In his teaching on the most important commandment, Jesus lists (and equates) two: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind and with all your strength” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mark 12:28-34) Through much of Christian history, the love of self has been frowned upon, often being bundled with pride and self-indulgent ways. Yet we cannot fulfill the commandment to love the neighbor if we do not love ourselves.
Our basic understanding of humanity says that there is a lot to love about you. You are a precious child of God. You have been made in the image of God. You are unique, holy and every hair on your head is counted and known to the divine. In Psalm 139 the author praises God saying:
“For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”
Moreover, the story of Jesus is a story that teaches how God is deeply in love with you, choosing to experience humanity for you; choosing to experience death for you. If God is deeply in love with you, then you can be deeply in love with you. You can acknowledge your gifts and quirks and all the things that make you uniquely you. You can take the time to care for your body. You can get enough sleep without calling it laziness. You can get enough food without calling it gluttony. You can experience pleasure without calling it hedonism.
Much of Christian history has been shaped by the denial of the self, especially the physical self. It seems problematic that somehow the denial of pleasure and joy has been seen as way of honoring God; that the God who created us a sexual beings wants us to deny sexuality; that the God who created the varieties of fruits and vegetables that were part of the Garden of Eden story is honored when we eat only bread and water. There are too many stories (including that of Martin Luther) where great Christians have suffered long term illness or early death because of their efforts to control and discipline their physical needs.
To be clear, there need to be limits, which I will write about more when talking about the virtues of Contentment and Self-control. Part of the reason that Christians have a history of calls to self-discipline is that it very easy to cross the line from self-love to self-idolization. It is also very easy to turn our needs and pleasures into idols themselves. Food is a gift from God, but an obsession with food can turn into gluttony on the one hand and anorexia on the other. Sex is a gift from God, but an idolization of sex can turn abusive and controlling (as we are hearing through the current #MeToo movement). Sexual idolatry can turn into an obsession with having sex on the one hand and an obsession with preventing sex on the other.
Most importantly, an idolization of the self makes it impossible to truly love God or love others, because Christian love involves the giving of one’s self. An idolization of the self blurs our vision so that we forget that while we are important and precious, loved by God, so is our neighbor; so is the stranger far away; so is the immigrant; so is the family experiencing homeless; so is the drug addict.
It is good to celebrate who you are and how God has made you. It is good care for yourself. We are the stewards of our minds and bodies, given the joyful but challenging task of caring for them. It is good to learn about yourself, how your mind works, how you learn, how you react to situations. It is good to experience joy and pleasure, not turning them into obsessions, but participating in them as part of God’s good creation.
And finally, it is good to give ourselves away in love. The Christian vision of love is that a full life is found in giving ourselves away. As the Apostle John wrote to church, “Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.” (1 John 4:11-12) Loving the self is part of participating in the gift of divine love, but love find completeness when it moves beyond the self and into the world.