Self-love is a loud mantra in our culture. It echoes in our advertising, and it’s on repeat in our social-media feeds. Self-love is becoming inseparable from our cultural image in America. Self-love is what we do. So do we need to learn to love ourselves more? It’s a question from a perceptive teen listener to the podcast. “Hi, Pastor John! My name is Danielle. I’m currently in high school, and I’ve heard lots of variations on the ‘love yourself’ mantra constantly spoken to young men and women like me. We’re told to love our personalities, our own skin, our bodies, and our choices. This seems like an extremely secular worldview, yet the Bible says to ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’ So here’s my question for you: Should we ‘love ourselves’? Is this something we need to be mindful of, or is it an assumed, inborn inclination? What does the Bible say about self-love?”
As You Love Yourself
Let’s start by talking about the command “Love your neighbor as you love yourself,” which Jesus said was the second greatest commandment after “Love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength” (Matthew 22:37). Both Jesus and Paul said that this was the fulfilling of the whole law (Matthew 22:40; Romans 13:8).
“Jesus is not saying we should work up some kind of approval of our hair, our complexion, our abilities, or our goodness.”
Now notice first that it’s not a command to love ourselves; it’s a command to love others as we love ourselves. The love of ourselves, in that command, is an assumption, not an imperative. Jesus assumes we all love ourselves, and on the basis of this assumption, he can make our inborn self-love the criterion, the measure, of how we treat other people.
We should ask, “Well, in what sense do we all love ourselves?” Of course, the answer is not “We all feel good about ourselves.” Nobody feels good about themselves all the time. Lots of people dislike their bodies, their hair, their limited intelligence, their limited athletic activity. For me, it’s how slow I read, my limited speaking ability, my hot temper, my moodiness, and on and on and on. Goodness gracious, there are a lot of good reasons not to like yourself. There are many things in this world that Jesus is not referring to.
He’s referring to the fact that all of us have an inborn instinct, or reflex, to seek our own happiness and to avoid harm. In other words, our self-love that Jesus assumes in this commandment is our desire for happiness or our desire to minimize our unhappiness.
Even people who commit suicide are not a contradiction to this assumption of Jesus. Suicide is motivated by a desire to be done with misery. That’s why people kill themselves. They may not have any idea what’s coming on the other side. All they can fell right then is “It just can’t get any worse, and so I want to minimize the mess and horror of my life.”
When Jesus commands us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. He is not at all saying that we should work up some kind of approval of our hair or our complexion or our abilities or our goodness. He’s saying that we should make the measure of our own desire for happiness, or our own desire to minimize our misery, the measure of our desire for other people’s happiness.
We should want their happiness the way we want our happiness. We should want their good and their success the way we want our good and our success. We should want them to avoid harm and suffering the way we would like to avoid harm and suffering.
This is, as you can feel, extremely radical — devastatingly radical. It severs the root of all selfishness deeply and profoundly. You can’t be self-exalting while seeking another person’s happiness as much as your own. You can’t.
Now there are two other confirmations of this understanding of Jesus’s command. In Matthew 22:40, Jesus says, “On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” He says the very same thing about the Golden Rule in Matthew 7:12. Remember the Golden Rule? It goes like this: “Whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” This probably means that the Golden Rule is the same as the command to love your neighbor as you love yourself.
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is virtually the same as “Love your neighbor as you love yourself,” if you interpret self-love as your desire for happiness and your avoidance of harm. That’s the first confirmation that we’re on the right track when we interpret “Love your neighbor as yourself” that way — it’s parallel to the Golden Rule.
Here’s the second confirmation that we’re on the right track. It comes from Luke 10, when the lawyer asks Jesus, “Well, who is my neighbor?” He was seeking to justify himself after Jesus said, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” “Who is my neighbor?” he asks. Well, in answer to his question, Jesus tells him a parable — namely, the parable of the good Samaritan.
The point of the good Samaritan parable is not that he liked the wounded Jew the way he liked himself — that is, he had a really good feelings about himself, so he had really good feelings about this wounded Jew. That’s just not the point at all. The point is that he treated this wounded Jewish man the way he would like to be treated. He loved him as he loved himself in the sense that he sought his good. He picked him up, he put oil on his wounds, he put him in a motel, he paid his bill, because he thought, “Well, if I were lying here like this, that’s the way I’d like to be treated.”
Better Than Self-Love
Let me close by giving a biblical alternative to the mantra that Danielle considers so worldly, and rightly so. She says, “We’re told to love our personalities, our skin, our bodies, our choices.” And she says, “That just doesn’t sound right to me.” Well it’s not.
“We are called to offer our bodies as instruments of righteousness for God’s glory, with all their imperfections.”
Now, here’s the alternative. As Christians who believe in the sovereignty and the goodness and the wisdom of God in everything he does, we know that nobody — none of us — received a body from our parents, under God’s providence, different from the one God appointed. We got the body God appointed.
God knit us together in our mother’s womb, the psalmist says (Psalm 139:13). Our attitude toward our bodies, therefore, should be to accept our bodies and our brains with all their limitations and all their imperfections, trust God that he is wise and good and merciful, and then offer our bodies as instruments of righteousness for God’s glory, with all their imperfections and all their limitations.
Here is an example of the faith I’m talking about. Joni Eareckson Tada has been paralyzed in a wheelchair for over fifty years. She said that she would like to take her wheelchair to heaven, temporarily. She’s got an agenda here. She will stand, she says, on her own two legs in her new body and say this to Jesus:
“Thank you, Jesus,” and he will know that I mean it, because he knows me. . . . And I will say, “Jesus, you see that wheelchair? You were right when you said that in the world we will have trouble, because that thing has been a lot of trouble. But the weaker I was in that thing, the harder I leaned on you. And the harder I leaned on you, the stronger I discovered you to be. It never would have happened had you not given me the bruising of the blessing of that wheelchair.” (Hope . . . The Best of Things, 29)
God did not ask Joni to like her wheelchair, but he did ask her to trust him that he knew what he was doing, and to dedicate herself, with all her limitations, to him. And she did, and we should too.