The Cultural Call To Love Yourself: Seduction From The Softer Side of Legalism

Regardless of my appreciation for their artistry, any fascination I happen to hold for a pop culture icon centers on my interest in them as a person. I enjoy listening between notes as much as I enjoy reading between lines. My captured interest isn't dependent on my liking their song or their story, or my agreeing with their message or their medium. It's a fascination that comes with no fan-fueled penchant for screaming, no pleading for autographs or pushing for photographs, just a desire to look into their eyes, listen to their heart, and love them enough to share the answer to the most troubling questions that haunt their soul. 

The pop music icon who has stirred my heart most does so because she's not only the one I hear asking the haunting questions of the soul most rawly, but also the one I hear seeking to answer them most honestly from the depths of her fierce instinctual survival. Born in New Jersey with Italian blood in my veins, I can identify with the intensity of emotion that fuels her eccentric scaring with intention to avoid being scared by surprise; and I can see the fallout of stripped power that fans her unconventional objectifying of self by choice to avoid being objectified by force. But in looking beneath the layers of complication, what I see most is a hunger for authenticity that comes with a worth I'm able to attach value to even where others understandably may only be able to assign censure.

My "Enneagram 8" determination to rule my own life manifested itself well before my first birthday and, being the youngest of five children, my siblings have found great delight in sharing the story of one particular harrowing showdown that had them pleading in tears for my surrender. Apparently I was determined to stand up in my highchair while my equally intense father was determined I was going to sit down. As the story goes, after a raucous round of spankings replete with recalcitrant screams and ruthless relegations to my room that had me repeatedly returning and repelling my throne to reign from my rightful stance, I finally surrendered when one of my more distraught siblings secretly threw in a bribe of ice-cream.

I only mention this to share that there's a petite five foot two Italian icon from New York standing tall in the world, and she's a poignant reminder to me of the amazing grace that punctuates the pages of my own life's story. A reminder that God, in his perfect authorship, penned the relocation of our family to the south where he would have its Bible Belt squeezing the fire not just out of my own fierce need to maintain control, but also out of my father's— driving us to our knees in surrender to our insufficiency. God didn't need to transplant our family anywhere to do that, for his saving grace comes with no borders of country, state or city, and no boundaries of age or time. But this is my story, and I don't take it for granted that a feisty frizzy-headed Jersey Girl was graced with a heart to see that freedom isn't found in standing up in prideful assertion, but in standing down in humble submission. 

Careening headlong into self-destruction, it's not surprising to hear Lady Gaga share that learning to love herself and believe in herself is where she has found her saving grace. My heart beats with enough affection to be grateful she's a survivor. But I can't help but to be deeply touched with compassion by her rawly honest articulation about a process she admits is not only exhausting, but also one she doesn't have confidence in being able to sustain. I can't help but to be deeply touched with compassion as, riddled with expletives, she pines that loving herself feels like an impossibility whenever she looks truthfully at "just how much sh*t" actually resides within her—  an admission I applaud for coming with an honesty that sadly often escapes the Church.

On my darkest days when I find myself fighting against the voices in my head that tell me I'm not enough (voices that even the extraordinary success of an icon can't silence), I sure am thankful I don't have to work to outshout them with my own. I'm thankful I don't have to muster energy convincing myself that I am an amazing woman of worth deserving of love, honor and respect. When I'm fighting against the destructive lies that war against my soul, I'm so incredibly grateful that the only voice I need to hear breaking through the darkness is the voice of my Father. The voice of my Father whose mere whisper moves mountains— the voice of my Father who tells me that I am endlessly loved and that His Son makes me eternally worthy. 

God's grace doesn't leave me working to love myself, and I'm too grateful for that truth to echo a cultural call that demands otherwise. Grateful that when it comes to feeling loved and finding my worth, the only need the gospel leaves me with is a work to rest in the finished work of my Savior.  To rest in the gospel of Good News that comes with no need for those who believe it to convince ourselves of how worthy and lovable we are. And for that, all I can say is: 

"Thank you, Jesus!"

