In order to love our neighbors as ourselves we must come to recognize our intrinsic worth and dignity and to love ourselves in the wholesome, appreciative way that Jesus commanded when he said, “Love your neighbor as yourself….
The ability to love oneself is the root and foundation of our ability to love others and to love God.
This comes from a literal reading of the text “Love your neighbor as yourself” that interprets Jesus to be saying we are to love ourselves before we love others. Therefore, self-love is foundational to his ethics. If one does not love others, then one must do the hard work of self-love first before any neighbor love can obtain. Our self-love then is the fountain for all our other-love.
This has always seemed entirely mistaken to me for a number of reasons. First, and most obviously, it turns the command on its head from being other-centered to self-centered. Was it really Jesus’ intention when answering a question on what fulfills the OT Law to say that “self-love” does the trick? That is most certainly ridiculous.
Second, this reading comports more with our narcissistic culture of inflating our self-esteem than it does with the Ancient Near East and First Century priorities of self-preservation. The idea of self-hatred, as far as I can tell, is never addressed in the Old or New Testament in such specific terms. Our psychological necessity to feel good about oursleves is a grid we impose on the command, not something we read from it.
Third, there is a curiously vague understanding of “love” at work here that reveals a lot of cultural assumptions. Our culture takes love to mean “to feel good about” while the biblical word has more to do with obedient actions of self-denial. Jesus loved us by going to the cross, not by feeling good about himself as God’s Son. The Good Samaritan loved his neighbor by going out of his way to help him, not by thinking of him in warm, fuzzy terms. Fourth, the idea that the fountain of our love stems from our self-love is theologically false. We love not because we first love oursleves, but because God first loved us.
However, in light of all these, the idea that self-love motivates our other-love is not totally invalid. What we see in the command is the assumption that we love ourselves and from this we ought to extend the criteria of our self-regard to others. The question is then, do we always love ourselves in some way? I would argue that we do. Our teaching should not be first learn how to love yourself so you can love others; rather, recognize how you love yourself and then do likewise to others.
How can this be done? C.S. Lewis is instructive on this point:
I pointed out in the chapter on Forgiveness that our love for ourselves does not mean that we like ourselves. It means that we wish our own good. In the same way Christian Love (or Charity) for our neighbours is quite a different thing from liking or affection. We ‘like’ or are ‘fond’ of some people, and not of others. It is important to understand that this natural ‘liking’ is neither a sin nor a virtue, any more than your likes and dislikes in food are a sin or a virtue. It is just a fact. But, of course, what we do about it is either sinful or virtuous.
Thus, the distinction between charity and affection is an important one. The “self-love” contained in the commandment is not about liking yourself, but taking care of yourself. There are very few people I have met that have never had the regard to take care of themselves, feed and clothe their bodies, and make sure their needs are met. In fact the concern over self-love is evidence of self-love, and that should be sufficient to put the matter to rest.
This is not to say that the Bible does not address our needs of self-esteem or personal value. It surely does as the doctrines of the imago dei and the atonement certainly gives us objective evidence for our value. But it is important to understand that this value is extrinsic and is bestowed on us from above. It is not self-actualized from within. I can think of no more futile project than trying to muster up love for ourselves in order to love others (or God). What seems to be a liberating teaching actually results in total bondage. Better to focus on the work of God than ours, and that is precisely the response we should have to the Gospel.