The Empty Plea of Self-Love (feat. Edwards, Calvin, and Augustine)

Should I focus on loving myself? Peter Scazzero, author of multiple popular books and a major player in much of trendy evangelicalism, would tend to agree. He says, “The extent to which we love and respect ourselves is the extent to which we will be able to love and respect others.”

Is such a statement, on its own, compatible with the Bible?

I have seen more than a few friends latch on to such an idea. It is generally attended with the usage of Mark 12:31/Matt 22:39. You know. “Love your neighbor as yourself.” I have heard it said, “Until we can find a true love for ourselves we will never be able to love others the way Jesus would want us to love.”

So. Is this legit? Can this actually hold the weight of the Bible? Should I make it my goal to love myself?

Much of the counseling movement of our day certainly agrees. Christian or not. And much of evangelicalism has followed suit.

Don’t believe me? Simply peruse your local bookstores “Christian” section. You will quickly be overwhelmed by the Pink study Bibles and the millions of self-help spin offs. Each titled with a trendy adjective or some other cool word—“audacious,” “unqualified,” “fervent,” “if,” and “frequency.”

My conclusion up front (thesis for you nerdy types): Loving yourself is not a biblical doctrine and steals your joy.

Can I prove that? Why don’t we find out. [For the faint of heart, used to reading the mini-blog posts of the world, I give you permission to skip to my final critiques at the end labeled as: “But. A few more push backs, you have?” I say this only because I think it will whet your appetite for the rest. *Fingers crossed*]

First, how is loving myself not biblical?

  1. What about Mark 12:31, et. al.? –> “Love your neighbor as yourself

Doesn’t that appear to mean I should be working on loving myself so that I can best love others? Seems like my conclusion is wrong!

Wait.

Do you see where you are commanded to love yourself? Is that ever an explicit statement?

No.

But it’s implied, you say?

I think we should go ahead and think through the syntax of this sentence. And don’t let the word “syntax” scare you. Syntax is actually very nice. He is kind and generous. Trust me.

“Love your neighbor as yourself.” The key is what we do with “as yourself.” It appears to me that this is being used for the purpose of comparison and not command. Consider Luke 6:31: “And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.” The order is reversed in this instance. But the syntax is the same. Why is the “as ____” section there? Is it to command to do well to yourself? Or is it a motivating comparison?

How about an illustration.

Imagine with me. Especially you non-sporty people. I say to you, “Be passionate about Jesus and the Church as you are with football and basketball games, where you paint up, tailgate, create fantasy leagues, and let your emotional well being be destroyed when your team loses.” Do I intend to command you to love football and basketball? No. It is a means of comparison. I, in fact, might rather you not love them at all. It may be a negative comparison. It is true that I do imply your love for football and basketball. But, I never command you to actually love either. It is an assumption that you already possess this passion. The point is to create a comparison and, thus, illustrate the great amount of love you should devote elsewhere.

The point is comparison. That is how the word “as” functions in Mark 12. It is not functioning as a command to love yourself. Thomas Schreiner says, “The text does not suggest that human beings need to learn to love themselves before they can love others. Instead, it assumes that we love ourselves, in that we invariably seek our interests.” Herman Ridderbos (more preferably known as Herman RidderBOSS) echoes Schreiner when he says, “Basic to this thought is not the notion that we must love ourselves also, but rather the thought that self-love is natural, instinctive, to man. Just as directly and unhesitatingly as he loves himself, one must love his neighbor.” Even men with foreign accents that make you sound 100x smarter agree. Exhibit A: Alistair Begg says, “There is no substantiation in this phrase either for self-love, that’s been taught over the last two and half decades; you are supposed to love yourself, then if you love yourself and so on, as if somehow or another that’s the real problem: the absence of self-love. The biggest problem I have is the presence of self-love.”

So it really comes down to how the word “as” functions. Does it function as a command in any of these instances? I think not. The presence of self-love in these texts is an assumed reality, rather than a requested potentiality.

  1. Does a lesson on language really deflect the possibility of self-love?

I think so.

But let’s go further and define love.

Love is, according to Merriam-Webster: (1) strong affection for another arising out of kinship or personal ties (2) warm attachment, enthusiasm, or devotion (4) unselfish loyal and benevolent concern for the good of another.[1]

Love is, according to the Bible: To put it bluntly, God. Not to get all philosophical, but God is the very definition of all attributes such as love and goodness. God is love. 1 John 4:7-12 is helpful here. So, God being love, in his grace has given us an image of true love in the incarnation—sending the Son to die on behalf of his sinful people. Such love is sacrificial. It is like 1 John 3:16 and 1 Cor. 13:5—not insisting on self.

