Love Yourself?

What the Bible Really Says

Grantley Morris

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Is it true that the same Bible that tells us to love other people as ourselves is adamant that loving ourselves is so wrong that it will exclude us from the kingdom of God?

How can loving ourselves be reconciled with Scriptures that seem to scream the exact opposite, such as:

    1 Corinthians 9:27 But I beat my body and bring it into submission, lest . . . I myself should be rejected.

    Galatians 5:24 Those who belong to Christ have crucified the flesh with its passions and lusts.

    1 Peter 4:1 Therefore, since Christ suffered for us in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same mind [attitude or mindset]

The Simple Truth?

Whether it be in the spiritual or physical realm (i.e., biblical or scientific) it is an unavoidable fact that truth is often complex. The Bible does not shy away from this, nor dumb it down.

To help you avoid losing patience with the holy Word of God, and falsely accusing it of contradicting itself, let me share a snippet of my scientific education to illustrate why truth often seems to be contradictory.

I was taught in school that water conducts electricity. That’s why, for instance, it is critical to be careful with electrical appliances when taking a bath. Further on in my education, I was told that water does not actually conduct electricity; conduction only occurs when there are impurities in the water. Still later, I learned that pure water really does conduct electricity; it is just that it does not conduct it very much. So it is both true and false that water conducts electricity, depending entirely on what one means by water and conduct. Get this confused and you could die of electrocution.

Likewise, spiritual life hinges on understanding precisely what the Bible means by love and hate in any particular context.

Here’s a Scripture that highlights this:

    Luke 14:26 If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters – yes, even his own life – he cannot be my disciple (NIV – most versions are similar. Emphasis mine).

On the surface, this seems to contradict the Bible saying we must honor our parents. That is even one of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:12) and was affirmed by Jesus more than once (e.g. Matthew 15:3-9; 19:17-19). Likewise, Scripture insists we must love our marriage partners and children (e.g. Colossians 3:19; Titus 2:4) and even our enemies.

Instead of hate, Matthew’s rendition of this saying speaks of not loving these more than Christ. It is likely that Jesus knew at least some Hebrew and Greek but usually spoke Aramaic. The New Testament, however, divinely crafted for a wide audience, was written in what was then the international language: Greek. My guess is that when Luke translated Jesus’ saying into Greek, he did so literally, whereas Matthew got to the heart of Jesus’ meaning. Each rendition, is significant. Whereas Matthew clarifies Jesus’ meaning, Luke preserved the literal meaning because Jesus’ choice of words should not be taken lightly. I believe Jesus used the word hate to drive home just how much our love for God must exceed our love for ourselves and others, and how there can be times when following Jesus will require us to make choices that affect ourselves, or our loved ones, as adversely as if we hated them.

Key Scripture

I don’t think it was an issue in earlier generations but let’s probe the Scripture that has caused some people in recent decades to go overboard with the notion that we should love ourselves:

    Luke 10:25-28 Behold, a certain lawyer stood up and tested him, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”
    He said to him, “What is written in the law? How do you read it?”
    He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”
    He said to him, “You have answered correctly. Do this, and you will live.”

Did you note from the first and last verse that this discussion centers around who will receive eternal life? Does anyone seriously imagine that one’s eternity hinges on loving oneself? Let’s look deeper.

Never does the Bible tell us to love ourselves with all our heart, etc. That is reserved for God alone. The above Scripture is affirming that God must be our supreme love and that we must be as concerned about other people – even our enemies and the ungrateful, say other Scriptures (e.g. Exodus 23:4-5; Proverbs 24:17, Luke 6:27-28,35; Romans 12:20) – as we are about ourselves. It is proclaiming that our love for God must be paramount and we should also be so selfless that we give ourselves no higher priority than we give other people.

