Sermon 30




Hate Yourself – Again

John 12:25

March 29, 2009


Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace and peace to you, in the name of God the Father, Son (X) and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Once again we see how tough Jesus can be on us. In John 12:25 he tells us not only that we will lose out if we love ourselves, but that we must hate ourselves if we want to go to heaven. So what shall we make of these words which seem so crazy to us? Does our Lord really want us to be suicidal or abnormal psychologically? What’s up with his emphatic regard for self-hatred?


Denying Yourself

These startling words are not about self-mutilation or anything of the sort. They instead are about self-denial (Matthew 16:24) – which runs throughout the entire New Testament in various manifestations. So self-hatred is about self-denial and not about self-destruction. We are to lose our lives for the sake of the Gospel (Mark 8:35). We are to die to the world and to our sinful ways (Galatians 6:14; Romans 6:11). And to die to ourselves means no longer living for ourselves alone, but “for him,” who was crucified and raised from the dead for us (2 Corinthians 5:15).

To deny ourselves, then, is to demote ourselves (John 3:30), or put ourselves on the back burner, if you will. And we are to deny ourselves so that we can follow Jesus (Matthew 16:24). Self-hatred therefore has a purpose beyond itself – beyond simply denying ourselves, dying to ourselves, or hating ourselves. Its purpose is to enable us to follow Christ – that we might walk “in newness of life” (Romans 6:4; 1 Peter 2:21). So anything that would damage us or in any way impede or compromise our discipleship, wouldn’t be bone fide New Testament self-hatred. Self-hatred in the New Testament is supposed to be invigorating – not demoralizing. It’s supposed to make us robust saints of God (2 Timothy 1:7) – not damaged creatures, diminished in mind and body. It’s supposed to help us become “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16). And to be like that takes agility and savvy, compassion and nerve. (On these points see my sermon on Luke 14:26 entitled, “Hate Yourself,” September 16, 2007.)


Going About Hating Yourself

But what if I were to tell you now to hate yourselves on the count of three. What would you do? Poke yourself in the eye? I think not. You would most likely just sit there – and a bit befuddled at that. You would probably think I was joking around. And that’s because we have no tools for getting going on hating ourselves. We have nothing to grab on to, as it were, to try to hate ourselves.

            In one sense this is as it should be since hating ourselves is an attitudinal or dispositional matter – it’s about how we see ourselves. So it’s not about particular actions – doing this or that on command. However, in another sense, this is all wrong, since we should know what to do when trying to hate ourselves. For if we are to hate ourselves in order to follow Christ – then there must be something to do as we walk down that path of righteousness (Psalm 23:3). Our problem is knowing exactly what that is.

In this regard there is a helpful prayer by that admirer of Martin Luther (1483-1546), who lived in Copenhagen, Denmark, over 150 years ago – Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) by name. You may have heard of him. But you might not have known that he not only believed that Luther was the master of us all, but that next to Jesus Christ, he was the truest figure (Journals & Papers, ed. Howard V. Hong & Edna H. Hong, 3:2465, 3:2898). So Kierkegaard’s words should perk up your Lutheran ears. His prayer comes from the end of his book, Practice in Christianity (1850). In it Kierkegaard, under his complex pseudonym Anti-Climacus, meditates over and over again on John 12, about Jesus drawing us to himself when he’s lifted-up on the cross. In this little prayer we have five ways to hate ourselves (Kierkegaard’s Writings 20:157):


Lord Jesus Christ, our foolish minds are weak; they are more than willing to be drawn – and there is so much that wants to draw us to itself. There is pleasure with its seductive power, the multiplicity with its bewildering distractions, the moment with its infatuating importance and the conceited laboriousness of busyness and the careless time-wasting of light-mindedness and the gloomy brooding of heavy-mindedness.... But you, who are the truth, only you... can truly draw a person to yourself, which you have promised to do.


