A guest post by Jimmy Beevers.
The room full of five hundred teens broke into applause. The speaker smiled and began to pack up his sermon notes, took his Bible, and walked off the stage as the worship team climbed the steps.
As a thirteen-year-old, I sat in the auditorium of a youth camp with mixed feelings. The speaker had just given an impassioned speech from Matthew 22:39 about the vitality of self-love and acceptance for our spiritual lives. “You can only love God and your neighbor as much as you accept and love yourself!” he said.
I knew something wasn’t quite right, but I didn’t know what. In the years since then, through studying the Bible, I’ve come to understand my misgivings better. I believe the popular teaching of self-love falls short in key ways. The promise, put simply, is that the more you look inwardly and love yourself, the more you can love others and be at peace and content.
One self-love article put it like this: “We treat others in the same way we treat ourselves. And if I am uncertain about my worth, I will be uncertain about the worth of others.” A lack of self-love is seen as the root of all sorts of issues ranging from depression to bullying to obesity.
But as appealing as the idea of self-love may sound, I believe there are key ways in which this teaching falls short of the biblical alternative.
What Is “Self-Love”?
First, let’s begin with definitions. This is especially vital when dealing with extremely ambiguous concepts such as self-love, which everyone tends to define individually. The “self-love” I am writing about is that which I have most frequently encountered in society, Hollywood, among friends, and even in the church, both in Western Europe (where I am currently living) and in the United States.
Self-love is an introspective prioritization of self, aiming at a deeper love and acceptance of self. It is a meditative focus on one’s own positive traits. Self-love seeks freedom from negative thoughts about oneself — whether guilt or insecurity or even awkwardness. It is seen as the key to the love of others and the love of God, because as long as there is any discontent with self, we are unable to devote ourselves to these.
1. Self-love is unsatisfying.
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.
The philosophy of self-love is based on the idea that humans are fundamentally good and lovable. When self-love doesn’t work and we are dissatisfied, we might attribute this to our own blindness. “We just can’t see how beautiful we really are!” But Scripture and personal experience both show that without looking beyond ourselves to Christ, there is very little to love.
Active striving for the love of self leaves us dissatisfied and usually fails. In my experience, there is even a correlation between depression and reliance on self-love. Self-love is one of our highest forms of self-deception: we gorge ourselves on the biblical truth of our human worth — being created in God’s image (Genesis 1:26) — but refuse to swallow the balancing truth that our own sin has robbed us of loveliness. Self-love is fundamentally unsatisfactory and lacking, because we are somehow expected to ignore half of who we are as sinful humans.
2. God doesn’t want you to accept your sins.
An unbiblical view of self-love not only leaves you unsatisfied; it can leave you unsanctified. If we dismiss the convictions of conscience as simply lack of self-acceptance, we risk misidentifying gracious warnings from God as attacks from Satan. When we do this, we forget the crucial difference between Christ’s invitation to come as you are and the unbiblical invitation to stay as you are.
When Christ calls us, he genuinely loves and embraces us, having fulfilled all conditions himself for our full acceptance. But in the same act, he calls us to hate our old nature and lay it aside (Ephesians 4:22), to strive for renewal (Romans 12:2), and to deny ourselves (Matthew 16:24). God does not want us to simply achieve a heightened acceptance of self; he desires our sanctification (1 Thessalonians 4:3).
Though we may not realize it, the call to “just love yourself more,” when it is offered in answer to feelings of guilt, can undermine this key truth. Neglect of biblical truth leaves the truly regenerate heart even more dissatisfied and confused.
3. The Bible recasts love of self.
But what does the Bible say? In 2 Timothy 3:1–5, we read that in the last days people will be “lovers of self . . . rather than lovers of God.” So, there is a way in which love of self can usurp the rightful place of God in our hearts.
Many readers may recoil at this point. Perhaps you’ve struggled with crushing guilt you just can’t seem to shake. Actively striving for self-love and self-acceptance may seem like the only possible way to shed the feelings of guilt or inadequacy you feel.
However, the temporary relief we might feel by self-love cannot compare to the overwhelming relief of true love and acceptance by God. 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).
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.
Do You Love Yourself Enough?
Do you love yourself enough to stop denying that your sins, your faults, your inadequacies are as real as your virtues? Do you love yourself enough to stop scraping together self-worth from broken, sinful pieces of self, and instead to embrace the free gift of the Father’s love for Christ’s sake?
If the world really cared about helping us love ourselves, it would simply preach the gospel. Only the good news of Christ offers true hope. The message of the gospel is a message of freedom from efforts to love our broken selves by providing a worth that comes from outside of our brokenness — a worth that comes from Christ.
Do you love yourself enough to accept that?
James “Jimmy” Beevers is an American who grew up in Europe on mission with his parents. He is currently a theology student in Bonn, Germany and planning to attend Seminary here in the US next year. Jimmy is passionate about advancing the Kingdom of God and is preparing to enter full-time ministry.
This article first appeared at desiringGod.org.