Kenosis, not Misasis … or … Self-Hatred is not a Virtue
C. S. Lewis already said this long before I came along, and others surely said it before he came along, but I suppose it needs saying many times, so here’s one more.
There is a philosophy in many Christian circles that it is a virtue to beat oneself down in various ways. “You must deny yourself,” the proponents say. “Jesus emptied himself, and so should you.” Jesus did indeed say and do these things. However, this can and is taken to extremes.
Jesus did indeed empty himself as it says in Philippians 2. Theologians call this “kenosis” from the Greek meaning “emptying”. He had glory and power and honor and so forth, and he set it all aside to be born as a finite human being, lacking anything in appearance, as Isaiah said, that would draw others to him. There is something crucial to be noted here, however: He did not have to do this. He deserved His glory then and continued to deserve it even after setting it all aside.
The temptation that runs around Christian circles is to say that we must deny ourselves or empty ourselves because we’re not supposed to have things in the first place. “We don’t deserve love or honor or respect,” says this sort of Christian. “Therefore, I am giving it up. I am denying myself.” Denial of what you’re not supposed to have is not exactly denial. This would be as if Socrates had denied himself hemlock. Of course he denies himself of this poison; his body shouldn’t have had it in the first place. Denial of self in such cases is an excuse, a justification rather than an act of love.
Which, of course, brings us to another issue – denial of self is undertaken for love of God, others, and self. Denial of self is not a virtue if it is undertaken for its own sake or to satisfy the natural order of life and the world. Jesus’ kenosis was glorious because He did it for love of the world. Had He done it merely because He was supposed to, where is the virtue in this?
Much self-denial occurs, not out of love or virtue, but rather out of self-hatred. We believe that we do not deserve something, and so we give it up because that’s the way it’s supposed to be. Kenosis is no longer the crucial verb. Instead, misasis (a mutation of the Greek for hating) has taken its place. Kenosis came out of love in the first circumstance. In the second, kenosis comes out of hatred. Nowhere in scripture does it call us to hate ourselves. Paul even assumes that we love ourselves (“No one ever hated his own body….” (Eph. 5:29)) because that is normal and right and even respectful of the God who loves us.
All this to say, denial of self and kenosis are virtues, but only when they are undertaken in the right context. 1 Corinthians 13 says that without love, such acts amount to nothing. We must begin from a place of love, love of self and others and God. Only then will we have the capacity to empty ourselves in a manner that is a blessing.
… You know… since C. S. Lewis is so much better at it than me anyway, here’s the very beginning of “The Weight of Glory” (emphasis mine):
If you asked twenty good men to-day what they thought the highest of the virtues, nineteen of them would reply, Unselfishness. But if you asked almost any of the great Christians of old he would have replied, Love. You see what has happened? A negative term has been substituted for a positive, and this is of more than philological importance. The negative ideal of Unselfishness carries with it the suggestion not primarily of securing good things for others, but of going without them ourselves, as if our abstinence and not their happiness was the important point. I do not think this is the Christian virtue of Love. The New Testament has lots to say about self-denial, but not about self-denial as an end in itself.