Whenever some personal difficulty arises, I will always hear this: “You need to love yourself!” Or I hear someone say, “I learned to love myself today.” I expect the world to say things like this, but I did not expect the Church to play telephone with the Devil. Not once in the Bible will you see a text that gives self-love as a solution to a personal problem. Not once. In fact, you find the exact opposite: “But realize this, that in the last days difficult times will come. For men will be lovers of self…” (2 Timothy 3:1–2) If there was any age explicitly absorbed in self-love, it’s our age. For Christians to be giving this advice to each other and to those around them makes them no different from the world. Jesus said, “If anyone wants to come with Me, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow Me.” Denying yourself daily is what Christians are commanded to do, not a greater love of the self. To preach a message of self-love is in fact to preach another gospel, and we all know what happens when you preach another gospel (Gal 1:8–9).
Now it’s very important to be clear on what I am not saying because I have received a great deal of pushback from Christians for defending the words of Jesus. The knee jerk response is that I am advocating self-hatred, but this is clearly false. I never said we should hate ourselves, nor did I say that all forms of self-love are wrong. I said that we should not have a greater love of the self. If you read the title, I carefully worded it to say we should not encourage more self-love. To make this clearer, I am denying an excessive emphasis on self-love, especially the kind invoked as a solution to our problems, I am not rejecting self-love altogether. After all, the Bible also says, “Love your neighbor in the same manner as [you love] yourself.” (Mark 12:30–31). The Bible could not appeal to our own self-love as a standard of how we should treat others if there was not something good about self-love. Nor could Solomon say, “He who gets wisdom loves his own soul” (Prov 19:8) if self-love was always wrong.
The Real Problem
This is all true, so it may seem as if the “love yourself” dictum is compatible with Christianity after all, but despite appearances, this is false. Dictums exist to correct or warn against some deficiency or excess in our actions, but it is impossible to be deficient with respect to self-love. In other words, the use of the dictum implies a false analysis of what the real problem is. We say, “You should love yourself!” to someone who is self-loathing or suicidal because we think the problem is a lack of self-love when it is the exact opposite: an excess of self-love. People who claim to hate themselves are in fact subtly obsessed with themselves. Who is the daily subject of their thoughts? Their own self. Why do they have negative thoughts? Because they desire a quality for themselves but do not have it, so they hate their current self for lacking it (James 4:2). You cannot desire a “good” quality for yourself without already desiring your own good, which is what self-love is by definition. Hatred can only arise from a love for something (in this case the self), it never arises by itself.
In other words, self-love is as necessary to us as breathing. As long as you exist, you necessarily desire your own good and therefore you cannot escape loving yourself. Even animals seek their own good in a non-rational manner when they ensure their survival by consuming food. This kind of self-love is natural and good, so by extension, it is likewise natural and good for us to have this kind of self-love that involves at bare minimum a desiring of our own good. Now people may falsely perceive what is good as bad, or what is bad as good, but no one intends evil for its own sake. If we do evil to ourselves, it is only because we perceive it is good (in the name of justice, say) to do so. The Bible affirms this: “For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it…” (Ephesians 5:29). The problem then is not that we lack self-love, but that we love ourselves falsely or excessively. That is to say, we falsely perceive hating or punishing ourselves as good for us in some way when this is not the case, or are excessively focused on our own desires or self.
It makes absolutely no sense then to encourage someone to love themselves when excessive or false self-love is the problem. It’s like telling a drunkard, “You know what your problem is? You need to drink more.” If the Bible thought self-love was so important, it would have focused on it as much as the moderns do. Except the Bible does the total opposite: it commands us to die to ourselves (1 Corinthians 15:31) and even to hate our own life in some way (John 12:25). Why so much emphasis on denial and literally nothing that commands us to love ourselves? Because God recognizes that we do not need more self-love, we need self-denial. The Bible never commands us to love ourselves because it assumes that we already love ourselves. This is clear evidence that we should dismiss this dictum as worldly wisdom.
Two Different Selves
Another reason we should reject this dictum is that it tends to cause one to reject the idea that we are sinners who deserve to be damned. To the world this sounds like self-hatred, but to the Bible acknowledging this is the first step to salvation. As J.C. Ryle said, “Christ is never fully valued until sin is clearly seen.” When we see ourselves to be the wretches that we are (as the spawns of Satan), then and only then can we see our need for salvation. It’s important to note for the Christian there are two selves: the old man and the new man. We hate the old man, but not the new man. The old man walks in accordance to the world, and it’s rule of action is to carry out the “inclinations of our flesh and thoughts” (Eph 2:3). Whatever the self present to itself, that is what the self will do. A person is thereby self-ruled. We hate our old selves because it is the power of sin and we are commanded to hate sin (Psalm 97:10) The new man, by contrast, is not self-ruled but Christ-ruled (Gal 2:20). Denying ourselves means denying the old self by submitting to God’s will. The new self is so tied with Christ, that you can’t deny / hate the new self without denying / hating Christ.
A Christian may think, “Can’t we just baptize the dictum to refer to just the new self then?” You could, but it again makes no biblical sense. Self-love is essential to any kind of selfhood; there is no self that does not love itself in some way. To command to self-love is like commanding someone to exist. Besides, the new self’s nature is such that it is “after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph 4:24) so its purpose is to love God. The love of self is a natural byproduct of loving God. By loving God, we thereby love ourselves, but the reverse is not the case. When we love ourselves first, we do not love God nor do we in fact love ourselves. The new self’s identity is not from itself but from Christ (Col 2:10), so it follows too that its self-love cannot come from love of self but from its love for God. If anything then, Christians should be advocating more love for God, not more self-love! But we must be careful: we do not love God in order to increase our self-love, we love God because it is good in itself to love God. That’s why I said self-love is a byproduct, not the purpose for which we act. Only the old self makes the self the purpose of its action.
Worldly Wisdom Fails
As we can see then, the Bible flips the world’s wisdom on its head. When we seek to save our life, that’s when we lose it, but whoever loses it will save it (Luke 17:33). Similarly, when we seek to love ourselves, we end up hating ourselves, but when we lose ourselves, we end up loving ourselves. It is only by losing ourselves in God’s love that we truly find ourselves. In like manner, the Bible also says that those who seek to be first will be last, and those who seek to be last will be first. You don’t seek to be last in order to be first, you seek to be last in order to put others first. The old self operates from the paradigm of self, but the new self operates from the paradigm of God. We are supposed to make our attitude like that of Christ Jesus, who has the perfect self but He still emptied Himself (Phil 2:6–7). Everything about the Bible is contrary to worldly wisdom, so why do Christians use it? If Jesus had heard us say it, I am sure He would tell us, “Get behind me Satan!”
Even when it comes to nourishing our own bodies, Jesus tells us that we should not be worried what we will eat or drink. In fact, he says eagerly seeking such things is what idolators do! He says we should instead “seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be provided for you” (Matt 6:31–33). Nothing wrong with seeking your own interest in itself (Phil 2:4), but it’s the way you seek it that matters: through God or yourself. Those who seek to love themselves, even in matters concerning food or drink, are compared to idolators or pagans! How much harsher would Jesus’ words be toward this whole notion of self-love that is supposed to be a rule for living? Christians, please stop it. I understand the pushback because it threatens your old self and it gets defensive, but you need to submit to the Word of God and not to the Word of Satan. Do not compromise, do not water down the gospel for some feel good psycho-babble that the world tells you is wisdom. Die to your self, and love God more!