Submission to the Christian faith entails that you accept yourself, the other, all of life, and the entire cosmos as the creation of God and thus as meaningful and valuable. From this flows an attitude of respect, also towards oneself. In Christian circles it is sometimes thought that one must efface oneself entirely. This can even lead people to regard all they find difficult or unpleasant to be a task or calling, and all they find pleasant and agreeable to be wrong and sinful.
H.R. Wijngaarden, Hoofdproblemen der volwassenheid (1952, 2nd printing), p.95.
Emancipation is the process by which a group tries to understand its own identity, tries to actualize itself in accordance with its own values and norms, tears itself away from values and norms imposed by dominant groups and, in the understanding of the value of its own identity, attempts to make itself independent and to make decisions and act on the basis of self-worth.
Carla Petit and BientjeSteringa
Sekse-ongelijkheid en onderwijs.
Wat Jip en Janneke (nog) niet leren
in de docentenopleiding (1986), p. 17
For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. Matt. 16:25.
He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated his own body. Eph. 5:28-29.
Self-Acceptance as Distinct from Self-Denial
Self-acceptance is spoken of much less than self-denial in Christian circles. The latter is spoken of a lot. For example, Calvin entitled chapter 7 of Book III of the Institutes of the Christian Religion, “The Sum of the Christian Life: The Denial of Ourselves”. And the next chapter discusses, “Bearing the Cross, a Part of Self-denial”.
Self-denial is deeply embedded in the way of thinking in the New Testament. The words of the Lord quoted above point believers in that direction. Self-denial means losing your life. Only when you do that will you find it. And when you do not want to deny yourself, because you want to save your life, you will actually lose it for always.
Self-acceptance is often equated with wanting to save your life. Because saving your life and losing it are incompatible, it is thought that self-acceptance forms part of the wrong choice. Self-acceptance is then thought to be an aspect of wanting to save your life. And so, self-acceptance has no future. It leads to loss of life for all eternity.
In this way of thinking, it is not surprising that self-acceptance is suspect and self-denial is praised. For self-acceptance is the opposite of self-denial. And self-denial is the reverse of self-acceptance.
In today’s world we also have to take account of something else. Nowadays self-actualization is strongly promoted. You have to stand up for yourself, do yourself justice. These terms are variants of self-acceptance. They are the consequence of the emancipation by which modern thought wants to liberate humanity. In that way, self-acceptance is then the equivalent of a vision of life in which people determine their own values and norms. God’s revelation is no longer their guide. They are a law unto themselves and set their own standard. It is all about the self-respect of human beings. They obtain it through self-acceptance. And so there is now an additional factor that strengthens self-acceptance.
In the past, self-acceptance was regarded as the opposite of self-denial. Today that view is even stronger, because self-acceptance is the ideal of the modern idea of emancipation. Human beings withdraw themselves from God’s authority. They can manage things themselves. Self-acceptance is the means to reach that goal. At the same time, it typifies the attainment of the ideal.
Are they Mutually Exclusive?
But the question is whether this is the right way to look at things. Must we indeed regard self-denial as the opposite of self-acceptance? Is there no room for an acceptance of self in a biblical sense? It is well-known that Paul repeatedly calls upon the congregation to accept the other person. That is not a one-sided matter. It is a matter of reciprocity: “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God” (Rom. 15:7).
Does accepting the other person mean that we may not accept ourselves? But what does love of oneself then mean? We have to love our neighbour as ourselves. We read that already in Leviticus 19:18. The Lord Jesus (Matt. 5:43; 19:19; and 22:39) and also Paul (Rom. 13:9) quote this text. Precisely in a context in which love for our neighbour is central.
Does the Lord Jesus mean that love of self is wrong? This is hard to believe. For in that case the Lord Jesus would have used a wrong standard as the measure of love for our neighbour. Elsewhere I wrote: positive times negative equals negative. In other words, you cannot use a wrong standard as the measure of a good thing. I am convinced that in these texts love of self is not regarded as sinful, having regard to the context.
