I’ve often heard it said in evangelical messages, books, and articles that God’s Word teaches three kinds of love—love for God, love for others, and love for self. The supposed proof is Matthew 22:39, where “Love your God with all your heart” is called the first and greatest commandment. Number two is its corollary: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Clearly, we are taught to love God above all and love our neighbor above all but God. So where does that leave love of self?
Despite the common teaching that it does, Matthew 22 does not command us to love ourselves. The clear proof of this is that in verse 40 Jesus says, “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” He states that there are two commandments, not three. The commandments are love God and love our neighbor. If He were commanding us to love ourselves, He would have said there are three commandments, not two. In reality, He commands that we have two objects of our love (God-love and others-love) and assumes a love that’s a given (self-love).
When in Ephesians 5 God commands a husband to love his wife as he loves his own body, is God teaching a man to love his own body? Of course not. He is simply recognizing that a man does love his body, as demonstrated in the fact that he feeds and clothes it and takes actions for his own self-preservation. As we would jump out of the way of a speeding car (which comes naturally out of our inherent self-love), so we are to risk our very lives to pull someone else out of the way of a speeding car (which does not come naturally as does our self-love, but actually violates our self-love because it is self-sacrifice out of love for others).
Scripture recognizes that we do love ourselves, as shown by the fact that we “look out for number one.” It is perfectly natural to put ourselves first. Even the suicidal person is acting out of what he thinks (wrongly) is his own self-interest—“I would be better off dead.”
God acknowledges the reality of self-love, but He certainly does not teach it as a Christian virtue to be cultivated. Rather, it is an existing reality, necessary for our survival, in some respects healthy, but in other ways very much tainted by our sin. Our instinct to take care of ourselves is something we are to extend to others, that we might lovingly take care of them.
In today’s psychological model, even within the church, self-love has sometimes been elevated from a fact of life into a virtue to be cultivated. And it is being cultivated not as subordinate to, but as a priority over, love for God and love for others.
In his book When People Are Big and God Is Small, Ed Welch writes:
Pastors of many growing churches preach almost weekly about healthy self-esteem, as if it were taught on every page of Scripture. Too many Christians never see that self-love comes out of a culture that prizes the individual over the community and then reads that basic principle into the pages of Scripture. The Bible, however, rightly understood, asks the question, “Why are you so concerned about yourself?” Furthermore, it indicates that our culture’s proposed cure—increased self-love—is actually the disease. If we fail to recognize the reality and depth of our sin problem, God will become less important, and people will become more important.
When self-love becomes a virtue to be cultivated, it magnifies our commitment to acting only in our own best interests, not in the best interests of others.
Scripture makes a direct value judgment on “self-love” in 2 Timothy 3:1-5:
But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God—having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with them.
Often a long list begins with an overriding or summary attribute. For instance, Galatians 5 says “the fruit of the spirit is love,” which is followed by those familiar attributes that flow out of love. The 2 Timothy 3 passage suggests that when people are lovers of themselves the results are predictable. (Read back through the list and ask yourself if these things have decreased or increased in society as a result of the modern concept that “putting myself first is a virtue.”)
I have heard people say that to grow closer to God (God-love) and get involved in ministry (neighbor-love) they first have to learn to love themselves (self-love). Not only is this making a non-commandment into the first commandment, it is also neglecting the fact that the proper sense of “feeling good about ourselves” develops precisely as we obey God and do what He has made us to do—love Him and love others. To wait until we stop feeling bad about ourselves before we go on to love God and others is like waiting until we stop being hungry before we go get something to eat.
We would do better to teach that to live for God’s glory will bring about our own ultimate good. We will experience eternal reward for loving God and loving our neighbor. To obey God is always in our ultimate self-interest. In a universe where God sets up the rules, what is right is also smart.
Happiness is found in discovering what’s truly in our self-interest: loving God and our neighbor. This profound, paradigm-shifting concept, understood correctly, makes the false dichotomy obvious in the question, “Should I serve others, or should I act in my own best interests?” The answer is that loving others is God’s design for me and command to me, and all that He wants me to do, including personal sacrifices, is ultimately in my best interests. That’s true often in the present (what’s more personally satisfying than loving people?). But it is always true in eternity, since it pleases a God who says He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him (Hebrews 11:6).
