Before the Rachael Denhollander news stories, before the Turpin family tragedy broke, I received a letter from a young woman, Lyndall Cave, sending me a Desiring God article called “Do You Love Yourself Enough?” (link).
[One book I’m reading] talks a lot about loving yourself. Every time I read that phrase, I flinch, because my theology in the past has been based on the idea that I’m sinful and thus there’s nothing about myself to love. This article from Desiring God [“Do You Love Yourself Enough?”] sums up the viewpoint perfectly.
But what about God’s grace? What about the work of Jesus on the cross, that purifies us, and our new natures now that we’re in Christ? I’m conflicted at the moment. Where does self-love fit with the Gospel? Am I sinful? Am I a worthless worm? Is there really nothing good in me? What about “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made”?
Basically there’s a voice from my teen years telling me I’m worthless and sinful, and there’s nothing in me that I (or God) should love. I know that’s wrong, but I don’t know WHY it’s wrong. I’m writing to you because you’re good at untwisting scriptures and I respect your insights into grace and living under the New Covenant.
During the past few weeks, with many other things going on, my mind and heart have continued to return to this question. I know it’s a big one for a lot of people.
There are two main Scriptures used in the “to love or not to love yourself” arguments, both of which are referenced in the Desiring God article.
This is the primary one on which “love yourself” arguments are based:
Matt 22:39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
And this is the primary one on which “don’t love yourself” arguments are based:
2 Tim 3:1-5 But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people.
Do these Scriptures sound a bit like they’re working against each other?
Yes, I felt the tension too.
What I believe the Bible is teaching about love of self
Here’s a true fact about love.
Love is meaningless without relationship.
That first Scripture above, the one in Matthew? That’s part of a larger teaching of Jesus about loving God and loving others. Someone asked Jesus,
“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?”
And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment.
And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
Very first: Love God.
If we look elsewhere, we see that something else comes even before that. First John 4:19 says,
We love because he [God] first loved us.
So first, God loved us, beginning the relationship (or at least the offer of relationship, variously viewed according to various theologies). Then as His love poured down and we received it, we loved Him in return—how could we help but love Him in return, when His love is vast as an ocean and overwhelmingly good and powerful enough to transform us into new creations in Christ? (This is a thought to bask in, and here’s a song to help you do it.)
Love, any love that is good, is born only in relationship.
So there are two kinds of “love of self.”
One kind of “self love” sees oneself in safe and mutual relationship
You see yourself in relationship to a God who loves you with an overwhelming, glorious, fully gracious love. He whispers to you that you are valuable as His precious son or daughter.
If you were to come up to a well-loved child of good and kind and wise parents and ask, “Do you love yourself?” the child might look quizzical, as if to say, “What in the world are you talking about?” It very likely could be a question that wouldn’t compute.
But if you were to ask the same child, “Do you see yourself as valuable?” the child would know, immediately, deeply, innately, “Yes! I’m well loved! I’m valuable.”
That is a view of self that God would want His children to have, a healthy view of self in relationship.
The other kind of “self love” sees no relationship
The alternative view of self, described in 2 Timothy 3, is the two-year-old narcissist view. There is no meaningful relationship. There is only ME.
A difference in maturity
This unhealthy love of self, the two-year-old narcissist view, looks only at immediate gratification with no regard for others.
The healthy love of self looks not just at immediate gratification, but cares about self over the long road: “What will be best for me in all the years of my life?” It also looks at relationships: “What will be best for those I love? What will be best for the society as a whole, and what will be best for others in the future?” (Usually these two sets of questions, seen in the big picture, produce answers that are not in conflict.)
A shift out of “worm theology”
For Christians who, like my friend above, have been taught to see themselves as worthless worms, it is high time for them to see themselves as well-loved sons and daughters of God.
The term “worm” is used for God’s Old Covenant people in Isaiah 41:14:
Fear not, you worm Jacob,
you men of Israel!
I am the one who helps you, declares the Lord;
your Redeemer is the Holy One of Israel.
The people group of Jacob, who were downtrodden like a worm, would be rescued. Once they were rescued, they would no longer be downtrodden like a worm.
Was God telling His Old Covenant people as a group that they really were a worm? No—in fact, when you read all of verse 8-16 in that chapter (which is here), you’ll see how very different from “worm” is God’s attitude toward His people.
But some assume that this epithet is really what God was naming this people group. They then go one step further and apply it equally to His New Covenant people as a group, His people after they have become His redeemed people. When people are brought out of the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of God’s dear Son, are they still to be considered worms? That’s what many would have us think, even in some cases substituting the word “maggot” so we can see ourselves as even more disgusting.