Now, let’s define self-love.

Self-love is, according to Meriam-Webster: (1) conceit (2) regard for one’s own happiness or advantage

Self-love is, according to the Bible: Selfishness. Seeing others need and choosing self. Loving myself more than others. See 1 John 3:17; Phil. 2:3-4.

Jonathan Edwards goes further. He eviscerates self-love when he says:

Self-love is a principle entirely natural, and as much in the hearts of devils as angels; and therefore surely nothing that is the mere result of it, can be supernatural and divine…. Christ plainly speaks of this kind of love, as what is nothing beyond the love of wicked men….

“For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?” – Matthew 5:46

Now some may quibble with my definition of self-love. Maybe you would say I’m misrepresenting the self-love movement. Point taken. And to Scazzero’s credit, he lumps love of God and others into the mixing bowl alongside love of self in the context of his quote. Each matter to him. It is like a threefold cord. His position is more nuanced than the proof-text shows. But do not words mean things? When you define emotional health as partly self-love, does that not promote rampant narcissism? And if you do not like how the dictionary since 1828 defines it or how the Bible defines it, may I suggest simply using different terminology to convey your point? Words matter. And choosing to use self-love conveys a clear meaning. If you intend to mean something else, you must use the words that appropriately signify that meaning lest your meaning be mistaken for the praise of hubris.

  1. What does full-orbed biblical love look like?

Others-Centered Love: The Call to Self-Denial

Luke 6:32: If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them.

Luke 14:27: If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sister, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.

The love of the Bible is wholly others-centered. First, centered on God. Second, centered on neighbor. Third, …. *uh,* *erm,* *um,* *silence….* There is no third.

The Foundation and Fountain of Love

Spoiler: the foundation and fountain of love is God. Love itself is dependent on God, for God is love. Without God, love does not exist.

Jonathan Edwards, better than I could, contrasts the nature of true love and self-love. He says:

The saint’s affections begin with God; and self-love has a hand in these affections consequentially, and secondarily only. On the contrary, those false affections begin with self, and an acknowledgment of an excellency in God, and an affectedness with it, is only consequential and dependent. In the love of the true saint God is the lowest foundation; the love of the excellency of his nature is the foundation of all the affections which come afterwards, wherein self-love is concerned as an handmaid: on the contrary, the hypocrite lays himself at the bottom of all, as the first foundation, and lays on God as the superstructure; and even his acknowledgment of God’s glory itself, depends on his regard to his private interest.

Edwards acknowledges the role of self-love but only as a secondary companion in fanning the fires of God-centered love. It is not at the bottom of the pyramid, nor the top of the mountain.

But if God is the center of love, why love my neighbor? Would that not detract from love of God?

Listen to John Calvin who grounds love of neighbor in the image of God. He says:

[man should] look upon the image of God in them, which cancels and effaces their transgressions, and with its beauty and dignity allures us to love and embrace them.

Again. It is God. Even love of neighbor is love of God.

Second, how does loving myself steal my joy?

Again, we find that Jonathan Edwards has much to teach us on this front. He says:

And as it is with the love of the saints, so it is with their joy, and spiritual delight and pleasure: the first foundation of it, is not any consideration or conception of their interest in divine things; but it primarily consists in the sweet entertainment their minds have in the view or contemplation of the divine and holy beauty of these things, as they are in themselves. And this is indeed the very main difference between the joy of the hypocrite, and the joy of the true saint. The former rejoices in himself; self is the first foundation of his joy: the latter rejoices in God. The hypocrite has his mind pleased and delighted, in the first place, with his own privilege, and the happiness which he supposes he has attained, or shall attain. True saints have their minds, in the first place, inexpressibly pleased and delighted with the sweet ideas of the glorious and amiable nature of the things of God. And this is the spring of all their delights, and the cream of all their pleasures; ’tis the joy of their joy. This sweet and ravishing entertainment, they have in the view of the beautiful and delightful nature of divine things, is the foundation of the joy that they have afterwards, in the consideration of their being theirs. But the dependence of the affections of hypocrites is in a contrary order: they first rejoice, and are elevated with it, that they are made so much of by God; and then on that ground, he seems in a sort, lovely to them.

