Does Jesus Tell Us To Love Ourselves?

She seemed to want to lock swords. I was a member of a panel discussion and we were introducing ourselves to each other beforehand. One lady, with some background in counselling, seemed intrigued as to my presence. A Bible teacher? What would I bring to a discussion about life and relationships? Then I accidentally stepped on a landmine.

I mentioned something that connected spiritual maturity with loving God and loving others.  “Say that again, I want to make sure I heard you right, say that again!”  I knew where this was going. “That wasn’t what Jesus said!”

So I pre-empted the attack (while wondering if I should be concerned that this person would be influencing the audience with insight into human relationships!) I asked if she was going to insist that Jesus’ main point was self-esteem and that we really should be loving ourselves first and foremost?  She was.  She did.  Oh dear.

Is that what Jesus said?

When asked for the greatest commandment, did Jesus offer two or three love responses? Love God, love neighbour, love self? Does Jesus mean, “love your neighbour in the same way that you must love yourself?” or does he mean, “love your neighbour in the same way that you do love yourself?”

Do we need to love ourselves so that we can love our neighbour? In technical terms, I suppose we are wrestling with which verb is assumed in the final part of the sentence. Is it one that commands or one that describes?

Is there anything in the gospel accounts, such as Matthew 22, or in the context of Leviticus 19:18, to suggest that our self-love is commanded rather than assumed? Nothing. Is there anything in the Bible as a whole that urges people toward self-love?

Well, yes, there is. And it isn’t coming from above. It comes with a hiss. You can’t trust God’s Word, He’s holding out on you, you need to be in charge of what’s best for you. The incurvature crisis moment of Genesis 3 should be in our thinking when we ponder the issue of self-love.

Simply because some people are so broken that they become overtly self-destructive, does not mean that the normal state of self-love maintained by most people is therefore the measure of emotional health. It is dangerous to assume that what is normal is therefore right.

In our broken world we tend to think of personhood as a matter of being a healthy individual. The person is a thinking and choosing individual with their own set of capacities and strengths. Out of that strength comes the possibility of engaging with other individuals in a healthy independence, by some mechanism of social contract.

This might seem accurate, but do we really want our understanding of personhood to come from Boethius, the sixth century translator of some of Aristotle’s works? Shouldn’t we press back into the biblical explanation?

That is, personhood consists in the loving relationships for which we were created. With God first and foremost, and with others also made in His image. Perhaps a spouse, other relatives, friends, colleagues, neighbours, etc.

Relationships are not a pragmatic means to a self-serving end – not for God and not for us. It is only in the brokenness of sin that using others to serve ourselves can make any sense (be that a divine glory pursuit, or a human taking advantage of others).

Jesus didn’t command us to love ourselves. Firstly because he knew that is already the focus of our affections. He was urging his hearers to love God and love others, to be drawn out of the broken reality toward the actual divine design for humanity. Secondly because he had come to die to draw us out of that self-love.

It would make no sense to demonstrate on the cross a love so captivating that it would draw us out of the death of self-love, but undermine that with direct instruction to love ourselves.

It is natural, it is normal to love ourselves. But that doesn’t make it right. Instead of pursuing the self-love options, let’s enjoy the life to the full offered by the only One able to overcome the magnetic power of incurved affections. Love God. Love others. And live.

5 Responses to Does Jesus Tell Us To Love Ourselves?

  1. Josh Donegani July 30, 2012 at 10:48 am #

    If you want to find your life, you’ll lose it, if you lose your life for Jesus’ sake, you’ll find it. (Mt 16:25) The most fulfillment comes from fulfilling others. Loving others is the most loving thing you can do for yourself. Being made in the image of a trinitarian God, for the purpose of worshipping and enjoying a trinitarian God, it makes sense that we find Self in Other. The tricky issue is untangling the two. Is love nullified by the thought of personal gain? Is it selfish to want to be selfless? Should we worship God because he’s God or because he is the only one who will satisfy us?

  2. Tony Thomas July 30, 2012 at 3:20 pm #

    In Romans 13:9 Paul quotes “love thy neighbour as thyself” and explores the concept of loving thy neighbour by extending the ‘pay what is due to authorities etc’ in 13:1-7 to the individual – in v 8; “Owe no one anything”. This is in a section in which Paul is urging us, “in light of God’s mercy”, to offer our bodies as our spiritual acts of worship (12:1).

    Having written of ‘loving thy neighbour’ and telling us that Love does no harm to its neighbour he then turns his attention to ‘self’.