Denial of our Sinful Self
This conclusion throws light on the topic of self-acceptance. But we have to distinguish carefully. Let us approach the issue from the idea of self-denial. Why is self-denial necessary? Because we are not supposed to be here? Because we, as creature, must become as nothing before God? It is certainly not God’s intention that we should be nothing in our relationship to him. He has created us as his children. And he wants to recreate us to that position through his Spirit. We may not deny our humanity. Nor do we have to abandon it, although the idea of becoming as nothing suggests it.
What then does self-denial mean? That we have to lose our sinful self. In a sinless relationship human beings know their place toward God. Then it is out of the question that they raise themselves up against God. They are obedient to God in love. It is in this way that human beings stand in a relationship of children toward God, children who love God their Father.
Sin destroyed this good relationship. Through sin human beings raised themselves up at the cost of their loving obedience to God. Human beings raised themselves up and thereby they appropriated a position to which they were not suited, a position that was greater than the one to which they were entitled. But it is not only about a greater position. For by their sin, human beings acquired a sinful nature. Their inner being was changed. It was corrupted by sin. Self-denial says that human beings must lose their sinful nature. If human beings remain what they became through sin, they will lose their life. In their sin, their aim is self-assertion and self-preservation at the cost of a loving relationship with God. Self-denial points to the necessity of losing yourself and giving your life into God’s hands. This is not merely about a portion of your life, nor about a certain amount (quantity) of your existence. It is about being entirely for God, about the nature (quality) of your sinful existence! Paul says that you must “put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires” (Eph. 4:22) and that you must take off “your old self with its practices” (Col. 3:9). That is what self-denial is all about.
Emancipation and Deceitful Desires
If self-acceptance identifies the lifestyle of the old self with its deceitful desires, then self-acceptance is indeed a sinful activity. In that case there is only one way to be saved from self-acceptance and that is by self-denial. I want to emphasize that the modern idea of emancipation, in which human beings do not need God but are their own boss and set their own rules, is the same as seeking and nourishing the old self with its deceitful desires. Over against such a self-acceptance, defined by emancipation, we have to place the biblical idea of self-denial. The two are incompatible. It is either self-acceptance and losing one’s life, or self-denial and finding it.
Obligations Toward Ourselves
But this does not exhaust the meaning of self-denial. It is also possible to neglect oneself in a sinful manner. We must realize that we also have obligations toward ourselves. God demands that we take care of our own lives and not neglect them. We must nourish them and not recklessly endanger them. And thus we must control ourselves in eating, drinking, and relaxing and not be immoderate in those activities.
People also have obligations toward themselves. But when we put it like that, are we not really crossing the line into sinful self-acceptance? That is possible, but not necessary. When you pursue all these things as if you were the only person in the world, you have indeed crossed that line. In the pretense of caring for yourself, you neglect other people and lose track of God. You are concerned only about yourself. That is sin!
It must be apparent that the Lord Jesus spoke the words “love as yourself” in connection with the love of God and of the neighbour (Matt. 22:37-39). The fact that love of self is not isolated but appears in the context of love of God and of the neighbour, means that it may not be a love that is restricted to self. The self does not have to be negated. In fact, it must be present. For otherwise you cannot love yourself. But the self must exist in a loving relationship toward God and your fellow human being. And then the self is not suppressed by God or your neighbour. It is also not being crushed to death between God and your neighbour. Rather, it is called into being by the renewing operation of the Holy Spirit. It is addressed by the command, “You shall.” If it were not allowed to exist, it could not be addressed either. But if it is allowed to exist, then it must in fact do so! You must accept yourself as a human being who was willed and defined by God, as a gift from God’s hand, and to whom God at the same time gives a task. Those are the biblical outlines, not of a sinful self-acceptance, but of a self-acceptance in thankful obligation towards God.
Without Self-Acceptance you are Not Mature
Now we can take a further step. Self-acceptance as we have just defined it, is part of being fully human. For it is not a self-acceptance apart from God and at the expense of the neighbour. It is a self-acceptance before the face of God, as from his hand and is accompanied by a task of loving service to the neighbour.
