Today’s question from the inbox comes from Andy, who asks, “Pastor John, should we love ourselves? Søren Kierkegaard once wrote, ‘Don’t forget to love yourself,’ and many teachers use Jesus’s instruction to ‘love our neighbors as ourselves’ to suggest we need to love ourselves first. But is this advice biblical?”
First, a word about Kierkegaard, and then a word about Jesus and Paul and whether it is biblical. I went and found the letter in Kierkegaard: Letters and Documents (280). What Kierkegaard meant, and what is certainly right to mean, was that we ought always to love ourselves rightly. In other words, if someone thinks that he will find happiness in a life of self-pity, he should be told, “You are failing in your duty to love yourself rightly. You are living a lie. You are, indeed, loving yourself. Everyone does, in the sense that you are pursuing the path that feels most gratifying to you. But you are wrong. This will not gratify.”
Kierkegaard’s quote — “Don’t forget to love yourself” — comes from letter #196 to his cousin, Hans Peter Kierkegaard, who was crippled from birth. Hans was giving in to the false view that a life without walking could not be lived in happiness and significance. He was trying to manage his sorrows by hopelessness and self-pity rather than faith in Christ and hope in God’s grace.
Saturated with Self-Esteem
I have been writing about self-love for at least forty years. For the last fifty years, modern psychology — which is the air we breathe now, and have been breathing it for decades — has produced such assumptions for so many people in our culture, that we can’t even conceive of alternative views at times to what it says about self-love and self-esteem.
So here is the Christian version of this pop psychology: “When Jesus said, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ it means: first, develop a high sense of self-esteem, and then — and only then — will you be able to be of any use in loving others.” There are three assumptions here in this way of thinking, and I disagree with every one of them:
- Jesus is commanding self-love.
- Self-love means self-esteem.
- You have to learn to love yourself like that in order to love others.
Three Reasons Jesus Does Not Command Self-Love
So now we go to Jesus and Paul to see why I have a problem with that.
1. Jesus is not commanding self-love, he is assuming self-love. The text says, “Love your neighbor as you” — and I would add “already do,” because you are human — “love yourself” (Matthew 19:19. Jesus assumes that every human being by nature loves himself. He doesn’t command it; he makes it the measure and the model of neighbor love. I will come back to that in a minute.
2. Self-love in Jesus’s command does not mean self-esteem; it means seeking your happiness. Everybody is wired to seek his happiness. We know this for several reasons. One is that in Luke 10, Jesus illustrates the commandment “love your neighbor as yourself” by telling the parable of the Good Samaritan. And the point there is that the Samaritan treated the wounded Jew the way he would want to be treated. He sought the healing. He sought the happiness and the wellbeing of the wounded man on the side of the road the way he would want to be healed and the way he would want to have wellbeing and happiness.
3. Here is another reason. I think this is really strong. Another reason why we know that Jesus didn’t mean “get a high sense of self-esteem” when he said “as you love yourself” is this: In Ephesians 5:28–30, Paul applies the command to “love your neighbor as you love yourself” to how a husband loves his wife. And he says this:
Husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. . . . For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body.
Everybody loves himself. No man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it as Christ does the church, because we are members of his own body.
So in this text, “loving yourself” means “nourishing and cherishing.” It doesn’t mean esteeming. It means “taking care of.” No one ever hates himself in the sense that everybody wants to be happy. Everybody pursues happiness. All people love themselves in this sense, and we should make that the measure of how we love others: I feed myself. I give myself rest. I don’t drink poison. I don’t step in front of trucks. I don’t seek out humiliation. I do a hundred things during the day to provide for my needs and my wants. I love John Piper.
What We All Want
And this is true even if I think I am a jerk and have no self-esteem. Self-esteem is not a given in humanity. Self-love is a given. That is why Jesus used it the way he did. One can be taught self-esteem, but no one has to learn self-love; that is, no one has to learn to seek his own happiness.
Even if a person drinks himself crazy, smokes three packs of cigarettes a day, and finally commits suicide, the reason is not that he doesn’t love himself, but that his notion of what would make himself happy is distorted. He doesn’t love himself rightly. He is trying to minimize his misery with drink and with suicide, which is the flip side of seeking happiness. He wants to be happy. But the only way he can see it is to minimize his pain by taking his life.
We all want to be happy, and so we do what we think in the moment will make us happy or at least less miserable — which is often stupid. This is the universal self-love Jesus had in mind. And there is nothing wrong with it. In fact, you can’t live without it. So I disagree with the assumption that you don’t have to learn self-love in order to love others. This whole popular notion, true or false, that building self-esteem is a means to loving others has no textual basis in the command, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
So what does Jesus mean here? There isn’t any command in the Bible more damning to me, more humility-producing, or brokenness-producing than this one: “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.”
This is a very radical command. He means something far more than: start liking yourself so you can like others. He means: be as concerned about the happiness and the wellbeing of others as you are about your own. That is devastating.
We ought to want to fill other bellies as much as we want to fill our own at breakfast or supper. Do you desire a meal? Want others to have meals. Seek to relieve other’s suffering as much as you take aspirin, ibuprofen, get treatment, go to the doctor. Want that for others. Make the desires that you have for your own comfort and security and success and happiness the measure of how intensely and creatively and consistently you desire and pursue these things for others.
Now that is a radical commandment, and it is what Jesus meant.