Scripture exalts Jesus as our Role Model (1 Peter 4:1; 1 Thessalonians 1:6; Hebrews 12:2-3). Just how much our love for God must exceed love for self is seen in our dear Lord agonizing over doing God’s will and culminating with, “Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done,” (Luke 22:42). We see this preeminent devotion to God emphasized throughout Scripture, and not merely as an ideal, but as essential. For example:

    John 12:25 He who loves his life will lose it. He who hates his life in this world will keep it to eternal life.

    Luke 9:23  . . . If anyone desires to come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.

    Acts 20:22-24 Now, behold, I go bound by the Spirit to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there; except that the Holy Spirit testifies in every city, saying that bonds and afflictions wait for me. But these things don’t count; nor do I hold my life dear to myself, so that I may finish my race with joy, and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to fully testify to the Good News of the grace of God.

    Hebrews 11:35-37 Others were tortured, not accepting their deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection. Others were tried by mocking and scourging, yes, moreover by bonds and imprisonment. They were stoned. They were sawn apart. They were tempted. They were slain with the sword. They went around in sheep skins and in goat skins; being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated –

    Revelation 12:11 They overcame him because of the Lamb’s blood, and because of the word of their testimony. They didn’t love their life, even to death.

    Revelation 21:8 But for the cowardly . . . their part is in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.

For examples of how much Scripture abhors those who love themselves, consider these:

    Matthew 23:25 Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. (NIV)

    2 Timothy 3:1-4, 8 But know this: that in the last days, grievous times will come. For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, without natural affection, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, fierce, not lovers of good, traitors, headstrong, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God . . . [they] oppose the truth, men corrupted in mind, who concerning the faith are rejected. (Emphasis mine.)

    James 3:16 For where jealousy and selfish ambition are, there is . . . every evil deed.

Alarmingly, those who live in luxury and pamper themselves are likened in James 5:5 to animals fattening themselves up for slaughter.

What the Bible means by loving others as we love ourselves needs to be understood in the light of:

    Ephesians 5:28-29  . . . husbands also ought to love their own wives as their own bodies. . . . For no man ever hated his own flesh; but nourishes and cherishes it . . .

Scripture presumes that we all love ourselves. To explore this, let’s look at the parable of the good Samaritan, which Jesus gave in order to explain what he meant about loving our neighbor as ourselves (Luke 10:29-35).

Jews and Samaritans despised each other on religious grounds as much as many modern-day Christians and Muslims despise each other. Nevertheless, the Samaritan saw a Jew in need and, rather than ignore him, he did all he could to treat that Jew as compassionately as he would have liked to be treated in such circumstances.

How many of those who say they hate themselves would choose to treat themselves as the priest and Levite treated the mugged Jew and let themselves lie in the dirt in agony day after day until finally dying of starvation and their carcass being eaten by wild animals?

The mere fact that we are alive means we have devoted years to feeding ourselves, keeping ourselves sufficiently warm or cool not to die from exposure, and so on. Even people who go to the extreme of deliberately killing themselves, do so because they imagine it will lessen their distress. No matter how much they might be thought to hate themselves, those who kill themselves invariably choose a method they suppose will be as quick and painless as they can manage.

Not only is there a real sense in which even those who despise themselves treat themselves lovingly, the Word of God often goes beyond saying we should love others as we love ourselves. Many Scriptures indicate we should love others more than ourselves. Consider, for example:

    Luke 6:29 To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer also the other; and from him who takes away your cloak, don’t withhold your coat also.

    John 15:12-13 This is my commandment, that you love one another, even as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.

    Ephesians 5:2 Walk in love, even as Christ also loved us and gave himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God . . .

    Ephesians 5:25 Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the assembly, and gave himself up for it

    1 John 3:16 By this we know love, because he laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.

    Matthew 20:26-28  . . . whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant. Whoever desires to be first among you shall be your bondservant, even as the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

    Romans 12:10  . . . in honor preferring one another

    Philippians 2:3  . . . in humility, each counting others better than himself

The last Scripture reminds us of how frequently God in his Word condemns pride.