Because any need to convince ourselves inevitably forces us to spin the truth if we're going to believe our own press, and I value authenticity too much to do that without it causing depression and distress within my heart. So I can't offer enough praise to my Savior for training me to tune my ear to the only One who can bear the deepest and darkest truth of my existence and still say: You are fully known and you are forever loved! 

Many of us carry such a superficial understanding of legalism that we reserve its attachment to the cold line of separation that pulls culottes over snow bibs to safely ski all the slippery slopes of the world. Viewing legalism as synonymous with rules of unreason, we fail to realize the gravity of its grip on every human heart. We fail to understand that legalism is taking any benefit of the gospel and separating it from Christ. We fail to understand that our own heartregardless of the rhythm of rules and regulations to which it beats, leaves us at risk of falling prey to the seduction of legalism and fruitlessly reaching for works instead of relying on grace.

"The benefits of the gospel are in Christ. They do not exist apart from him. They are ours only in him. They cannot be abstracted from him as if we ourselves could possess them independently of him. . . Antinomianism and legalism are not so much antithetical to each other as they are both antithetical to grace. . . God's grace in Christ in our union with Christ, is the antidote for both."  Sinclair Ferguson; The Whole Christ

The cultural call to love self and find worth in self is being herald at such a high volume, that even within the Church I find myself being met with pushback for daring to suggest it's a voice of legalistic seduction originating from those who claim no hope in Christ. And unfortunately, just as with legalism's harsher side, its lack of theological grounding inevitably relegates the discussion to the unreasonable and absurd. When I'm met with accusation that I condemn pampering, I'm immediately transported to the days when my failure to embrace courtship drew accusation I devalue purity. 

Legalism has oxygen taken from its lungs whenever it's forced to center itself on unpadded Truth, so it can always be found fanning itself with a straw man. It's why I pray these words I've written won't cause any prideful bristling of affront and agitation, but that they'll simply incite humble consideration. Because if there's something we can take to the bank, it's that the same Savior who died for us is the same Savior who can love us and care for us far better than we could ever do ourselves. That only as we look away from ourselves and fix our eyes on him, can we confidently REST knowing we are fervently loved because of a Righteous Redeemer who is forever worthy.

There is only one Savior who can rescue us from the shame of our sin. Though some personalities possess enough mental or emotional flexibility to convince themselves that redemption can be found within self, the shifting of blame for personal sin can always be heard. Because whether that shift centers on the evil abuse of a relative, or the superficial wound of a parent; or on the cruel betrayal of a spouse, or the dishonest word of a trusted friend— without wholly trusting in Christ alone, our need for a place to absorb the shock of our shame can never be masked no matter how beautifully we dance. 

Our thoughts about this cultural call are linked tightly to our theology. Either we believe the gospel message of grace that tells us that the removal of our deep sin and shame can only be found in Christ, or we don't. Either we believe the doctrinal truth expressed in the following words that tells us Christ alone can give us rest, or we don't: 


No list of sins I have not done, 
No list of virtues I pursue, 
No list of those I am not like 
Can earn myself a place with You. 
O God, be merciful to me– 
I am a sinner through and through! 
My only hope of righteousness 
Is not in me, but only You. 

No humble dress, no fervent prayer, 
No lifted hands, no tearful song, 
No recitation of the truth 
Can justify a single wrong. 
My righteousness is Jesus’ life,  
My debt was paid by Jesus’ death, 
My weary load was borne by Him 
And He alone can give me rest. 

No separation from the world, 
No work I do, no gift I give 
Can cleanse my conscience, cleanse my hands; 
I cannot cause my soul to live. 
But Jesus died and rose again– 
The power of death is overthrown! 
My God is merciful to me 
And merciful in Christ alone. 

My righteousness is Jesus’ life,  
My debt was paid by Jesus’ death, 
My weary load was borne by Him 
And He alone can give me rest. 

Words and music: Eric Schumacher & David L. Ward