Contemporary pop psychology’s mantra about well-being is that you must love yourself first to be a healthy person and to be able to love others. It is common for some form of this thinking to be advocated by Christian counselors and individual Christians. After all, the assertion sounds plausible. While there is possibly a way you could nuance and clarify the statement so that it contains a measure of truth it is vital to note that the Bible never calls us to reason in this way.
Sometimes you will hear that the command “love your neighbor as yourself” implies the primacy of self-love. Consider an Old Testament reference and Jesus’s admonition:
You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.
And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
I cannot improve on Robert Mounce’s explanation of these verses,
Jesus has expanded the definition of neighbor from “fellow Israelite” (Lev. 19:18) to anyone in need (Luke 10:29–37) and even to one’s enemies (Matt. 5:44). To love one’s neighbor as oneself does not teach self-love, but requires that we extend to others the same kind of personal concern that we have for ourselves. On these two commandments, the law in its entirety and the teachings of the prophets depend (Gk. kremannymi, “To hang”; “as a door hangs on its hinges, so the whole ot hangs on these two commandments,” [Matthew: Understanding the Bible Commentary Series (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1990), 206.].
There are not three commands in Jesus’s teaching in Matthew 22:37-40, there are two. According to Jesus, our priority is always to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” In other words, we do not start our thinking with ourselves but with God. The second part of the great commandment is that we are to love our neighbor like we love ourselves. Jesus assumes we already love ourselves, at least too the degree that we seek to take care of our own needs and desires in pursuit of happiness. Paul argues the same way in Ephesians 5:33, “However, let each one of you love his wife as himself.”
An attempt to make Jesus’s “as yourself” comment a third command of self-love, works in the opposite direction of what Jesus was teaching. As John Calvin notes in his discussion of Jesus’s teaching (Matt 22:37-40), self-love over the love of God and neighbor is the problem both Moses and Jesus were correcting. Calvin writes, “By correcting the self-love which separates some persons from others, he brings each of them into a common union, and—as it were—into a mutual embrace” [Commentary on the Harmony of the Evangelists, vol 3, 59].
Lovers of God
Paul warns about a coming time of godlessness and argues that its chief characteristic will be that men will be “lovers of self” (2 Tim 3:2). When ones center of gravity shifts, from God and others, to self it serves as fertilizer for the cultivation of a variety of other sins. One might well ask what the alternative is to self-love? Self-hate or self-loathing? Of course not! 2 Timothy 3:2, which warns against being “lovers of self” ends by stating “rather than lovers of God” (2 Tim 3:4). We are to be lovers of God, knowing, “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).
God’s love for us, and our reciprocal love for Him, should produce humble confidence in our lives. True humility produces security and courage, not insecurity and fearfulness. The preoccupation of self-love is a problem, not a solution. The solution is to humbly focus on loving God and neighbor, knowing you can do so because God loves you and has gifted you to serve Him. Focusing first on loving self leads to insecurity and discontentment.
The counterintuitive truth is that it is only when we are self-forgetful that we can possess the right kind of courageous confidence we need to face the challenges of life.
In his classic Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis explains,
Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call ‘humble’ nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody. Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him. If you do dislike him it will be because you feel a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.
In a sermon, “Pride and Humility,” preached by C.H. Spurgeon on August 17, 1856, he asserted, “Humility is not to say, ‘I have not this gift,’ but it is to say, ‘I have the gift, and I must use it for my Master’s glory.’” Spurgeon continues, “It is no humility for a man to think less of himself than he ought,… It is not humility to underrate yourself.” Spurgeon then talks about the humble courageous confidence produced by true humility, “Very likely the most humble man in the world won’t bend to anybody.” He adds, “Cringing men that bow before everybody, are truly proud men.
Those who advocate self-love as first and foundational to our thinking, end up focusing on the reality of the sin of others. True Gospel-driven confidence focuses on the reality of God in Christ and one’s personal sins. According to the Bible, self-love is a given for fallen humanity and needs to be met by Jesus’s command to “deny” self, “take up his cross and follow me” (Matt 16:24). Paul quoted the prophet Jeremiah (Jer 9:24), declaring, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1 Cor 1:31) and then that he avers that he has determined to know nothing among anyone but “Jesus Christ and Him Crucified” (1 Cor 2:2).
The love of the cross rescues us from an idolatrous love of self. This gospel rescue doesn’t destroy personal confidence it is the only true ground of it.