    We see the separation and the turning the focus from neighbour to self at the beginning of 13:11 “Besides this…” Having given examples of not offending against the neighbour in v9 he gives examples of not offending against ‘self’ in v13. (clearly in all cases we offend against God but what is in sight here is the human ‘victim’ of our offending) Is Paul not here saying “love does no harm to its neighbour – and love does no harm to itself”

    In many respect this is a mirror of Jesus’ words to the Pharisees “these you ought to have done without neglecting the others” (Matt 23:23) The pharisees loving their own self righteousness but neglecting the love of others. Therefore we should love our neighbour without neglecting neglect loving ourself.

    I see Paul saying here that one of the ways that we offer our bodies as living sacrifices is to love ourselves as we love our neighbours,i.e. by not offending against ourselves in the same manner that we should not offend against them.

    This is not a contradiction of the concept of self love being the essence of sin. But as in most, if not all, things Biblical there is a tension or balance to be struck. Humility is after all, not thinking less of your self, but thinking of yourself less.

    It is possible to focus so much on loving our neighbour that we neglect ourselves and slip into temptation’s trap. We should do the former without neglecting the latter. Paul is telling the Romans – who were experiencing some levels of persecution because of their faith, to wake up from their sleep. That they are under attack , not least by their own desires of the flesh. Of course it could be argued that submitting to the desires of the flesh is an egregious act of self love, and on a physical level that would be right, but on a spiritual level it is offending against oneself.

    Surely a danger in teaching that there is no place for self love can lead to the In ascetic approach being adopted by some in Ephesus which Paul advises against in I Timothy 4.

  3. Peter McCallum July 31, 2012 at 12:11 am #

    “It is natural, it is normal to love ourselves.”

    This has not been my experience; or of people when I get to know them well. Naturally we all feed ourselves, clean ourselves, clothe ourselves, exercise ourselves and so on; so at a superficial level love ourselves. But most have some self doubt, guilt, despair … those who “love” themselves have been proud, arrogant, self-seeking, dogmatic, always right / never wrong and so on.

    Did Jesus imply that we all love ourselves in the right way?

    Kierkegaard in “Works of Love” explores this text in great detail and with some insight.

  4. Tony Thomas July 31, 2012 at 7:32 am #

    As is often the case; the deeper we dig, the more complex it becomes. And perhaps we should ask ourselves what comprises ‘self’ and what constitutes ‘love’ ? This could result it two different, and I suggest competing, definitions of self love; perhaps- physical and spiritual.

    It seems to me that physical self love and spiritual self love can be frequently at odds with each other. For example:
    Seeking to store up treasures on earth would be physical self love, where as seeking to store up treasures in heaven would be spiritual self love.
    Likewise, submitting to desires of the flesh could be physical self love where as resisting those same desires would be spiritual self love.

    A view of self which is in line with Frank Sinatra’s “my way” in which my skills talents and abilities are the result of my own work and ultimately for my own benefit would be physical self. love. Whereas, acknowledging that one has talents, gifts and abilities and that these are from God to be used for the benefit of the church, others and to glorify Him, would be spiritual self love.

    To neglect our bodies and minds because of physical / mental laziness would be submitting to the fleshy desire for laziness and therefore physical self love.

    To look after the body and develop thinking so as to better serve God , may, to some, have the appearance of physical self love but would be spiritual self love.

    To consider love as ‘my gift to give to myself and others as I see fit’ is clearly wrong.

    To consider love as ‘God’s gift to me, to flow through me and from me to others and back to Him’ is clearly right.

    A self love that puts me at the centre, as the most important etc. is a sinful love.

    An attitude that recognises that despite my sinfulness, and because of the cross, God sees good in me and loves me, and that therefore I should respect that there is something to be loved in me; a knowledge that gives me the confidence to try and love others, even those whom I see as utterly sinful, in the same way, must be right.

    The converse (often seen in Christian circles I suggest) is a lack of confidence based on a spiritual false humility, or low spiritual self worth; an attitude of ‘I am an unworthy sinner unable or unfit to do God’s work’ rather than a ” even though I am an unworthy sinner, because of God’s grace, there is much in me that I can use to glorify Him” attitude.

    Because the inward curvature of self love is the essence of sin it is a topic that needs careful handling, but rather than deny self love should we not seek to refocus and redefine it?

  5. Gretchen August 3, 2012 at 4:49 pm #

    It is being in relationship with God, being drawn into the Triune communion with Him, that we are freed up to love others. Fear, brokenness, self-protectiveness, emotional baggage, etc., begin to drop away as we are immersed in His love for us. It is HIS love—and not self-love—that heals our hearts so that we can love others. God’s love for us frees us from that bondage and allows us to give ourselves away in relationships in ways that just aren’t possible when we are, as you put it (or as Luther put it first!), curved in on ourselves. Thanks, Peter.

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