Self-Love: The Greatest (Implied) Commandment?
Many times, I’ve heard Matthew 22:35-40 applied like this: when Jesus says to love your neighbor as yourself, he is saying that self-love is a prerequisite for loving others. You don’t have anything to offer unless you take care of yourself first. And if you haven’t learned how to love yourself, you can’t really love anyone else.
We live in a culture saturated with the language of self-love, self-care, self-worth, self-affirmation, and self-actualization. When I scroll through social media or play the latest podcast in my feed, I notice that a regimen of self-love is regularly prescribed for a variety of ailments. If I’m tired or sad or my relationships aren’t satisfying, if my work is too hard or my pants are too tight, this can all be remedied by a strong dose of self-love. Usually involving loads of affirmation, reminders about what I’m entitled to, and maybe a long bubble bath and a glass of rose´.
Given that this is such a common prescription, it’s easy to see how someone could read Jesus’ words and jump to the conclusion that he’s recommending the same thing. For several reasons, I think this application misses the mark. Jesus does point us to something essential in this passage, to a vast resource that will fuel our love and obedience, but he points us outside ourselves, not deeper inward.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying a nice soak in the tub or a glass of wine after a long day. Where self-love goes wrong is in the assertion that indulging ourselves will help us love other people better. The assumption undergirding self-love is that I have what I need to fill and restore myself - I just need a little more time with me. It asserts something we all denied when we became Christians: the idea that we possess, in and of ourselves, the resources we need to love and obey God.
When I hear the passage above applied as an apologetic for self-love, the first question I want to ask is, what did Jesus’ practice of self-love look like? Actually, I want to ask some form of that question when anyone recommends a pattern, habit, or mindset that is supposed to be essential for a Christian. I want to know, did Jesus act/think/speak that way?
When Jesus talks about what he came to do, why he did it, and what’s fueling him along the way, he does not mention self-love. I can’t find a passage in the Scriptures where he tells the disciples, “I’m doing _______ right now, because I need to love myself. You should love yourselves, too, if you want to obey me.”
Instead, I find sayings like these: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:14) “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it.” (Mark 8:35) “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13)
Jesus’ life and teaching were characterized by self-giving and self-denial, from start to finish. And he spoke as though the same kind of life would be normal for his followers. “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:26-28)
We also don’t get the idea from other passages of Scripture that love of self precedes love for others. In 2 Timothy 3:2-5, Paul lists several things that will be common in the last days, which he describes as the fruit of false teaching. First on his list: “People will be lovers of themselves.” Also, “lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God—having a form of godliness but denying its power.” He adds, “Have nothing to do with such people.”
The Scriptures don’t speak of self-love as though it is a springboard into greater levels of obedience. It’s one of many tendencies which lead to all kinds of destructive behavior. It does not help us love others better. In fact, according to the passage above, it could make you into the kind of person other Christians should avoid.
However, as a thought experiment, let’s imagine for a minute that the main proposition of self-love is true, that you can only love your family and friends to whatever degree you have managed to love yourself. You can only extend whatever amount of peace, joy, hope, patience, or goodness you can stir up internally.
In my case, those would be pretty slim resources. If I can’t even meet my own needs, how will I find enough within me to satisfy anyone else? I’m going to run out of resources pretty quickly. And then I’m going to become tired, discouraged, and frustrated, with myself and with the people I actually wanted to love. Treating self-love as though it is the starting place for loving others puts us in a perpetual cycle of dissatisfaction. It not only contradicts the example of Jesus and the counsel of Scripture, it flat out doesn’t work.
Thankfully, God has not prescribed a regimen of self-love as the source of our love for others. He has a much better resource in mind. In the next post, we’ll examine what it actually means to love your neighbor as yourself, and in the final post, we’ll look at the source of that love.