So, in order to have maximal joy. In order to have “the spring of all their delights, and the cream of all their pleasures” at their highest degree, only God can satisfy. Loving self will not bring lasting joy. It will not bring depth of joy. It will be fleeting. Offering an empty plea. The search for more will always remain.

So. In conclusion. Should I focus on loving myself? No.

Focus on God.

Love of self robs God and robs you. God of glory and you of joy.

Sounds like a Christian answer to me. I even hear the echo of Westminster. Does that give me bonus points?

But. A few more push backs, you have?

  1. What about self-esteem?

You say that many actually have *negative* self-worth today. They actually need to learn to love themselves in order to have health. That’s fair, right?

Well.

First, I would distinguish between “self-worth” and “self-love” to some degree. They are different concepts. But that’s not my main response.

Second, and mainly, I would say that when you have a negative self-image, if you choose simply to do prolonged introspection and shower yourself with positive affirmations, you will never truly have any solid ground for worth. Only in God do we find a correct understanding of ourselves. When you focus on God, a mature understanding of self is a natural byproduct. Focus on self and you get a distorted and unstable view of self. In addition, you miss out on the delights of God.

Sadness, fear, anxiety, shame, depression, and the like are real. But you need not spend time attempting to achieve some sort of twisted self-love by your own efforts. The longing to be loved is not wrong. But thinking that love from yourself will satisfy such a longing is a sham Christianity devoid of the gospel and its redeeming grace—otherworldly and unmerited—even demerited—grace from your Creator.

Esteeming ourselves does nothing but lower our overall esteem for God. And our ultimate ground of worth. Is not your worth grounded in the image of God? And is not that worth only worthy because it actually images God and not yourself? Is not your identity hidden in Christ? Is not such an identity out of the reach of self? Self-esteem is opposed to God-esteem. Grace—not self—is the chief worth inspiring subject.

Augustine surely agrees when he says:

God does not choose anyone who is worthy, but in choosing him, renders him worthy.

  1. But isn’t it just about emotional health and maturity? How can you deny that?

Self-love has nothing to do with maturity. The only maturity I am familiar with is centered in Christ and produced by him. And not once does that maturity require love of self.

I am unfamiliar with the passage where Paul explains at length the need to consider self as more important than others in order to become healthy—in order to love others best.

“Just give yourself some time.”

“Just take a few days away and focus on yourself—you need it—you deserve it.”

“Just relax and fill yourself up for the next few years while you are in college—while you are getting married—while you are having children—you can only give out of abundance and without time for yourself in these busy seasons, you will falter.”

“Just read your Bible all alone without anyone else and listen to your inner spirit and one day you will be mature enough to care for others.”

Yeah. I didn’t read those either.

But mainstream and “Christian” counseling—and the endless supply of self-help books—have told me differently. They have told me that I need to think about myself in order to find final freedom and satisfaction. True. They have said this. But, you see, the 21st century counseling movement feeds on self-love like sharks when they smell blood or like the office employees when they see the email about free donuts in the break room. It is what drives them. But they need theological help. They need theological moorings. How does change happen? How does one come by maturity? By following 10 step methods? By attending conferences? By repeating phrases of affirmation to yourself each day? The biblical witness is void of such suggestions. It is the Spirit of God through his Word that produces change. It is through the gathering of the church and its sacraments that grace is given to encourage the Christian faith. It is not through programs. We may like the concreteness of such self-help methods but they will only leave us dry, hallow, exhausted, and searching for more.

So, you’re right in one sense. Loving yourself is much easier than actually doing the hard work of loving others. But loving self is not the way of Christ.

  1. But what about Calvin? Doesn’t he actually promote self-love? Doesn’t he say something about the knowledge of self and the knowledge of God being both necessary? Could it not be construed in this light?

There is a profound difference between knowledge and love. The Bible is full of revealing knowledge about our true state—sinful and selfish. But it is void of love for self. As is Calvin.

So, in sum, Scazzero would have been better saying: “The extent to which we love and respect God is the extent to which we will be able to love and respect others.”

My central love must be for another.

But really. Who else but God could deserve such love? Me? Absolutely not.

You will gain the best perspective of yourself when you are engulfed in God. Not when you are engulfed with self-love and its partner egotism.

And guess what is so amazing about God? When I love him, I end up receiving joy for myself. I get rewarded for loving the only one worthy of true love. Glorious.

[1]Yes, I cut out number 3—its repetitive.

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