Self-love and the Christian Counselor's Task

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This article first appeared in The Reformed Journal 28, (May, 1978), pp. 13-18. It is reprinted here by permission of Eerdmans Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

All persons long for something. Everyone desires, yearns, hopes, wants. Without desire there is no human action, and without action we die. So where there is human life there is desire.

We may define a person's values as that which he desires. Where one's treasure is, there will his heart be also. Or, to put it another way, what you deem valuable, you desire with your heart. What people desire, what they value, varies, and the degree of their desire varies; but one thing is constant, our happiness varies in direct proportion to the achievement or realization of our greatest values.

If I value being meek and tender-hearted, but habitually act in an arrogant and harsh way, I will feel guilty and unhappy. If I value very highly the praise of my peers, their criticism may be devastating to my contentment. But on the other hand, their commendation will make me jubilant. Our contentment or happiness is dependent on the fulfillment of our strongest desires or—what is the same thing—the realization of our greatest values.

This process of becoming more or less content through the realization of what you value can be described in terms of your self-image. The principle would be stated as follows: How you feel when you look at your life will be determined by whether you see it as a true reflection of your values. If you see ugliness when you value beauty, you will feel bad. If you see laziness when you value diligence you will feel bad; but if you see industriousness and rigor you will feel good. The intensity of how bad or good you feel will vary according to the greatness of the value and the degree of success or failure in realizing it. Thus, whether one has a positive or negative self-image will depend on whether or not he attains what he values.

Self-love may be defined in two ways in relation to such an understanding of human happiness. First, a person can be said to love himself if he is devoted to his own interest. You love yourself in this sense if you desire and strive for your own happiness. It follows from what I said above that all people love themselves in this sense. Since happiness is the fulfillment of one's desires, and all people desire, therefore all people long to be happy. As Pascal said in this 250th Pensee,

All men seek happiness without exception. They all aim at this goal however different the means they use to attain it. What makes those go to war and those bide at home is the same desire which both classes cherish, though the point of view varies. The will never makes the smallest move but with this as its goal. It is the motive of all actions of all men, even of those who contemplate suicide.

As he says, not everyone agrees on where or how happiness is to be found, but, however they conceive it, all long for happiness. Each person has a hierarchy of values and desires to attain the ones he deems highest. In this sense all people love themselves.

I have argued (Christianity Today, August 12, 1977) that this is the kind of self-love Jesus had in mind when he said, "Love your neighbor as yourself." He did not command self-love; he assumed it and made it the measure of neighbor love: “As you would that men do to you, do so to them.” Similarly, Paul argued in Ephesians 5 that each husband should love his wife as himself (5:33), "for no man ever hates his own flesh but nourishes and cherishes it" (5:29). How radical Jesus' command is can be seen, therefore, from how deeply rooted self-love is in every man. No one is without it and so no one escapes the point of Jesus' command: one must be so transformed in what he values that to seek his own happiness and to love his neighbor are the same. That is indeed a radical commandment.

When we thus define self-love, the goal of the counselor cannot be conceived as building self-love. It is not the goal, but the presupposition of all counseling. People do not seek counseling help unless they have a desire to be better off than they are. This desire to be happier is what Jesus meant by self-love. Therefore, self-love, so defined, is the foundation, not the aim, of counseling; indeed, it is the foundation of all human life. For without it there is no motivation, and without motivation there is no action, and if we do not act we die.

There is a second way to define self-love. This is a more frequent usage today: self-love is taken to mean the sense of self-esteem one feels when he looks at his appearance, personal habits, morals, and achievements and likes what he sees. Here self-love is not the desire to become happy by bringing into actuality your values; rather, it is the pleasure you have in looking at the values you have already actualized. It is not longing for the unattained but esteeming the attained. Defined in this way, self-love is the positive image you have of yourself when you are succeeding rather than failing in the realization of your values.

