-love. Throwing open our arms like Jesus on the cross, allowing a cruel world to attack may be Christ-like but is it a manifestation of self-love as commanded by Christ?

Self-love can be complicated. Too easily we fall into the pit of selfishness. Too easily we fall into selflessness. How do we interpret self-love? How do we recognize it? How do we choose it? Truthfully, for me, the call to self-love is clear. And it was defined for me by a table of 6th grade boys in a sandwich shop in Oklahoma City. When we love ourselves the way we perceive God to love us, then we are seeing what it means to love ourselves. It is love that is unconditional, unrelenting, and inexhaustible. This kind of love holds us accountable when we need redirection. It is strong and demands action when love is thwarted. If it is motivated by my humanness, and does not resemble what I believe God would choose for me, then it is selfish or selfless.

The call of the Great Commandment is clear. Love God. The second call, much like the first, is clear: love neighbor as you love yourself.

In the opening welcome and introduction to this website, I shared the Scripture that inspired this online adventure, I Tim 6:20. This text is also the origination of the name; “Sacred Chatter.” However, my intent is not to be a singular voice. I invite your voice to be a part of the “chat” and I base this on another of my favorite Scriptures: Hebrews 10:24. “And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds.” I am considering how I can provoke love and good deeds in places beyond where I live. This is my attempt to enter into a Hebrews 10 conversation with you over social media.digitally. Now, I am interested in your feedback. Consider what provoking you can provide with your own Sacred Chatter.

What’s important to you? What really matters?

Add your voice in Sacred Chatter.

Love is ours to provoke. Good deeds are ours to sew.

That the wisdom of Hebrews 10 may flourish and grow.

Email, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, they’re potential mediums for the Hebrews 10 plan.

Receive weekly podcast + blog updates in your inbox!

Receive weekly podcast + blog updates in your inbox!