He said to him, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and most important command. The second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. (Matthew 22:37-39)
In Evangelical circles, self-love is an idea and practice that is often viewed with suspicion, if not outright hostility, being equated with selfishness. Little distinction is made between an unhealthy self-focus and a possibly healthy, biblical self-love. Even worse, the biblical and evidential need for a healthy self-concept is often addressed by a redirection towards a focus on God and our redeemed, or new self “in Christ” (Galatians 3:26-38), rather than providing real tools for self knowledge and care.
But Jesus’ restatement of the Christian faith reveals some important truths about loving ourselves properly as part of the spiritual life.
Healthy self-love works when under the protection of a “God-first” lifestyle
Focusing on loving ourselves outside of a real relationship with God (one that listens to His voice and ways, and intends obedience) can easily lead to the selfish narcissism we want to avoid when learning to love ourselves. God provides three safeguards that can help us discover our true, created selves while avoiding the deceptions and extremes that can side-track us.
- The Creator’s View of the Uncorrupted Self: The Bible, God’s word, gives us a view of what an uncorrupted person looks like. By providing this guide, we can avoid grasping on to character traits and self-concepts that are not part of God’s design for us. For example, we may be tempted to think that certain parts of our personality are part of our true self, when in fact, they are a reaction to our hurts, and a warped view of ourselves, though they feel like they are “me.” They may include such traits as sarcasm, perfectionism, alternate genders, or shyness, all of which can have unhealthy roots in our hurts rather than our created self.
- The Creation of Our New Heart and New Self: Part of becoming Christian is gaining the new desires, motivations, and mental clarity that come with receiving God’s spirit in us – that is, being born again (John 3). This allows us to disengage from our false self and the sin which binds us to it. As Christians, we are meant to “put off the old man,” which is not possible without the “new man” of our regenerated self in relationship with God (Ephesians 4:22-24).
- The Creator’s voice of love and instruction: With God first and present in our lives, we can be assured of the experience of his love and voice speaking to us through the scriptures and in prayer (John 10:27). Admittedly, learning to hear God’s voice is not always easy, but we get better at it with practice (Hebrews 6:1), as our minds are reoriented to think like God (see Romans 12:1-2).
Self-love is required before being able to love others
Jesus tells us that we ought to love others as we love ourselves. He assumes a healthy self-love as a guide to our love for others. But what if we don’t know ourselves, or even hate ourselves? Should we love others like that? Of course not. Hidden in this saying is a deeper truth – that we cannot authentically love others if we don’t love ourselves; love is something we give from our authentic self to others. Until we deal with our lack of knowledge and disconnection from our true, created selves, our ability to love others is severely impaired, and our “loving” actions towards others, though well-meaning, are really just abusing ourselves, and perhaps using others to gain comfort for our lack of self-love.
God, I have been alienated from parts of myself, and because of my hurts I have forged parts of my personality that I don’t want or need to be happy or healthy. Help me let go of those false parts that I have accepted as parts of myself. Help me to love myself honestly, to face my faults and not excuse them, but to also know myself without judgment and hate. Help me to accept all of who I am in creation, and restore me to what you would like me to be. Amen.