OK, everyone give yourself a big hug. Now pat yourself on the back. Now go to the “Applause” track on your IPod…soak it in…and take a bow. Ahhh, isn’t it good to be loved…by yourself! (…and Richard Simmons has left the building…)
Self-love is a popular idea in our culture–even in the church. It wouldn’t be the least bit surprising to me if you had heard “You have to love yourself first” from a pulpit on Sunday morning. You can hear it on Christian Radio for sure. The idea of needing to love yourself first could actually be traced back (as far as I can tell) to 11th century France, and the famous monastic thinker Bernard of Clairvaux. Yet, I’m not sure that any culture has loved this advice more than 21st century USA. One place you cannot trace “Love yourself” to IS THE BIBLE.
Now, if you listen to people (Christians) who swear by this adage, they will probably take you to Leviticus 19:18 or Matthew 22:39: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus puts this right up with “Love the LORD your God” in the greatest commandment category, and so it carries authority. The logic then goes: I’m supposed to love my neighbor as myself, therefore I must love myself; the greater my self-love, the greater my neighbor-love. The journey to love like Jesus, then, begins with a journey to love oneself.
And I want to suggest that this is an entirely wrong-headed way of approaching both this text and the Christian journey–especially in our culture. Let me explain:
- Let’s begin with defining “love.” When people in our culture hear “love yourself,” they tend to think Bruno Mars, Pink, Lady Gaga (3 super-catchy top hits, by the way), and an unconditional acceptance of everything “me.” In other words, we think self-esteem: “I need to feel good about myself and accept that I’m all good just the way I am.” Love in the Bible is less about feeling warm fuzzies, and more about “actively [seeking] the benefit of someone else.”* The Bible absolutely never says, “You should feel better about yourself, because you’re really pretty good.” So, at the very least, a Christian considering this advice will want to clarify the meaning of love.
- Let’s move on to “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Just looking at the phrase in English, Jesus is clearly emphasizing our love for other people (not ourselves). He apparently feels no need to turn us inward on ourselves. If this neighbor-love is based on anything else, it is based on the previous command: “Love the Lord your God, with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind.” Looking at the phrase in Greek…nothing changes. To put this with #1, Jesus is assuming that we already seek the benefit of ourselves, already focus on our own needs, and already spend a great deal of time/energy/thought on ourselves.
- But what about the person who is always giving, giving, giving (think the parent whose life seems to revolve around their kids or the person who is always caring for an addict) and getting burned out? This is what psychology calls “co-dependence.” Far from being “too much love for others,” the co-dependent is actually in it as much for themselves as for the other. When we act in this way, we do so because we get a sense of fulfillment, purpose, self-righteousness, admiration, etc. from it, not because we love the other person so deeply. Co-dependence is actually harmful to the person we are claiming to love. In any case, the biblical solution is never to love self more.
- The problem, then, is this: If we feel like we need to love ourselves really well before we can love others, we are unlikely to actually get to the love others part. We will have built a model of life that is self-centered. And this is the exact opposite of what Jesus or the Scriptures are interested in.
7 Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9 This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.
*Douglas Moo in his New International Commentary The Book of Romans