You cannot be a mature human being without this self-acceptance. Without this self-acceptance you cannot take your place towards God and the neighbour. For your self-acceptance declares that you receive your place and accept it; that, as a human being, created by God and endowed with talents, you fulfill your mission in life. Self-acceptance therefore means too that you do not ascribe abilities to yourself than God gave to others, but not to you. And self-acceptance means that you do not ascribe less to yourself that God has given you! For when you do not measure up to your potential, to your talents, you shortchange God. Self-acceptance is necessary to take your place and to take part in life as a mature person. Our lives always involve two-way relationships: I-you, I-we, I-it, I-them. So, when the I-part of the relationship is excluded, the entire relationship falls apart. Self-acceptance is a necessity. And so you need to be aware of your boundaries, your possibilities, your talents, your limitations, your tasks, and your special, personal responsibility! And you have to accept them.
I repeat: self-acceptance, can be totally wrong. That is the case when self-acceptance amounts to emancipation, in consequence of which you withdraw from your relationship with God and your neighbour. And that is exactly the sin that Adam and Eve committed. But self-acceptance is not wrong when it takes place before the face of God and with a view to living with your neighbour. In that case self-acceptance is an expression of thankfulness that you may live before the face of God. It is also an expression of the respect you owe to your own existence as creature of God. You have to have respect for God and the neighbour. But you also need to respect yourself as human being who was placed in a relationship with God and the neighbour. If I am to love my neighbour, I may not neglect myself. If I do, I cannot love my neighbour.
Self-Iinterest — Yes or No?
That raises the question of self-interest. What we wrote about self-acceptance applies also to self-interest in the same way. There is an egoistic, sinful self-interest that presses ahead at the cost of others. We must lay this sinful self-interest aside together with our old self. We do not need to let ourselves be robbed when we are renewed by God’s Spirit. We may make use of the rights we have as citizens. These rights exist not only to protect others against egoism, for they always have the characteristics of mutuality and reciprocity. That is, those rights also protect me from the egoism of another person. I may make use of those rights, not at the cost of another person, and not by taking advantage of the lie and of deceit. But what I may do is take advantage of what is a right for me as well as for others.
This view of self-interest is not at the cost of the other, but is in harmony with the other. And in fact that is the purpose of the right: to create and maintain harmony.
Not At the Cost of the Other
The modern view of self-interest is that you stand up for yourself at the cost of the other. That is sinful egoism! Paul says: no one has every hated his own body. Nor is that necessary. You may love your wife. In fact, that is a matter of self-interest, for husband and wife benefit from a harmonious marriage. You may not neglect your wife because another person wants to pay more attention to her and draws her away from you, or perhaps so that the other person can do so. In that case you are in the process of pushing your wife away, even though another person might think to be helped by it! Then you hate your own body. And this conflicts with the self-interest God bestowed on and allowed you.
A Trilateral Relationship
What does it all boil down to? In the first place on clear discernment. Does it concern sinful self-acceptance and sinful self-interest, or is it about a self-acceptance and self-interest in the trilateral relationship you have with God and your neighbour. If the latter, then you may, indeed, you must be part of the relationship. If you do not accept yourself, you cannot be there for God and the neighbour. Then you are really not anywhere.
Further, you only learn this view of self-acceptance from the Lord Jesus himself, through the power of his Word and Spirit. Because that is how your sinful egoism is uncovered and how you are told about sinful self-acceptance. He accepts you in grace, in the way Paul speaks of it, so that you will also accept God’s grace and thereby yourself. You always have to go to Jesus, and must always return to him because of your sinful nature. If you follow Jesus, you learn to know and accept yourself. Then you want to be nothing more and nothing less than what God gave you, made you to be, and wants from you. “Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it”, by self-acceptance before the face of God. It is grace — solely grace!
Questions for discussion
- Is it possible that the idea of standing up for yourself and of self-actualization could have arisen from a misplaced lack of attention to ourselves in the past?
- Are you able to distinguish between sinful and biblical self-acceptance? Can you give a few characteristics of both positions?
- Can you be specific about what it means that you must lose your life? Read the texts, Ephesians 4:22 and Colossians 3:9, mentioned above, in their contexts.
- Why is it so difficult for us to lose our lives?
- Is it really possible to maintain the message of “losing your life” in this time of emancipation?
- Is self-interest not per se an egoistic matter?
- Paul says quite plainly that no one ever hated his own body. But should we not sometimes hate our own body?
- What is the connection between self-acceptance and maturity?