Valuing Wisdom

I’ve been thinking about wisdom.

A friend of mine had her wisdom teeth removed the other day, and I suppose that started the thinking. I’m not sure why we have molars in the back that sometimes don’t fit and usually cause pain, and if that weren’t enough, why are they called “wisdom teeth?” For most of my life, I have lain awake at night pondering these things.

Okay, okay. I have many burning questions, and this one is fairly trivial. But it does puzzle me. Someone told me recently that in the 17th century, some guy called our third molars “the teeth of wisdom” because they wait until adulthood to make their debut. Apparently neuroscience proves that wisdom teeth emerge between the ages of 17 and 25 as a response to changing neural patterns in the brain associated with increased responsibility. Suddenly the term “wisdom teeth” makes sense. My wisdom teeth appeared at 17, and I looked like a chipmunk for awhile. I never got them pulled, and I still have all four. Apparently that’s a rare thing, nowadays.

But this is not an article about dentistry. Here’s another anecdote – I was at Indigo Books the other day browsing in the section that features top picks for personal wellness. I always love the bookstore because of the fun things to look at, the deep caverns of knowledge hiding behind covers, the Starbucks smell wafting through the aisles. But mostly I love the bookstore because of what it tells me about society.

Two tables were spread across the length of the section, and upon them sat a mountain of books. They were top titles all having to do with wellness in some way or another. And big and black in a stack of probably a hundred copies was a book called “F**k It: The Ultimate Spiritual Way.” Curious, I flipped it open and began to see that there weren’t very many words in it. Essentially, it seemed like more of a table topper than an actual book. Whatever the case, I took a few minutes to peruse through what is hailed as one of the most inspirational books of all time, whose premise is that not caring is the key to personal freedom and spiritual health. The volume walks the reader through a variety of scenarios that involve decision making, and humorously (and flippantly) provides the answer: “F**k It!” The author is careful to point out that carelessness is not what the book is promoting, but rather a healthy sense of whimsy that fits the western expression of eastern philosophy.

It’s no secret that stress is a big issue in our society. After all, our society has us running around responding to texts while we’re on the phone with our internet providers. Some of us work all night in buildings with ultraviolet lights, and many of us are wondering how we’re gonna pay the rent, or the hydro, or some other thing. Anxiety is the fruit of our world’s structures and ambitions, and if we’re honest, we are all caught in the middle of a perpetual crisis. So it doesn’t surprise me that titles like “F**k It” are hitting the shelves and being picked up by anxious people. Philosophies like “F**k It” are lightweight and cheap, so they get sucked up by desperate people – people who have a vacuum of peace in their lives.

But the thing that’s most revealing lies in the fact that “F**k It” sits upon the shelf beside dozens of other books like it. Browsing further, something dawned on me. Of all the answers to life’s decision-making, bill-paying, self-improving, life-enhancing rat race, it seems like wisdom is not among them. There are plenty of mantras and philosophical ideas that provide a spectre of wisdom, but wisdom itself is not perceived as a thing to be valued. If wisdom does appear in these books, it’s a means to an end rather than a treasure to be sought after.

The Bible talks a lot about wisdom. In the ESV translation, the word wisdom appears 213 times, and wise appears 181 times. I probably could write a book on wisdom from a Biblical perspective. But that’s not what I’m going to do. Instead I’ll give you three things the Bible says about wisdom, and after that you can do the seeking yourself.

  1. Wisdom is something extremely valuable

As mentioned before, our society favors whimsical and laissez-faire approaches to life over wisdom, mainly because they’re cheaper by comparison. Although, I’ll admit this isn’t just a worldly problem, as even in the church, people are getting caught up in fatalism and moral relativism as a way of making sense of life, and things like personal responsibility, stewardship, and integrity are phasing out. But the value of wisdom remains true.

Solomon was a really wealthy and powerful man in the history of Israel. In II Chronicles, God offers Solomon a blank cheque, and Solomon asks God for wisdom. That alone says a lot about what wisdom is worth in this life, but there’s more.

In another place it says that “Fools despise wisdom” (Pr. 1:7). In other words, wisdom is so precious, you’d have to be an idiot to not want it.

