Does Jesus Command to Love Oursleves?

Brennan Manning asks Can You Love Your Neighbor If You Hate Yourself? From an excerpt of his book The Importance of Being Foolish he writes:

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.

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25 thoughts on “Does Jesus Command to Love Oursleves?

  1. Yeah, I don’t think Jesus was making a command that we love ourselves…I think He was basically assuming that we already do. I will say that it is when I am full of self loathing is when I find it easiest to hate my neighbor and extend no hand to him/her.

  2. yeah, i have to agree with thomwade: I think Jesus is assuming that even when we’re full of self-loathing, no one hates themselves, as in, even when we hate ourselves, we’re acting in self-interest and out of self-need. To love another as ourselves is to will the good of another, as Bonhoeffer explains it, to put another in the center of will and in doing so join with them.

    If we start our ethics with self-love, all we ever find is the self and none else. There’s no reason to love another if our first priority of love is self. But if our love is to start with another, then the good of another becomes bound up with the good of the self, and we MUST will the good of another.

  3. Lex, this is true!

    Myles, good to hear from you! I’ve recently gotten into Bonhoeffer and it is refreshing to find a mind I agree so much with.

  4. I was rethinking this last night…I think the other danger of being to hung up on how bad we are, how unworthy….well, it’s easy to forget that God deemed us worthy of saving anyways…like pride, it can shift focus…and lead to apathy…and I agree with Lex that there is probably a connection between pride and self loathing (and I have seen times in myself and others where great pride seemed to be generated in pointing out just how aware one is of their own unworthiness. (Does that make sense?)

  5. Allie says:

    I agree with Lex’s point about pride and self loathing. Interesting.

    Adam, where I appreciate what you are saying here, I am suspicious of it. I do like your point about cultural assumptions surrounding the word “love.” Looking at the Lewis quote, I understand the distinction he makes; that Jesus may be referring to wishing well of our neighbors. But, I think Jesus is saying more than that. I don’t think He’s simply telling us not to hate our neighbors in a cordial, “I hope s/he is doing ok today” sense. I think Jesus is, in fact, asking us to have a real affection toward our neighbor. The word love here is “agape.” It does suggest sacrifice/obedience. But it suggests more than that. Think about the way Paul uses “agape” in 1 Corinthians 13. It’s much more than obligatory well-wishing. In the same way, I do believe Jesus, both here and other places in Scripture, asks us to go the extra step. Not only does He not want us to hate our neighbors, or merely to have a general hope for their well being, He wants us to actually love them. Not only in a sacrificial, action-sense, but with a real, genuine “like.” In the same way, I don’t think it’s dangerous or unbiblical to argue that Jesus does call us to see ourselves as Beloved, and, as a result, to love ourselves because Christ has called us lovable. Maybe I am not sure what you mean by “self love.” I’m also not sure that no one hates themselves. In fact, I disagree. I think it’s quite possible to hate oneself, and I think (especially women) have a tendency to over extend themselves to others because they inwardly dislike themselves and feel unworthy of love.

  6. Allie,

    I would maintain the distinction between charity (agape) and affection. I think Lewis is right when he says natural affection is neither sinful nor virtuous. Looking at 1 Cor 13 I can also see how each of Paul’s elaborations on agape love are self-denying actions rather than good feelings. Often I am tempted to keep a record of wrongs, but to be properly loving I must deny that temptation. Lewis remarks in an earlier chapter on forgiveness that loving an enemy doesn’t necessarily mean you are fond of them. Thus the distinction. But he does say that affection is a great help in loving others by way of charity–affection makes it is easier.

    Self-acceptance is a big issue, and feminist theology has rightly shown it to be the major vice women experience rather than hubris (something that is associated with the male Augustine). But I think, as Lex pointed out, self-hatred/rejection can be a kind of pride. Soren Kierkegaard argues for this in his book The Sickness Unto Death where he imagines one who is so assured of their wretchedness that even God’s overtures of grace are deemed insufficient. Such is a truly arrogant mindset.

    Nevertheless, the commandment of Jesus does presuppose we love ourselves. How does this square with the problem of self-hatred? I would maintain that the proper understanding of “self-love” here is self-care: the desire to flourish and not be harmed. This may sound too general, but I think it is what Christ is getting at. People are enjoined to be committed to the well-being of their neighbors as much as they are committed to the well-being of themselves.

