The Cult of the Self and the Command of Jesus

This article appeared in Christianity Today under the title “Is Self-Love Biblical?”

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Founder & Teacher,

There once was a nymph named Narcissus
Who thought himself very delicious
So he stared like a fool
At his face in a pool
And his folly today is still with us.

One of the most essential elements of the spirit of this decade is that the ultimate sin is no longer the failure to honor God and thank him, but the failure to esteem oneself. Self-abasement, not God-abasement, is the ultimate evil. And the cry of deliverance from this evil is not, "O wretched man that I am, who will deliver me?" But rather, "O worthy man that I am, would that I could only see it better!"

Today the great and first commandment is, "Thou shalt love thyself." And the standard explanation of almost every interpersonal problem is to trace it back to someone's low self-esteem. A veritable avalanche of sermons, articles and books has pushed this idea deeply into the Christian mind. It is a rare congregation, for example, that does not stumble over the so-called "vermicular theology" of Isaac Watts' "Alas! And Did My Savior Bleed":

Would He devote that sacred head
For such a worm as I?

A Scary Trend

For ten years the cult of the self (as Thomas Howard calls it) has been expanding at a phenomenal speed and its professional members take every chance they get to put a mirror in front of us and tell us to like what we see. What distresses me in all this is not merely what I regard to be an unbiblical shift of focus from God to man as the goal of redemption (see Ezekiel 36:22-32), but also the paucity of opposition to the spread of this cult. Therefore this article should be taken as one small vote against the cult of self-esteem.

Perhaps the proof text most commonly used in spreading the message of self-esteem is "You shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Leviticus 19:18; Luke 10:27 par. Romans 13:9; Galatians 5:14; James 2:8; see, for example, Walter Trobisch, "Inferior Interior," Eternity, April, 1976, pp. 19f). The purpose of this article is to try to show that this biblical command offers no support to the cult of self-esteem. It is almost always misinterpreted in the writings of the cult.

Already in Jesus' day this command met with misunderstanding. This is most clear in Luke's narrative (10:25-37). Might there be an underlying connection between the old misunderstanding and the new one? To find out we must investigate both. The ancient error hinged on the term "neighbor" and was exposed by Jesus in the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37). The modern error hinges on the term "as yourself" and, so far as I know, has not been publicly challenged.

Responding to the Cult of Self

First let us look at the old misunderstanding. In Luke 10:26, a lawyer has just asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. But according to Luke the question is not sincere. There is an ulterior motive. The lawyer is not seeking eternal life, he is seeking to test Jesus. Under the guise of a personal question he gives Jesus an academic quiz, hoping to entangle him in some heretical contradiction of the Old Testament. Then Jesus, with a view to exposing the man's duplicity, turns the question back, "What is written in the Law? How do you read it?" The man answers, "Love God with your whole being and your neighbor as yourself." And Jesus simply agrees.

But now the lawyer is in trouble. It is evident to everybody that he already knew the answer to his question, "What shall I do to inherit eternal life?" And it is clear that his motive for asking the question must have been something other than what it seemed. Everyone can see now that he was insincere, hypocritical, and guilty of the injustice of deceit. What will he do? Run away shamed like the Apostle Peter and weep bitterly over his sin? Or will he—with ten million other human beings before and after him—seek to save face or, as Luke puts it, to justify himself?

Verse 29: "But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus. . ." And then comes the ancient error, hinging on the term, "neighbor": "And who is my neighbor?" There is such a serious misunderstanding of God's demand behind this question that Jesus will not answer it. Where did this misunderstanding come from?

The Evil Human Heart

Very often our misunderstanding of Christ's word is due not to innocent intellectual slips or lack of information but rather springs from a deep unwillingness to submit to the demands of God. In other words, a disposition of the heart which desires to determine its own affairs, to maintain its own pride, and secure esteem and glory from men, will inevitably twist the words of Jesus to support its own self-esteem. The evil of the human heart regularly precedes and gives rise to many of our apparently intellectual misunderstandings and abuses of Scripture.

When Jesus told the lawyer that the answer to his question was right, the lawyer's duplicity was exposed. At that threat to his reputation and his own self-regard, the sin of self-justification sprang up, snatched the commandment of God and deceived the lawyer into thinking that the problem was not his own proud unwillingness to repent and obey but was really the ambiguity of the word, "neighbor." The question, "Who is my neighbor?" is simply, therefore, a face-saving device.