Try this one: “Blessed (fortunate, happy) is the one who finds wisdom, and the one who gets understanding, for the gain from her is better than gain from silver and her profit better than gold. She is more precious than jewels and nothing you desire can compare with her. Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honor. Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace. She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her; those who hold her fast are called blessed.” (Pr. 3:13-15, parentheses mine). The scripture then goes on to say that wisdom is the active ingredient in God’s work of creating and upholding the universe.

Why is wisdom valuable? The same chapter in Proverbs says, “My son, do not lose sight of these. Keep sound wisdom and discretion, for they will be life for your soul and adornment for your neck” (Pr. 3:21-22). So we see that there are two dimensions of wisdom’s value. The first describes wisdom as “life for your soul” – which seems to be saying that without it, you have only a shell of a soul, devoid of life, lacking meaning, purpose, joy, and wholeness. The second describes wisdom as “adornment for your neck” which implies that wisdom and discretion change our appearance. If we have wisdom, people look at us and see it, because we wear it in the way that we carry ourselves and the way we govern our affairs. Like adornment for our necks, wisdom makes us attractive human beings. Not in a shallow way. It’s not about physical appearances, but what we emanate. Wherever we go, there will be people who see it and say, “I want that, too.”

  1. Wisdom must be sought after; unlike wisdom teeth, it doesn’t happen naturally

Here’s a tricky one. Most of us would agree with the sentiment that wisdom comes with age, but the fact of the matter is more complicated than that. Of course, Solomon was pretty old, but so was Ahab. Look up I Kings 16-22 if you haven’t heard his story.

The point is that, while wisdom teeth come automatically as part of the natural maturing process, wisdom itself is a bit more elusive. Unlike gray hair and menopause, wisdom is found intentionally, and not by mistake. Take a look at this passage from Proverbs:

“My son, if you receive my words and treasure up my commandments with you, making your ear attentive to wisdom and inclining your heart to understanding; yes, if you call out for insight and raise your voice for understanding, if you seek it like silver and search for it as for hidden treasures, then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God. For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding” (Pr. 2:2-6).

In this passage we have a number of verbs, action words, which give us insight into how wisdom is obtained. First, we have an intentional action of leaning in and listening to wisdom in order to grab hold of it. The next verse of the text points to a deliberate act of making your desire for insight/understanding known, and the most basic way of doing this is asking good questions. I can’t stress the value of this enough; if you want to know something or understand something on more than just a superficial level, ask.

Next, it says, “if you seek it like silver, and search for it as for hidden treasure…” (Pr. 2:4). Again, there is an act of seeking, motivated by the thing being sought, as one might seek a missing cell phone or wedding ring. Of course, one only seeks something that is perceived as valuable by the one doing the seeking. But the point being made here is that wisdom doesn’t just spring upon a person the way something like puberty does. It’s both humanly essential, and non-mandatory. There’s an opt-out clause, and sadly, most of the world is opting out. The good news is that if a person does the things listed above, wisdom can be found. James says that anybody who lacks wisdom can ask God for it, and he’ll give it liberally (James 1:5).

  1. While wisdom is hidden, it’s meant for finding – God wants us to find it

I remember birthday parties, or family Easter gatherings, where we as children would be sent to search for something hidden in the yard or around the house. Looking back, what I realize now is that the point of the hiding was the joy in the finding. Our parents would hide things, not to deprive us of them, but so that they could share our delight and excitement when the hidden things were discovered. Chocolate eggs may not be the same as wisdom, but I believe this profound principle applies, for “nothing is hidden except to be made manifest; nor is anything secret except to come to light” (Mk. 4:22).

Proverbs is a very rich book, full of powerful descriptions and imagery. In one place, wisdom is described as a woman crying in the streets (Pr. 1:20-33). The word for wisdom in Hebrew here is plural, perhaps teaching that the many glorious dimensions and manifestations of wisdom are contained in this one woman, named Wisdom. While there is more to this passage than this entry could contain, one point is clear – wisdom is longing to be heard. Though beautiful and queenly, she is given almost no attention by the busy men walking by. Though authoritative and erudite, she is being mostly ignored. Though she promises good things and knowledge to those who listen, “the complacency of fools destroys them.” (Pr. 1:32) This picture sounds like the society I see around me. Wisdom’s voice is loud and clear, but most are too busy, too proud, or too stupid to pay attention.