    In light of this, then, self-hatred means something different. It means that there is a discontent with one’s person; that it is not adequate to flourish. The answers to the questions “Who is well off?” and “Who is a good person?” are conceived negatively in self-reflection. To remedy this sense of personal despair, one has to look beyond oneself unto the value God bestows and enjoy his overtures of grace. And that takes a sense of humility.

    Does that make sense?

  7. Adam, I want to point out that I didn’t just mean that self-loathing is a form of pride, but that it works both ways. Sometimes arrogant behavior is a manifestation of a person’s own low self-image. This is easy to identify: people “tearing others down” to “build themselves up.” On a personal level, for me, pride has usually been an attempt to cope with self-loathing. And it’s in those moments of self-loathing-pride that I’ve found it most difficult to love others.

    As for whether we find self-worth intrinsically or extrinsically is splitting hairs, as far as Christian practice goes. I believe all people can find value within themselves, and I believe that because I believe God created all people. Whether this is intrinsic or extrinsic, frankly, doesn’t make any difference to me. What does make a difference to me is that I am not able to see the worth and value of others unless I am able to recognize it in myself.

  8. Lex, thanks for the clarifications. As one who has lived out “tearing down others” to “build oneself up” I can heartily agree!

    I do think the extrinsic/intrinsic issue is important though. Looking within oursleves to find something valuable when under the auspiced of self-loathing is futile. If by some miracle you do find something it often helps to cause what you described: the “tearing down others” to “build oneself up” mentality! The focus of God is absolutely necessary. The individual project of trying to find value in the self ends with the self, as Myles said so well. Looking to God includes two controlling principles that make all the difference: 1) there is an Other who is benevolent, and 2) the Other is sovereign. Both these eradicate the individualism and the false authority our self-perception claims.

    What do you think?

  9. Allie says:

    I see the extrinsic/intrinsic issue as a non-issue, Adam. Perhaps this is too simple, but I believe God is all around us, and I believe God dwells within us. So whether my self acceptance comes from within (God’s indwelling presence) or perhaps from experiencing God outside of myself (through the love of others, nature, etc.), it makes little difference.

    I don’t really know what you mean by false authority and self perception.

    Also, Lex’s point about self loathing, pride and not being able to be loving to others is essential to the whole thing. I know in my life that I am most unfair, demanding, unreasonable and unfair toward others when I am most self loathing.

  10. When I speak of the intrinsic/extrinsic issue, I am talking about the vantage point from which we view ourselves. By “intrinsic” I mean that we are viewing ourselves through with our own jaundiced eyes. This is an entirely (flawed) individual project that tries to muster up self-worth. Such an effort is futile because we do not have the authority to bestow self-worth on ourselves. By “extrinsic” I mean that we perceive oursleves from the vantage point of an Other that has the proper authority (not to mention the cognitive faculty) to bestow ourselves with value. Looking within ourselves and seeing that God dwells in us is something that acknowledges the Other and the Other’s sovereignty over our self-worth, and would fall under my definition of “extrinsic.” The extrinsic acknowledges the Other while the intrinsic does not. Perhaps this language is better described as individualist v. social.

    It may be a matter of fact that we are unkind to people when we are self-loathing, but this does not mean we do not wish good for ourselves. That is the starting point of self-love that remains even in self-loathing.

  11. I would also be willing to argue that there is a proper place for self-loathing. It can even be seen as a way of enlargement of one’s capacity to love. Paul speaks of himself as the “Chief of sinners” and a “wretched man.” But this is in light of God’s mercy and redemption. That in of and himself he is loathsome, but in view of God’s mercy he is a “masterpiece” created to do good work. Again the Other’s authority over our view of ourselves puts these things in the proper place.

  12. Adam,

    “Looking within ourselves and seeing that God dwells in us is something that acknowledges the Other and the Other’s sovereignty over our self-worth, and would fall under my definition of ‘extrinsic.'”

    To me, this is where it’s splitting hairs and ultimately irrelevant. To me, it’s not so much dependent on indwelling (which, according to my tradition, requires salvation–thereby limiting self-worth to Christians only, which I think is contrary to the story of creation and redemption) as creation. God created all people, though, and to me, that gives all people value. Existence, itself, implies value and worth. As you can imagine, it would be easy to argue for this as intrinsic or extrinsic. And that argument (I think) would be strictly intellectual in nature, when either way, the result is the same: every person has value and worth.