But no. There is nothing at all like that in the entirety of the New Covenant. God’s people are beloved sons and daughters of God.
Imagine telling that dearly loved child of wise and good parents that she is a worthless worm. It would take a long time and much conditioning before she would believe you on that one.
The Desiring God article
What do I see when I look within myself?
The Desiring God article says
The first problem with looking inward for love of self is that we’re sinners. When sinners look inward with clear eyes, we don’t like what we see — at least we shouldn’t. We can see sin in all aspects of our lives. We see that we are deeply flawed. Self-love philosophy promises that if you look inward and can find a way to love what you see, you will find peace. But due to our massive shortcomings, we cannot find satisfaction in ourselves.
Not only does the author seem to miss the concept of true love taking place in the context of relationships, but he says that when we look within ourselves what we see as our identity is sin and flaws and shortcomings.
But I’d like to offer what I believe is a Biblical alternative. When believers in Jesus Christ look within ourselves, we can see the Holy Spirit, who is given to us as a guarantee of our inheritance (Ephesians 1:14). When we look within ourselves, we can see Christ in us, the hope of glory (Colossians 1:27).
That is where our eyes should be focusing when we look within. When we gaze on His face, we are transformed into His image, from glory to glory (2 Corinthians 3:18).
Seeing ourselves as God sees us
The Desiring God article also says,
The “self-acceptance” of the children of God is not an active striving to love ourselves more. Rather, it is coming more and more to see ourselves as God sees us: sinful, guilty, inadequate humans who have been washed clean and declared righteous by faith in Christ (Romans 3:24).
Here’s an error that I’ve seen many times in Christian writings: speaking to the children of God as if their salvation has not changed them.
Specifically, when God saves us, He no longer sees us as sinful. We are washed clean, and He sees us as saints, sanctified ones (I Corinthians 6:11).
When our Lord Jesus Christ saves us, He no longer sees us as guilty. All our guilt is washed clean and we are no longer under condemnation (Romans 8:1).
When God saves us He no longer sees us as inadequate. He gives us the armor of God, the shield of faith, the sword of the Spirit (Ephesians 6:10-16), and the fountain of Living Waters (John 7:37-39). He tells us to stand strong in Him.
Our righteousness is not theoretical. It is very practical. Our salvation changes not simply our destination, but our earthly destiny, if we will but walk in the Spirit by faith (Romans 8:1-17).
Is worth to be found only in being a Christian?
The Desiring God article says,
True self-love is acceptance of ourselves as redeemed people. Yes, we are loved and accepted, but it is precisely not because we are worthy in ourselves, but because Christ is worthy. Only when we accept the reality of redemption can we find freedom to look outwards. When our gaze is bent inward on ourselves, we fail to love God and cannot hope to love others.
A question that has been raised to me in regard to this very kind of teaching is “Does this mean that non-Christians have no value?”
Well, no. If so, it wouldn’t be immoral to abort an unborn baby or lynch a Muslim. Every human being has intrinsic value, simply by virtue of being alive.
When I speak to a non-Christian who has been abused, I can speak with great confidence, “It was wrong for your father/teacher/pastor/babysitter/co-worker/etc to do those things to you. You are a person of value.” I can say that because I know that every person is a person of value. If people have done wrong, they need to be called to repentance and in many cases experience earthly justice, but every person who walks the earth has intrinsic value, as a living soul made in the image of God. As Lyndall pointed out in her original question, we can all say, “I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”
When people have grown up having been told they were worthless, the primary thing to learn, I believe, is not, “you should love yourself,” but, “you should learn to see how valuable you are.”
Do you love yourself enough?
The Desiring God article closes with this question. It’s asking if you love yourself enough to understand that you shouldn’t love yourself.
Instead, I want to suggest that based on the foregoing arguments, we reframe the question:
Can you see that you, even if you’re not a Christian, are intrinsically valuable? Can you see, if you were abused, that the true God hates the evil that was done to you? Can you see that the true God, our Lord Jesus Christ, holds arms outstretched to you because He loves you? Can you see that He wants to forgive your sin and fill you with His Holy Spirit to transform your life? Can you see that when you come to Him and receive His gift of sonship or daughtership, being brought into His family with Him as your good Father, then you will be able to see yourself as He wants you to see yourself, that you’ll be able to love and love and love with all the love that He offers you, the love that flows out from Him to you and then to others, as He promised to all those who come to Him?
I hope so. And that is what the very best kind of “love of self” is all about.