And indeed Christ does just that – drawing us to himself – when he dies for the sins of the world on the cross. Just think, for a moment, of that unbelieving centurion, who, upon witnessing the crucifixion, said: “Truly this was the Son of God” (Matthew 27:54). In this prayer Kierkegaard gives us five ways, then, to hate ourselves that we too might make a similar confession.



The first way he gives us in this prayer is to battle against the seductions of pleasure. His point isn’t that we should forgo all pleasure, but that we shouldn’t become Epicureans (Acts 17:18) and wallow in pleasure, wrapping up our whole life in the pursuit of pleasure. This is the height of self-indulgence – and self-hatred aims to purge us of this self-aggrandizement which we find in our scandalous identification with pleasure. Each one of us will have a different set of pleasures that woo us into this trap. The power in these pleasures is truly seductive, as Kierkegaard says – in that they won’t settle for anything less than everything we are and have. And so we must corral them before they consume us.

            This is the great value in “self-control” – which is one of the hallmarks of the spiritual life (Galatians 5:17; 2 Timothy 1:7). Through self-control we corral the wild horses of pleasure. And precisely in that curtailment we see self-hatred at its best. It cuts the nerve of the “fleeting pleasures of sin” (Hebrews 11:25). It keeps our lives from being built upon sand (Matthew 7:26). For our lives are not to be driven by pleasure, but in giving God all the glory (1 Corinthians 10:31).



Next we are to oppose the “multiplicity” in our daily lives “with its bewildering distractions.” Think of all those to-do lists we carry around with us. They both control and consume us on a daily basis. Not that we should be slouches or irresponsible slugs, but our life isn’t about getting tasks scratched off our lists. That would be too fragmented of a life for a Christian. We are instead to be more focused than what the multiplicity of distractions brings. Being “tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind” (Ephesians 4:14) isn’t Christian discipleship. Christ tells us that our lives should be organized around loving God and caring for the neighbor (Matthew 22:37-39). But we rush after these distractions anyway, eager for another thrill from that teaming multiplicity.

            And that’s how the new affects us (Acts 17:21). So we suffer from a love for it or neophilia [Desmond Morris, The Naked Ape: A Zoologist’s Study of the Human Animal (1967) p. 130]. Luther therefore warned that it’s wrong to yearn for “something new,” supposing that the “old and... ordinary... count for nothing” (Luther’s Works 41:127; 22:486). That’s what boredom does. So pitting self-hatred against this love of the new goes a long way toward freeing us from the bewildering distractions of multiplicity.



Hating ourselves also frees us from excessive busyness which feeds our conceit and exalted sense of self-importance. We like to think that the world couldn’t make it without us – crazy though that may sound to the sober-minded. So we keep bustling around not just to fight off boredom – but even more to feed our egos. If I have so much to do, I imagine, it must mean that I’m the key one.

            Gone from this way of life is waiting quietly upon the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth (Psalms 37:7, 46:10, 62:5). Gone from this way of life is the quiet time of prayer – where we wait silently on the word of the Lord. All of these spiritual wonders are gobbled up by the rush, by the hurricane of busyness. Gone is taking time every day “to collect yourself in the impression of the divine” (KW 21:50). Hating yourself, then, is a way to make room for prayer and quiet – which are the opposite of busyness, since they teach us how to forego our will and obey God alone (Matthew 6:10; LW 42:48-49). So in self-hatred, Christ is rebuking the storms of our busyness, that “a great calm” may come to us too (Matthew 8:26).