    For me, it’s no less important to recognize and honor that in myself than in anyone else. Maybe it’s a lot more important. I think this is consistent with the Gospel–Jesus restored people before sending them out.

  13. Lex,

    “God created all people, though, and to me, that gives all people value. ”

    I would agree that the issue would be irrelevant if it always resulted in this God-centered view of others. However, it doesn’t. Working in a recovery ministry I hear far too much about bolstering self-esteem via some vague technique of self-actualization (“I have intrinsic worth because I am unique” blah blah blah).

    But you should know, if there is one thing that is true about me, I love to split hairs! Thanks for the good discussion.

  14. Allie says:

    “God created all people, though, and to me, that gives all people value. Existence, itself, implies value and worth.”

    True, true, Lex. It is this exact issue that I think can really causes issues in Christian circles when helping folks in the counseling/self-help environment. So often, Christian culture delineates within an us-them paradigm: believer/non-believer, Christian/non-Christian, etc. It’s the exact issue and mindset that Jesus tries to eradicate in His ministry on earth; bringing Jews and nonJews together, crossing cultural lines, etc. Alienation is often what keeps people feeling low about themselves, and I think part of this “splitting hairs” business contributes to the problem. At the end of the day, Lex is right, we’ve all got worth — even the bugs and the lil animals have worth, and when we see everything as valuable, it’s much easier to catch on about ourselves.

  15. Hmmm, I’m not sure how my”splitting hairs” business contributes to alienation. I haven’t argued at all for that in any way shape or form. I agree that being created in the image of God gives us worth, but it is because God makes His creation worthy. I insist that this is key to understanding ourselves, otherwise it is hopeless. I call the source of this value “extrinsic” to ourselves. Others, who agree with my understanding of self-worth, don’t think it matters to use the language I have. Fine. But you still have to look to God for your worth, which has been my point all along.

  16. Yeah, I don’t think it’s alienating, at least in and of itself.

    I guess my issue is more about the priority one gives right belief in relation to right action. I know some people aren’t going to agree w/my theology (heretics!!), and they have to use their own spiritual resources. If that means recognizing some kind of intrinsic value, and if finding that intrinsic value helps them to better love their neighbor, so be it. At least in a general, helping situation. Splitting hairs has its place (in the local congregation, or in any community of like minded believers), but has its limits (see previous parentheses).

  17. sandra appleton says:

    hey, back to the subject of affection/charity. are you sure we can love someone like jesus told us to without feeling fond of them? what if they don’t need basic care like food and water — how do we love them then? if you reduce christian agape to basic care, it’s almost like giving up your body to be burned without feeling love, like paul wrote somewhere. this has been on my mind a lot.

  18. Adam, I’ll try to come around more often. If you want to get to the heart of Bonhoeffer’s ethic on this, go three places: 1) Sanctorum Communio (more dense, but worth the slow read), 2) Life Together, chapter 1, and 3) Ethics.

  19. Sandra, you asked “are you sure we can love someone like jesus told us to without feeling fond of them?”

    Yes, I am because I don’t think affection is a necessary component of love. The absense of it does not mean love is not present. There are many things people do that make me not like them, yet it does not mean I cannot love them. Patience with the obnoxious and kindness towards the ungrateful would be two examples. In a way I think the love needed to do these things is more pure because it really requires something from you to exercise. Affection sure helps and it would be great to feel all the time towards everyone, but I don’t see how that is possible given the kind of people we are called to love. I see affection as something akin to pleasure which has very little to do with virtue or vice in the formal sense. That’s what Lewis was getting at and I think he is right.

  20. sandra a says:

    that makes sense philosophically, but what about what paul wrote in 1 cor., when he mentioned doing that good works without “love” is worthless?

  21. Sandra, good question. It is certainly true that Paul makes a distinction between self-sacrifice and not having love: they are not totally equivalent. Great works of philanthropy may not be evidence of sincere love. But this does not make the case that love means that we are to view everyone as if they were our best friends. Therefore, I think Paul is concerned primarily with motive, which one commentator describes as “to BE to them as life-giving as God is to us in Christ.” Good works aren’t loving if they aren’t motivated by and accomplish charity. See Alan Johnson’s IVP commentary for more details, p. 245-246.

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