To find wisdom, one must seek it. But the good news is that it can be found; in fact, the purpose of the mystery is to be unveiled. God wants us to obtain wisdom, because it keeps us safe, guides our way, and provides a solid foundation for our feet to stand on. The other good news is that we aren’t groping in the dark for some ethereal virtue. God’s word is the map for finding wisdom, and there are concrete steps that can be taken in order to attain it. That’s not to say it’s easy. Something of value has a cost, and if we desire it, we need to be ready to do what’s necessary.

But the main point of my writing this is to say that wisdom is valuable, and worth our effort, and we need to see it that way instead of believing the lies of the culture. God hasn’t sent us in pursuit of some pointless, wispy thing, but something that strengthens and gives meaning to our lives. It offers so much more than just “F**k It” and Que sera, sera. It gives life to our souls, and adornment to our necks.

To read more about wisdom, check out the book of Proverbs. It’s found somewhere around the middle of the Bible, right after the Psalms, and it’s probably the best collection of wise sayings anyone could ever compile.


I Am Blessed

I read a lot of articles on the internet. A lot of them miss the mark terribly, either because they are illogical or poorly written. A lot of them are well written and thought provoking, and occasionally they seem like they’re worth discussing. So when I critique something I read online, it’s not necessarily to disparage it. Rather, I like to expound upon people’s work. If a good article is a treasure trove, then I like to dig around, open a vault, turn over a few stones.

One article that has hit the timelines of Christians everywhere in the past nine months (or so) has been featured on Huffington Post and major conservative/Christian online magazines. “The One Thing Christians Should Stop Saying” is its title, written by Scott Dannemiller. You can access it here, if you haven’t read it. The premise is that many Christians have a habit of saying “I’m blessed” when they receive some material thing, and this has got to stop.

First, what I appreciate about this work is that it’s coming from an informed, thoughtful, inquiring mind. Dannemiller raises an important issue – the issue of evangelical prosperity teaching, the kind that is self-centred and materially focused.

I also appreciate the way he offers his analysis in a humble way, both by including himself in the observations he makes and by inviting others into the discussion. He starts off by defining the problem: “I’ve noticed a trend among Christians, myself included, and it troubles me. Our rote response to material windfalls is to call ourselves ‘blessed’.” He writes in such a way that encourages readers to self-examine, rather than eliciting defensiveness.

A third thing I love about this piece is that the author relates personal experience to the text, recalling a trip to Guatemala where faithful families in abject poverty were told that they weren’t faithful enough, and that if they truly honored the Lord they would be delivered from poverty. He makes it autobiographical, and this really helps when trying to understand the paradigm he’s coming from. Dannemiller writes, “The problem? Nowhere in scripture are we promised worldly ease in return for our pledge of faith.” He’s right. In much of western church culture, we easily forget that Jesus is the Man who bids us “come and die” and simultaneously the God who meets our deepest human needs, “though our outward man is perishing” (2 Cor. 4:16). After all, the Son of Man had no place to lay his head (Matt 8:20). I agree with the author wholeheartedly in this regard. These are just a few of the article’s strengths.

However, I think there’s more to this topic of “blessing” for us to explore. It’s not that Scott Dannemiller’s article is dead wrong; it’s just kind of incomplete. One of his main arguments seems to be that when we say, “I’m blessed” in response to any experience that is material or monetary, what we are essentially saying is that people who don’t have those things are not blessed. The problem with that argument is that we don’t apply that logic elsewhere. If someone says, “God blessed me with a healthy baby boy,” they aren’t saying that the childless are less-favoured. When I say to my friend, an amazing artist, “Wow, God has blessed you with an incredible gift,” what I’m not saying is that all the people who can’t draw stick people are not gifted. You know, if a guy successfully recovers from a health crisis like cancer, and says “I’m blessed to be alive,” what he’s not saying is that everyone who dies from cancer is tragically unblessed. So what is it about money? Why is it that when someone says they are economically blessed, they’re blaspheming?

