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Love Thyself?

I Love Me

by Dennis Pollock

The evangelical church has never been quite sure what to do with the field of psychology. So many of modern psychology’s basic tenets, such as “all behavior is determined,” seem to be contradictory to Christianity. Yet to renounce psychology appears to put the church in an antiquated and archaic posture. As a result, many pastors attempt to make as much peace with psychology as possible, borrowing from its precepts and quoting its experts as much as they feel the Bible and their more conservative church members will allow.

One of psychology’s foundational assertions that has slowly and steadily wormed its way into the modern church is the thought that no person can be truly well-adjusted without a healthy dose of self-love, and its twin brother, self-esteem. If we are depressed, it is a clear sign that we need a large injection of the love of ourselves. If we have anger issues, sexual addictions, problems at work, or athlete’s foot, we must find a way to boost our self-esteem and all will be well.

As pastors have begun to incorporate such ideas into their preaching, they have felt a need to find a corresponding line of thought in the Scriptures. The Bible is a bit problematic in this regard, as it seems to have far more to say about thinking too highly of ourselves than the reverse. Satan’s fall was a result of having too much self-love and self-esteem; not too little. Contrary to modern psychology the Bible recognizes humility as a virtue and pride a sin.

Love Your Neighbor…

One statement of Jesus that is often quoted to support the love-thyself theology is the familiar command to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Pastors often quote this verse and then go on to say something like, “Jesus is here commanding us to love ourselves,” and will usually insist that we cannot possibly love our neighbor until we learn to love ourselves.

The question here is whether there are two commandments or one in this verse. Is Jesus commanding us to love our neighbor and ourselves or to love our neighbor as we already do ourselves? Those who hold to the first view would suggest that most of us don’t love ourselves enough and therefore need a command from Jesus to stimulate us in that direction. Such a notion has a certain emotional appeal as long as we don’t think it through very thoroughly, either Biblically or logically.

Let us consider a man whom psychologists would describe as one who hates himself. He is 150 pounds overweight, has a large and crooked nose, and terrible acne scars all over his face. He has little social contact and has never asked a girl out for a date in his life, due to insecurity. He constantly frets about his weight, nose, and acne. Here is surely a classic case of self hatred.

But let’s look a little more closely. This man has tried a dozen different diets. He has purchased one prescription after another in an attempt to cure his acne. And he is considering plastic surgery to improve the shape of his nose, at a cost of many thousands of dollars. In truth this man clearly does not hate himself, for hatred always desires the very worst for the person hated. If he really hated himself, he would actually be glad of his acne, obesity, and his nose. In fact, he would be thinking of ways to make his life more miserable still, attempting to gain more weight, and planning a plastic surgery which would make his nose even more unattractive than at present. The fact that he desires a better situation proves that he, like the rest of the human race, always hopes for and seeks the best for himself. For this reason, Jesus tells us to love our neighbors as we do ourselves – to seek the best for them as continually and naturally as we do for ourselves.

Our Wives and Our Bodies

The command to love our neighbor as we do ourselves is similar to the exhortation by Paul to husbands. In Ephesians Paul writes:

"So husbands ought to love their own wives as their own bodies..."  (Ephesians 5:28).

Using the same reasoning as is given by some to encourage us to love our neighbors and ourselves, we might suppose Paul is here com­manding husbands to love their wives and their own bodies.  Furthermore, he must also be saying that until men can truly love their bodies, it will be impossible for them to love their wives!

Let’s consider a man whose marriage is nearly gone.  He comes to his pastor for counsel and frankly admits, "Pastor, the truth is I just don't love my wife anymore.  I don't care a thing about her and I'm always treating her like dirt.  The love is gone, the thrill is gone, there's just nothing left."

The pastor opens his Bible.  "My brother, I have the answer for you.  The Bible says right here that men ought to love their wives as they do their bodies.  Your problem is simple -- you don't love your body enough.  How can you ever expect to love your wife if you don't first love your own body?  From now on I want you to start admiring your body and thinking very loving thoughts about it.  It is only as you come to love and highly value your body that love for your wife will be possi­ble."

Of course that is clearly not what Paul was saying. Like the love your neighbor command he was saying that husbands are to love their wives (nurture them and seek their best), just as husbands already nurture and seek the best for their own bodies.