Too often “loving yourself” means putting ourselves first here and now for what we perceive to be our own good, neglecting the pursuit of God, and neglecting to sacrifice for the good of our neighbor because in the words of the pastor who endorsed a “Christian” self-love book, “we are the most important person in our lives.”
Don’t get me wrong. I want to emphasize that rejecting the obsessive focus on ourselves and loving ourselves does not mean at all that we shouldn’t take good care of ourselves. On the contrary, we are to steward carefully the bodies, minds, and souls that God has entrusted to us. With a proper Christ-centered focus, self-care can be a Christ-honoring, others-benefiting, and wise part of the Christian life. So there are some forms of what could be called “self-love” that are necessary and helpful, but other forms that are sinful and harmful.
Romans 12:3 warns us, “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment.” For the Christian, “sober judgment” includes seeing ourselves as dead to sin and alive to Christ, loved and transformed by God, members of a new kingdom, with a future of reigning with Christ in Heaven. But notice the major warning is not “Don’t think less of yourself than you should,” but exactly the opposite—“Don’t think more of yourself than you should.” The psychological model says we don’t love ourselves enough. The biblical model suggests we love ourselves too much, which manifests itself in selfishness.
We do no good for ourselves or anyone else by spending our lives in self-loathing, imagining we are not only sinners—which indeed we are—but irredeemable sinners, which we are not. Paul says, “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst” (1 Timothy 1:15, NIV). Jesus came to redeem us and desires to do a beautiful work of grace in our lives, one in which the fruit of the Spirit is increasingly evident.
We are saints and sinners at the same time, but as we yield to the power of God’s grace in our lives, contemplating Scripture and depending on the Holy Spirit, “We all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18, NIV).
Hence, I believe there is a proper biblical basis for what could be called, in the right context, positive self-esteem. (Indeed, it is far more positive than the atheistic evolutionary view of humanity with which society indoctrinates our young people.) According to the Bible, each of us is a special creation of a good and all-powerful God, and unlike no other creatures, we are made in His image. God has masterminded the exact combination of DNA and chromosomes that constitute our genetic codes, making each person as different from all others as every snowflake differs from the rest. As Christians, we are clothed with the righteousness of Christ. He has given us special gifts and abilities to serve Him in a particular and unique way. We are His beloved children, and He loved us so much as to die for us (demonstrating His worth as a God of unconditional love).
Also, sometimes those struggling with guilt over sin are told they just need to love and forgive themselves. It’s true that once we’ve received Christ’s forgiveness, God doesn’t want us to go through life punishing ourselves for past sins. Our part is to accept Christ’s atonement, not to repeat it.
Jesus suffered for our sins so we would not have to. By refusing to accept His provision, we imply that He died in vain. By inflicting suffering on ourselves, we imply that we are good enough to pay our own way. So whenever we start feeling unforgiven, it’s time to go back to the Bible and remind ourselves, and each other, of God’s forgiveness.
By following the modern path of making self-love, rather than God-love and others-love, we make it the engine or driving force of our Christian lives, and it’s a force that is bound to fail. If we see self-love as an ideal to be focused on and cultivated rather than an already-existing reality to be directed away from ourselves and toward God and others, it’s bound to do nothing more than propel us down the ancient and tragic path of selfishness.
God isn’t looking for people preoccupied with their worth as human beings. He’s looking for people with “a broken and contrite heart” and who are “contrite in lowly and spirit” (Psalm 51:17; Isaiah 57:15). “Blessed are the humble,” Jesus said in Matthew 5:5 (literally, “Happy are the humble”).
But doesn’t Psalm 139, which is a centerpiece in all the Christian self-esteem books, tell us some wonderful things about ourselves? Yes, it does, but let’s not miss the focus. The focus is on David’s wonder at the omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence of God. Let’s not reduce that God-centered emphasis to a mere prescription for self-esteem.
Sam Storm writes, “If you truly love your ‘self’ (and all of us do), take your eyes off ‘self’ and do your ‘self’ a favor: ‘Look at Me,’ says the Lord. ‘The state and condition and circumstances of your soul will change for the good only to the degree that you make My glory the object of your obsession.’”
Here are two videos on self-love that I heard after I’d already written this article. Both are excellent:
1) Dan Franklin’s message “Is It Okay to Be Selfish?”
2) John Piper’s Ask Pastor John podcast, “You Don’t Need More Self Love”