Another way of asking the lawyer's question would be "Teacher, whom do I not have to love? Which groups in our society are excluded from this commandment to love my neighbor? Surely the Romans, the oppressors of God's chosen people, and their despicable lackeys, the tax collectors, and those half-breed Samaritans—surely these groups are not included in the term, neighbor. Tell me just who my neighbor is, Teacher, so that as I examine the various candidates for my love, I will be sure to choose him alone."

Jesus would have nothing to do with that kind of question. Instead of answering it outright—which was really impossible—Jesus tells a parable, the Parable of the Good Samaritan. It is a familiar story, too familiar perhaps. A man, probably a Jew, is on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho when robbers attack him. They strip him, beat him and leave him half-dead on the side of the road. Along comes a priest and then a Levite, and when they see the man they go by on the other side. Then came a Samaritan and when he saw the wounded man he felt compassion for him. He went to him and treated his wounds, using his own oil and wine. Then he set him on his own beast, brought him to an inn, and took care of him till the next day. Then he gave the innkeeper his own money to take care of the man and said he would stop by on his way back to make up the difference if it wasn't enough.

Then Jesus puts a question back to the lawyer as he did before. But this time it is a different question than the one the lawyer had asked. Jesus asks, "Which of these three does it seem to you became a neighbor to the one who fell among thieves?" The lawyer answer, "The one who showed mercy on him." Jesus responds, "Go and do likewise."

The Moral of the Story

The point of Jesus' parable was to show that the lawyer's face-saving self-justifying maneuver which asked for a definition of " neighbor" was simply as skirting of the real issue, namely, the kind of person he himself was. The lawyer's problem was not the definition of neighbor, his problem—and the problem of every man—was becoming the kind of person who, because of compassion, cannot pass by on the other side. There is no truly compassionate or merciful heart which can stand idly by while the mind examines a suffering candidate to see if he fits the definition of neighbor.

If the lawyer had understood the intention of God's command, he would have seen how irrelevant his question about his neighbor was. God's intention is to call into being a loving, compassionate, merciful man whose heart summons him irresistibly into action when there is suffering within his reach, a man who will interrupt his schedule, risk some embarrassment, use up his oil and wine and part with his money for the sake of a stranger. Be that person, Jesus says, and you will inherit eternal life: blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy.

That then is the way the command, "Love your neighbor as yourself," was misunderstood in Jesus' day and how Jesus responded to it. Now we turn to the modern misunderstanding popularized in the cult of self-esteem. While the old error hinged on the term "neighbor" the modern one hinges on the term "as yourself."

Challenging Our Assumptions

This interpretation of the words "Love your neighbor as yourself," has two assumptions about the words "as yourself." First, the words "as yourself" are assumed to be a command rather than a statement. That is, it is assumed that Jesus is calling people to love themselves so that they can then love others as they love themselves. Second, this self-love which Jesus is demanding is assumed to be equivalent to self-esteem, self-acceptance, having a positive self-image or some other psychologically oriented concept. (See for example R.L. Pavelsky, "The Commandment of Love and the Clinical Psychologist," Studia Biblica et Theologica, March, 1973, pp. 63f.) The proponents of this interpretation put the two assumptions together like this: not everybody has high self-esteem; therefore, their first task in obedience to Jesus is to get a high self-esteem so that in turn they can fulfill the second half of the command, to love others as they now love themselves.

Is this what Jesus wanted to say with the commandment, "Love your neighbor as yourself"? I think not. Those two assumptions hang together and depend on each other, so let us look at them together to see if the text bears them out.

Grammatically it is impossible to construe the words "as yourself' as a command. When you supply the verb the commandment reads simply: "You shall love your neighbor as you in fact already love yourself." In other words, Jesus is not calling for self-love; he is assuming that it already exists. So far as we know, Jesus never entertained the thought that there could be someone who didn't love himself. It was, for him, a given with humanity. As the sparks fly upward, human beings love themselves. To use the words of Paul in Ephesians 5:29, "No man ever hates his own flesh but nourishes and cherishes it."

