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People are often conflicted about the idea of self-love. Some uphold it as the key to living a healthy life; others condemn it as a sinful obsession. Even ancient philosophers and religious teachers held varying views. Buddha, living in the 5th century B.C., considered self-love to be the foundation of a happy life. He wrote: “Love yourself and the rest will follow.” One hundred years later, the Greek philosopher Plato expressed an opposite view, writing that the “cause of all sins in every case lies in the person’s excessive love of self.”
We haven’t come to much more of a consensus today. Currently, popular culture tends to embrace the concept of self-love, but some Christians remain skeptical. Does the Bible ever present self-love as the key to happiness or even as a component of it? Would God really encourage a life philosophy that focuses on the self’s needs first and puts others second?
Before I seek to formulate an answer to these questions, I want to include the definition of self-love given by the Merriam-Webster dictionary: Self-love is simply “an appreciation of one’s own worth or virtue” and “proper regard for and attention to one’s own happiness or well-being.”
Under this definition, self-love could become narcissistic but is not inherently so; self-love simply recognizes the value of the self and treats it with respect.
If we are to develop a biblical understanding of self-love, however, we must ask the question, “Who does God command us to love?” In Matthew 22:37, 39, Jesus reminds us of the two greatest commandments: Love God with all your heart, soul and mind and love your neighbor as yourself. People tend to use this verse as an argument in favor of self-love — if we hate ourselves but love others we aren’t really obeying the commandment.
The Bible assumes, however, that we already have a positive regard for ourselves. As sinners, we naturally consider our own interests before the interests of others. We naturally want what is best for ourselves and often allow that desire to affect our daily actions. The emphasis of God’s command, then, is upon the love we struggle with the most: love towards God and other people.
What then, would the Bible advise to those who struggle with self-loathing? What would it present as the antithesis to self-hate? Popular culture might encourage those who struggle with self-hate to learn positive self-talk, intentionally take time for rest and self-care and, on the whole, seek to intentionally shift the tone of their self-focus from self-hate to self-love.
The Bible, on the other hand, though not directly addressing self-hate, urges an even greater shift in focus, continuing to call all people — self-haters and self-lovers — towards a loving focus on others. 1 Peter 4:8 says, “Above all, love each other deeply,” and Romans 12:10 encourages us, “Be devoted to one another in love; honor one another above yourselves.”
Instead of merely shifting the tone of self-focus from self-hate to self-love as popular culture tends to encourage, the Bible urges a shift from self-focus as a whole to other-focus, other-love. It’s not that self-respect or even self-enjoyment is wrong. These traits are held by mature Christians, but they are not the complete picture of true victory over self-hate.
In leaving self-hate behind, self-respect is not our only profit. There is more to emotional well-being than the attitude we have toward ourselves. In fact, the joy of leaving self-hatred behind isn’t just that we finally get to discover ourselves or embrace the parts of us that used to make us cringe — it’s that the emotional energy we used to spend on a hyper-focused concern for ourselves can now be spent elsewhere. Free from self-hate, we can funnel our attention towards other activities or goals. We can discover other people, enjoy them and invest in them.
Maybe that is where we will find the most love for ourselves — when we finally forget ourselves enough to really love the people around us.