According to Dannemiller, “it reduces The Almighty to some sort of sky-bound, wish-granting fairy who spends his days randomly bestowing cars and cash upon his followers.”

But it’s not exactly about money. This is the second problem I have. Say, a single mom (I focus on the single mothers because they’re everywhere) is struggling to make ends meet, and unexpectedly receives a $50 Wal-Mart gift card and a large box of diapers from a family in the church. “What a blessing,” she might say. Would any of us criticize her?

So, is she exempt from this rule of not saying “I’m blessed” when it comes to material fortune? If so, why? A bigger question: who is exempt and who is not? Where can we draw the line?

No, it’s not about money, really. It’s about wealth.

I think it’s simple. A lot of Christians hate capitalism. And if you’re like myself, and you grew up on food banks and the glorious paycheck-to-paycheck life, I think we sometimes despise or envy the wealthy. Not only that, but seeing the growing gap between the rich and the poor provokes a deep sense of injustice.

Asaph, a guy in the Bible, struggled with this too. He writes, “Truly God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart. But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled, my steps had nearly slipped. For I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked” (Ps. 73:1-3). Asaph had dedicated his life to serving God in the temple, and likely lived a simple life without much material pleasure. He saw people all around him, satisfying their cravings, living life on their terms, getting away with murder, piling up their riches. “For they have no pangs until death, their bodies are fat and sleek, they are not in trouble as others are; they are not stricken like the rest of mankind” (Ps. 73:4-5). How many of us have felt like Asaph?

Sometimes it feels like a lot of people in the world are overlooked by God. I’ll be honest. Sometimes, I’m profoundly bothered by the fact that our world has such severe inequality, and that God hasn’t chosen to intervene in the ways that we might think most prudent. But I’m humbled by my analysis of God’s decision making process, because who am I to comprehend? I’m reminded that “the foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of men” (1 Cor. 1:25). God says, “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion” (Ex. 33:19). In 1 Samuel 2:7 we learn that “The Lord sends poverty and wealth. He humbles, and he exalts.”

I have heard a lot of Christian talk lately about not saying “I’m blessed” anymore. Some have made it their New Years resolution. But if we are to take a phrase like “I’m blessed” among wealthy believers and call it problematic, we need to know what exactly we’re against. First, we need to check the condition of our hearts and see if there is any envious, comparing, judgmental attitude in there. Next, we need to define the word blessing by doing proper scriptural study. We can use a 21st century definition too, but if we’re Christians striving to implement Kingdom culture and Bible-based living in our communities, we have to go to the source.

The word “bless” or “blessing” or “blessed” as translated in the Bible takes on several meanings:

  1. A state of being content, satisfied, joyful, fortunate (Matt. 5:9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.”)

This is the definition of blessed that Dannemiller cites. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus makes multiple pronouncements like this, and in each of them the word “blessed” comes from the Greek work Makarios, which means a state of happiness or contentment. I’d copy and paste it here, but you can just go look yourself (Matt. 5). Here’s more: Jer. 17:7, Ps. 2:12, Acts 20:35, and Ps. 40:4.

  1. To praise, exalt, or approve of someone or something (Ps. 103:1 “Bless the Lord, O my soul…”)

The Psalms are full of this, “bless the Lord” language. In Psalm 34:1, David writes “I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth.”

  1. To speak words of commission over someone for a specific purpose (Gen. 1:28 “And God blessed [human beings] and said unto them, ‘be fruitful and multiply.’”)

In Genesis, we see a lot of this. God blesses all of his creation and designates it for a specific purpose (Gen. 1). It’s also important to note that when God promises to bless Abram (later called Abraham) when he commissions him to go to the Promised Land, he adds “so that you will be a blessing” (Gen. 12:2). Therefore, God’s blessing is for the benefit of others, not just ourselves. The Bible also says that God blesses us so that the world will know and fear him (Ps. 67:7).