The fourth way this prayer helps us hate ourselves is in putting the kibosh on wasting time in light-mindedness. We waste time when we’re driven by trivialities – worrying, for instance, as this Sunday’s news has, over whether or not movie stars Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt will ever get back together again (Walter Scott’s Personality Parade, March 29, 2009). We get obsessed over these matters – calling our friends to weigh in on the odds and even changing our schedules so we don’t miss these stars on TV. It’s not that a little light-mindedness is bad in helping us unwind. No, again, it’s a matter of going hog-wild over all of this careless time-wasting of light-mindedness. It’s as if the weighty matters of life are more than we can bear, and so, in self-defense, we escape into the trivialities of popular culture – whatever they may be. I can do that, for instance, by calling up a fellow pastor to gossip over the latest sexuality research published in a psychological journal – all under the pretense of enriching our marital counseling skills.

            But escaping the traumas of life isn’t Christian. We know that those who try to save their lives in this way will lose them (Matthew 16:25). We know that it is the way of the fool to take-it-easy, “eat, drink and be merry” (Luke 12:19; Ephesians 5:4). We know that we are here instead to share in the sufferings of Christ and walk in his steps (1 Peter 4:13, 2:21). And he was hardly a man of light-mindedness – coming nowhere close to being the jovial, back-slapping type (LW 22:236-237, 377) [contra the famous Fred Berger laughing Jesus drawing in Playboy, January 1970, and the silly tag-playing Jesus (1999) movie, written by Suzette Couture]. Hating ourselves, then, is about quitting obsessing over trivialities.



But Kierkegaard also says we are to hate ourselves so as not to sink into the gloomy brooding of heavy-mindedness. Who would ever have thought that Kierkegaard would fight against such brooding – being characterized himself as gloomy and brooding (see H. V. Martin, Kierkegaard, the Melancholy Dane, 1950, and Theodor Haecker, Kierkegaard, the Cripple, 1950). This is as strange as President Nixon opening up trade in 1972 with our then sworn enemy, China (see Margaret McMillan, Nixon & Mao: The Week that Changed the World, 2007). So while Kierkegaard indeed suffered from sadness, he never thought of it as being virtuous. He instead battled against his famous melancholy – in the name of the joy found in Christ (Philippians 4:4). For he believed that “never, never did the parched and drought-stricken earth sense the rain’s refreshment as deliciously,” as the sinner who rests in the joy of Christ, which saves us from our sins (KW 17:132).

            So brooding gloom is not a sign of self-hatred but of self-indulgence and the very self-love that damns us to hell (2 Timothy 3:2-4; Isaiah 30:9-11). Self-hatred, to the contrary, is actually about freeing us from such heavy-mindedness. We aren’t to be serious about the big issues of death and wrath, wickedness and judgment, in order to despair over them, but that we might praise God for his wisdom and mercy and help our neighbors live a decent life. So self-hatred is paradoxically the cure for depression – little known as this is among practicing therapists (see my “News From the Graveyard: Kierkegaard’s Analysis of Christian Self-Hatred,” Pro Ecclesia, Winter 2000, and “Kierkegaard’s Cure for Divorce,” Søren Kierkegaard Newsletter, September 2002).


Beyond Us

Now as illuminating as Kierkegaard’s prayer is, we cannot simply take up his five points and sail-off, unimpeded, into a righteousness based on self-hatred. That is because all our capacities are tainted by sin, and so our attempts to use these Kierkegaardian tools, if you will, won’t help much, simply because in our using of them, we will in fact distort and otherwise corrupt them. I’m reading a new book by Anne Harrington called The Cure Within: A History of Mind-Body Medicine (2008), which goes against what I’m saying, albeit in another context. Nevertheless, we must not let her argument sway us in the wrong direction regarding our souls. For on this religious point, if we are to find any help at all, it will have to come from outside of us. For as Jesus taught, it is not what enters us that defiles, spoils or harms us, but what already is in us – from the beginning (Psalms 51:5, 64:6; Jeremiah 17:9). For from within, he says, comes every sort of waywardness – “fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride [and] foolishness” (Mark 7:21-22). There is enough here to defeat any of us – regardless of how many blessings we’ve received from on high. And that’s breathtaking!