Now if this is the case it becomes evident that the self-love Jesus is talking about is quite different from the self-esteem that is so frequently assumed to be his meaning. There are many people with little self-esteem and poor self-images, but self-love, as Jesus understands it, has nothing to do with that. To show what Jesus means by self-love we can pose the following question: is it not reasonable to assume that the word "love" will have the same meaning in the two halves of the command, "Love your neighbor as you love yourself"? Jesus makes it very plain what he means by "love" in the first half. It means interrupt your schedule, and use up your oil, wine and money to achieve what you think is best for your neighbor. It means having a heart which is disposed to seek another person's good.

Another Alternative

Now if we are right that there is no reason to assign a new and different meaning to the word "love" in the "as you love yourself" half of the command, the meaning which follows is this: "You shall seek the good of your neighbor, just as you naturally seek your own good; or nourish and cherish your needy neighbor just as you by nature nourish and cherish yourself."

Another way that Jesus said essentially the same things was, "Whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them." "Doing unto others" corresponds to, "Love your neighbor." "Whatever you wish that men would do to you" corresponds to "as you love yourselves." Self-love is thus defined in the Golden Rule by the desire that we have for others to do us good.

In sum, then, the command "Love your neighbor as yourself" in the first place does not command but rather presupposes self-love. All men love themselves. In the second place, this self-love of which Jesus speaks has nothing to do with the common notion of self-esteem. It does not mean having a good self-image or feeling especially happy with oneself. It means very simply desiring and seeking ones own good.

And we should note that Jesus' point is not affected by the fact that most of the people in the world have a terribly distorted notion of what is good for them. A man may find his good in a bottle of whiskey or in illicit sex or in a fast motorcycle; but all men have in common that they desire and seek what they think, at least in the moment of choosing, is best. Thus Günther Bornkamm is right when he says, "We are most skilled in the love of ourselves; whether in selfish passion or in cool reflection, whether prompted by blind instinct or by some ideal, we desire our own self" (Jesus of Nazareth, New York: Harper & Row, 1960, p. 113).

Implications of Christ's Command

Only when one sees "self-love" in this light will the tremendous force of the command, "Love you neighbor as yourself," come home. Jesus is saying to the lawyer: take note how much you love yourself, how you seek the best place in the synagogues, how you seek to be seen praying on the streets, how you exercise all rigor to maintain purity; yes, you have an ultimate concern for your own well-being. Now my command to you is: take all that zeal, all that ingenuity, all that perseverance and with it seek your neighbor's well-being.

And with that Jesus cuts the nerve of every merely selfish lifestyle. All our inborn self-seeking is made the measure of our self-giving. Do we seek to satisfy our hunger? Then we must with a similar life-and-death urgency feed our hungry neighbor. Do we long for advancement in the company? Then we must seek out ways to give others as much opportunity and to stir up their will to achieve. Do we love to make A's on tests? Then we must tutor the poor student who would love it no less. Do we hate to be laughed at and mocked? Then never let there be found on our lips a slanderous word, but rather words of encouragement.


To sum up, the ancient misunderstanding of the command, "Love your neighbor as yourself," was the lawyer's attempt to restrict the meaning of "neighbor" to a certain group and thus to raise a question which would hopefully conceal the real problem, namely, his failure to actually be the kind of person which the commandment was calling him to be—one whose heart of compassion could not allow him ever to pass by on the other side of the road.

The modern misunderstanding of this commandment, most prevalent within the cult of the self, is the remarkably common notion that Jesus is not presupposing but commanding self-love and that self-love is equivalent to self-esteem, positive self-regard and the like. I've tried to show that Jesus' command offers no support at all to the purveyors of self-esteem. Jesus did not command but presupposed and stated as a fact that people love themselves; and the meaning of this self-love, as is seen from the context, the Golden Rule, and Ephesians 5:28f., is that all men desire and seek what they think is best for them. This universal human trait then becomes the rule to which all loving self-sacrifice must measure up.

It seems to me that there is but a hair's difference between the self-justification which gave rise to the lawyer's error and the craving for self-esteem which is part and parcel of the more modern error. Just how intimately the two errors are related I will leave for the reader to ponder.

As I see it, the meaning of the command, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself," is this: our Lord is aiming to call into being loving, compassionate, merciful men and women whose hearts summon them irresistibly into action when there is suffering within their reach. And to that end he demands that they again and again ask themselves this question: am I desiring and seeking the temporal and eternal good of my neighbor with the same zeal, ingenuity and perseverance that I seek my own?