I believe that following Jesus Christ is not just one way to live — it is THE healthiest approach to life! My experience has been, however, that most people don’t get this. They might think of Christianity as an excellent moral system and of Jesus as a wise teacher, but they fail to see how radically different Christian discipleship is from everything else, including all other religions and the secular worldview.
One mental health issue we frequently encounter is learning to accept oneself. What would be the difference between how one would approach this task from a secular worldview and as a Christian disciple?
Two Different Approaches
Before looking at a specific plan, we need to understand our frame of reference better. To do this, let’s look at three areas: (1) our point of reference, (2) how we relate to others and the world, and (3) an understanding of the obstacles we face.
Point of Reference
Secular: There is no single truth or standard to follow because there is no one person or thing to define it. No one can either affirm nor deny our worth in an absolute sense, although a group of people or a society can decide who it does or doesn’t value. There is no predetermined best or healthiest way to live, but empirically we find that some things work better than others. There is no God who loves us. We might be fortunate enough to have other people who care for us, and if so, it’s a therapeutic resource we can use. On the other hand, if we don’t, that’s just tough.
Christian: There are a Person and a Way for us to follow. God made us, and he created us in His image. He made us good and lovely, and no person, situation, or experience can take that away. There is an ideal, healthy way to live because that’s how our Creator designed us. It was codified in the Ten Commandments and brought to fulfillment by Jesus. Furthermore, we don’t just follow some grand ethical system. God is an all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving Trinity with whom we can have a relationship.
How We Relate to Others and Our World
Secular: Each person sets his own standard or truth. Each defines what is healthy for them. People primarily draw power from their ego and determination. It’s meaningless to speak of one’s biases unless they come in conflict with cultural values or interferes with one’s progress toward self-acceptance. Some people see free will as an illusion, asserting that our decision-making is ultimately pre-determined by our genetics and experience.
Christian: God loves us, and He calls us to love Him and one another as we love ourselves (Matt. 22:37). God desires a personal relationship with us and wants us to share in His divine life for eternity. To this purpose, He gave us His very own Son, Jesus, who came to free us from the bondage of sin, heal us, and restore our relationship with Him. We enter this relationship when we accept Jesus as our Savior and receive the Sacraments. Through Him, we also receive the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Jesus gave us the Church both as the means and goal of His plan: to bring all people together in Christ. Coming to Christ makes us a new creation and is the beginning of a life of ongoing salvation and conversion to Christ.
Secular: Psychological problems and difficulties with relationships are a result of our genetic tendencies, upbringing, and experiences. These defects lead to faulty thinking and behavior patterns that frustrate our progress. We can overcome these obstacles with the right attitude and effort.
Christian: We have been wounded by sin, resulting in a broken world marred by physical, mental, and spiritual disorders. We often act contrary to what is healthiest for us. Sin affects us at every level, leading to faulty thinking, disordered emotions, and misdirected intention of will. We all have biases, and we’re often blind to our own weaknesses. We have an adversary, Satan, who seeks to deceive and destroy us, although he has no power over those who turn to Jesus.
We have capabilities, but they are not unlimited. Although we can make progress under our power, we cannot save ourselves. Fortunately, we have the Holy Spirit to help us.
Working Toward Self-Acceptance
While we commonly speak of learning to accept ourselves as we are, I think a better way of looking at the task is learning to love oneself as God loves us. Let’s look at six strategies we can use.
Focus on your strengths.
Secular: Help people recognize their strengths. Weaknesses don’t go away, but we either ignore them or heap up enough positives, so they overshadow our limitations.
Christian: We neither deny nor overplay our strengths or our weaknesses. Christians realistically recognize both, and they even learn to embrace their flaws rather than try to deny or minimize them.
Intentionally change one’s mindset away from shame, guilt, self-criticism, self-doubt, and all other forms of defeatist thinking.
Secular: Negative and self-deprecating thought patterns create a negative emotional state and keep us in a state of paralysis. Promote self-affirming thought patterns instead.
Christian: Some guilt and self-doubt may be justified. God’s Revelation and the Holy Spirit help us distinguish between the thoughts and behaviors that are deceitful and destructive and those that will work to make us healthier and happier. We may be unable to overcome these patterns on our own. Fortunately for us, the Holy Spirit not only shows us the way to go but also gives us the strength to accomplish it.
Find people who support us and make a positive influence.
Secular: This usually means hanging with people who will tell us we’re OK and avoiding people who make us feel like we’re worthless.
Christian: A true friend will not only tell us what we want to hear, but they will speak the truth in love and help us steer away from the destructive patterns of sin. They help us draw closer to God. We not only avoid people who put us down, but we also stay clear of any person or situation that will lead us from God and spiritual health.
Discover and tap into inner sources of positivity.
Secular: We try to find an ideal within ourselves that we can use to motivate and inspire us. What we use depends on our previous experiences, emotional state, and insight.
Christian: Jesus is our ideal for health. Mary and all the saints who have gone before us also present models we can follow and use for inspiration. Even more, the Holy Spirit works to inspire us toward life and helps us reject Satan and his efforts to discourage and divide us.
Be kind to yourself.
Secular: We avoid treating ourselves harshly. We also take steps to help us feel better about ourselves. We use positive self-talk.
Christian: Christians, too, treat themselves kindly. But our understanding of love goes much further, for we are to love ourselves as Christ loves us. Read I Corinthians 13 for a better understanding of this kind of love.
Secular: Helping others helps us to tangibly see that we can make a difference in the lives of others, and therefore, also know that we are good people.
Christian: Helping others is more than an act of self-care. It is how we are to live day by day. It goes beyond feeling good about ourselves. Indeed, loving others sacrificially will create new challenges for us. But we were made for love — to love God and others. In this, we fulfill our purpose and calling.
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It’s not that the secular is wrong. In fact, many of its devices are borrowed from Christian principles. But the secular is only a pale shadow compared to the fullness of life available to us through Jesus Christ.
Loving Yourself is part of a series about practices that promote psychological and spiritual health.