To Love or Not to Love Thyself?
If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you do well. James 2:8NKJ
Question 105 of the Larger Catechism asks, “What are the sins forbidden in the first commandment?” In the fourth part of the answer, it says, “The sins forbidden in the first commandment are… self-love, self-seeking, and all other inordinate and immoderate setting of our mind, will, or affections upon other things, and taking them off from him in whole or in part….” Last week we looked at the sin of hating God. This week we consider the corresponding sin of inordinately loving ourselves.
You may be aware that John Gerstner and Jay Adams got into a literary debate over whether or not the Christian was supposed to love himself. The Bible commands us to love God and to love others, but it never commands us to love ourselves. In verses like the one quoted above it speaks positively of a man loving himself. Yet, in 2 Tim. 3:2, Paul warns of the evil of the last days when men will be “lovers of themselves.” Today’s Catechism question plainly refers to the sin of “self-love.” We may ask in what sense is it a sin to love ourselves and is there a corresponding sense in which it is good to love ourselves? Modern psychology, with its distorted notions, of the self and of love has certainly caused much confusion on this subject, from which the authors of the Catechism thankfully did not suffer. So how are we to love and not to love ourselves?
The sin of self-love is plainly defined by the rest of today’s portion of the Catechism’s answer. Self-love is sinful in its self-seeking and in all other inordinate and immoderate setting of our mind, will or affections upon things other than God. Now, as Christians, we are to seek all sorts of things in our lives. We should seek to provide food for ourselves and families, clothing, houses, education, a job, etc. These things are good and we should seek after them, but only as is proper to them. That is, I must not put my job before my family or my house before my faith, etc. Instead I am to seek these things moderately, and according to God’s ordinance. To seek or desire something inordinately is to make something that is, perhaps, otherwise good and even necessary into an idol and thereby sin by letting my desire trump what God’s Word declares should be the correct order of things. When I allow my desire to trump God’s Word, I sin by self-seeking and self-love as I seek to please myself and satisfy my desires before God and His.
In all of these examples “self-love” is understood to mean when I act in such a way so as to please or satisfy my mind, my will, or my affections. This self-directed activity is not inherently sinful. Self-love becomes sinful when pleasing me has priority over pleasing God or others to whom I owe consideration. Thus, Romans 15:1 lays an obligation on the strong to bear with the scruples of the weak and not to please themselves. As the Catechism teaches, I commit the sin of self-love and self-seeking when I take my mind off of God in whole or in part and place it on anything else. God is supposed to be first in my priorities, for I am to love God first of all. Thus, when I put myself first I can be said to have sinned by self-love, or, which is to say the same thing, by loving myself inordinately.
However, there is a proper way in which we love ourselves. That is implied by the verse at the head of this article. My love for myself is to be the standard by which I love others. Here love refers to how I treat myself and others. Even as we naturally seek our own good in all things, so we should treat our neighbors. We see this principle in the teaching on married love in Eph. 5:28b-29a: “husbands ought to love their own wives as their own bodies; he who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it.” A man naturally eats when he is hungry, rests when he is tired, and binds up his wounds to heal them. He loves, that is, he takes care of and does what is good for his body. This is the standard for how he is to treat his wife. So also is the verse at the head of this article. People naturally seek their own physical and spiritual well-being. They seek their own good. They treat themselves fairly. So we are to treat our neighbors. We are to love them as we love ourselves. We are to seek their good. We are to treat them fairly. When we do, we have a witness that God’s love has regenerated us (1 John 3:14). May God cause us to love all things ordinately!