Almost daily we hear messages telling us to love and serve ourselves. “You can’t love others until you learn to love yourself.” Our culture’s idea of self-love is much like the first sin with Adam and Eve. They gave into the temptation that said, “You will be like God.” Out of a misguided love for themselves and their own glory, they pursued pleasure apart from the Lord. Self-love expresses itself in a multitude of ways from being obsessed with looks and achievements to being self-absorbed in insecurities. The question I hope to ponder is this: Is self-love sinful? As we do, keep in mind Romans 14:23 which says that which does not come from faith [in Christ] is sin.
The gospel reveals God’s heart and the gospel isn’t God affirming the great or clapping for the righteous. The gospel is God showering the lowly with his greatness and turning the boyish shepherd into a king. And to see Christ as the all-satisfying Savior, we must see our sinful emptiness and neediness for him. If we are consumed with a worldly love and esteem for ourselves, how will we see that we are sick? “Healthy people don’t need a doctor. Sick people do. I have not come to those who think they are righteous, but those who know they aren’t” (Luke 5). In a sense, there has to be a kind of self-hate. We are sinful beings living in an evil and fallen world. We must hate this pre-existing wickedness that we are born with in order to see the glory and holiness of Christ.
But then there’s the second greatest commandment: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31). Let’s be careful not to see Jesus commanding self-love. He’s commanding a love for our neighbor. Self-love is seen, then, not as love for self, but a care that is added to self by a care that is added primarily to another. In Ephesians 5 Paul encourages husbands to love their wives as themselves. Why? “Because no man ever hates his own flesh but nourishes and cherishes it” (5:29) In both verses self-love is assumed in everyone. We all “love” ourselves and seek that which pleases us—and that which pleases us is the pleasing of others in Christ.
Let’s define self-love as this: enjoying or taking delight in anything that is glorifying to God. If I want to love myself, I pursue things that appeal to me, that give me joy. Where your treasure is, there your heart will be. To put it another way, that which you deem valuable, you desire with your heart.
We all have this desire. It is a natural state of all humans. But because we are disposed to evil, our pleasure becomes inward focused and self is made to be an ends. Said another way, we seek our own glory and self as the foundation of our joy. The problem isn’t that we seek pleasure. We were designed to seek pleasure. “Delight yourselves in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart” (Ps. 37:4). “In his presence is the fullness of joy, and at his right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Ps. 16:11). The problem is that the object we seek for pleasure is misplaced.
The self-love Jesus assumes in Mark 12 is one that seeks happiness. The issue we run into, again and again, is that there is only one end to happiness. We turn to money, sculpted bodies, sex, food, and people. Things that make us “feel good.” And in the chase for pleasure, we find ourselves unsatisfied and wanting more. So, the issue is not that we love ourselves too little; it is that we do not believe God’s love is enough. We suppress the truth and exchange the glory of the immortal God for images of an empty romance (Romans 1).
What if our self-love was founded on an unwavering hope? What if self-love was perpetuated by loving someone else? I know it sounds counter-cultural, but that’s because it is. I love myself not by showering my body in personal adornment, but by seeking the one who adorns me with righteousness. I do not love myself by seeing that all my needs are met, but by pursuing the one who is in need. What would the world look like if that kind of love filled the spaces in which we live? What kind of glory would we see if our love transcended self?
Let’s exchange our self-love for the glory of adoption. Let’s exchange our self-love for the love that loves outside of ourselves. Let’s exchange our self-love for the love that exists in Christ and for neighbor.
Won’t you join me?