a. The Biblical Basis of Self-love
The command to love your neighbors as yourself is mentioned several times in the Bible (Lev 19:18; Mt 19:19; Mk 12:31; Lk 10:27; Rom 13:9) but nowhere in the Bible is found a positive command to love yourself. In all five passages, loving yourself is assumed as a normal human condition and the thrust of the exhortation is that just as you naturally love yourself, you should love others in the same way, just as much as you love yourself. The same assumption is made in Ephesians 5:28-29, where Paul persuades Christian husbands to love their wives as they do their own bodies.
It appears that self-love is a facet of the instinct implanted by God for the preservation of the species. It is not deprecated in the Bible but acknowledged as natural. Thus the concept of self-love has a biblical basis.
However, though it is as natural as eating or drinking (essential for survival), it is not a Christian pursuit.
Thus self-love is less a topic for public discourse than for private counseling to those who suffer from an abnormal lack of self-love (or self-esteem as the psychologists call it).
b. The Meaning of Self-love
Self-love has two aspects, namely, acceptance of self and care for self.
1. Acceptance of Self
You cannot even begin to love yourself if you do not accept your true self. If you always wish secretly to be somebody else or be in somebody else's shoes, then you will be constantly loving somebody else and not your true self. Accepting yourself implies accepting (i) who you are, and (ii) what you can do.
Accepting who you are is only possible if you see yourself from a higher plane. Is it possible for an orphan boy without limbs and abandoned since birth in the streets of New York to be happy about who he is and to accept himself? This is an extreme example but the point is that it is always easy to speak of self-acceptance if you are in fortuitous circumstances. But such fortune is not shared by everyone on earth. Can there be self-acceptance and self-esteem in adverse situations so that self-esteem is an objective reality?
The answer is "YES" if you see yourself as God sees you, if you realize the following:
- You are important enough to God for Him to die for (1 Cor 6:20; 1 Pet 1:18-19; Eph 1:18)
- You are a child of God (Jn 1:12-13)
- God loves you (Jn 3:16)
- God has prepared a secured future for you (Jn 14:1-3)
- God takes care of your daily needs (Mt 6:25-34)
You can then declare with Paul, "By the grace of God I am what l am" (1 Cor 15:10).
When you begin to see yourself as God sees you, then you can accept yourself and acquire a deep sense of confidence. Because your concern is the way God sees you, you have no desire to compare yourself with others (Gal 6:4). And as you look at yourself differently, your personality will change accordingly. The wise King Solomon astutely observes, "As a man thinks, so he is" (Prov 23:7, KJV). And as you see yourself in a different perspective, others will also see you as you see yourself (Num 13:33). Way back thousands of years ago, this principle was already laid down in the Bible. Twelve spies were sent to the land of Canaan. Ten of them returned to report that they were like grasshoppers before the Canaanites. And what did the Bible say? That was what the Canaanites thought of them as well! If you see yourself as a grasshopper, the enemy will also see you as a grasshopper. Caleb and Joshua saw themselves differently. They didn't see themselves as grasshoppers; they saw themselves as conquerors, who would "eat up" the Canaanites.
Accepting what you can do (and what you cannot do) is necessary for a healthy self-image. Not fully acknowledging your strengths leads to underachievement and makes you an unfaithful steward of God's gifts. You have the makings of a preacher but you are afraid that your family may not be well off, or that the church organization is too complicated for you and you don't like working in such an environment. You are afraid for various reasons. This shows that you do not accept yourself and have underachieved. You have not done what God wants you to do.
On the other hand, you must know your weaknesses and limitations. For example, if you say that you want to build a house, you must make sure that you have the ability to complete it (Lk 14:28). You must know your limitations. No matter what you do, measure yourself against what you can do and what you cannot do. That is self-acceptance.
2. Self-acceptance and Pride
Some may say that self-acceptance is equivalent to pride, but it is not. Self-acceptance is knowing who you are and what you can do by the grace of God. Pride is thinking that you are more than what you really are (Rom 12:3), in other words, not actually knowing who you really are.
Pride is not being content to see yourself as God sees you but seeing yourself as being better than others (Gal 6:4; Rom 12:16; Phil 2:3-5). A Christian with proper self-love accepts himself as being under the grace of God. That is everything to him and he sees no need to compare himself with others. Pride, on the other hand, will make you want to compare yourself with someone else, to show that you are better than that person.
And lastly, pride is dreaming that who you are and what you have done is accomplished by yourself. Nebuchadnezzar saw an amazing kingdom, which is one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, as created by his own ability. He walked up to the top of the tower, saw everything and said, "I have done it." From that time the Lord struck him down and he was insane for a long period, until he realized that it was the Lord God that had put him where he was. Herod made a great speech and received praises from his audience. The next moment he was eaten by worms because he did not give glory to God (Dan 4:28-37; Acts 12:20-23). A realistic Christian who accepts his achievements says, "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me" (Phil 4:13), and, "by the grace of God l am what l am" (1 Cor 15:10).
Thus, self-acceptance is distinguishable from pride. Pride is condemned by God (1 Pet 5:5; Jas 4:6-10; Prov 16:18). Self-acceptance is biblical.
3. Care for Self
Self-love also implies taking care of yourself. The dynamics of living consist of the heart (emotional), soul (spiritual), mind (mental), and strength (body) (Mk 12:30). A Christian with a healthy love for himself takes care of all these aspects.
In summary, emotional, spiritual, mental, and physical development must not be neglected.
- You develop your emotions by first realizing and accepting what they are. If you feel sad, accept your emotions and cry if you will. If you are in love, do not pretend you are not; again, accept your emotions. As you develop your emotions, you have to not only learn how to accept them but also control them. That is the height of spiritual cultivation.
- You must also take care of your spiritual life, which involves moral values and good Christian living: performing good deeds, working for God, practicing charity, reading the Bible, having church fellowship, and praying.
- If you care for yourself, you must also take care of your mind. There are people who, after leaving secondary school, no longer strive to improve their minds-when they read the newspaper, they only focus on the sensational and the scandalous. Anything else is considered "too deep." But even as Christians, we ought to develop our mind to know about the world and its people. After all, we have the commission to preach to them.
- Finally, even though you are a Christian, you still have to take care of your body by having a proper diet, a proper lifestyle, constant exercise to keep fit, and adequate rest. We must have proper hygiene and grooming. We have to take care of our body because this body does not belong to us. 1 Corinthians 6:19 says that the body belongs to God and is the temple of the Holy Spirit. A sick body often limits God's use of it.
4. Self-care and Selfishness
Self-care does not mean being selfish. There is a difference, as distinguished by their respective foci (Phil 2:3-5). In self-care, the all-around development of the emotion, spirit, physique, and mind is only a means and not an end in itself. The purpose of such development is to equip a person for God's use in the service of humankind. A sickly Christian or one with an unbalanced emotion does not make a good soldier of Christ. The focus is outward.
A selfish individual seeks the improvement of his mind, emotion, spirit, and body as an end in itself and for his own purposes. He is therefore self-centered and egoistic. The focus is inward.
We have seen that when practiced correctly, self-love does have a place in the will of God. It is the basis of our love for others (loving others as yourself). It is the means with which to equip ourselves to love others (self-care). And very importantly, it recognizes the love of God for us (self-acceptance), for we are eternally the objects of His love (Jer 31:3).