Delicious Delusion

As I expound elsewhere, despite dying to self sounding like something anyone would recoil from, it is actually the gateway to an incomparably superior life. It is as thrilling as leaving behind the life of a grub to become a butterfly.

Flattering and indulging ourselves might sound alluring, but so did Eve’s temptation of becoming like God (Genesis 3:5). Temptations are delusions that end in the opposite of what they seem to offer. Instead of becoming more like God, Eve became appallingly less like him. Likewise, to exalt ourselves is to end up not on top but on the bottom of the trash. Putting ourselves first puts us last in heaven’s queue. Self-obsession leads to depression. Emptying ourselves makes room for the divine.

Whoever puffs himself up will burst. To swell with pride is to risk ending up as pathetic and useless as a ruptured toy balloon.

Ironically, instead of flourishing like we might expect, a pampered, overwatered plant will wither and die. Serving ourselves makes us dysfunctional and slaves to depravity. Surrendering to the good Lord frees us and empowers us and for all eternity lifts us higher than our greatest hopes.

Why We should Not Despise Ourselves

In other webpages I explore Scriptures more extensively proving that whether we call it dying to self, crucifying the flesh, or whatever, God’s Word insists that denying oneself is fundamental to spiritual life. This should not be confused, however, with despising or slandering ourselves. Every human is in the image of the Almighty Lord and is treasured by the God of love. If the eternal Son of God considers each of us worth being tortured to death for, it is not humility, but arrogance, to think him mistaken.

Beyond even this, every true Christian is indwelt by the Holy Spirit of God. Our puny minds render our conception of God so pathetic that we have no idea how staggering that is. None of us has any hope of truly grasping how devastatingly holy, mind-numbingly exalted, terrifyingly powerful and unapproachably perfect God is. That the matchless Lord of glory would choose to enthrone himself in our bodies is almost beyond comprehension. To belittle or mistreat anyone indwelt by God, is to insult the supreme Lord of the Cosmos who has chosen to reside in that person. Dare any of us demean the weakest Christian who can honestly say, “I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me,” (Galatians 2:20)? To speak disparagingly of anyone in whom Christ is enthroned, is to speak disparagingly of the Lord who is enthroned there. Whether the Christ-bought person you belittle is yourself or a highly revered Christian leader makes it no less an offense, since it is the same awesome Being who rules in both.

To cite what I wrote many years ago:

    While some mental patients have delusions of grandeur, we suffer the opposite psychosis. Relative to who we are, God’s children – even those with dangerously inflated egos – have delusions of insignificance.

    The instant we were born-again, our status and potential rocketed out of this world, leaving our self-image floundering somewhere between earth and reality. The gulf between who we really are and who we think we are is so serious and so beyond our normal comprehension (Ephesians 3:19-20; 1 John 3:1-2) that we literally need divine psychiatric help. (Ephesians 1:16-19; Colossians 1:9; Philemon 6. The psychiatric definition of a delusion is a false notion that cannot be altered by reasoning or by demonstration of the facts.) A major task of the Holy Spirit is to help us grasp the enormity of what has happened to us. (John 16:14; 1 Corinthians 2:9-15; 1 John 4:13; Ephesians 3:3-5; John 14:26; 16:13) It is vital that we keep probing the Scriptures (2 Corinthians 4:6-7) and pleading for spiritual revelation. We are like paupers ecstatic because we think we have inherited $10,000, when we’ve actually received $1 billion. We live chronically impoverished lives and the less we know of our spiritual inheritance, the greater the tragedy.

Christians have infinitely much to boast about. We must never forget, however, that none of our boasting can be about our abilities or achievements. It is all about how stupendously good, awe-inspiring and praiseworthy God is:

    Galatians 6:14 May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.

    1 Corinthians 1:28-29, 31 God chose the lowly things of the world, and the things that are despised, and the things that don’t exist . . . that no flesh should boast before God. . . . as it is written, “He who boasts, let him boast in the Lord.”