How shall we evaluate self-love understood in this way? In principle, it is not evil to delight in the attainment of what you value. The goodness or evil of self-love depends largely on what your values are. It is wrong to esteem highly the accomplishments of an action which is in fact not valuable. To have a positive and satisfying image of yourself as a successful thief is bad. But it is not bad to have a positive and satisfying view of your behavior when you consistently live up to your values of kindness and courtesy. It could become bad if it led to arrogance, but the positive assessment of and pleasure in one's own good behavior is not wrong, and within a sound theological framework need not lead to pride. In fact, if one truly values good behavior he must take pleasure in achieving it. It is a contradiction to say you value something but get no pleasure when it comes to pass.

Therefore this second kind of self-love can be good if two conditions are met. First, what you value must be truly valuable so that its realization is truly virtuous or good. Second, your achievement of that value must be real and not faked. In short, the only ground for a legitimate positive self-image is the real actualization of appearances, attitudes, and actions that are truly valuable.

In view of what I have said so far, what should be the goal of a Christian who is called on to counsel a troubled person? My thesis is that his goal is twofold: First, to be instrumental in transforming the person's values into the values of Christ, and second, to help him achieve those values. To use the biblical terms, the counselor aims to help a person love holiness and to be holy.

There is nothing about self-image or self-love in this twofold goal for counseling. I do not say, "Do this so that the troubled person can then have a positive self-image and thus be happy." I do not count self-love or self-esteem as a proper goal in counseling. This is not because all self-esteem (as defined above) is evil. Rather, it is because a proper self-image is a secondary reflex of a life devoted wholeheartedly to the realization of what is most valuable.

To make self-love or a positive self-image the goal of counseling would be like the football coach drilling his team with the goal of being able to enjoy the movies of the upcoming game in the locker room on the following Monday. Of course a well-prepared team will play well and so enjoy watching the rerun, but the preparation should be aimed at excellent performance, not at subsequent self-esteem. Such a shift of focus in coaching would, I think, breed vanity and diminish the value of the sporting event itself.

Similarly in counseling, when the development of self-love, or self-esteem, or a positive self-image is the prevailing motif, a secondary reflex has usurped the place of the primary goal. The contentment you get from thinking about yourself as a faithful disciple of Christ is secondary, and ought always to remain secondary, to the contentment experienced in the actual event of faith and obedience itself. To change this order is to run the risk of the worst kind of idolatry.

Someone may ask, "What about the hang-ups people have with things that are unrelated to holiness, say, their looks or their natural inabilities? How do these problems fit into the counseling motif of transforming values and helping people achieve them?" My answer, basically, is that all problems that make people unhappy or discontented stem from their failure to attain what they value most. Let's take some examples.

Suppose Eleanor, a college student, is so tall that every time she stands in front of the mirror she either laments or curses what she sees. In fact, she becomes so distraught that she starts to avoid contact with people. She becomes a recluse, a dismal, depressed, sour young woman. She loses all motivation for study and friendship and starts to fail in her school work. Then she is encouraged to talk her problem over with me. When I find out the problem, what should my goal be?

My goal is not to cultivate her self-love or positive self-image. To be sure, I would have nothing against her coming to like being tall. But that I regard as a superficial goal unworthy of a Christian counselor. My goal is to transform her values, namely to diminish the value she puts on height. I would try to convince her that her treasure is in the wrong place and that her heart is therefore starved, because it was created to relish something greater than outward appearance. I would not try to convince her that she is not really all that tall, or that people like tall girls, or even that she should like her tallness. Instead, I would try to create in her a new hierarchy of values which would knock physical beauty out of its reigning position. The value I would seek to instill in its place is the surpassing value of knowing Christ, or better, of being loved by him. More specifically, I would try to get her to cherish above all things on earth the promise that for those who love him, God works all things together for their good. I would seek to kindle a happy confidence in the ability and will of God to turn even her awkward height for her eternal benefit. In short, I would try to transform her values and help her realize them. Is it not evident, then, that this hang-up with looks is not unrelated to holiness? For it is unholy to have values so at odds with Christ's.

