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When the Pharisee asks, “Which is the greatest commandment?” Jesus responds, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind” (Matt. 22:37). Then He adds, “And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (v. 39). Notice the phrase at the end of verse 39—“as yourself.” Why does Jesus add these two words? It is because we innately seek to do good for ourselves—no one forces us to take care of ourselves. Self-love is natural, normal, and a given. Just as self-love is a given, so also, Jesus says, we should love our neighbor. Sinfully, however, I don’t want to do the hard work of loving my neighbor. Yet, if I love Christ, I should love my neighbor as much as I love myself, as though my neighbor were myself.
In a world where people are selfish and have very little concern for others, any talk about self-love may make a Christian feel uncomfortable. Doesn’t the Bible tell me to deny myself and put others first? Yes, it does. Doesn’t the Bible say the purpose of life is to glorify God? Yes, it does. But these truths can’t discard Jesus’ intent in Matthew 22:39: Since you already seek your own good always, seek the good of your neighbor to the same all-embracing extent.
Jesus presupposes that we love ourselves, and He does not condemn all forms of self-love in themselves, so there must be a way to think about self-love biblically. Christians are, understandably, uncomfortable with any talk of self-love. Our world is filled with people who are fundamentally selfish. But there is a right (biblical) and a wrong (unbiblical) self-love.
A Wrong Love of Self
A self-love that exalts my needs, my desires, and my hopes over God or others is wrong. It’s like a tyrant manipulating others to get what he wants. For instance, Jennifer is single and desperately wants a husband. When she’s brutally honest, her desire for marriage trumps the life God has given her. She flirts and dresses to get men’s attention. Another example: Peter is frustrated because his wife pours herself into the children and neglects him. He cares less about obeying God and loving his wife and more about meeting his needs for sex and attention.
A self-love that makes God secondary to my needs and my wants is common but unacceptable for Christians. Every version of self-love that puts me at the center of my universe (and ignores God) makes me too focused on myself. Jennifer is more concerned about her desire for happiness than about trusting the Lord. Peter wants sex and attention above all else, and he manipulates his wife to get it.
A self-love that blinds me to my mistakes and minimizes my sin is dangerous. I understand myself properly only when God opens my eyes to my sin. A right view of self understands that we’re completely depraved—every part of us: our minds, hearts, and bodies.
A self-love whose main goal is to make me feel better about myself is not OK. The self-esteem movement whispers in our ears, “You’re amazing, so feel good about yourself,” or, “Don’t feel bad. You’re doing great!” As believers, our confidence is rooted not in ourselves, our abilities, or self-inflating self-talk, but in the God who mercifully saves us through His Son.
A Right Love of Self
A right self-love exalts God and makes us secondary (Ex. 20:1–6; Ps. 40:8; Matt. 6:9–10, 33). God arranges our priorities so that we can’t make ourselves king of the universe. A kingly life is dangerous because self-exaltation and self-centered lives easily follow suit. Only God Almighty rightfully sits on the throne. When we submit to His reign, He puts us in our proper place, and our self-love can’t grow out of control. Jennifer’s self-driven pursuit of a husband slows down as she grows in faith, trusting that God’s love for her is better than anything else. The single life is no longer intolerable. A gospel-centered life gives her eyes to see beyond her self-interest.
A right self-love enables us to deny ourselves (Matt. 16:24). Denying ourselves is not self-hatred. Rather, it’s setting aside our needs and reprioritizing our lives according to kingdom values, using the strength God gives us. Peter feels neglected by his wife, but his faith helps him trust that honest conversations with her and a Christlike servant-hearted attitude, putting her first above his needs, will honor God and help their marriage recover.
A right self-love includes caring for ourselves physically, spiritually, and relationally (1 Cor. 6:19–20). Self-denial isn’t an excuse for self-neglect. There is a basic kind of self-care that is normal and healthy for Christians. Exercise is not just a matter of staying fit but, more importantly, a matter of stewardship of our God-given bodies. Regularly spending time in the Word and sitting under weekly preaching in a church keep us spiritually fit. When we put our hearts in the Word regularly, we grow in Christ-centered hope. And because God has made us dependent on each other, isolation is not an option. God made us to find satisfaction and to grow in the crucible of God-exalting relationships. Physical, spiritual, and relational health give us the strength to show love to others.
A right self-love recognizes our limits and the need to turn to Jesus (2 Cor. 5). Pride makes us think we can survive on our own. Even worse, it deceives us into attempting self-rescues. (“Who needs Jesus? I can take care of this.”) It makes us think more highly of ourselves and our abilities than we ought. The Apostle Paul urged the Corinthians to “no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised” (v. 15). The same warning applies to us. When our affections are oriented around Jesus and not ourselves, everything changes. Christ’s commands are no longer burdensome but an utter joy to fulfill. When we trust Jesus, we don’t lose perspective but rather gain a proper perspective on ourselves. When we love Jesus, we love ourselves better. When we love only ourselves and ignore Jesus, we make a mess of our lives.
Loving Neighbor as Yourself
There is an overly preoccupied self-love that is so self-centered that it doesn’t give us a helpful point of comparison in Matthew 22:39. It’s a self-exalting, sin-minimizing, self-inflating love. It can’t possibly be the kind of self-love that Jesus had in mind.
A Jesus-honoring, self-denying, sin-sensitive love is radically different. It’s not overly preoccupied with self such that it misses other people. It focuses us on the gospel and not exclusively on ourselves. It sees God’s values and cherishes them. It finds rest in Christ. It avoids daily self-rescues and turns to Jesus for help.
Jesus says to attend to our neighbors as we do to ourselves. Since it is normal to love ourselves, but not normal to do it rightly (because we’re all sinners), thank God that Jesus gives us the wisdom and strength to biblically love ourselves and to wisely love our neighbors.