While growing up in the Christian church, I was consistently taught about the other-centered love of God. The majority of these teachings focused on Jesus’ self-sacrifice on the cross. Jesus’ death was the epitomizing example of what God’s other-centered love was like. Subsequently, this unconditional, sacrificial love of Jesus became what I longed to learn, embody, and give to others. If I were to come to love like Jesus, loving others meant giving and sacrificing all of the love, grace, understanding, and empathy that I had to give, without any conditions or limits.
It feels really good to love others in a meaningful and genuinely caring way. There really isn’t anything else quite as fulfilling. I think this is because (1) we were created and hard-wired to be in relationship with and love one another, and (2) because we were created in God’s image, and God is Love. Love is the flow of life.
In his book The God-Shaped Brain, Timothy R. Jennings explains that,
“The law of love is the circle of giving that is the law of life. All life is built on this principle because all of life originates with God. If a body of water separates from the circle and ceases to flow, it stagnates and everything in it dies. God gave us a powerful illustration in the body of water called the Dead Sea. The Dead Sea takes from the Jordan River but gives nothing in return. What happens in that body of water? The name says it all.”
What Jennings’ explanation alludes to is the reality that when we participate in the other-centered love of God, we are simultaneously jumping into the flow of life that is love; we are living into our identity as humans made in the image of a God who is Love. And thus, we experience a profound meaningfulness and fulfillment.
Yet, other-centered love (though meaningful and fulfilling) is often exhausting, and it demands a shit ton of emotional, mental, and physical energy. While I was consistently taught about how to practice the other-centered love of Jesus, I was never really taught about what to do when I felt too drained and empty to love others. In my experience, the church talked a lot about how to practice filling the cup of others, but rarely talked about the importance of filling your own cup. Which is shocking to me in hindsight, because the necessity of filling your own cup is something that Jesus taught and prioritized himself consistently throughout Scripture.
Jesus often went off by himself to pray.
Jesus went off by himself for 40 days to rest and pray.
Jesus taught us to remove the beam out of our own eye before we attempt to help our brother remove the beam from his eye (Matthew 7:5).
He did all of these things in order to take care of himself and fill his own cup, so that he could share it with us. And even after he sacrifices everything He is and has for us on the cross, He returns to the Father and the Spirit to rest and be rejuvenated by Love.
So, if Jesus emphasized the importance of other-centered love and self-love and self-care, why do we so often disregard the importance and necessity of the latter? If we are quick to give to others, but rarely willing to give to ourselves, then eventually we will have nothing of value to offer to others.
I think often times we Christians believe the misconception that if we choose to prioritize loving and taking care of ourselves before others, then we are being selfish. We then are like the Dead Sea, only taking but never giving anything in return. But the reality is that self-love and selfishness and not synonymous. And selfishness is not always a bad thing. There are times when we need to be selfish and prioritize our own well-being, and I believe that Jesus encouraged and demonstrated this in His own life. Additionally, Jesus wants to rejuvenate us when we are depleted of the energy to love, because He is the source of Love; the flow of life! This is why He consistently went to the Father and Spirit in His times of solitude; in order to be rejuvenated. He knows what it is like to be human; what it is like to feel drained and depleted of other-centered love. Jesus knows the importance of self-love, and He wants us to practice and embody it too.
In his book How to Love, Thich That Hanh explains that,
Everything needs food to live, even love. If we don’t know how to nourish our love, it withers. When we feed and support our own happiness, we are nourishing our ability to love.”
Self-love is a necessary part of the law of love, and it always has been. To participate in the other-centered love of God and to love as Jesus demonstrated throughout Scripture includes (and necessitates) taking time to fill your own cup when it is empty.
Consider what filling your own cup entails. What acts of self-care rejuvenate you; bring you life and joy and fulfillment; so that you can share the joy you have received with others in profound, meaningful, and life-giving ways. Just as Jesus did and does for us continuously, and eternally.