After my sermon last Sunday someone may wonder how I understand Jesus’ command, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27). I was very critical of what I called the “gospel of self-esteem.” My fundamental criticism was that the more exalted man is made to appear, the less amazing God’s saving grace appears. My text was, “Fear not, you worm Jacob, you men of Israel! For I will help you, says the Lord. Your Redeemer is the Holy One of Israel” (Isaiah 41:14). My points were: 1) God’s people are in the condition of a worm, 2) nevertheless, we should not fear, 3) because God helps worms who take refuge in him.
So how can I admit that I am a worm and yet “love my neighbor as myself”? Countless books and seminars are offered on the premises: 1) that Jesus is commanding self-love, 2) that self-love means self-esteem, and 3) that you have to learn to love yourself in this sense in order to be able to love others. I think all three premises are wrong.
1) Jesus is not commanding self-love. He is assuming it. The text means: “Love your neighbor as you (already do) love yourself.” Jesus assumes that every human being by nature loves himself. He doesn’t command it; he makes it the measure and model of neighbor-love.
2) Self-love in Jesus’ command does not mean self-esteem. It means seeking your own happiness. We know this is how the apostle Paul understood it. In Ephesians 5:28 he applies it like this: “Husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. For no man ever hates his own flesh but nourishes and cherishes it as Christ does the church.” In this text love means “nourishing and cherishing.” It does not mean “esteeming.” It means taking care of. No one ever hates himself in the sense that all men want to be happy. The sparks fly upward. Men love themselves. It is a given in nature. I feed myself and give myself rest and take vacations and hug my wife and do a hundred other things all day long to provide for my needs and make my life fulfilling. I love myself. And this is true even if I think I am a heel and have no self-esteem. Self-esteem is not a given in humanity, self-love is. One can be taught self-esteem. No one has to learn self-love. Even if a person drinks himself crazy and smokes three packs a day and finally commits suicide, the reason is not that he doesn’t love himself, but that his notion of what would make him happy is wrong. We all want to be happy and do what we think (in the moment) will make us happiest. This is the universal self-love Jesus had in mind and there is nothing wrong with it.
3) Therefore, you don’t have to learn self-love in order to love others. This whole popular notion (whether true or false) that building self-esteem is a means to loving others has no textual basis in Jesus’ command.
The point of the command (and it is devastating!) is that we ought to be as concerned about the happiness of others as we are for our own. We ought to want to fill other bellies as much as we want to fill our own; to relieve others’ suffering as much as we want our own relieved. The meaning of the command is very simply (and very radically) the golden rule (Matthew 7:12).
Learning to love your happiness,