  1. To speak a pronouncement of increase, welfare, and good fortune; often God is the one speaking, sometimes a human being, commonly a father to a son (Gen. 24:60 “And they blessed Rebekah and said to her, ‘our sister, may you become thousands of ten thousands, and may your offspring possess the gate of those who hate him!’”)

This one is pretty common in Scripture. In ancient Judaism, there were spoken pronouncements that were ritually spoken between individuals, such as when Isaac accidentally blesses Jacob instead of Esau in Genesis 27, saying:

“May God give you of the dew of heaven
and of the fatness of the earth
and plenty of grain and wine.

Let peoples serve you,
and nations bow down to you.
Be lord over your brothers,
and may your mother’s sons bow down to you.
Cursed be everyone who curses you,
and blessed be everyone who blesses you!”

Other places where you see this kind of blessing are Deut. 1:11, Ps.115:14-15, and Gen. 9:27.

  1. Favor; a gift or inheritance, either spiritual or physical, that is of benefit; gift of happiness, prosperity, and welfare

Also in Genesis, before Jacob and Esau, we see God making a conditional promise to Isaac:

“Sojourn in this land, and I will be with you and will bless you, for to you and to your offspring I will give all these lands, and I will establish the oath that I swore to Abraham your father. I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and will give to your offspring all these lands. And in your offspring all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws” (Gen. 26:3-5).

The way God keeps his promise is important:

“And Isaac sowed in that land and reaped in the same year a hundredfold. The Lord blessed him, and the man became rich, and gained more and more until he became very wealthy. He had possessions of flocks and herds and many servants, so that the Philistines envied him.”

I think it’s important to note that “blessing” in scripture very often refers to things like supernatural favor, material increase, multiplication (as in, many children [Ps. 127:4-5]), wealth, and provision. When God blesses Abram, blessing has a really clear association with welfare and happiness, both for his family and all people (Gen 12:1-3). And we can’t forget Proverbs 10:22, which tells us that “the blessing of the Lord makes rich, and he adds no sorrow with it.”

The point I’m making is that, yes, the culture has hijacked “blessed” and misused it. God also warned us about that through the Sons of Korah in Psalm 49:16-19:

“Be not afraid when a man becomes rich, when the glory of his house increases. For when he dies he will carry nothing away; his glory will not go down after him. For though, while he lives, he counts himself blessed – and though you get praise when you do well for yourself – his soul will go to the generation of his fathers, who will never again see light” (emphasis mine).

See that? The thing is, we’re not talking about believers here. These are basically the same wicked people that Asaph felt envious of, until he went into the sanctuary and realized “behold, those who are far from you shall perish; you put an end to everyone who is unfaithful to you” (Ps. 73:27).

As Christians, I think it’s really important that we know that everything we have is a blessing, because everything we have, physically and spiritually, comes from God (and belongs to him – it’s merely borrowed). James 1:17 says “every good and perfect gift is from above.” In 1 Chronicles 29:12 and 14, David is speaking to the Lord: “Both riches and honor come from you, and you rule over all … but who am I, and what is my people, that we should be able thus to offer willingly? For all things come from you, and of your own have we given you.”

We also have to wrestle with the paradigm that “The rich and the poor meet together; the Lord is the maker of them all” (Prov 22:2). God made me, and my Bangladeshi friends who live on a few bucks a day. That was his doing. He placed me in Canada, a country where, by comparison to the developing world, most of us get our lives basically handed to us on a silver platter. Is that a blessing? Yes, but with it comes a lot of responsibility, temptation, and challenge. I’m required to faithfully steward not only my life but all that I have or own. Those who are poor have an advantage, in Kingdom terms, because the least will be most, and the last shall be the first. Jesus talked about that a lot.

Christians, instead of vowing to stop saying “I’m blessed,” read 1 Timothy 6:17-19 and lay it down as a foundation for how we are to steward and talk about money:

“As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future.”

Some more scriptures to meditate on include 1 John 3:17, Acts 20:35, Isaiah 5:8, and Proverbs 11:28.

Throw me a comment or a message if you disagree, agree, or just have more to say on the matter.

I also just really like the way Ben Harper sings “I am blessed.” Enjoy.

To thine own self be true?

