An older video came across my Facebook feed a while back entitled “Self Love Isn’t Biblical.” The video is of a somewhat controversial conservative commentator named Allie Stuckey talking about the dangers of placing self-love too high up on the hierarchy of Christian values. The response has been, well, mixed to say the least.
The video raises important questions, and though I disagree with Allie on her ultimate conclusion, there is actually more common ground that we share than we probably realize, though where we differ needs to be laid out so we can better understand each other.
Before we engage in any sort of meaningful discussion about whether or not self love is biblical, we need to take a second to define our terms and make sure we are in fact talking about the same thing. The core difference between myself and Allie (other than her having a large platform and audience) is in our definitions of the term “self-love.” She sums up self love as being “Just pursue what makes you happy” and other hedonistic expressions of happiness and fulfillment. Her idea of self love is probably better expressed in the phrase “radical self acceptance,” that idea of “I am what I am and no one can say anything’s wrong with me.”
This sort of self love is a dangerous idea, and on this Allie and I agree 100%. It’s dangerous because it shuts the adherer off from potential interventions from outside entities concerning possible dangers in their own lives, be it physical, mental, or spiritual. This sort of self love is diametrically opposed to Scripture, which teaches that in and of ourselves, we are nothing, sinners separated from and in rebellion towards God. Yet in the eyes of God, we are creatures worth redeeming, and once redeemed, bear His mark which gives us ultimate value and purpose as we are being ever conformed to the image of His Son.
However, where I think Allie starts making unwarranted claims is in saying that self-love is never mentioned in Scripture. This is completely wrong-headed and based on a different definition of self love and love in general.
Back in February of 2014, I had the privilege of being present for a sermon from Christian apologist Josh McDowell on the definition of love. You can watch the entire sermon here. What McDowell preached has radically altered my view of love, as it rightly should have, as well as my understanding of self love and how it is in fact, properly understood, a Scriptural concept.
Basically, this is the summary of the main points of the sermon. The second greatest commandment is to “Love your neighbor as yourself.” That’s Christianity 101. McDowell points out that this principle is predicated upon our knowledge of loving ourselves and the ability to do so. So here we see healthy self love appears to be an integral part of how we live our day to day lives as Christians. So how should we then be loving ourselves? More importantly, how do we even define love? This is a question that trips people up nowadays, mostly due to the misconceptions I spoke about earlier.
McDowell points out that the Apostle Paul mentioned almost in passing this concept of loving ourselves in his instruction concerning the relationship between a husband and wife in Ephesians 5:28. Paul writes, “In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.” Now, there are a couple ways you could take this. You could say that in loving his wife, the husband is also loving himself, because the two are one flesh. I think that’s a possible reading, but if we take the analogy that Paul is using, then we see that the love that the man has for his own body is where he should draw a certain standard and expectation for the love he gives his wife.
So here we see that rightly loving others is itself evidence of us being able to love ourselves. Does that not then mean that we should know how to love ourselves? How does that work? Well, Paul tells us in the very next verse, “For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church.” So love then boils down to two words: nourish and cherish. McDowell then shows how this is essentially equivalent to the phrase “protect and provide.” So there we have it, the definition of loving both ourselves and others is protection and provision.
Ok, but how do those work specifically? Let’s start with provide. Here McDowell makes a very insightful connection to the only Gospel account we have of Jesus’ formative years. If we’re looking for answers on how to live our lives, we should look then to the model of Whose life we seek to follow. How did Jesus provide for Himself? Or better yet, what was this provision for (as the “how” question could be limited to Jesus’ specific cultural context)? Luke 2:52 provides a surprising insight. Here Luke records that “Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man.” Within this verse, we can extract four principles for provision: intellectually (wisdom), physically (stature), spiritually (in favor with God), and relationally (in favor with men). These were all areas in which Jesus matured and had provision for. Some are obvious, like physically, and others less obvious, like relationally. If McDowell is right, and I see no reason to think he isn’t, how we love ourselves is in providing for our maturation in these four areas of life.
But what of protection? The obvious implication is that if we are to provide for ourselves intellectually, physically, spiritually, and relationally, then we should protect ourselves from the things that would hinder our growth in these areas. This is plainly a far cry from the modern definition of self love, of which Allie is right when she says the Bible doesn’t mention it. However there is a differing definition that Scripture does present, and I believe it would be dangerous to leave it behind.
As a side note, a friend of mine pointed me to a podcast transcript from John Piper that talks about this very issue. It’s very insightful, and I would encourage anyone to check it out. However, Piper makes the assumption that we already do love ourselves, we just have our notions of what makes us happy distorted. After all, Paul did say “no one ever hated his own flesh.” So then, Piper goes to argue, we shouldn’t teach this idea of self love as some kind of priority. I agree to an extent, however if Piper is right in saying that the notion behind this commandment is to be “as concerned about the happiness and the well being of others as you are about your own” rather than building up your own self esteem so as to rightly love others (and I believe he’s right), this still assumes we have a working knowledge of how to be concerned with our happiness and well being, specifically in the Christian context. Obviously, there are those who take better care of their bodies than others. I myself know there are plenty of things I should be doing to better care for my body. But just because I know I should doesn’t mean I’m doing everything I can, much less that I’m doing everything right. I believe proper self love does need to be emphasized in this day and age due to the misconceptions surrounding it.
Piper does provide a safeguard though. We need to be careful that in reminding ourselves of what self love looks like in our day to day lives that it doesn’t become the highest priority. We don’t need to perfect this idea before we start loving others, otherwise we would never do it. We need to already be loving others, but in conjunction with not coming at the neglect of loving ourselves (again, biblically).
Self-love, even the biblical sense, is by no means the highest priority, however it is a tool needed to help rightly love others. To help others grow in wisdom, we must be growing our own minds; to help others grow physically, we must be maintaining our health; to help others grow spiritually, we must be maturing ourselves; to help others grow relationally, we must have good relationships around us. For if our cup is empty, how then can we pour into others?
Nick Henretty is a music and audio producer, podcaster, and blogger based out of Richmond, Virginia. He has worked with organizations such as Inspiring Philosophy, Deeper Waters with Nick Peters, and Moral Apologetics Press, and currently hosts the 3 Priests Walk in a Bar podcast promoting ecumenism between different Christian denominations. He has a passion for peeling back the surface layers of pop culture issues to expose the deep and abiding questions at the heart of the human experience and showing how the person of Christ is the answer and fulfillment to them.