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Depression, anxiety, and suicide are on the rise in the United States.

The National Institute of Mental Health reports that approximately 21 million Americans ages 12 and above suffer with depression. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America reports a staggering 40 million Americans suffer with anxiety issues.  Even among those who love Jesus, we see these two conditions emerging more and more.

Over the next four weeks, we’re going to present a series of posts designed to help you adopt a practical and preventive approach to emotional health. It’s much easier to prevent depression and anxiety. And a lot less expensive.

Today we start with what I believe to be the foundation of emotional fitness: To love yourself. We’ll only touch on it today. For a fuller explanation, pick up a copy of my book, Unshakable You: Five Choices of Emotionally Healthy People. You can find it here 

Our capacity to love others is directly related to the degree we love ourselves. You may be thinking “John that sounds selfish.” Let me assure you, it’s quite biblical. In Matthew 22 a Pharisee asked Jesus,“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”  Without hesitation, Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’

Jesus used a seemingly insignificant connector word—“as”—that is in reality very significant. It’s the Greek word “ws”—which means “in the same manner as.”  The most important command in the Bible is really a 3-parter: it commands us to love God and to love our neighbor—but Jesus also commands us to love ourselves.

Why would He do that? Because He knows our capacity to love others is directly related to the way we love ourselves. Question is, how do we obey the third part of the most important command in history without becoming self-centered narcissists? Let me give you a few ideas:  

Healthy self-talk

Self-talk is how I talk to myself about myself. No one talks to you about you more than you do . . . so be kind with the words you say about yourself. Verbal slams you direct against yourself are every bit as damaging (and sinful) as those you might direct at others.  Josh Linkner, an author and entrepreneur writes: “For some of us, if we spoke to our friends the same way we spoke to ourselves we’d quickly end up with a long list of enemies!”

Understanding the difference between self-care and self-centeredness

Jesus in Matthew 22 was not advocating self-centeredness. The Apostle Paul helps us here. In Acts 20 he was saying farewell to a group of leaders. He would never see them again, and in this emotional moment he urged them in verse 28: “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers.”  The phrase “Keep watch” comes from a single Greek word that means “to attend to, to pay attention to, to devote thought and effort to.”

Wow . . . we’re called to attend to, pay attention to, devote thought and effort to others and to ourselves.  Paul even gives us more clarity in Philippians 2:4: “Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.” Our own interests need not be totally ignored, but the interests of others must also form part of our concern. Loving yourself means caring about others while at the same time caring for yourself. It’s not an either/or proposition—it’s both/and.

Embracing God’s opinion of you

God sees past our exterior and into our private thoughts, attitudes and motives. He knows everything about us . . . the good, the bad and the ugly . . . yet He loves us anyway. I love how Psalm 139:17-18 puts it: “How precious concerning me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand.”

How many grains of sand are there on planet earth? They’re uncountable. Psalm 139 reveals the same God who created our beautiful sphere thinks about us all the time! So, loving yourself means embracing God’s opinion of you—and His opinion is you’re worth loving without strings attached, you’re the apple of His eye, and you’re never outside of His thoughts.

Getting in touch with your soul

The need for loving myself home to me many years ago. At that time, I’d been a Christian for 18 years, and a pastor for 12. I understood the part of the great commandment that had to do with loving God. I was aware of the part about loving people. The part about loving myself was never on my radar! And eventually my ignorance caught up with me. In November 1992, major depression rocked my world.

Here’s the unvarnished truth: Depression can happen to anyone, even to people who love God. And if you don’t believe that, I encourage you to read the bible. You’ll discover King David and the prophets Jeremiah and Elijah—men we Jesus-followers consider spiritual giants—all suffered from it!

Recovery from major depression didn’t happen overnight. Recuperating was a long, difficult process that started with understanding the full impact of the greatest commandment, including the third part: to love myself. I had to learn how to become my own best friend instead of my own worst critic. I needed the assistance of a professional counselor for a time. I went on antidepressant medication for a season. Most importantly, I had to develop a whole new approach to life.

But the healing process started with obeying the “love yourself” portion of the greatest commandment. My counselor’s first words to me were: “John, you need to learn to be nice to yourself.”

Your capacity to love your spouse, your kids, your neighbor, your workmates, your friends at school, even your enemies, is directly related to the degree you love yourself. It is the foundation of emotional fitness.

Can I encourage you to practice the most important command in it’s entirety? Your relationships will improve. Your happiness will grow. Anxiety and depression will have a harder time attaching themselves to you.

I’m rooting and praying for you!

John Opalewski

Author John Opalewski

John Opalewski is a graduate of Oral Roberts University. He served as a pastor for fifteen years. He has worked in the business world for nearly two decades, serving in multiple leadership roles. John's experience as a leader in both the church and business arenas has made him a sought-after international speaker, coach and mentor.

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