*Note, this is my first blog. If the formatting is crap, I’m sorry. Message me your tips about how to make my blog cooler and more relevant.

“Above all else, to thine own self be true.”

We all know the phrase. It’s a Shakespearean quote, which makes it seem even more profound. Even those who abhor Shakespeare have to admit that it’s elegantly worded, and the words just link together like a small choir of syllables. “To thine own self be true” seems to just roll off the tongue. Lots of people my age and younger are getting tattoos of this well-known proverb, permanently etching it on their shoulders, on their forearms, on their feet. I know this for a fact. I’ve seen it on tumblr.

But what does it mean? O, Polonius, witherforth art thou meaning? After all, the phrase seems to capture resilience and fortitude, nonconformity, and self-esteem – things which we can all agree are virtues within the right context.

But something’s wrong. The way my generation seems to interpret Polonius’ famous words is this: “You are the most important thing in the equation of your life. You determine who and what you want to be, and nobody else should influence that. Stick to your guns, do what you believe in. Ignore the critics.”

The fine line between self-esteem and self-centredness is easily crossed (part of the reason why God calls us to come to him with humble and contrite hearts – 2 Sam. 22:28, 2 Kin. 22:19, Ps. 34:18, 51:17, 147:6, etc…), and we can fool others (and ironically, ourselves) by masking vice with virtue. You might be thinking, okay, Luke, what are you trying to say? What I’m saying is that many who wield “to thine own self be true” can appear to have bravery and integrity on the surface, when in reality the opposite is true.

Nicholas Clairmont, a philosophy blogger on, said it this way:

“The phrase [“to thine own self be true”] appeals to our complacency, not to our resilience.

Its function is to swell our laziness, not to stoke our resolve.

Its use is to excuse our disagreements with society, not to force us to reconcile them with fact.”

(you can find the article here)

Let me clarify that I’m not bashing the oppressed who courageously stand apart. I too, in my own way, am a non-conformist and resist assimilation into the cultural norms around me (why I’m writing this piece). But generally, those who are experiencing genuine oppression are not likely to handle it by turning a phrase and ignoring majority voices. As Clairmont argues, the oppressed “don’t need an excuse to do nothing, because they are too busy finding an excuse to do something.”

Think about the times when you’ve heard the “to thine own self be true” sentiment. It usually goes like this: “I know the majority opinion is ABC, but I think BCA. You can’t blame me, It’s just who I am. I’m just being true to myself. If you disagree with me, then I don’t need you.” Can you taste the foolishness?

As 21st century Christians, why does this matter? Because this style of thinking is popular, and youth are soaking it up like sponges. It joins the ranks of other enlightenment mantras, such as “haters gonna hate” and “YOLO.”

Paul warns us (if I had a quarter for every time a Christian started a paragraph with these three words…) in 2 Timothy 3 that the final days will be difficult. He then lists the vices that characterize people of this generation, starting with a doozie: “For people will be lovers of self.”

I’m not going to try to argue that they are listed in order of importance, because Paul goes on to list a lot of other equally bad characteristics, such as “lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents” etc. (I won’t list them all here, because they’re already in the bible). But it’s striking to me that first on this list is a love of self.

But I thought I was supposed to love myself. After all, in the Psychology/Counselling field (and much of Christendom), self-love is massively encouraged. Many professionals I work with are operating from the assumption that if only we all loved ourselves better, the world would be a better place.

I’ll be honest. The concept of self-love is the very reason I’m writing this. It might actually take more than one blog post to unpack it completely. But when asking the Lord to give me revelation about what to write, something kept resounding. A while back I was chatting with a friend about the love of God, and this person turned to me and said “I know that God loves me, I just don’t know how to love myself. And I don’t think I can love other people, or God, until I can love myself.”