The Point of the Cross

CrossOne other distortion of the Scriptures used in the self-love arena is the way some attempt to turn the cross of Jesus into a reason for self-exaltation. Christ died for us, they say. Surely this proves how incredibly valuable we are. We must possess incredible worth for Jesus to think enough of us to commit the ultimate sacrifice! Such an idea again sounds pretty good as long as you don’t think too long or too hard about it.

In truth this concept is the very antithesis of the Scriptural revelation of the cross. Christ’s death on our behalf was not an expression of our incredible worth, but of God’s amazing grace. The Bible declares:

For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die.  But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:7,8).

Shall we look at the cross and declare, “How wonderful I must be,” or rather “How amazing is God’s love for me?” There truly is a sense that the cross reveals our worth, but it is a worth rooted squarely in the love of God, not in our intrinsic value or abilities. Consider a teddy bear that is torn and stained. It is missing an eye and reeks of a terrible odor. In nearly everyone’s eyes it would be considered worthless. But along comes a three-year-old girl who holds the bear tightly and showers it with affection. If you offer her the latest top of the line laptop computer in trade for the bear, she instantly refuses. Does the bear have value? The answer is yes and no. Within itself it has almost no value, but because it is loved it is indeed valuable. So it is with us. The great re­former Martin Luther said, "God does not love us because we are valuable; we are valuable because God loves us."

What About the Weak?

In many respects life seems terribly unfair. At our birth we had no vote in determining our personalities, intellect, athletic abilities, or looks. We arrived in the world totally unaware that in time, we would come to see and despise our weaknesses, especially as they contrasted with others who had strengths in those very areas. In many cases there are at least some positives to balance out the negatives. Jim may not be good looking but he is an incredible athlete. Mary may not be a great intellect but she has an outstanding personality. Tony may be socially awkward but he has a brilliant mind.

 But what about those who seem to have all negatives? What about the man who is both ugly and slow of mind, with neither athletic abilities nor personality? In cases where there seem to be no redeeming attributes, or where the negatives vastly outweigh the slight positives, is not this a situation where a little practice in self-esteem might be a good thing?

The first principle to keep in mind here is that falsehood is never the solution. God is called the God of truth, the Holy Spirit is called the Spirit of truth, and Jesus is called the Way, the Truth, and the Life. God neither lies nor exaggerates. The answer for someone with weaknesses is never to try to pretend that those weaknesses do not exist. It serves no purpose for an ugly woman to try to convince herself that she is physically beautiful or for a man slow of intellect to pretend he is brilliant.

God has a better way. In order to feel good about ourselves there are two basic needs that have to be met – the need to be loved and the need to feel useful. God provides amply for these, and His provision is not the least dependent upon our talents or genetic bonuses. God’s incredible love and deep compassion reach out across every division of human experience. It ignores race, talent, or economic situation. The weakest of the weak is loved with the same amazing love as the strongest of the strong. Indeed, God seems to sometimes “go out of His way” to make sure that the weak recognize the incredible intensity of His love for them.

God fully recognizes and meets our need to feel useful by providing us a place of service in His great enterprise – the church. Often when an attractive and gifted man or woman becomes a believer, we feel God has gained a great asset for His work, whereas when one without any noticeable talent receives Christ we pay little attention. Yet God thinks differently:

And those members of the body which we think to be less honorable, on these we bestow greater honor; … But God composed the body, having given greater honor to that part which lacks it … (1 Corinthians 12:23,24)

Weakness is Strength

Because we don’t see things the way God sees, we naturally see weaknesses as bad things and strengths as good things. Yet God does not always see it that way. Because His power always flows most freely where men and women are in a state of total dependence upon Him, strengths can be, and often are, counterproductive. The “strong” man or woman sees little need for prayer and fasting, little need to cry to God continually for grace. They have the talent, they have the ambition, they have the goods to get the job done. Because of this, they can indeed achieve results, but the results are often not God’s results. Usually the weak tend to be the ones doing the serious praying with that holy desperation that so pleases God.

This does not mean that God cannot use talented people. He can and does. But generally He finds it necessary to strike some part of their lives with need or weakness, so that they, too, can come to that place of total dependence upon Him. Paul was such a man. In time he saw this principle clearly and wrote:

Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ's sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:10)

It is not self-esteem or self-love that we need but rather Christ-esteem and love for God. As we draw near to our God we will continually have the witness of the Spirit that we are loved – passionately, unconditionally, and radically by the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And as we abide in Jesus we can be useful – talent or no talent, smart or slow, pretty or plain. For little becomes much when it is placed in the Master’s hand.

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