Self-Love — Does Scripture Really Endorse It?


That’s right. I answered the question in my title immediately, and with only one word. By doing so, I probably killed any incentive you had to read a full blog post on this topic. But please stay with me. There’s a reason we need to look at this issue.

This question once again popped up on Twitter last week, making me heave a sigh of exasperation as people twist Scripture to accommodate the idea that Jesus advocated self-love as the prerequisite for loving others. (Mark 12:31 quotes Jesus as saying, “Love your neighbor as yourself”). The logic goes that we can’t properly love other people until we’ve learned to love ourselves. Therefore, we must first cultivate self-love. That cultivation, the logic continues, gives us the ability to love others. The argument concludes with the confident assertion that Jesus taught us to love ourselves.

There’s a modicum of truth to the premise that, to care for someone’s physical needs, you must first attend to your own. If my Personal Care Attendant neglects her health so that she can’t come to work due to illness, I’m stuck in bed until we can find an available backup. Obviously, I need her to take care of herself in order for her to take care of’ me.

But the concept of self-love goes well beyond the practicality of making sure you’re physically able to help others. Look at this opening paragraph from an article in Good Therapy:

Self-love refers to the act of valuing one’s own happiness and well-being. Self-love is a kind of acceptance that can be described as an unconditional sense of support and caring and a core of compassion for the self. It might also be considered a willingness to meet personal needs, allow non-judgmental thinking, and view the self as essentially worthy, good, valuable, and deserving of happiness.

According to this article (as well as other sources I looked at), self-love is an approach to psychological counseling developed by psychologist Carl Rogers. I don’t mean to over-simplify Rogerian therapy (this PDF article shows how complex his theories were), but I definitely believe that both the self-esteem and the self-love movements that have made their way into into “Christian” counseling can be traced to this man. Because of the connection between Rogers’ approach to counseling and the notion that Jesus endorsed self-love, I want to assert that this false teaching comes largely through his influence rather than through the pages of Scripture.

To understand Mark 12:31, we should begin by reading the verse in its immediate context.

28 One of the scribes came and heard them arguing, and recognizing that He had answered them well, asked Him, “What commandment is the foremost of all?” 29 Jesus answered, “The foremost is, ‘Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is one Lord; 30 and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” 32 The scribe said to Him, “Right, Teacher; You have truly stated that He is One, and there is no one else besides Him; 33 and to love Him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as himself, is much more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” 34 When Jesus saw that he had answered intelligently, He said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that, no one would venture to ask Him any more questions ~~Mark 12:28-34 (NASB95)

In this narrative, Jesus merely quoted Leviticus 19:18, which commands loving your neighbor as yourself in contrast to seeking vengeance or bearing a grudge against your neighbor. As you can see, the Leviticus passage places the emphasis on forgiveness instead of selfishly demanding your own satisfaction. Since Middle Eastern culture at the time that Moses wrote Leviticus operated on a system of demanding vengeance, the command to love your neighbor as yourself would have been shocking. It meant laying aside your perceived rights and desires for the good of someone who may have wronged you. Nothing in that context implies the self-love described in Good Therapy. If anything, Jesus quoted a passage that went against “the act of valuing one’s own happiness and well-being.”

Even the liberal church of my childhood taught the Sunday School kids that we already love ourselves, and therefore we should love others as much as we love ourselves. They correctly reinforced this teaching with the Golden Rule — do unto others as you would have them do unto you (see Matthew 7:12 for an updated rendering of this Rule). By comparing Jesus’ words in Mark 12:31 with His words in Matthew 7:12, we have a harder time supporting the idea that He considered Rogerian self-love as the prerequisite for loving others.

In fact, the Bible teaches us to place the interests of others above our own. Many passages teach the principle indirectly, and I can’t cite all of them within this one blog post. But I can take you to a passage that is decidedly explicit:

 Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.~~Philippians 2:3-8 (NASB95)

What does the second part of verse 3 say? “Regard one another as more important than yourselves.” The passage illustrates the point by describing Christ’s ultimate act of self-sacrifice, by which He redeemed us from the consequences of our sin. And while we mustn’t reduce His death on the cross as merely an example to follow, this passage makes it clear that His self-sacrifice indeed gives us a model of putting the interests of others above our own needs and desires. I see nothing here about loving ourselves before we can love anyone else.

Contrary to the Twitter post I read last week, Jesus never said that we need to love ourselves. He knew that we already are skilled at self-love, and therefore that we need to love others as strongly as we already love ourselves. If you’re anything like me, you probably need to practice Philippians 2:3 a lot more instead of focusing on self-love.

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