I didn’t know what to say. In one sense, I agree; we Christians shouldn’t live in a place that makes us say, “I’m a worm” or “I’m so unworthy” (Sounds silly, but there are people even in my extended family who still approach God this way). But it seems like we’ve totally reversed priorities. Have we lost our minds? Have we seriously placed the big “I” at the beginning of the equation in our relationship with God and others? Even prominent pastor (a generous appraisal) Joel Osteen says that we can’t love our neighbour unless we love ourselves first. This is a ghastly misapplication of Mark 12:31. And this sounds right to us on first hearing, because our old nature keeps telling us how important we are. We want to be the centre. Of course, we sing “Jesus, be the centre” but then we flip like a switch and say, “I don’t need to change anything, I need to love myself!” Applause resounds. I’ve even heard it commonly said that we can’t receive forgiveness from God until we are willing to forgive ourselves – there it is again. The big “I” in the engine car, pulling along our life train. We’ve placed God at the caboose, at least until we are struggling. Then we cry out sincerely, “Jesus, take the wheel.”

This self-centred approach to life is more subtle than you may think. As an individualistic culture, we place a lot of value on personal achievement, appearance, and identity. We construct identities in a variety of ways, even as Christians, that do not actually correspond to who we really are. I’m guilty of this – posting and commenting on social media as a persona that’s merely a ghost of my true self, hoping that nobody sees the ugly parts of me. The perverse parts of me. The greedy parts of me. But in God’s eyes, it’s all on the table. What if we lived transparently in our communities, instead of engaging in false communities in the online world? What if we discarded pretense and asked forgiveness? What if we were true to God’s word (the truth) instead of being true to us?

As Christians, the problem with holding onto “to thine own self be true” is that we are building our lives on the assumption that we know who we are as individuals better than anyone, and we know what’s best for us. But this makes little sense; even from a philosophical perspective, there is no absolute self to be true to, since we’re always changing and fluid in our desires. According to psychologist Daniel Kahneman, humans are the most fallible and unpredictable creatures alive, and we alone are the worst judges of our own character and motives.

Not only that, but from a Biblical perspective, balderdash. Proverbs 16:2 tells us, “all the ways of a man are pure in his own eyes, but the Lord weighs the spirit.” In other words, God knows our intentions better than we do. Elsewhere we see that “there is a way that seems right to a man, but it’s end is the way to death” (Pr. 14:12). So scripture is telling us that we can be completely sure of ourselves and completely wrong at the same time.

In Jeremiah 17:9 we learn that “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” We read on and God answers his own question: “I the Lord search the heart and test the mind, to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds.” (Jer. 17:10).

But my life is mine, right? Not exactly. Of course, you have free will. But as Christians, Paul tells us that we are not our own, since we were bought with a price (1 Cor. 6:19,20). That means that if we play king-of-the-castle in our lives, grasping for control and defending our rights (again, don’t get me wrong. There is a time to fight for righteousness, but that’s something different altogether. Maybe I’ll write about it in a blog someday), we’re fooling ourselves. Either Jesus is Lord of our lives, or he isn’t.

As for my friend, the answer is not self-love. The answer is surrendering to the Love of God, which is Fatherly (1 Jn. 3:1), perfect (1 Jn. 4:18), unfailing (Is. 54:10), impartial (Job 34:19), radical (Rom. 5:8), manifest (1 Jn. 4:9-11), and irrevocable (Rom. 8:37-39).

It’s tempting to believe a gospel that places us at the centre of our lives, and it may even work for a little while. We can develop mantras of self-esteem and say them to ourselves whenever we feel bad, but in reality we’re just swallowing placebos. We can place self-love at the top of our priority list and wait around for our bad relationships, our depression, our conflict, our jealousy, and our selfish and sinful desires to change. But 1 John 4:7-8 preaches a different gospel: “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.” There you have it. It all starts with God; it never started with us. Since God is love, the only way we can love others (and by necessity, ourselves) is by knowing him. Can’t you see it? God is Love. He is the divine source of love, the kind that isn’t based on feelings or personal gain. Can’t you see now how illogical it is to say that we need to, first and foremost, love ourselves? We’re talking about something that’s virtually impossible without a dynamic, experiential encounter with Love Himself.

If you don’t know God, the love you have is heartfelt at best and sickly motivated at worst. But he wants to pour love all over you, so that you can walk in the healing power of it and give it away to the rest of the world. We all need this, no matter how well-off you think you are. If you don’t know God, lay down your pride and invite him to reveal himself to you.