            No wonder, then, that we run to Hebrews 5:9 which says that the “source” of our salvation lies outside of us in Christ Jesus our Lord. This is good news because it means that our salvation cannot be destroyed by our sin. For Christ became perfect by his own suffering and obedience – and not due to any help from us. And so he’ll remain perfect because his perfection is not based on anything outside of him. So in Christ we actually have pure compassion and fortitude – unstained by us or any one else. So Jesus can rescue us by his death on the cross (Hebrews 9:26). Only his purity can do that. By sacrificing himself, Jesus was punished in our place (2 Corinthians 8:9) – that we might be forgiven, and then glorify God, serve our neighbor, and live in heaven for eternity.


Within Us

But how exactly will this happen? Christ indeed is great, but doesn’t sin hold us back from him? How, then, can he help us? Hebrews 11:6 says that only faith in God pleases him and knowing that he rewards those who obey him. So being morally pure won’t please God. That’s because we couldn’t be even if we had eternity to try to do it. We are just too weak for that (Matthew 26:41; Romans 7:18). Therefore all we need is simply to believe in Christ – which means trusting in him and entrusting our lives to his care (Psalms 23:4, 91:14; John 10:28; Romans 8:28, 38-39). With such faith we refuse to say with Job that God is “against me,... against me,... against me” (Job 10:16-17). No, faith knows that God is on our side even when we are assailed by troubles in this life.

And when we trust in God in this way, a miracle happens. He whom we believe in, actually, then, enters into us. And so with St. Paul we can say and sing that it is no longer I who live but “Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). How so? Well we know about demon-possession alright – how those demons can thrash us about mercilessly, overpowering us from within (Mark 5:2-5, 9:20-22). Just so, Christ likewise can enter into us. But rather than beating us down like the demons, he lifts us up as if “with wings like eagles” (Isaiah 40:31). Then we can sing with St. Paul, “I can do all things in Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:10) – maybe even pray Kierkegaard’s prayer and mean it!


Food of the Soul

Come then, and received Christ at the Altar. For he is truly present there. So bow down at the Altar and receive him – in, with and under the bread and the wine of the Lord’s Supper. See in it the clearest testimony that our eternal salvation lies outside of us. Just as none of us will bring bread and wine with us to the Altar today, but only receive it from the Lord, consecrated by his word and given to us for the forgiveness of sins and our salvation – just so our hope for goodness and mercy, and for heaven itself, is also not carried with us. It can only be received from beyond us. Therefore Luther rightly calls this sacrament “food of the soul” [The Book of Concord (1580), ed. T. Tappert (1959) p. 449].


Better Than Us

And when you leave today, do good works in the name of the one who saved you, Jesus our Lord (Colossians 3:17). For we who live in his Spirit must also walk in the Spirit (Galatians 5:25). During Lent our good deed is to fast the foods we especially enjoy (Matthew 6:16). But we also care about the implications of this fast – wanting to extend it to other parts of our lives, beside our eating. Today Philippians 2:3 helps us with that by telling us to count others as being better than ourselves. This extension is something of a psychological fast – weaning us from our deeply held pride.

            Now I know most of you here today and I know that you are in fact better than most other people – in terms of your intelligence, diligence and kindness. That makes this verse very disturbing and difficult for us. But while we notice your superiority over others – God doesn’t. For sub specie aeternitatis (Spinoza, 1632-1677) – or from God’s bird’s eye viewpoint – these differences don’t matter. To disrupt our perception, then, we are told that everyone else is better than us – even if it’s not the case according to what we see and understand. But this fasting of our pride is necessary if we are to be humble as we’re supposed to be (Micah 6:8; Luke 18:14). So extend your fast beyond food, and take on your pride as well. Call on God to help with this, otherwise you’ll surely fail (John 15:5). And he will bless you because he wants you to walk in humility, for that is part of the glorious, sacred self-hatred which is designed to keep you safe for all eternity. Amen.


(printed as preached but with some changes)