Here is another example: Joe is a social catastrophe. He dresses in shabby clothes, has body odor, puts his foot in his mouth whenever he tries to make friends, and offends people regularly. He knows he is disliked and he comes to me for help. What should my goal be?

Before I can help Joe I must find out what values he has that he is failing to achieve. Suppose he says that what he values most is being accepted by his peers and being liked. In that case, I would see my goal as changing his values. If he claims to be a disciple of Jesus, he ought not to cherish being liked so much. Now again it would not be bad if people started to like Joe and he enjoyed their acceptance, but that is a goal unworthy of a Christian counselor.

I would try to change his values so that his social failure grieves him for another reason, namely, because it makes him unfit for Christian ministry and tends to offend rather than help others. Suppose I succeed under God and Joe starts to want to be a help to others rather than win their approval. Then my goal becomes helping Joe achieve that value, namely love. And here the very practical advice of bathing and washing his shirts comes into play. Under the guidance of some friend, he could gradually be trained in some social graces and freed from offensive habits. But the goal in all this is not an improved self-image—it is the achievement of his new value, namely, loving service that helps rather than offends. Of course, his self-image will change in the process, as will Eleanor's, but that is secondary and is a reflex of good Christian counseling, not its goal. Its goal is simply to transform values into the values of Christ and help in their achievement. All problems with which counseling has to deal stem from a person's having a wrong hierarchy of values or from his not achieving the highest values he has.

I think we can pursue this alternative motif in Christian counseling successfully without ever making self-love, self-esteem, or a positive self-image our aim. Of course I will be aware that if I succeed in transforming the hierarchy of a person's values into Christ's and in helping him attain them, his self-image will be different; it will be better. But in not making this my aim I prevent the student from perverting a secondary accompaniment of a life well-lived into an abnormal goal of living itself. I preserve for him an orientation on the highest values of life—the glorious grace of God amazingly at work on behalf of the unworthy.

The counselor who buys into the self-love motif and makes self-esteem the goal runs a terrible risk with the client. The danger can be illustrated from God's words to Israel in Ezekiel 16:1-15 (RSV):

Again the word of the Lord came to me: "Son of man, make known to Jerusalem her abominations and say, ‘Thus says the Lord God to Jerusalem: Your origin and your birth are of the land of the Canaanites; your father was an Amorite, and your mother a Hittite. And as for your birth, on the day you were born your navel string was not cut, nor were you washed with water to cleanse you, nor rubbed with salt, nor swathed with bands. No eye pitied you, to do any of these things to you out of compassion for you; but you were cast out on the open field, for you were abhorred, on the day that you were born.’

"And when I passed by you, and saw you weltering in your blood, I said to you in your blood, 'Live, and grow up like a plant of the field.' And you grew up and became tall and arrived at full maidenhood; your breasts were formed, and your hair had grown; yet you were naked and bare.

"When I passed by you again and looked upon you, behold, you were at the age for love; and I spread my skirt over you, and covered your nakedness: yea, I plighted my troth to you and entered into a covenant with you, says the Lord God, and you became mine. Then I bathed you with water and washed off your blood from you, and anointed you with oil.... You grew exceedingly beautiful, and came to regal estate. And your renown went forth among the nations because of your beauty, for it was perfect through the splendor which I had bestowed upon you, says the Lord God.

"But you trusted in your beauty, and played the harlot because of your renown, and lavished your harlotries on any passer-by."

It was not wrong for Jerusalem to have a positive self-image, but that was not God's goal for his bride. The whole process of beautifying was to make Jerusalem love God more, not herself. But (in good contemporary fashion) Jerusalem focuses on and exalts her self-image, and begins to trust in it, and delight in it instead of her glorious husband. She forgot the words of God through Isaiah: "You are my servant Israel in whom I will be glorified" (Isaiah 49:3). She forgot that she was created (Isaiah 43:7) and redeemed (Isaiah 36:21-32) for the glory of God. So "she trusted in her beauty and played the harlot." The prevalent motif of self-love and self-esteem in counseling today fosters rather than combats this idolatry.

