It was a novel idea, and it did sound logical. But it didn’t feel right: “We must love ourselves first, or we cannot love others as Jesus told us to.” The speaker at our dorm vespers explained that, since Jesus told to love others as we love ourselves, we must first love ourselves. As a teenager in the 1960’s, I was taken aback by this idea. It didn’t match what I understood from my Bible study.
In a few decades, however, this teaching of self-love took root in Adventist churches. Preachers preached it. Teachers taught it. There was a veritable tsunami of sermons and articles all teaching the same thing – love yourself, so you can love others. It sounded right because the emphasis was largely on finding our worth in the price Christ paid for us. After all, the worth of any product is determined by the price someone is willing to pay.
So, what do you think? Have you heard it? Have you read it? Or have you not noticed?
After hearing the message that first time, I believe I disproved it in my own experience while still a teenager. I did not “love myself” as I was supposed to. Instead, I was painfully shy and self-conscious. As a bright student, I was a year or more younger than everyone else in my classes. Although I loved my classes, outside the classroom, I felt shy, socially overwhelmed and inferior. I believe it was God Who inspired me to look out for others who seemed shy, lonely, left out or awkward and try to brighten their lives – even if only by a smile and a cheery “Hi, how are you?” In doing that, my shyness and self-consciousness largely melted away – even if I did still feel a little overwhelmed by all the sophisticated teens around me. I didn’t have to first love myself in order to act in love toward others.
When I met the self-esteem/ self-love/ self-image message in Christianity and Adventism again about thirty years ago, I decided to do a little research, and I discovered the book The Biblical View of Self-Esteem, Self-Love, Self-Image, by Jay E. Adams. His message immediately resonated with me. 1
Adams points out what I had already concluded, that . . .
“Jesus actually presupposes a love of self in this passage He says, “You must love your neighbor as yourself.” The command is to love your neighbor as you already love yourself. The verse could be translated literally, “You must love your neighbor as you are loving yourself.” (The Biblical View of Self-Esteem, Self-Love, Self-Image, by Jay E. Adams, p. 60)
Particularly fascinating is the chapter, “An Accurate Self-Image,” which references results of surveys of high school students, with 60 percent rating themselves “in the top 10 percent” in “ability to get along with others” and other equally interesting self-ratings.
“In one study, 94 percent of college faculty think themselves better than their average colleague.” (The Biblical View of Self-Esteem, Self-Love, Self-Image, by Jay E. Adams, p. 113)
Criminals also tend to have high self-esteem, contrary to generally accepted “facts.” Yet, biblically, it makes sense. Focus on self is opposed to God’s Kingdom law and generates bad results.
Nowadays it seems that everyone “just knows” you can’t love others properly until you first love yourself. What is taught in the church is better than what is taught in the world’s success seminars which depend on telling yourself how great you are.2 Preachers and teachers tell us to find our worth in Christ. However, that still sounds like self-focus to me, and maybe that’s why it often doesn’t seem to work with people who are depressed or suffer from feelings of low self-worth. 3 In my experience with such people, what has worked over and over again with both adults, young people and children was to lead them to minister to others in some way – just as it helped me as a teenager. By serving others, we experience that we are of value. God made us in such a way that it feels good. When Jesus said, “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you ” (Matt 6:33) He was not pronouncing an arbitrary blessing for obedience, but a natural law of His creation. He created humans in such a way that when we know we “do good” – when we serve others – the brain releases powerful “happy hormones” that are much safer than the drugs people use to make themselves feel good. 4
When I say that Jesus did not tell us to “love ourselves first,” I meet protests of, “But Jesus doesn’t want us to hate ourselves!” True enough. He loves us enough to die for us, and that, by itself, demonstrates that we are valuable. Self-hatred is also a focus on self. Jesus didn’t tell us to love ourselves or to hate ourselves. Jesus lived a life of self-forgetfulness. He didn’t think about Himself at all. That doesn’t mean He didn’t take care of His body temple. 5 But it does mean He looked to the Father for direction and support, and He lived to serve others daily. And that is exactly the lifestyle He has in mind for us. Don’t focus on self in pride or shame. Focus on service to God and others. It’s the only lifestyle that will make us happy. It’s a law of His Kingdom.
I recommend re-reading the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5, 6 and 7 to see if it doesn’t all fit into a philosophy of loving self-forgetfulness. Along with the Bible, I recommend the book Thoughts from the Mount of Blessings, by Ellen G. White,6 which has helped me see so much more in what Christ said on that mountain long ago. It is worth reading, re-reading and re-reading again, many times. Here are some relevant excerpts:
“Jesus emptied Himself, and in all that He did, self did not appear. He subordinated all things to the will of His Father.” (page 14)
… he who learns of Christ is emptied of self, of pride, of love of supremacy, and there is silence in the soul.” (page 15)
“When we receive Christ as an abiding guest in the soul, the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, will keep our hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.” (page 15)
Can you imagine anything more restful than “silence in the soul”? I can’t.
What are your thoughts?
The post Do we need to Love Ourselves before we can Love Others? first appeared on Sabbath School Net.