After one quarter of a century at Bethlehem Baptist Church, Pastor John looked back and reflected on one of the most troubling trends he followed in Christianity. It was the trend of self-esteem and self-love, big in the 1970s and 80s. Self-esteem was said to be the key to Christian love: love yourself more, and then you will be able to love others more effectively. But such a model was a distortion. Actually, what the Bible demands from Christians is far more radical than self-esteem. It’s more radical because the Bible does not call us to love ourselves more, but to love others with the same earnestness and zeal that we already love ourselves with. This more radical calling to love is such a high and demanding calling, Pastor John will come right out and call this revelation utterly “devastating” — devastating because it really renders Christianity to be “an impossible religion.” Here’s Pastor John, explaining in one of his 2005 sermons.
How is the debt of love we owe to others related to self-love? Romans 13:9 is a quotation of Leviticus 19:18. It’s quoted by Jesus; it’s quoted by James; it’s quoted by Paul. This is the royal law of love: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” My question is, What does “as you love yourself” mean — “as yourself”?
I’ve been here 25 years now. We just celebrated that on Wednesday night. I can remember in the six years before I got here being over at Bethel, and I would say among the dominant concerns of my life from 1974 to 1989 was this issue. What does “as yourself” mean? I point out that little historical fact just because either I’ve got my head in the sand, or things have changed a little bit. I don’t hear as much now as I did, thirty and twenty years ago, the psychological scheme that was built on this verse that was so wrong. But I’m going to tell you what it is just in case my head is in the sand, and just in case it’s got a hook in you. I’m going to try to get the hook out right now.
Gospel of Self-Esteem
For many years, Christians would write articles and books in which they said that this command meant that the reason people don’t love others is because they haven’t learned to love themselves enough, and therefore the task of counseling and the task of education and parenting and preaching is to help people love themselves more so that they would have resources to love other people. And in that little scheme, self-love always meant self-esteem.
So the universal gospel that fixes all problems of children and marriages and business conflict is lack of self-esteem, and therefore the task of all counselors, all preachers, all parents, all educators is to get more self-esteem into these little kids’ lives and into these employees’ lives, and then things will go better because as they love themselves, they will spill over on love to other people. That was the scheme, and it colossally missed the point in several ways.
First, this biblical commandment assumes that all of us love ourselves and don’t need to be taught at all to love ourselves. It is an assumption. Every person in this room without exception has a massive love affair with yourself. You don’t need to be taught at all.
And it has, secondly, nothing to do with self-esteem. Your love for yourself is very simply your desire to be happy and to do whatever it takes to make your life the way you want it. He’s not talking as if first you must learn to esteem yourself, and then out of that rich appreciation for your qualities, you now are free to love other people — which presumably, then, would mean to help them appreciate how wonderful they are.
Everybody Wants to Be Happy
That’s just not the way Paul was thinking. The words are not a command to love yourself; they are an assumption: love your neighbor as you already love yourself — no questions asked about it.
Here’s an example in Ephesians 5. Paul is talking about husbands and wives in Ephesians 5. He’s taking the command to love your neighbor and applying it to husbands and wives. So how does a husband love a wife in these terms? It goes like this: “Husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.” Then he adds this amazingly crucial statement in verse 29: “For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church” (Ephesians 5:28–29). Nobody ever hated himself, but nourishes and cherishes himself. Everybody, without exception, loves himself — whatever his self-esteem is, high or low.
- Everybody wants food to eat and will do almost anything to get it if we get hungry enough.
- Everybody wants to drink and not die of thirst, and we will do almost anything to serve ourselves with drink if we get thirsty enough.
- Everybody wants to avoid injury and death, and we will do whatever it takes not to walk in front of a train or a truck or drink poison or get ourselves killed in some other way.
We love life and our health big time. And if somebody raises the objection, “Well, what about masochists and suicide victims? Are they exceptions? I mean, they don’t treat themselves well, do they?” The answer is that masochists and suicide victims are not exceptions to this rule.
A masochist is a person who, for very sad and sick reasons, finds pleasure in hurting himself or pleasure in the tending of the doctors. I’ve talked to people who cut themselves. I asked one young woman that we were working with, “Why do you cut yourself?” She had big lacerations on her stomach. She said, “It’s the only time anybody ever touches me.” She wanted to be touched. She loved herself massively. “Touch me. Touch me, doctors.”
The same is true for suicide. The only reason people commit suicide is because life has gotten so painful, they can’t stand it anymore and they want to escape. They just want out of the pain, which is self-love. “I don’t want the pain anymore.”
“Everyone has self-love. Jesus does not command it; he assumes it.”
Everybody likes to be praised, and apart from grace, we all subtly say things and do things to be liked, to be praised. It takes a massive work of divine grace to free you from that idol. We love the praise of men. Everyone has self-love. Jesus does not command it; he assumes it.
Seek Others’ Good
Now, lots of people think it would be very radical if Jesus said, “So stop loving yourself like that, and start doing the duty of love to other people. Stop having those strong cravings for your own happiness and your own welfare. Stop that, kill that, crucify that, die to that, and start doing something that doesn’t flow from desires for your happiness and just do dutiful, loving things.” Some people would say that’s really radical, and it would be, I suppose.
But it’s not as radical as what Jesus says and Paul says and James says and Leviticus says. They say, “Love your neighbor that way: like you massively love yourself. Make your desire to be alive, make your desire for happiness the measure of your desire for other people’s happiness.” You talk about radical, you talk about life-changing, heart-exploding, impossible demands. Love your neighbor as you love yourself.
- If you are energetic in pursuing your own happiness, be energetic in pursuing the happiness of your neighbor.
- If you are creative in pursuing your own happiness, be creative in pursuing the happiness of your neighbor.
- If you are persevering and enduring in pursuing your own happiness, be persevering and enduring in pursuing the happiness of your neighbor.
“Make the degree of your own self-seeking, which is very high, the measure of your seeking their good.”
Paul is not mainly saying to seek for your neighbor the same things that you want; he’s saying, “Seek their good in the same way you seek your own good. Make the degree of your own self-seeking, which is very high, the measure of your seeking their good.”
Radical, Impossible Command
This is devastating. You’re sitting at home. You’re just enjoying an evening. It feels good — watching television, watching a video, eating a good meal, talking. And you hear Jesus say, “Love your neighbor as you want this evening.” That’s just devastating. Measure your pursuit of the happiness of others by the pursuit of your own.
- How do you pursue your well-being? Pursue their well-being that way.
- Are you hungry? Find a hungry neighbor and feed him.
- Are you thirsty? Give your thirsty neighbor a drink.
- Are you lonely? Find someone who’s lonely and befriend them.
- Are you frightened? Find someone to comfort.
- You want to make a good grade on the next exam. So do others. Help them.
That is radical. It’s far more radical than saying, “Stop desiring and start doing duty.” It’s far more radical because it says, “Now, all these massive desires that I have for my happiness are not sent away; they are transposed into another kind of music. The same energy, the same longings, the same desires are now desires for you and your salvation and your happiness and your good, your stomach being full and your mind being educated and your life having significance. All the things I want, I now, with that same energy, want for you.”
Christianity is an impossible religion. This is a standard that is overwhelming, and it just makes me long to have a miracle done to me.