There is a New Testament counterpart to the "self-image" and it has a role to play in Christian experience. The conscious formation of a self-image in the New Testament is called "examining oneself." In preparation for the Lord's Supper, believers should examine themselves, lest they partake in an unworthy manner (1 Corinthians 11:27-28). For Paul says, "If we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged." The point of forming an image of oneself here is very specific: it enables us through confession and reconciliation to prepare ourselves for the unique encounter with Christ in the Lord's Supper.

But there is a broader purpose for self-examination in the New Testament. Both Paul and John teach that the genuineness of our faith needs to be confirmed by self-examination. Thus in 2 Corinthians 13:5 Paul says, "Examine yourselves to see if you are in the faith. Test yourselves!" What do you look for when examining yourself? Jesus' answer would be: fruit. "You will know them by their fruit … a good tree cannot keep on bearing bad fruit" (Matthew 7:16, 18). Paul would say: You look for evidences that you are walking not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit (Romans 8:4; Galatians 5:16-25). Without this evidence we cannot have assurance of salvation. For, as Paul says, "If you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body you will live" (Romans 8:13). Thus the function of forming a self-image by taking a look at one's life is to provide assurance of our salvation. Or, to use the words of Philippians 2:13, It is to provide confidence that God is at work in us to will and to do his good pleasure.

John leads us in the same direction in his first epistle: "By this we know that we know him [Jesus] if we keep his commandments" (2:3). John is answering the question: How can we know that we know Christ in a saving way? How can we be sure our confession is genuine and we have really been born of God? His answer stems from this fact: "Everyone who has been born of God does not practice sin because God's seed remains in him, and so he is not able to go on sinning, because he has been born of God" (1 John 3:9). Since to be born of God and to have his seed or his Spirit (1 John 4:12, 13) in us makes it impossible to continue in sin, therefore obedience or righteousness (3:10) or love (4:7) is a sure sign that one has been born of God and knows him.

Therefore in effect John is saying: take a look at your life, form an honest assessment of what you see. His hope and confidence, of course, is that his "children" will approve of what they see. Without this generally positive self-image—if one wants to call it that—the believer cannot maintain assurance. If his values are Christ's and all he sees when he looks at his life is failure to realize those values, then he has no ground for hope and will despair.

This does not mean he never accuses himself and feels guilty. John says, if we say we have no sin, we lie; but if we confess our sins, God will forgive us (1 John 1:8, 9.) That is, we should recognize our sin as evil, feel bad about it, and in humility ask God's forgiveness. But John's point is—as was Paul's—in spite of our sins we must see sufficient evidence in our lives of the work of God's Spirit to confirm to us that we are born of God. That is, we must be able to approve of our progress in sanctification. The image we form when we examine ourselves must have enough bright features to assure us that God, in whom there is no darkness (1 John 1:5), is at work in us.

But make no mistake, the ground of our hope is the grace of God. Our renewal is a sign of his gracious sanctifying work or it is nothing. For the Christian, self-assessment is an assessment of the victory of grace in his life. Insofar as his self-image is positive it is an image of the power of God. Accordingly as Paul looks at his own labor as an apostle among other apostles he says: "I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I but the grace of God which is with me" (1 Corinthians 15:10). And when he exults in his successes in Romans 15, he grounds and qualifies his boasting with the words, "For I will not dare to speak of anything except what Christ has wrought through me" (15:18). Paul believed that every fruit of righteousness which a believer sees when he examines himself comes through Jesus Christ and abounds to the glory of God (Philippians 1:11).

Paul would disapprove of a counseling motif that diverted people's attention from the infinite value of the glory of God and the attainment of that value through faith and its fruits. He would disapprove of making self-love or self-esteem or a positive self-image the goal of our admonition. Rather, he would have us aim so to transform people's values that their contentment and joy be grounded always in the love of God, the esteem of his glory, and the steady focus on his image.