    1 Corinthians 4:7 For who makes you different? And what do you have that you didn’t receive? But if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?

    2 Corinthians 4:7 But we have this treasure in clay vessels, that the exceeding greatness of the power may be of God, and not from ourselves.

    2 Corinthians 11:30; 12:9 If I must boast, I will boast of the things that concern my weakness. . . . Most gladly therefore I will rather glory in my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest on me.

    Ephesians 2:8-9 for by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, that no one would boast.

We learn from what Jesus taught in Luke 17:10 that even humans serving God to their utmost are “unprofitable servants” (King James Version and many other versions). Instead of “unprofitable,” at least eight versions say “worthless,” and still more speak of “slaves” rather than “servants.” The Holman Christian Standard Bible renders more of this verse, “good-for-nothing slaves; we’ve only done our duty,” and the Amplified Version says, “undeserving of praise or a reward, for we have not gone beyond our obligation”.

Making Sense of it All

God’s Word warns us to “Give diligence to present yourself approved by God . . . properly handling the Word of Truth” (2 Timothy 2:15) “ . . . not walking in craftiness, nor handling the word of God deceitfully . . .” (2 Corinthians 4:2).

To take a Scripture that is saying we should selflessly love others, and try using it as an excuse for self-indulgence would, to say the least, be disturbing.

Caring for oneself by brushing one’s teeth is among the numerous ways in which, to a limited extent, loving oneself is acceptable. To go beyond such limits, however, could be spiritually suicidal.

On the other hand, almost every day, Christians around the world bare their hearts with me, revealing that they are tortured by guilt or shame or feelings of inadequacy or hopelessness. Some of these powerfully deceptive and crippling feelings stem from damaging childhood experiences, but anti-God spiritual forces have a vested interest in perpetuating or even inflaming these people’s distress. Heaven sees these tormented souls as loved of God, infinitely precious, spiritually empowered and more capable than they dare imagine. They might, for example, feel riddled with guilt and crushed by past failures, but God insists that because of Christ, all their blunders and spiritual atrocities are forgotten (Hebrews 8:12), blotted out (Acts 3:19: Isaiah 44:22), made as white as snow (Isaiah 1:18), trampled on and hurled into the depths of the sea (Micah 7:18-19), unable to be found (Jeremiah 50:20), removed as far as the east is from the west (Psalm 103:12), and so on.

It can be an intense spiritual battle, but these dear people desperately need to keep wrenching their eyes off themselves and on to their glorious Lord and Savior and understand how he sees them, and accept as truth God’s perspective, rather than their own:

    Colossians 3:1-2 Set your mind on the things that are above, not on the things that are on the earth.

    Hebrews 12:1-2  . . . lay aside every weight and the sin which so easily entangles us . . . looking to Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith . . .

Some people feel sufficient empathy even for strangers, that they would never treat anyone sadistically, no matter what the provocation. Some, however, perhaps through a tragic upbringing or birth defect, lack natural motivation to avoid being sadistic. That does not mean they are incapable of self-control, but they need other motivation to do what is right – perhaps a fear of the eternal consequences, or a desire to please God. Likewise, some of us might lack natural motivation to treat ourselves with Christlike humility or, on the other extreme, to treat ourselves with the dignity that divine royalty – children of the King of kings – deserve. If so, to act appropriately, we simply need to draw upon other motivation, such as expressed in the truth, “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). True Christians have surrendered their ‘right’ to treat themselves however they wish. Instead, they must both view and treat themselves as their Lord wants them to.

Whether tormented by abysmally low self-esteem or dangerously inflated with pride, both conditions stem from, and lead to, being self-obsessed. Dying to self is the desperately needed way of escaping this tragic cycle. This is gloriously possible through spiritual union with our crucified Lord and letting him, not self, rule in our lives.

For more about low self-esteem, see How to Change Your Self-Image.

For more about dying to self, see The Astonishing Joy of Dying to Self.


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