There is a movement in our culture that encourages the idea of self-love. Not everything this movement encourages is bad, but there are some key points to evaluate as followers of Christ.
Like many theoretical perspectives, the idea of self-love began well, but because it’s not grounded in scripture, it falls short when measured against Biblical principles. It seems positive and helpful for those struggling with insecurities or guilt, and many support it with Matt. 22:39 that cites God’s command to “love your neighbor as yourself”. They presume this verse is teaching the importance of self-love, but, this verse is teaching us that we should treat others as well as we treat ourselves. The writer understood that self-preservation comes natural to humans and so encourages us to care for others as we care for ourselves. One characteristic of our sin nature is self-centeredness and consistently looking to satisfy our fleshly desires. This makes striking a balance between self-care and self-indulgence key.
Let’s explore some key differences between what Scripture teaches and the self-love movement. The first difference is:
Scripture Teaches that Man is Fallen vs. Self-Love says Man is Deserving
Scripture teaches that all humans, since the fall of Adam, are born sinful and depraved and are not worthy or capable of being in a relationship with a holy God. The very nature of God’s holiness is that it cannot coexist with sinfulness.
In Psalm 8:3-4, David ponders God’s power and majesty manifested in creation in contrast with himself. He said: “When I consider Your heavens and the work of Your hands, the moon and the stars, which You have ordained, what is man that You are mindful of him, or the son of man that You visit him?” David understood his unworthiness but also understood his value as God’s creation.
In Psalm 139:13-14, David glorified God for His work of creation as it pertains to how God designed David’s own body. He is careful to see it as God’s work, not pride in himself.
Romans 3:10-12 is very clear in its declaration that there no one is righteous, not even one. Being made in God’s image, gives us inherent worth, but we also live under the curse of sin.
Our culture has a bent toward acceptance based on achievements: whether it be profession, education, money, popularity, accomplishments, or talent. This pride-seeking mentality can lead to thoughts of worthiness or deserving of love and value based on accomplishments. Or it can lead to thoughts that we are “not good enough” because of our lack of accomplishments. Scripture is clear when it says our best efforts seem like “filthy rags before God” because in contrast to His holiness they are so inferior. Please understand, I am not saying people are worthless. I am saying that our worth is not based on what we do or don’t do but on the value God placed on us as His creations.
God promotes growth and change vs Self-Love which says accept yourself as you are
Although we fall short, we have the ability to grow and change. The prevalence of self-love ideas in our culture makes people easily offended at any indication they need to change. There is a demand that we accept others and ourselves just the way we are. Is there anything wrong with accepting people as they are? Absolutely not. But love as defined in Scripture and demonstrated by God, is a love that accepts us as we are but encourages growth and change in response to Jesus’ sacrifice that makes us acceptable.
Prov. 28:13 says, “The one who conceals his sins will not prosper, but whoever confesses and renounces them will find mercy.” To become a follower of Christ we must admit we are sinful and “no longer live for ourselves but for Christ who died for us” (II Cor. 5:15).
Ephesians 4:24 calls us to “die to ourselves…. And put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.”
Trusting God vs Trusting yourself
Many view this call to repentance involving admission of sin and changing our behavior as oppressive but in II Cor.7:9-10, Paul talks about rejoicing in repentance because godly grief leads to salvation with no regret. He also says worldly grief produces death. This is because worldly grief over sin causes a stronger focus on our inabilities rather than on the mercy and grace extended to us. This hyper-focus on self potentially leads to greater insecurity and depression. The greater hope offered in Scripture is that, because of His great mercy, we are adopted children of the King of Kings. Because of His sacrifice, we are fully accepted, and because of His power, we have confidence. In Christ, there is no place for either self-glorification or self-loathing, because our new identity is a gift from God.
Prioritizing God and others vs. Prioritizing self
In my work as a therapist, I have never seen someone’s love of themself lead to a deeper love for others. Whatever “love” we give to ourselves is never enough and requires that we heap more and more “love” on ourselves. We get stuck trying to feed this unquenchable thirst for more. In couple relationships, I notice that when one spouse focuses on their own wants or needs, the more discontent they become. This calls for a shift in focus. Shifting our focus to what another person has already given to us creates gratitude and joy. Shifting our focus to what we can do for them in response to that gratitude, nurtures a heart of adoration. The same is true in our relationship with God. Focusing only on unmet wants keeps us empty and unfulfilled. Focusing on the cross where Christ removed the weight of our sin and inadequacy turns our hearts toward grateful worship and peace. In this paragraph, I put quotation marks around the word “love” given to ourselves because the very definition of love in Scripture contradicts these specific ideas of self-love. I Cor. 13:4-6 describes Godly love with these characteristics: long suffering, kindness, doesn’t envy, isn’t proud, does not boast, is not rude, is not self-seeking, is not easily angered, doesn’t rejoice in sin, rejoices in truth. This definition does not say love gives you everything you want. It says love does what is beneficial for the person being loved.
I will close with the same verse that I began with in Mark 12:30-31. When Jesus restated again the two primary commands taught throughout scripture, He put them in the order of importance, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength; and Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these. When we are in agreement with God and what He values, scriptural love of others and ourselves should fall into place.